On finding the perfect text editor: the one that’s right for you

For years now, I’ve been an unfaithful user of iA Writer. I want to say I’ve been using the app from the beginning of its MacOS days, since I clearly remember writing these using its minimal, beautiful light grey interface in 2011, the year it was introduced on the Mac.

I say unfaithful because I may have tried other apps along the way. Why? Because I am a very curious tech enthusiast always looking for a subjectively better app (sometimes it was simply to have the same icon on both my laptop and my phone).

Second to iA Writer, Byword must have been the one I used the most. Both apps are very similar, even if iA Writer has become more powerful and more refined over the years, while Byword kind of stagnated. These apps were perfect for my needs: writing a blog post from time to time, and then importing the edited, ready-to-be-published content into Squarespace, meaning copying-pasting raw Markdown, or HTML.

As you may already know, I recently moved my blog out of Squarespace to use Blot instead. And guess what: my needs in an text editing app have changed. iA Writer file management stopped being ideal for me, and is not compatible with my workflow anymore.1

If it was just about workflow, it would have been fine, as I eventually would have get used to a new behaviour with iA Writer. But something else became more and more obvious: iA Writer was slow, and it was not my ageing MacBook Airs fault, at least not entirely.

Before jumping to conclusions, I had to be sure first. So I read again Craig Mod’s brilliant Fast Software, the Best Software, and tried nvALT for myself, just to see what was this speed” he was talking about with such passion.

Let me say this clearly: nvALT is very, very fast indeed. After spending some time with it, it becomes hard to look at iA Writer — or most writing apps for that matter — the same way. To quote Craig Mod:

Speed in software is probably the most valuable, least valued asset. To me, speedy software is the difference between an application smoothly integrating into your life, and one called upon with great reluctance. Fastness in software is like great margins in a book — makes you smile without necessarily knowing why.

iA Writer just doesn’t make me smile anymore. I realised I had a small, unconscious reluctance using it, to use Mod’s language.

Despite its lightning speed and all its great features, nvALT is still not the app for me. I tried it2, I thought thoroughly about using it as my main text editor, but a few limitations ruined it for me in the end. For instance, the line height was too small and I could not figure out a way to change it. Another example: the software is now kind of old and was barely updated during the last couple of years, which makes its future uncertain, and not worth all the work needed to adopt a new app.3

So I kept looking. I was looking for an app with a fair amount of speed, a satisfying way of managing files, a few Markdown-specific tools, decent enough looks, and not trying to be a replacement for Apple Notes, which I still use and love as my go-to notes app (that’s why I did not try apps like Bear or Ulysses for instance.)

From BBEdit to Typora, from Hemingway Editor to Tot, I felt I was getting close to my dream app, but not quite there yet.

  • BB Edit: way too powerful and complex, but fast, reliable and well designed. No iOS version. Made for developers first.
  • Typora: Close to win the race. Design is OK at best, but all the features I need are there. Not in the App Store.
  • Hemingway Editor: Not sure about Markdown integration, expensive, and a bit of a gimmick to be honest.
  • Tot: Not what I need at all as it cannot export text files. More of a Post-It notes than anything, but a fantastic one at that. Beautiful design and supports Markdown.
  • and a few others: Dropbox Paper, Pretext, OmmWriter, 1Writer, Simple Notes, &c.

One morning, I found it. Well, I did not really find it, but I gave it a second chance after the first try, when I too quickly dismissed it. Drafts is now my go-to text editor.4

We will now see how this new relationship goes, but so far so good. I stripped it down from most of its power features, took the time to set it just right for me, with minimum customisation. I don’t even think I need to upgrade to the Pro version. I may do it later to support the company because they deserve it, but it shows how little I need from the app.

The app is not nvALT-fast, but it’s way faster than iA Writer. The file management system is the one I need, and even if it’s not iA Writer-pretty, I am satisfied with the looks, both on the Mac on the iPhone. I switched from the beautiful iAWriter Quattro S font for my drafts, to the regular monospaced Menlo, even if I didn’t have to.5

Drafts is working for me, and it may not work for you. The journey of finding the best app for yourself is what’s interesting, and there are so many great apps available, especially on the Mac.6

I could still use iA Writer, and probably be happy with it, but again, I am a curious tech enthusiast, and trying out all those new apps was a satisfying, energising process.

Please let me know on Twitter or email what is your go-to text editor, why you picked this one, and if you are planning to change it soon.

  1. I kept on accidentally creating new files in my Dropbox instead of my default folder, which Blot automatically converts into blog posts.

  2. Several times.

  3. nvUltra — supposed to be the successor of nvALT — should be released soon.

  4. Just as I was editing this, I suddenly lost the last 5 minutes of edits. I was starting to get mad, and ready to rewrite this post later about another app, but thankfully Drafts saves Versions” of drafts (of course it does), so I could restore all the lost changes.

  5. The iA Writer custom fonts are available to download for free on Github.

  6. On Windows, I like Appy Text.

Gorgeous photographs of empty, usually busy streets

Michael Kimmelman, introducing The Great Empty feature on the New York Times:

The photographs here all tell a similar story: a temple in Indonesia; Haneda Airport in Tokyo; the Americana Diner in New Jersey. Emptiness proliferates like the virus.

The Times recently sent dozens of photographers out to capture images of once-bustling public plazas, beaches, fairgrounds, restaurants, movie theaters, tourist meccas and train stations.

By the time you read this, you will probably already have seen this collection of photos from the New York Times, but they are so beautiful and meaningful that I had to share the link here. My favourite may be Alessandro Penso’s View from the Spanish Step in Rome: it almost looks like the picture has been photoshopped. Truly incredible.

Laughter is the best medicine

Since we could all use a smile these days, I figured it would be a good idea to share a few things that made me genuinely laugh recently.

  1. This video comedian Christina Catherine Martinez made to sell her car on Craigslist.
  2. Judah Friedlander’s one-man show on Netflix: America is the greatest country in the United States.
  3. This episode of Look Around You on the topic of water.
  4. Rob Delaney’s running joke about the karate teacher on Twitter.
  5. This perfect cartoon by Tom Gauld.
  6. And finally this story from The Onion.

I feel better already.

How a new keyboard made me buy the 2020 MacBook Air

Michael Tsai, about the updated MacBook Air announced earlier this week:

In retrospect, I kind of wish I had waited for this instead of buying a 16-inch MacBook Pro. I love the speed and the larger display, but the oversized trackpad and the Touch Bar annoy me on a daily basis.

Two hours after the new MacBook Air was announced, I ordered mine.1 A no-brainer. They had me at New Magic Keyboard.” A new, reliable keyboard is precisely what I’ve been waiting for. Now I can upgrade from my 11-inch MacBook Air bought in early 2015.

New keyboards were long overdue on Mac laptops. Replacing the infamous butterfly keyboards was urgent: Gruber called these keyboards the biggest mistake in Apple’s modern history.” I don’t believe it is an overstatement at all. Hard to say how many people were waiting for Apple to introduce a new keyboard design before upgrading their ageing Macs, but I’m guessing a lot.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro was the first Mac in years to feature a brand new keyboard, and not another updated version of the existing, failing one.

Think about this: the 16-inch MacBook Pro was the first Mac in years to feature a reliable keyboard.

For a company like Apple, focused on design and with such a great reputation in hardware, maintaining — for years — a full line of laptops featuring these keyboard is, for the lack of a better word, crazy. And we are not talking audio jacks or Bluetooth antennas, we are talking about the keyboard on a laptop.

Imagine BMW selling cars with faulty transmissions, making the cars unreliable and a pain to drive for most owners, and then reintroducing more or less the same defective transmission on newer models, year after year.

That’s basically what Apple did with its laptops.2 Also, Apple is the only company making computers running MacOS: if you need or prefer MacOS, you are stuck with one company. That’s why these faulty keyboards are such a drama. If ASUS or Dell had made laptops with terrible keyboards, first they would not have waited years to change their design (the benefits of competition), and second, the complaints would never had been so loud.

With this fresh 16-inch MacBook Pro featuring the new keyboard design, I’m sure many frustrated Mac users simply couldn’t wait any longer to get a new machine. Many bought this laptop as soon as the first reassuring reviews were published; for example, Dieter Bohn at the Verge:

I am actually nervous saying that the keyboard is good now. I have reviewed the majority of the butterfly keyboard MacBooks, and with each iteration, I haven’t minded the key feel. It had a sort of gliding feeling that — to me — was almost worth the clacky sound. But those reviews were all written after a week or two of use, which is not enough time to run into a reliability problem.

I’ve had this 16-inch MacBook Pro for the same amount of time, but I’m calling it fixed regardless because the new switch mechanism under the keys is the more traditional scissor-switch

Regardless of the keyboard, the 16-inch looks like a great machine, but its size and level of performance suggest a specific profile of pro customers. For regular people like myself, it would have been overkill, and also way more expensive than a regular MacBook Air, better suited to my needs.

Had the wait lasted a few weeks longer, and I may have found myself in Michael Tsai’s shoes: wishing to have waited a bit longer. Like I said, I was never going for the 16-inch, but I was seriously considering my next computer to be an iPad. Nothing wrong with an iPad per se, but I feel much more at home with MacOS and the laptop form factor.

Looking at this new Air (on paper for now), I am glad I waited so long, and at the same time, glad I did not have to wait any longer.

  1. I went for the 256 GB, quad-core i5 in Silver: only 50 euros more than the dual-core i3 entry model.

  2. And continues to do: the MacBook Pro 13-inch for instance is still using the butterfly keyboard.

Moving a blog from Squarespace to Blot

Last week, I moved this blog out of Squarespace.

I love Squarespace. It has everything you need to build a beautiful, feature-rich website. You can manage your domain names from it, your newsletter, your analytics, your custom fonts, everything under the same roof and you don’t have to think about hosting, updating the CMS, managing your server, etc. It’s great and easy.

I have been using Squarespace for my personal website for years now, and for quite simple reasons: its customisation possibilities, the fact that is it an all-in-one solution, its famous reliability. At some point, I briefly moved to Svbtle, but eventually went back to Squarespace to be able to have other pages than the blog, and I missed my custom look.

Moving out of Squarespace is something I have been thinking about for a while. For the past few months, I have been looking at solutions like Ghost, Forestry, or Kirby.1 Why? Because month after month a few things remained frustrating with Squarespace.

First of all, the speed of my website was disappointing, despite The Jolly Teapot being merely more than plain text and links. Unfortunately, Squarespace is heavy machinery, and you cannot remove some of its unused parts.

Second, I had issues with one of the most important thing to me: writing. I use iA Writer most of the time to write blog posts, and I edit in Markdown (I don’t use WYSIWYG). Adding and editing Markdown content through the Squarespace website is far from ideal — you get to use a tiny monospace font on top of another window — and it is even worse on the app. You can tell that bloggers are not the customers Squarespace is looking for nowadays.

Third, it felt quite ridiculous to pay almost twenty euros per month for a blog on which I cannot get myself to publish at least three times a week. Same thing with the fancy features of Squarespace: I barely used any, but I was still saying for them.

Considering the other options mentioned above, I was not fully satisfied by them. They all seemed rather technical: managing a server, installing a CMS and having to maintain it up to date felt too complicated, too risky, while going through something like Git was a bit too nerdy, even for me.

That’s when I remembered Blot.

I mentioned Blot already on The Jolly Teapot. I had learned about it via the Dense Discovery newsletter. I gave it another, deeper look this time, and it was something like love at first sight.

Before listing what I love about it, I want to mention how well documented Blot is: it really is a joy to learn about its features, and you can tell the creator, David Merfield, cares alot about its product and the users.

The main Squarespace problems — speed, editing, price — are solved by Blot. You can already tell how fast this website is now. No need to compare it to the previous version to notice the difference, just compare it the other websites you have opened in your other tabs right now: pretty sure most of them are slower. Speed really is something deeply satisfying.2

Blot also costs less than four euros per month, so it is five times less expensive than Squarespace. I only had to give up a few features: Adobe Fonts, native analytics, domain management, and the native iOS app.

First, I do not really look at analytics,3 and I prefer to have zero tracking on my website anyway. Second, I moved my domains to Hover, and third, I switched to system fonts, following precious advice given to me on Twitter. Finally, the Squarespace iOS app was never great to begin with, and with Blot I can directly use my text editor of choice.

Indeed, publishing on Blot consists of adding a text file to your Dropbox. That’s it. Seriously, how cool is that? Type your post using Markdown with any app, save the .txt file it to Dropbox, and voilà. Simple as that.

Overall, the most difficult part was exporting all posts from Squarespace and individually save them as text files. I could not figure out a way to automate this, so I ended up doing it manually, piece by piece, using the export file and this great online tool to convert the code to Markdown. It ended up taking me a few hours in total; too bad Squarespace does not have better export options.4

When it comes to the looks and design, I struggled my way through CSS and HTML. I also did a fair amount of research and spent a lot of time ironing out the little imperfections. I am now pretty pleased with the result. I think it looks best on a mobile screen, especially if you use dark mode (the website will match your OS dark/light setting). Today I am more than satisfied with how The Jolly Teapot looks: I am delighted. I think the MacOS / iOS version is slightly better just because it uses Avenir Next as the font, which to me is just better than the closest Windows fallback font I could find: Leelawadee UI.)

Let me know on Twitter or via email if you see something wrong with the looks, or if you have a font or layout suggestion. In the meantime, you can subscribe to the RSS feed or update it if necessary (still not sure if the move broke the feed or not), and I will do my best to publish something new very soon, and hopefully more regularly. Thank you for reading.

  1. The absence of Tumblr in that list really breaks my heart.

  2. On the topic of speed, a highly recommended article, from Craig Mod: Fast Software, the Best Software.

  3. I will eventually add some analytics, but for the moment, I will focus on the content.

  4. Apparently, Blot will soon have an easy-to-use import tool to avoid such complicated steps, according to David Merfield himself.

The right price to pay for your main computer camera and much more

John Gruber, on Daring Fireball, responding to a Washington Post article arguing that a $1,000 smartphone is a luxury and not much more:

This is the same nonsense we hear about Apple’s phones, post-iPhone X. Yes, phones that cost $1,000 or more are expensive. Yes, that’s outside the budget for most people. But why in the world would anyone argue this is hard to justify”? Phones are, for most people, the most-used computing device in their lives. They are also their primary — usually only — camera. A good camera alone used to cost $500-600.

I found myself nodding in agreement with every word of this post.

Samsung unveils its second modern-era folding device

Samsung just unveiled the Galaxy Z Flip, and MKBHD has a very good summary video about it.

For the Z Flip, I want to repeat what I first wrote about the other vertical folding device of the moment, the Motorola Razr:

With the Razr, you have to unfold the device to properly use it. Beside a quick look at notifications and minimal interactions, there is not much you can do with the new Razr when it is folded. Sure, it is small, fits comfortably in pockets, but when it comes to using it, unfolding it is necessary.

At the time, I wrote that I preferred Samsung’s vision, more accurately the Galaxy Fold’s way of folding: a phone-size device that you can transform into a small tablet, meaning you didn’t have to unfold the device to use it, and be good by only using what I would call the external screen, even if a bit cramped. The unfolded state being an option, a plus.

But today Samsung has another folding device, this time featuring the same approach as Motorola: a phone-size device that you can fold into a more compact form factor, meaning that you have to unfold it every time you want to use it. It is even worse on the Galaxy Z Flip — what an awful name by the way — where the external screen is barely useful, while on the Razr you could at least read the content of notifications. The unfolded state here is not an option, it is a requirement.

Again, like I said in November:

If you thought first generations of Face ID and under-the-screen fingerprint sensors were slow, think about having to physically unfold a device every time you want to take a quick photo, reply to a message, or maybe just glance at your list of groceries.

I believe this is a bad sign that my main gripe with these phones is not their price, not their specs, not even their questionable durability, but something fundamental like the design and the general concept. It seems to me that manufacturers found themselves with this amazing screen technology, and they try to see how they can use it on devices to promote their brands as industry innovators, regardless of the final product purpose.

Freshly brewed links, served by Nicolas Magand © 2013-2020