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by Giles Turnbull

Look, I'm only writing this for one reason: I want to know if there are lots of other people out there who are like me. Text editor addicts.

I simply can't avoid downloading and trying out any application I see that claims to edit text. It might be from one of the best-known software houses around, or from a single guy coding when he should be sleeping; if there's an editor to try, I'll try it.

And believe me, I've tried a lot. I may even have tried 'em all.

If, as I hope, you are just like me, and you have a strange fascination with text editors too, perhaps you might like to join me as I take you on a tour, line by line, character by character, into the wonderful plain text world I've explored.



Let me tell you something about my father-in-law. He retired earlier this year, after a lifetime's work with computers. He can remember the days when everything was coded on punched tape.

Towards the end of his career, he worked with large networks of Unix servers and Windows client machines. But his roots were in the old days of computing, and I only understood what kind of alphageek he was when I saw him boot up a laptop. He had a text file called do.txt that opened in Windows Notepad as the machine started up.

I was peering over his shoulder, I couldn't see how long the file was, but the first pageful was certainly an impressive list of things to do.

Ask Danny O'Brien and he'll tell you that the real geeks organize themselves with text files. I'd been watching his Lifehacks project with interest and here it was, right before my eyes. My retired father-in-law was as much an alphageek as any of the alphabloggerati are, or might claim to be.

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This is how I work, too. My todo files are good old plain text files, which I make a point of keeping well edited and up to date. As Danny said, there's nothing simpler than cut and paste. If I want to start writing an article for Mac DevCenter in the middle of my todo file, I can! (Hey, guess how this one started?)

My central file, the most important one, is Almost everything related to my current work is in there in some form or another. I have to be able to edit it a dozen or more times a day, and I have to do so quickly and without any fuss.

I have a key combo--Command+Control+T--that brings up this file anytime I need it. I probably hit that combo a dozen times a day.

And look, see what I have lurking in the bottom-right corner of my desktop:

Screenshot of a DropDrawers drawer titled 'Texts!'
Screenshot of a DropDrawers drawer titled "Texts!"

Yes, it's one of those ingenious drawers, courtesy of DropDrawers, a wonderful little shareware app that comes closest to replicating the old tabbed windows you used to be able to leave docked at the bottom of the screen in OS 9. How I miss those tabbed windows.

The drawer is labelled with the word: "Texts!"--can you guess what's inside? Yes! A bunch of aliases to text files littered all over my disorganized file system. Between them, these text files comprise almost everything that's important in my working life. And quite a lot of stuff I need for home life, too. I can make the drawer open with another key combo, and select the file I need by tapping the first letter of its name and hitting Return, or just clicking on it.

Some of the things I use a text editor for:

  • Writing letters
  • Making shopping lists
  • Storing electronic invoices and receipts
  • Managing lists of things (to read, to visit, to remember, to make)
  • Editing files and templates for web sites
  • Writing articles
  • Pretending to write novels and works of fiction (none of which ever get finished)
  • Writing my resume
  • Writing a personal diary
  • Composing posts for weblogs and mailing lists
  • Writing, and storing, drafts for all of the above
  • Keeping my file up to date

You can see why I consider myself addicted, can't you?

My addiction brings about another odd behavioral trait: I can't stop myself from trying out new editors. Doesn't matter how weird or obscure they might be, I have to download every new text editor I hear about and, at the very least, open a few of my favorite files in it. Very, very occasionally, I like what I see. Then I start typing. Rarer still, I like how things work.

If it's OK with you (and I'm going to assume that it is, because you've read this far, and that means you're probably as interested in text editors as I am, which is fine), I'd like to show you some of the text editors I've encountered. You probably know some of them already. You probably coded a few of them.

(Before we step outside, a note. This article was written in BBEdit 7.0. I like BBEdit. I use it for all of the above, and despite my many adventures in editing while researching and writing this article, I've not been persuaded to switch to something else. I don't need to sing the praises of BBEdit, because plenty of people have done that already, and better than I could anyway. So this article is not going to include BBEdit; if you're still reading this far in, and you don't know what it is, you are clearly very keen to find out more, and you should read up on it as soon as you can.)

But come on, hold my hand. Let's go see what we can see. There's some amazing stuff out there.


Look! Look at this lovely screen full of editors:

Screenshot showing lots of different text editors in Expose mode Lots of different editors: which one to pick?

There are so many wonderful editors out there, so much choice in terms of feature sets and simplicity and text handling; where does one start?

I started with my needs. When I left the world of Proper Jobs and turned freelance, I was faced with the freedom to write with the software of my choice. No longer would I be told by an employer which software to use. Merely having that freedom was a delight, but exercising it was more fun. I started out with BBEdit Lite (TextWrangler, as it was), but that was when I still used OS 9 on a lime-green original iMac with only 64MB of RAM. I picked BBEdit Lite because it was free, and because it provided everything I needed at the time. (In fact, it provided a lot more--most of its features remained unused by me.)

But over time, I came to explore other options. With the purchase of a new iBook and the jump to OS X, this became more than a habit; it was almost an obsession. I'd watch sites like Jeff's OS X Apps directory, and download anything that claimed to handle text.

Over the years, I've downloaded and played with some remarkable, impressive applications. And a handful of pretty awful ones, too, but we won't dwell on those.

As I said, you probably know most of these already. Chances are, you've tried out even more apps and have some better suggestions. But if you haven't, and you'd like some ideas for more apps to try out, this list is for you.


I can't review Emacs. That would be like saying I was going to interview the Queen; not because Emacs is royalty among software, but because it's been around a long time, a lot of people have a great deal of respect for it, and I barely know it.

(And don't ask me to get involved in those endless holy wars, either; partly because, in text-editor terms, I am strictly pacifist, and partly because in this particular case I'd have to stand to one side, shouting: "But I use BBEdit!" and waving a white flag.)

I can't review Vi for the same reason. If you have the faintest idea what I mean when I write "Emacs" or "Vi," you don't need me to tell you anything about them. You doubtless have your own opinions about them, and might consider joining one side or the other in the next battle.

There is room here to mention versions of each program that have been specially built for OS X. In some respects, each betrays its roots as a command line application, because it takes on new clothes with GUI menus, Apple-ized keyboard combinations, and a simpler approach to many of the more arcane features and commands. But for someone like me, who wouldn't be able to cope without these injections of user-friendliness, they're very welcome.

Emacs for OS X takes the original Emacs environment and adds some GUI extras to make innocent Mac users feel more comfortable.

Vim for OS X does exactly the same with Vi's young cousin, offering advice and pre-written .vimrc files that make using the program much easier in Panther.

Depending on your point of view, one of these is the Only Editor You'll Ever Need, and the other is not worth downloading. Or you may be ignorant in the ways of True Computing, like me, and prefer something with a shallower learning curve. In which case -- follow me! There's a lot more to discover.

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