Since I haven't done much real work on this site for a couple of weeks, and "comparison" is the keyword that brings a lot of people onto the site, I took a close look at the typesetting features of several products. My review covers: Maple, MathType, Mathematica/Publicon, OpenOffice and Scientific Word/Workplace.
Scope:While mathematical typesetting is only one part of publising technical papers, this review compares only that aspect. Some of the products do much more than this (Maple, Mathematica, Workplace also offer computation, data analysis, graphics etc, and Publicon, Scientific Word,/Workplace handle things like bibliographies, references, indexes etc), but that is not covered here.
The comparison will come in parts and today I will start with input. How do you actually enter your equation.
The first thing you notice is that all but OpenOffice have essentially similar kinds of palettes or toolbars, organized by types of symbols or structures. eg a palette for greek letters, a palette for matrix input etc. I was somewhat shocked by the absence of this from OpenOffice, which requires a language based input, based loosely on TeX type conventions. While keyboard input is important (and varied much more between products), I found the complete lack of mouse input frustrating as I learned the system and dropped OpenOffice from the rest of the comparison.
Maple:The palette system was neatly organized in a single column format and was easy to use, though you have to tidy as you go, as opening more than one section, quickly pushes parts off the screen.
You cannot type a keyboard combination for any special characters during typesetting, though you can type an entirely text based version of the whole expression and then format it.
Basic structures like superscripts and fractions happen automatically as you type the 1D version (^,/) which initially seems appealing, but means that you cannot type an actual "^" or "/" so expressions like appear to be impossible. Instead you must settle for the somewhat less clear expression on the right.
There doesn't seem to be any way to customize input, either with keyboard shortcuts or new palettes.
Maple does have the unique handwriting recognition feature, but regular readers will know that I was not impressed with that.
MathType:The surprisingly small to download MathType (4Mb), is described as the "Professional version of Microsoft Word's Equation editor". It has a very intuitive palette layout, though it was a quite sluggish to respond, and since double-clicking on a button brings up a button-properties editor, I found it frustrating to enter nested constructs like Sqrt(Sqrt(..
However, apart from a keystroke CTRL-Shift-G to go into a greek character mode, none of the special characters or constructs had built in keystrokes, though you can customize most palette buttons with a keystroke of your choice. [[Correction: Bob Mathews of Design Science points out that most have keystrokes, which one can see in the status bar on mouse over. I took a while to look at these, and it is true, perhaps 80% of the characters have preset keystrokes. Many are rather cryptic (ctrl+shift+k then # to type an Or symbol) making it hard to imagine knowing many of them, but the ability to change them mitigates this]]. There was a nice array of more complex templates organized by category, and you can also create your own.
Mathematica/Publicon: Publicon (the no-computation version of the Mathematica typesetting system) has the more elegantly organized palettes, with the nice feature of being able to scroll through the different sections with the mouse wheel), the Mathematica incarnation had separate palettes for different types of input, which is probably preferable if you plenty of screen space.
Neither had keyboard shortcuts to the palettes, but all individual structure elements and characters have keyboard access. The approach is the most thorough of the systems that I looked at, with every character having both a full name and a short name. Full names are very consistent, eg "\[Infinity] \[Alpha] \[LeftRightArrow] "etc. Shortnames were sometimes well chosen, sometimes less well and delimited with the escape key. eg "esc => esc" for \[Implies]. New keyboard short names and palettes can be created for any typeset structure in Mathematica but not in Publicon.
Scientific Word: The palette system has a neat button type that lets you tear off submenus to make separate palettes, but was otherwise the least well designed. eg the Sqrt button only comes with two placeholders (for the nth root) so if you want the more common Sqrt you must delete one of the placeholders, and rather a lot of cryptic icons (an Italic E means "Emphasized", an "A" with an arrow pointing to a "B" then an arrow pointing up represents search and replace!). There are no high level compound templates, and while you can customize which characters appear on palettes, you cannot create templates. [[Correction 23 May, thanks to Fred Chapman] - Shortcuts exist for all constructs and keyboard entry is provided for all characters by holding down ctrl and typing the TeX name of the character and then releasing ctrl. This is a system that mostly works well, except where the name contains an upper case letter. Trying to press and release the shift key without releasing the ctrl key can lead to some contortions.] Judge for yourself from the screen shots, but I also thought the palette design was rather ugly - though that doesn't affect its usefulness, its nice to work in a nice place!
Overall, when I compare input methods, I preferred MathType for entry level and Mathematica/Publicon as I became more experienced. Maple comes next then Scientific Word/Workplace with OpenOffice in a clear last place.
Continue to Part 2 - Which actually creates the best output?