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Best Text Editor

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BEST TEXT EDITOR

There are some very good text editors available today, both commercial and freeware. If you don't use a text editor very much, it probably doesn't matter much which one you use, as long as it's not notepad. However, if you are one of those people that is constantly working inside a text editor, then you may care enough to want the very best. And in this case, the very best is UltraEdit, the winner of our Best Text Editor Award.

UltraEdit is a shareware program, and costs $40 (as of 4/23/05), which is a substantial price to pay for a text editor given all of its competition. But the price is not altogether unreasonable given the depth and breadth of the program. A full featured 30 day trial version is available for download here (non-english versions also available).

After some recent fixes, we are happy to give PSPad our award for best Freeware text editor - PSPad is amazingly powerful and versatile, with an active international user forum. Before you buy a text editor, you owe it to yourself to try out the freeware PSPad. Just make sure to grab the latest beta version which has working wordwrap code!

TEXT EDITOR vs. WORD PROCESSOR

In the early days of the personal computer, there was little point in distinguishing between the terms "word processor" and "text editor." Word Processors like wordstar and xywrite were designed mainly to let you edit text, with minimal formatting capabilities [here, here]. Over time however, Word Processors have evolved into very sophisticated Graphical Layout and Formatting tools. Modern Word Processors are really about formatting for print.

The term Text Editor is now reserved for small utilities that eschew almost all aspects of print layout and text formatting. There is no bolding, underlining, or italicizing. There are no colors or use of different fonts for different headings. There are no multi-column layouts or inline images.

A text editor is to a word processor what a scalpel is to a giant heavy complicated sword which crashes constantly, uses a proprietary file format, and costs $300.

You might use a text editor when writing short notes or documentation, viewing readme files, or editing source code or raw html files, or just in general manipulating files and blocks of plain text (while this review focuses mainly on general purpose features, most of the text editors discussed in today's review have special functionality for editing html files and/or source code files from various languages).

Many of us use a text editor constantly, but if you don't ever edit text files, then having a top-of-the-line text editor isn't suddenly going to improve your time in front of the computer. At least not in the way that some of the previous programs we've reviewed might, by opening up ways of working that never occurred to you (i.e. Website Watcher, Beyond Compare). If you rarely use a text editor, then you really don't need the best of the best, and any reasonable freeware text editor will be quite sufficient (but do yourself a favor and install something other than notepad).

WHAT MAKES A GOOD TEXT EDITOR?

A text editor should be lean and mean, and fast to start up and shut down.

This is not a program for pretty splash screens or sounds and colorful buttons and animations. People who use text editors tend to use them all the time, not just for editing files, but for simply opening them up to take a quick look. A good text editor needs to be reliable, take up very little desktop space, and essentially stay out of the way of the user.

95% of the time you'll be using features that are found in all text editors: simple editing, copy&paste, spellcheck, etc. It's the other 5% of the features (as well as the gui differences) that separate the pro editors from the amateurs; features like column and hex editing modes and text formatting options. It's on this 5% that we will focus for the remainder of this review.

While the DonationCoder.com reviews don't (yet) present a comparative feature matrix comparing specific feature sets of different programs, we suggest the following procedure when evaluating a potential text editor: Compare its implementation of the features we have listed in the "Things We Like" section, and its solution to the issues we describe in our "Room for Improvement" section. We've tried to list these features roughly in order of our perceived importance, but your needs may be different. And be sure to read carefully our section on alternative programs! You may find that a certain other program is a better match for you, or that an open source alternative is sufficient and deserving of support.

THE IMPORTANCE OF LOOK AND FEEL

The DonationCoder.com reviews always place a big emphasis on user interface design. As software in a given category matures and more and more programs reach near parity in terms of feature sets, small differences in user interface design can become important features in choosing which program you prefer. User interface can have a big effect on your efficiency and the pleasure you get from using a program.

The truth is, different people have different tastes in user interface design, and there are very few styles of user interface that you can't learn to adjust to over time, if you use the program frequently enough. While we have biases in how we expect a text editor to look, you may not share these biases. Given how well most of the text editors discussed in this review perform the basic features needed, you should try out some of the alternatives mentioned here and see if one doesn't really strike you as matching your personality better than our recommended best editor, UltraEdit.

For our tastes, UltraEdit captures the spirit of minimalism that we like to see in a workhorse program like a text editor. The current trend in programming is to move towards these hi-color large-icon xp/mac style user interfaces, which we find distracting and a waste of screen real estate. UltraEdit provides a deceptively simple user interface, with a customizable set of low-key, low-color icons that do an excellent job of depicting their function. It's easy to configure UltraEdit to display a very minimal interface with just the menubar, some buttons, and your editing window. If you're the kind of person who will miss having flashy color glowing icons then UltraEdit is not going to be a good match for you. At least not in this version. Needless to say, the program does not support skins, thank goodness.

[ed. note: UltraEdit v11.10 has introduced a new set of icons which manages to add a little color to the button sets while still capturing everything we liked about the old set. They are subtle and non-distracting and are even more consistent and clear in meaning than the original set. very well done. Compare 1st and 2nd screenshots below to see old and new button icons.]

SCREENSHOTS

At the UltraEdit homepage you'll find a massive collection of screenshots. Below are some illustrative examples.

UltraEdit in a fairly minimalist configuration:

New toolbar icons in the just-released version 11.10;
a little more colorful but still that same subtle non-distracting approach:

 

THINGS WE LIKE

The following is a list of features that we think UltraEdit does particularly well, listed approximately in order of decreasing importance. When evaluating other text editors, compare how well they implement these features.

STILL ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

UltraEdit isn't perfect. Some things we don't like so much:

OTHER TEXT EDITORS

We looked at a lot of text editors for this review, and the side bar on the left has links to many of them. Here we describe the most full-featured text editors we tried, with representative screenshots. All of the programs below were benchmarked to determine start up time, and time required to load a 40mb text file, on an AMD64 with 1gb of ram. However, all programs, except where specifically noted, were able to start and load files within a second of each other, and given the idiosyncrasies inherent in cache, disk use, etc., our conclusion is that on a fast machine you are unlikely to care about the differences in speed.

Zeus $35 (great price for a serious programmer's editor)
startup/load: 1.5s/3s

Column mode: Yes (hold control key; no column mode inserting?).
Hex mode: Can produce a text file output of hex dump (better than nothing).
Searching: Regex and Friendly and Others (nice) , ok multi-file search/replace
Undo: Yes, past save point.
Macros and Scripting: No recording of actions, BUT has fantastic scripting by interfacing with Lua, Java Script, Python, VB Script or Small C scripting languages (this is exactly how scripting should be implemented in a modern program).
User Tools: Yes (excellent)
Code Folding: Yes.

Zeus is strongly focused on being a programmer's editor, and has some wonderful extra functionality to aid programmers. Stuff like a tool for using Doxygen, a class browser, code completion, and very nice support for templates, source control, easy opening of paired header files. It has excellent configurable compiler support, though a serious limitation is the inability to specify multiple compilers and switch between them (for an example see the Relo, or dev-c++ IDE).

Completely customizable keyboard shortcuts, with builtin keyboard mappings to emulate common editors and IDEs; Excellent syntax highlighting. Ftp editing. Project file support. More screenshots can be seen here.

Wordwrapping implementation seems basically non-existent or at least inappropriate for normal text editing. This makes it a poor choice for general purpose text editing.

Boxer $60 (yikes!)
startup/load: 1.5s/3s

Column mode: Yes (hold Ctrl key).
Hex mode: Viewing in read-only mode.
Searching: Regex and Friendly and Others (nice) , good multi-file search (though no search-open-files or project files)
Undo: Yes, past save point.
Macros and Scripting: No recording of actions, BUT otherwise very good built-in scripting language (nice).
User Tools: Yes (good)
Code Folding: No.

Completely customizable keyboard shortcuts; toolbar is not configurable? Excellent syntax highlighting, and nice support for programmer specific find/replace and other helpers. Nice quick-spellcheck of words on right click. Ftp editing. Project file support.

Wordwrapping seems very badly implemented. Wraps to fixed width not able to wrap to window width; required reformatting if changed; this seems unacceptable for normal text editing.

NoteTab Pro (free light version also available) , $20
startup/load: 1.5s/1s

Column mode: No.
Hex mode: No.
Searching: Regex, but poor multi-file search.
Undo: Not past save point.
Macros and Scripting: Uses a custom macro/script language, but can run perl/gawk scripts to transform text blocks (nice).
User Tools: n/a.
Code Folding: No.

One of the nicest features of NoteTab Pro is the use of "clipbook libraries" which are shown in the screenshot in a left docked sidebar, with tabs along the bottom the screen. These clipbook libraries are collections of interactive scripted macros or keyword/symbol dictionaries, and they can make it easier to work in a new language, or automate template filling. A large number of 3rd party clipbook libraries are available free for downloading.

Notepad++ (open source)
startup/load: 2s/1.5s

Column mode: No.
Hex mode: No.
Searching: Regex, ok multi-file search/replace.
Undo: Yes, past save points.
Macros and Scripting: Only recorded playback of keystrokes.
User Tools: n/a
Code Folding: Yes (!)

No help file available. More screenshots can be found here.

TextPad $16
startup/load: 1s/1s

Column mode: Yes.
Hex mode: View only.
Searching: Regex; bad multi-file support.
Undo: Yes, past save point.
Macros and Scripting: Only recorded playback of keystrokes.
User Tools: Some support.
Code Folding: No.

Supports simple clip libraries, supports "document classes" which can assign certain character sets and options with certain file types.

EditPlus $30
startup/load: 1.5s/1.5s

Column mode: Yes (hold alt while dragging).
Hex mode: No.
Searching: Regex; reasonable multi-file support.
Undo: Yes, past save point.
Macros and Scripting: Playback of macros.
User Tools:Yes, reasonable support
Code Folding: No.

Supports simple clip libraries. Remote FTP file editing. Auto-completion. Nice collection of syntax-highlighting files. Project files. Small help file. Nice default new-document templates. Very nice built-in browser view. Tab/Window interface could be done better.

EditPad Pro (free light version also available), $40
startup/load: 2.6s/1s

Column mode: Yes.
Hex mode: Yes.
Searching: Regex; bad multi-file support.
Undo: Not past save point.
Macros and Scripting: n/a.
User Tools: Yes, good support.
Code Folding: No.

Some support for project files. User interface is a bit funky looking.

SciTe (open source; cross platform)
startup/load: 1s/1.5s

Column mode: Yes (hold alt).
Hex mode: No.
Searching: confusing regex, ok multi-file
Undo: Yes, past save point.
Macros and Scripting: n/a
User Tools: n/a
Code Folding: Yes.

Focused on programmers. Only short online help file.

Vim (open source; cross platform)
startup/load: 1s/1.5s

Column mode: Too hard to figure out.
Hex mode: Too hard to figure out.
Searching: poor or too hard to figure out.
Undo: Too hard to figure out..
Macros and Scripting: custom vimscript
User Tools: couldn't figure out.
Code Folding: No. Probably. or too hard to figure out.

Some people swear by these very hardcore keyboard-based (unix-legacy) editors, and to be fair, the underlying engine in vim is very powerful. But in our view, some modern advances in gui design do in fact improve efficiency and usability. And programs like vim are sort of frankenstein monsters; they have a visual gui interface with menus, but half of the functions are missing, and the help system feels like its from 1965. It just doesn't feel right.

ConTEXT (freeware)
startup/load: 1.5s/1s

Column mode: No.
Hex mode: No.
Searching: Regex; ok multi-file support.
Undo: Not past save point.
Macros and Scripting: simple recording.
User Tools:n/a.
Code Folding: No.

Some project support.

EmEditor Pro , $40
startup/load: 1.5s/2.5s

Column mode: Yes (Block Selection).
Hex mode: No.
Searching: very nice; regex, multi-file; nice quick-access multi-file
Undo: Yes, past save point.
Macros and Scripting: recording/playback, Javascript/VBScript/PerlScript/PhpScript/Python, and more (nice!)
User Tools: Can capture external tool output
Code Folding: Yes (Outline Mode).
Supports Unicode, user plugins, and is avtively developed. Author comments on our forum can be found here.

More screenshots can be found here.

EditPro, $30
startup/load: 2s/1s

Column mode: No.
Hex mode: No.
Searching: excellent; almost identical to UltraEdit.
Undo: Yes, past save point.
Macros and Scripting: n/a.
User Tools: very good; almost identical to UltraEdit.
Code Folding: No.

Project file support. No spell checker. Bare minimal help file.


PSPad (freeware, accepting donations)
startup/load: 2s/1s

Column mode: Yes (hard to find; hold alt key).
Hex mode: Yes.
Searching: Regex; good multi-file support.
Undo: Yes, past save point.
Macros and Scripting: simple record and playback plus some custom commands.
User Tools: only one tool per file type (unfortunate)
Code Folding: No.

Ftp editing. Clip libraries. Auto Completion. Project management. Multilingual. Good hotkey customization and system integration options. Some nice programmer code exploration views, and auto-completion. Draggable columns. Somewhat distracting fonts. Spellcheck dictionary not installed by default (annoying). Non-standard font used in gui dialogs (not good). More screenshots can be found here.

[ED NOTE: we originally commented that pspad could not be considered suitable as a general purpose text editor until they fixed their notoriously broked wordwrap code. we are happy to say that they have in fact fixed their wordwrap code and PsPad is now one of the best text editors available - and it's free!].

Crimson Editor (freeware)
startup/load: 13s/8s

Column mode: Yes.
Hex mode: No.
Searching: Regex; ok multi-file support.
Undo: Not past save point.
Macros and Scripting: playback and record.
User Tools: ok support
Code Folding: No.

Very slow to load up (13 seconds, and took 8 seconds to load a 40mb text file, bad). Designed for programmers. Edit files on a remote ftp. Poor help file.

Notepad2 (open source)
startup/load: 1s/1s

Column mode: Yes (hold down alt while selecting).
Hex mode: No.
Searching: Regex; no multi-file support.
Undo: Yes, past save point.
Macros and Scripting: no.
User Tools: no
Code Folding: No.

Very small clean minimal interface; light on features. No installer. No detection of files modified outside of editor (bad).

SlickEdit, Dreamweaver, Homesite, etc.

We are believers that you should use the right tool for the right job. In the same way that we don't think you should be using notepad to edit your non-trivial text files, we think you probably shouldn't be using a general purpose text editor to do serious coding or html design. So while UltraEdit and many of the alternatives described above have some nice support for editing and even coordinating with compilation tools and browsers, and indeed a text editor can be very useful for making quick changes, we think if you are doing serious editing of source code or html, that you should look elsewhere. For a tool designed for that task. For programming, this means a proper IDE or programmer's editor like SlickEdit, which is expensive but more suited to compiler integration. For html, this means one of the many html editors like Dreamweaver or Homesite.

It's also worth mentioning that IDM, the makers of UltraEdit, are due to release a brand new combination editor and generic IDE tool called UltraEdit Studio.

Notepad/Wordpad (free)

For all of our friends who insist that notepad is l33t and who refuse to write html in anything but notepad. For the love of god stop.

 

 

SUMMARY

There are several strong contenders for the throne of Best Text Editor, but at the end of the day, UltraEdit comes out on top.

Although other editors may have some esoteric bells and whistles that UltraEdit doesn't, in terms of the functions you are most likely to need during every day editing, UltraEdit just implements these better than its competition.

When looking for a text editor, you should insist on column editing and hex editing modes, which immediately eliminates almost every text editor we've looked at. Of all the editors we looked at, UltraEdit has the best implementation of these advanced features.

UltraEdit is not a peacock. It won't distract you with those new modern gel-style mac osx buttons or pictures in its menus. This is a good thing. Our way of thinking is that a text editor should be "invisible", drawing as little attention to itself as possible.

In the end, the Best Text Editor award goes to UltraEdit, for combining great stability, a clean user interface, a top-notch implementation of basic functionality, and excellent implementation of some important extra functionality not found in other editors (like hex and column modes).

The only aspect of UltraEdit we were really disappointed in was the kludgey, inconsistent, homemade macro/scripting support system. These homemade macro/scripting languages are like diseases - they often sneak into programs surreptitiously as minor features, and soon grow into a epidemic of kludgey, inconsistent hacks that dare not be removed for fear of breaking backward compatibility. The modern approach to providing scripting interfaces is now to expose an API to a respected scripting language like Python, Lua, Javascript, VBScript, or Perl, which is a very welcome trend; we can only hope that UltraEdit will eventually make the move to such a system. Until then, you can still accomplish most of the macro/scripting functionality you would want to do, using a combination of the built-in system and external tools, you just might have to hold your nose while scripting it. And the truth is, we didn't find a better alternative to the UltraEdit approach in any of the other text editors we looked at.

We have no hesitation recommending UltraEdit as the Best Text Editor available today. And it should be noted that UltraEdit has continued to improve over the years, never resting on its laurels. UltraEdit also has a very active user forum, which adds significant value to the program.

In our original review we were very to report that the otherwise excellent PsPad freeware text editor was unsuitable as a general purpose text editor because of its notoriously broken wordwrap code. We are report that PsPad has finally fixed their wordwrap code and PsPad is now one of the best text editors available - and it's free! We now unreservedly recommend PsPad for general purpse text editing - and it's well worth checking out before you decide to buy a shareware text editor.

 

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