Sublime Text 2: My TextMate replacement

Sometimes the smallest of changes can deliver a huge impact. In my case, several weeks ago I switched away from the popular Mac text editor TextMate to Sublime Text 2, giving a significant boost to my productivity in the process.

Some context is necessary here: any web developer can tell you that, with the profession’s focus on coding, text editors are generally the most important tool at hand. For the last five years, TextMate was my editor of choice and I depended on it for effectively everything at work: HTML, CSS, Ruby on Rails, even extended emails and design notes. I loved the speed, the keyboard shortcuts and its slick bundling system – macros, commands and templates came together in a unified package.

But ever since Mac OS X Lion came out, TextMate’s lost a lot of its luster. The downward spiral began with the program’s incompatibilities with much of Lion’s new functionality; this only amplified the nagging suspicion TextMate would never receive a significant upgrade (its last significant release was version 1.5 back in January 2006.) The TextMate team unexpectedly announced a public alpha of TextMate 2 for release before the end of 2011, but I think it’s a case of too little, too late.

In short, I’m worried TextMate is effectively “abandonware”, and abandonware is a liability. A serious break or bug can force a switch to another tool right in the middle of a work project, a huge risk and time sink I didn’t want to undergo.

That concern gave me the motivation I needed to consider TextMate alternatives. Two editors stood far above the others in terms of their feature set for my needs and developer support: BBEdit and Sublime Text 2.

I first expected BBEdit, one of the most venerable Mac editors around, to be the obvious TextMate successor. First, it’s well established on its 10th version and affordable at $40. In addition, a large number of developers I respect made the TextMate to BBEdit switch in the past few months.

Yet after a month of use, BBEdit started driving me crazy: It has a side drawer for file storage I never got use to. I hated how a keyboard press didn’t do automatic code indenting or auto completion the way TextMate did. The syntax highlighting never felt as comprehensive as TextMate’s. The BBEdit equivalent of TextMate’s extremely useful find file tool wasn’t available; an extra $10 third party utility felt like an unsatisfactory compromise.

That lead me to Sublime Text 2, a comparatively newer, cross platform editor that I hadn’t heard of until its version two beta started generating a lot of positive buzz on Twitter. Like with BBEdit, I first ran into some problems such as, user preferences are set in text files, not menu options. Though I’m comfortable with Unix, Sublime’s setup makes for an annoying and mildly intimidating hurdle to overcome. I also find multi file searches, handled in Sublime Text as little more than a Unix style grep, weak in comparison to other text editors.

Yet I persevered with the program now for over two months, and the payoff has been immense. First and foremost, the transition phase from TextMate to Sublime Text 2 was fast because all of my preexisting code snippets, macros, and color schemes are compatible with Sublime. Even auto indents and bracket highlighting, critical for my Javascript work, are done in the same style as TextMate. It runs consistently fast, even on some of my larger projects. Lion support is already partially implemented with more functionality expected soon. There’s also a few features I’ve rarely seen in other programs. Those who rely heavily on TextMate’s Command+T find file tool will love Sublime Text 2’s Command+P “goto anything” command: with just a few keystrokes I can hone in on a file, function, and line number. I also find myself using Sublime Text 2’s multiple selection mode a lot, a clever tool that allows me to bounce around and swap out file variables quickly.

Overall, Sublime Text 2 is exactly what I’m looking for in an editor; it combines the speed, minimalism and low footprint of the classic Unix editor Vim with the added toolset and functionality of a more full featured, TextMate style text editor. It may not be for everyone, but it comes highly recommended, well worth the $59 sticker price.