Finding a good text editor is no laughing matter. Whether you’re a writer, web designer or programmer you’ll be surprised how much of a difference the right tools can make.
But which to choose? Some are free, others can cost close to $100 – is a text editor really worth spending money on? The answer to that depends entirely on what you’ll be using it for. Here are five of the very best text editors for Mac OS X.
Sublime Text ($70)
A seventy-dollar text editor? Why not! Sublime Text might seem expensive (ok, it is expensive) but there are armies of Sublime Text fans (including a couple of staff members here at MakeUseOf) who absolutely swear by it. The software is incredibly powerful in the right hands, featuring a number of batch commands which make renaming variables and performing batch edits much easier than doing it manually. Sublime’s Command Palette was designed with the keyboard in mind for quickly accessing functions and Go To Anything lets you find files and lines within files.
The program is adaptable depending on the programming or web development language you’re writing, and if you’re working in straight up text you can turn the feature off. These syntax guides help colour-code variables and functions and can help highlight problems within your code. The app also comes with a distraction-free mode, allowing you to type full screen with little in the way of distractions from Sublime Text itself.
Luckily you can download Sublime Text before buying to find out if this $70 beast is right for you. If you can make good use of the batch and split editing functions or need the syntax highlighting for a variety of different projects then Sublime Text might just be worth the money. The application is also available for Windows and Linux.
Everyone’s heard of, right? Just in case you haven’t, Vim is a text editor that was initially released in 1991 for the Amiga, based on the “vi” text editor which was common to UNIX systems at the time. It has since gone massively cross-platform and is still being worked on today. MacVim is simply the OS X flavour of Vim, as if the name didn’t give it away.
It’s all the power of the latest release of Vim only on OS X. This includes tabbed editing, multiple windows, full-screen support and even window transparency. The text editor itself is adaptable and robust, with a great deal of emphasis placed on customisability. Vim is often described as a programmer’s editor, but it doesn’t have to be that complex – you can run it in a Notepad-like “easy Vim” mode too.
MacVim is completely free. As the homepage says: “It is a tool, the use of which must be learned” – which basically means it’s not the most user-friendly text editor on this list, but it certainly is one of the most powerful.
Another longstanding favourite, BBEdit is a powerful text editor of special interest to the web-developer and programmer. It features a host of basic features including a powerful multi-file search feature, multiple documents per window and multiple undo and clipboard functionality. BBEdit is definitely a technical tool, and contains no text formatting or word processing style features whatsoever.
The editor might be of special interest to web developers with its complete set of HTML tools that can help reduce work-related headaches. These tools include tag and attribute auto-completion while typing and functions like “close current tag” among other context-aware code operations.
BBEdit also offers features like Scratchpad, an area for storing text within the app without having to create a new file on-disk and a beautifully anti-aliased font called Consolas Regular that’s just perfect for code editing. BBEdit has been OS X only ever since the very first version in 1992. If you like the look of BBEdit but don’t need the advanced HTML or clippings features, check out TextWrangler below.
TextWrangler is the free version of BBEdit. It comes with everything that BBEdit does, minus the $50 price tag and a good handful of features. There’s no advanced HTML editing or tag auto-completion, no fancy premium font and nor is there support for opening files within .ZIP archives either. But there is an awful lot else here for free.
These features include multiple levels of undo, multiple clipboards and powerful multi-file search and replace functions. The app supports Applescript and can even be used as an external editor for Xcode. You can see the full list of differences between BBEdit and TextWrangler here.
GNU Emacs (Free)
If you think Vim looks complicated, you might want to turn away for this next section. GNU Emacs is the oldest editor on this list, initially based on code that’s been around since 1976. Designed as a free software alternative to proprietary versions of the forked Emacs code, GNU Emacs is a completely free and open source text editor that’s characterised by its virtually limitless extensibility.
With the right extension, Emacs can be turned into specialist software for editing various files including lists, databases and spreadsheets. Straight-up, Emacs is a tool for writing, compiling and testing software as well as standard “human” languages too. The software can be used to compare two files easily for differences, browse files from a command line interface and even access mail or RSS feeds.
It’s a complex beast, but that also makes it potentially very useful in the right hands. You can take a full tour of the GNU Emacs features over at GNU.org, but be sure to download from this website for the latest stable binary (otherwise you’ll have to build it yourself from source).
Also Consider: Blinky ($4.99)
Do you not need a million and one features from your text editor? Well you’re probably in the minority but if style is something you favour over substance, consider giving Blinky a go. Together with command-line tool Cathode, Blinky makes up the second half of a set of vintage replacements for TextEdit and Terminal. Blinky features faux-distressed CRT monitors, old school fonts, scanlines and the flickers and imperfections that characterised 30 years of computer hardware.
If all you need is a basic text editor but you somehow think you can get your job done better by pretending it’s still 1980; give Blinky and Cathode a try. Read our full review for more!
Which of these is your favourite text editor? Did I miss your favourite? Let us know what you think in the comments, below.