Ulysses 3, A Text Editor From The Future [Review]

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Ulysses 3 by Soulmen
Category: Text Editor
Works With: Mac
Price: $40

Ulysses 3 is a superstar text editor which takes a whole new approach to, well, to editing text. I love it – it’s my favorite new piece of software in a long time – but there are one or two gotchas which could stop me using it full-time to write posts for the web.

Want to know more?

The Philosophy

The idea that guides Ulysses is that writing is not publishing. Microsoft Word (and other word processors) commingle both, which causes two problems: One is that you spend time tweaking the formatting of your document as you go (instead of concentrating on writing). The second is that you are locked into one final document format (although you can force it, DOCX isn’t really optimized to export to PDF, or plain text).

All you do is write. And once you’re done writing, you export.

Ulysses takes another approach. All you do is write. You can change display fonts and colors to suit your tastes, but they don’t affect the text itself, any more than putting on a pair of yellow-lensed sunglasses changes the color of what you look at (also, you might want to avoid growing a mustache if you wear yellow glasses – parents won’t let their kids anywhere near you).

Once you’re done writing, you export. The underlying document is just a plain text file, with little instructions contained to tell it to make something bold, or a headline, or a link when you export it. Thus equipped, you can generate any number of perfectly formatted documents (even an HTML page) from the same source.

Interface

Indow

These three panes will be familiar to any Mac user.

The app is tuned for writing, and adopts the kind of clean interface we’re used to seeing on iOS apps. You can even choose an iOS-style cursor (on by default). Ulysses also takes care of your documents, just like an iOS app. You never need to visit the Finder to find your documents: they’re all available from the sidebar.

As you write, you add your links, mark text as bold and italic, and generally carry on as if you were editing rich text. But behind the scenes, it’s a text file which acts a lot like a Markdown file (more on that in a second). Ulysses really shines in full-screen on a MacBook, with the sheet (Ulysses’ name for pages) front and center, and any HUDs you’ve chosen to display arrayed around the edge.

It looks fantastic, and you can tweak the colors and fonts all day long if you like. I have kept the default Freestraction style, which is what you se in the screenshots here.

Markdown-like, but not Markdown

Markdown is iOS text editors’ best friend. Invented by John Gruber back in the 1800s, Markdown is a way to write styled text in a plain text editor. Originally designed as a human-readable way to write HTML, Markdown has turned into the de-facto way to write on the iPad. It’s strength is that it frees the content from the formatting (sound familiar?), thus you can wrap a word with asterisks *like this*, and when it comes to export it, it’ll look like this . If you export to HTML the result will be like this, and if you export to PDF or RTF or DOCX then it’ll just be italicized like this.

Markdown editors use the ⌘-I and ⌘-B shortcuts to add asterisks (or underscores – both work fine) to a word.

Ulysses does all this, and if you use Markdown you can dive right in and use it in Ulysses. But the app runs on something called Markdown XL, which adds some extra goodies, including attachments, in-line comments, notes, images and keywords.

If you know Markdown, you can dive right in and use it in Ulysses.

It also hides some of the Markdown “markup”. For instance, the aforementioned asterisks Will show up around the chosen words (and the text will actually be italicized on the page), but link code is hidden (linked text is styled to let you know where it is).

In all, it’s super elegant, and for regular writing purposes the text serves as a preview window of itself. I like it a lot.

Finally, there are keyboard shortcuts for almost everything. I won’t go into them here, as you can just run through the menus to check them out. I’ll call out one of them, though: ⌘–9 slides out a cheat-sheet from the right side, and if you have a word or words selected, you can click on the cheat entry and it applies itself.

There are actually two sidebars. The leftmost shows sources, and the next shows the contents of those sources as documents snippets, complete with titles (if you supplied them).

Sidebar

The source sidebar comes with a folder that explains most of the features (it’s worth reading, and pretty funny at times), and it also contains entries for iCloud, On My Mac, and Daedalus. Daedalus Touch is developer Soulmen’s iOS editor, and it syncs with Ulysses using iCloud.

On My Mac lets you drag in any file or folder from the Finder. Ulysses will then manage it, but not move it. This option sounds good until you find out that not all your documents can use Ulysses’ neat extra features. In short, TXT files are limited, but MD files are fine. As far as I can tell anyway. Another nice trick (and I keep finding more of these little touches as I use the app) is that you can get statistics for a closed document just by selecting it in the sidebar and right clicking. This also work s for quick exports, and applies to folders as well as files.

There are also two other amazingly useful features. Joining, and smart folders (called Filters).

Joining

Joining lets you join any number of sheets (files) together and work with them as if they were one file (like Scrivener). You can just CMD-click on the files in the second sidebar to select them and the main view shows them as one long sheets, with horizontal lines to mark the boundaries. If you hit ⌘-J (join) then they’re permanently joined until you un-join them.

Filters

Filters

Filters are super-powerful smart folders that will help organize your next novel or just your shopping lists.

Filters let you build smart folders based on keywords, modification date or arbitrary text, and you can specify where this text is (“anywhere” is the default, but you could choose to only search on headers of footnotes, say). This can be powerful. Imagine you’re writing novel. You could have a smart folder that contains all scenes tagged with the protagonist’s name, or a screenplay filter could show all INT scenes.

Attachments

Attach

Do it!

Attachments are also very helpful. You can drag in pictures (although sometimes not – I can;t seem to work out why), or add notes and keywords (tags), and these appear in the attachment bar at the top of the sheet. You can also tear off these attachments so they hover in their own window, which can be neat for keeping source material and references visible as you write.

Which brings us to…

HUDs

Ulysses puts all its extras into HUDs which float over the screen when needed. All of them can be opened either from the menu, with keyboard shortcuts or by clicking on the relevant icon in the toolbar.

There are panels for:

  • Statistics (word count and lots more).
  • Favorites (store sheets from different documents here for quick access).
  • Quick Export (like the export, only quick).
  • Navigation.
  • Plus any notes or pictures you may be floating.

Of these, Navigation and Export deserve a little more attention. Navigation (⌘–8) shows the sections of your sheet (or sheets, if you have joined some together) as defined by Headers in the document (headers are made by adding # signs at the start of a line, and they get converted into <h> tags). Clicking on these takes you to that section of the document.

Huds

Fact: the collective noun for HUDs is a “glance.”

Currently you can’t drag the headers to rearrange the sections, like you can in MultiMarkdown Composer, which is a shame.

The Quick Export HUD (⌘–6) lets you export the raw text into any format you like. Almost. You can turn it into plain text in the form of HTML, Markdown or TXT; rich text (as Word or Pages docs); or as a PDF. Better still are keyboard shortcuts to copy the current selection to the clipboard in any of these formats (also accessible from the Edit menu).

For a 1.0 release, Ulysses is astonishing.

If you can’t find it here, you can always export in Markdown and send that to something like Brett Terpstra’s amazing Marked app and export from there.

A final note on the HUDs. If you click the toolbar icon for a HUD that’s already open, it shakes to let you know where it is, kinda like the shake on the Mac login screen when you get your password wrong. This is the kind of attention to details that riddles Ulysses.

Find/Replace

U1

Find only works for the currently viewed sheets, but is slick and quick.

Find and replace (⌘-F) is great. The sheet pops open from the top of the screen and searches as you type. The screen is dimmed, the current result is highlighted in gold (or whatever cold you choose) and the other results are shown non-dimmed. If you want to add Replace to the mix, hit the little down-chevron over at the right of the find bar.

Problems

For a 1.0 release, Ulysses is astonishing. It seems like a mature product already. But that’s not to say there aren’t some odd things missing. Some, like typewriter scrolling, were in earlier betas and removed before launch. This indicates that Max and his crew trimmed some features to concentrate on polishing the app for launch.

So what is missing that is essential enough to make me skip on Ulysses for my everyday work?

HTML Oddness

Sometimes I need to insert raw HTML into a post. WordPress uses a “more” tag to separate the intro from the body of the post, for instance, and this has no Markdown equivalent. Usually I put it in with a Textexpander snippet, but Ulysses just chokes and acts like I did nothing. Even weirder, I can’t even paste the tag straight into the editor. So I need to edit the post in another editor before posting. And if I have to do that, why not write the whole post in that editor?

No Previews

As I said above, Ulysses sheets are their own previews. Except when you need to check exactly how the document will render. And because Ulysses stores its sheets in an internal bin, there are no files that can be previewed by apps like Marked. To get a preview I need to export to Marked, which gives a static file, not a live updated one.

No Auto-Pairing

Any decent Markdown editor offers to auto-pair a subset of characters. If you type a “ then the editor will actually type two quotes ”” and place the cursor between them. If you then go on and type the second quote anyway, it ignores it.

The second related feature is typeover support. If you type a word or sentence and decide that it needs to be in parentheses, you just highlight the words and hit the ( key. The selection is auto-wrapped. This usually works for square brackets too, along with quotes and more. Once you’re used to it, any text editor without it feels broken. And Ulysses doesn’t have it.

There is usually a workaround. Brett Terpstra’s

Markdown Service Tools

can do typeover in all text editors that work with OS X Services. Almost all anyway. Ulysses suppresses it.

The Verdict

Ulysses 3 lives up to its hype. I can comfortably say that it’s the best Mac text editor around, and if you don’t need the few features that I rely on, then you’re golden. Seriously, just go and buy this thing before the price goes up to $40 next week.

Ulysses 3 treats your text like a RAW image file.

The level of polish is astonishing, and you’ll keep finding things to make you smile long after you get started. Keyboard shortcuts for everything make nerds happy, and the visual feedback will please everyone.

One thing kept ticking at the back of my mind as I wrote this review: Ulysses (and Markdown in general) treat plain text as the unpolluted source of your work. I keep thinking of RAW files in photography, which contain all the data there is about the photo, but no actual picture. The photo is only formed when you interpret that RAW data and “export” it in the form you want (JPG, TIFF).

In this analogy, Ulysses is not an app like Lightroom. It’s like the camera. Except that it’s a camera that has been designed from scratch to work in a way that helps you make photos. And until now, all word processors have been designed to help you print, not make. Welcome to the future of writing.

Ulysses app icon

Product Name: : Ulysses 3

The Good: Slick, easy-to-use, great looking and fun. Also, ridiculously powerful and yet still deceptively simple.

The Bad: A few weird behaviors when using advanced HTML.The Verdict The best text editor ever.

Buy from: Ulysses App

Cult of Mac rating: Excellent

Related
  • idmah

    Those of us who have been using Ulysses for years since version 1 would like an upgrade path ! A little discount goes a long way guys! Say for 50%

About the author

Charlie Sorrel Charlie Sorrel is the Reviews Editor here on Cult of Mac. Follow Charlie  on Twitter at @mistercharlie.

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