Minimalist text editors revisited

Minimalist text editors of the likes of WriteRoom have been growing in popularity lately, both in terms of their user base and the download options in the Mac App Store. That’s a great trend. I’ve found text editors to be a wonderful tool for writing, and the more users that come to the same conclusions, the better. But which app is the best option for your money? I’ve spent the past few weeks on this subject comparing three popular options: Byword, iA Writer and WriteRoom.


Home Page | Mac App Store ($9.99)

Byword is the newest of the three text editors I tested. The app offers some, but not all, of the customization of the more mature WriteRoom. It’s a hybrid approach that picks and chooses elements from both programs and spins them off in a new direction.

On the positive side, I found Byword’s features set striking a good balance between flexibility and minimalism; enough customization for users to write in a way they feel comfortable, yet not so much to feel overwhelmed. In addition, I’d predict Byword will push the ball forward more than its competitors for raw functionality in future releases. I already find its markdown and HTML export support to be more robust than its competitors, along with providing a slick HTML and Markdown preview functionality the other tested text editors don’t offer at all. Finally, I can’t overlook that at $10 it’s half the price of its competitors. That’s a factor for those on the fence about spending money for a text editor with such a seemingly simple purpose.

Byword still has its share of negatives. First and foremost, the app’s hybrid approach won’t satisfy everyone: some will be dissatisfied that Byword lacks the beauty and rigor of iA Writer while also falling short of WriteRoom’s customization. I also question the customization options that Byword provides. Its focus mode, where several lines of text are highlighted to maximize concentration, is poorly done. Giving users the choice of highlighting anywhere from one to nine lines is unwise; Byword should have limited the options to one, maybe two line combinations. In addition, when focus mode is active, non-highlighted text is so dark that it’s very hard to read. I understand that it’s kind of the point, but focus mode isn’t the same as tunnel vision; some readability of non-highlighted lines should remain intact.

iA Writer

Home Page | Mac App Store ($17.99)

iA Writer is to minimalist text editing as Lars von Trier and Dogme 95 is to film making. It has a polarizing “take it or leave it” approach to its editing suite with set rules and strict conventions. iA Writer clearly believes customization available in almost every text editor (e.g. font selection, background color, margin) ends up being a distracting force from the writing itself.

The app’s rigor really pays off – iA Writer is by far the prettiest, well thought out program of the bunch (as a typographic nut, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the most aesthetically pleasing apps on my Mac.) Like driving in a high end sports car, iA Writer feels unquestionably like a professional’s tool; Pitti, it’s unique mono spaced font is well suited for writing and its line spacing and margins are also very well done.

One might question how important visuals should factor into a text editor, but I’d return to the sports car analogy: any two cars can get you from point A to B, but a sports car can make it a hell of a lot more fun to get there. The same is true with writing: a great looking environment can encourage its use, and that’s unquestionably a good thing for writers.

iA Writer also stands out with its attention to details. I enjoyed how the program handles word count: instead of appearing via menu toggle, it automatically appears after mouse movement with a subtle transparent grey color. The app’s focus mode implementation is the best I’ve seen, highlighting one sentence at a time and shifting text to the vertical center of the screen in an effort to maximize readability.

Naturally the downsides of iA Writer also stem from its focus; it can easily antagonize users that don’t fully click with the interface. Its choice of font is clearly a divisive issue – after years of working in fonts like Georgia, Helvetica and Times the new, large monospaced Pitti can be a hard sell for many. There’s absolutely no flexibility, and while iA argues that’s the point, many will disagree.

There’s are also a few bugs that, in rare instances, crash the entire program. Along those lines, the track record of iA’s customer support is a bit slow. For instance, users have been clamoring for more Dropbox flexibility and other functionality in their iPad version of iA Writer for months, yet there’s been little in terms of new releases. This factor reinforces the point that if you don’t think iA Writer clicks in its current form, I highly doubt your attitude would change with later versions.


Home Page | Mac App Store ($24.99)

WriteRoom is very much the elder statesman of the group. It’s the app that really kick started the minimalist tech editing trend years before its competitors, and its maturity comes with its own pluses and minuses.

On one hand, it’s a very robust, reliable app, clearly the product of a lot of iterations and user feedback. I found very few, if any, technical bugs that pop up in the other two programs. In fact, before doing this comparison, I used the program on and off for years and rarely encountered a crash. It also comes from a mature developer, Hog Bay Software, a reputable company that already has developed several excellent products (e.g. QuickCursor, TaskPaper).

I also think the program’s robust customization will be a big advantage for those who play and tinker with settings in other programs to get their look: these users will likely really enjoy what WriteRoom offers. You can play with margin, background color, font color, full screen versus window screen details and much more.

However, while feedback and refinement is good, a great program still has to have its own point of view. I’d argue that on this topic WriteRoom has lost its way; it’s flexible to a fault. It offers so much personalization that it starts to feel almost like a full blown coding app like Textmate or BB Edit with a full screen mode tacked on.

In addition, the very fact that WriteRoom is so mature can be construed as a downside. In contrast, with Byword’s advances in raw functionality and iA Writer iterating on its look, I just don’t see the program evolving much going forward.

Conclusions and recommendations

There’s one no clear winner in this group; much comes down to personal preference. However, for now, I’d recommend most users new to minimal text editors start with Byword. I find its balance between functionality and customization to be excellent. As well, the app’s robust markdown and HTML support will be of great help to bloggers and other web writers.

I’d also give a recommendation for iA Writer as another one to consider. It’s not for everyone, but check out videos, screenshots and reviews of the program. If those seem to click for what you’re after (especially the divisive, larger Pitti font) and you’re the kind of user who doesn’t need raw functionality and customization it’s a great choice, well worth the $18 price tag.