Finding a native and fast text editor for the Mac in 2022

Two years ago, I switched from iA Writer to Drafts. I’ve stopped using Drafts a couple of months ago, but I still love Drafts. My workflow doesn’t really call for all its features anymore. Blame Brett Terpstra’s excellent Markdown service tools, Blot simple and efficient file structure, and TextEdit for being more than adequate to write and edit the few blog posts I manage to publish each year.

In a quest for a minimalistic setup, I wanted to find the app that was good enough to either replace or complete TextEdit in my writing workflow. If I want to consider myself somehow serious about this blog, I figured an extra app dedicated to write was justified and necessary to be added in this setup.

I’ve used TextEdit as my only writing app for a few months, and it’s fine. It’s fast enough. It’s stable. It’s simple. It comes with every Mac. The only thing that is really annoying about it is the lack of a line-height setting when using plain text mode. I managed to avoid this issue by using Input as the font, but it’s strange to me that Apple doesn’t seem to treat this app as well as others, like Mail for instance.

Below you will find a list of six main apps that I tried and considered for this very important role, and that I can recommend to anyone reading these lines. I’ve also added a bunch of other good apps that I used briefly.

In this list you will not find apps built with Electron — hence the absence of a well-loved app like Obsidian — because not only I might as well list web apps like StackEdit, but I am a firm believer and aficionado of Mac-assed Mac apps.

I think I can group these apps into two separate categories.

The first category reunites apps that could theoretically replace TextEdit. I’ll called these “file-based” apps: not the best for taking quick notes, but able to quickly edit any file on your computer, apps like TextEdit.

Apps that can be used on top or next to TextEdit are in the second category. I will call them the “library-based” apps: apps that can’t quickly edit exiting files in the finder, but are great for taking quick notes — apps like Apple Notes for instance.

File-based apps

iA Writer: it has everything I need. It really has. All the features I can possibly want. I used this impeccably-designed app for years, between the early 2010s and 2020. So what is wrong with it? Well, it feels heavy. I like apps that are snappy, that respond instantly to each keystroke. Sadly, iA Writer is not an app like this on my pre-M1 MacBook Air.

uFocus: I consider this app to be “iA Writer Lite.” It kinda looks the same, but feels much faster and with less features. It is so good that I am actually writing this post on uFocus. But if I had to commit to only one app between uFocus or TextEdit, I may switch back to TextEdit. The fact that I don’t like uFocus icon doesn’t help, but compared to the others of this list, this app feels less polished somehow.

CotEditor: The newest of the bunch for me and what a revelation. To put it simply, CotEditor is what I believe TextEdit should be in 2022; some people may use it for rich text, but I am convinced that 90% of TextEdit’s users use it for plain text. Apple should embrace this and add some plain text features like syntax highlighting in a variety of languages including Markdown, a line-height setting, a character/word count, the ability to add line numbers, etc. All the features CotEditor has.

Library-based apps

Drafts: possibly my favourite app of the list, but because it can’t be used to edit existing file (it works with its own library), it is not as useful as it could be for me, and working with “bookmarks” feels a bit convoluted. This can be used as a complement to TextEdit, but it feels wrong to use such a powerful and fully-featured app just to type one new post per week, it’s like going to the bakery around the block by driving a truck. A beautiful, fast, and very capable truck, but a bike is what I need in this metaphor.

The Archive: This is a really excellent little app that I discovered last weekend. This app is the reason behind this article: it is so good that it made me question my TextEdit/uFocus-only setup, and made me wonder if I was not missing something by not using such a fantastic Markdown app. If you liked nvALT you’ll be right at home, and I think it has a great icon, which for me is important when it comes to enjoying using an app every day.

Tot: This little utility improved so much since the last time I tried it. When I first mentioned Tot on this blog I was complaining about the fact that the app couldn’t export text files, making it useless for my Blot workflow. Well, now it can. And it has a neat full screen mode. And the switch between plain and rich text can be used as a simple preview. The import system is very well done and fast (just drag a file into the app window, and boom). This app is precisely the bike I was talking about in my earlier metaphor.

Other apps worth mentioning

Plain Text Editor looks and feels like a better version of TextEdit. Special mention for Typewriter too, worth checking out.

Alongside iA Writer, I could have listed Bear and Ulysses, which are great and fully-featured apps, but feels way too complicated and feature-rich for someone like me who has only been using TextEdit for the past couple of month and was fine with it.

I am also thinking of Byword, which I used quite extensively a few years ago, but it is an app that has aged a little. I also like what Oleksandr Hlushchenko is doing with FSNotes, which slowly evolves to become a full Drafts alternative.

I know some of you are developers and are therefore using apps such as BBEdit or Nova on a daily basis. With these apps, we go back to my truck metaphor, and this may even be a semi-trailer truck in this case for me since I don’t write any programming code.

The results

What are my favourite options?

  1. keep using uFocus for writing new posts and editing files: because it’s a smart and a great iA Writer replacement for those seeking something similar enough, but a tad faster.
  2. embrace the pretty and minimalistic Tot, because it’s very good, very cute, a delight to use, and more capable than it looks.
  3. install CotEditor, whether as my only writing app or as an extra just for editing, because I’m very, very impressed with it.
  4. fully commit to the Zettelkasten philosophy/method behind The Archive: this app has so much potential and it is so well made that I really want to use it.
  5. go back to using TextEdit only: coupled with the right font and a useful bookmarklet, it becomes something more than decent, and it’s already on my machine.

To help me decide, I’ve read once again one of my favourite blog posts of the last couple of years, which comes from Craig Mod. In his article Fast Software, the Best Software, he writes:

Speedy software is the difference between an application smoothly integrating into your life, and one called upon with great reluctance.

This is so well said that it could be used as a slogan for most great apps. Just like knives in your kitchen drawer: there is always one you go to when you have to slice up let’s say garlic or a piece of chicken, meanwhile other knives always stay in the back of drawer, barely used at all. You know the ones.

Speed has been a good criteria to evaluate which app should be my first choice, but also their simplicity, the fact I’ll end up using most of their capabilities. You don’t need a Mac Studio if you just plan to use your computer for sending emails. This is why brilliant apps like Drafts and FSNotes were out of my shortlist.

The winner(s)

In the end, the match was between Tot, CotEditor, and The Archive.

The Archive feels very, very fast, efficient, and powerful. The kind of app Craig Mod would love. It doesn’t work perfectly for me in terms of Blot/Dropbox workflow, as I would not really benefit from the search feature at the centre of the app. I think of The Archive as a simpler, more straightforward, and faster Drafts.

Tot feels like an always-available tiny whiteboard, whereas The Archive feels like a notebook. I can’t of course mention Tot without sharing this post by Andrew Canion on which Martin Feld comments:

I find that it fits nicely into that zone of I need to quickly write something and maybe I’ll do something about it right now or maybe I’ll come back to it. If you avoid overthinking it, then it becomes a nice drop-zone for bits of text. I also love that you have circles and you don’t need to think about naming anything.

I agree fully with Feld: not having to name files is a big plus. Overall, Tot is very useful, which makes me want use it a lot, and using it is the important part of an app. Another important feature in favour of Tot: you can continue writing on a previous “quick note” using the “quick note” shortcut, whereas in The Archive or FSNotes, you create a new file each time you’re using the “quick note” shortcut, which I find less useful.

In the end of this long, probably not necessary and overthought process, I am writing this conclusion using a surprise guest: CotEditor. I didn’t think it was possible to like an app so much, but here we are. Fast. Pretty. Efficient. It’s an app that makes replacing TextEdit easy and very enjoyable. I truly cannot believe this app is free.

Now the remaining question is: do I use CotEditor only — like I was using uFocus or TextEdit before, or do I use it alongside an app like Tot, Drafts, or The Archive? I guess I’ll be able to tell after a few weeks of trial, but I am sure about one thing: the state of Mac apps is rather excellent when it comes to text editors.

Let me know what is (are) your favourite app(s) to write anything on your computer by replying to this post.