The battle of the Markdown enabled, typographic, full screen editors

Update 2011-10-22: Dan informed me with a comment that Byword has received significant updates since my first review. I have therefore updated this review accordingly. Thanks Dan!

iA just released its writing application iA Writer for Mac which is very similar to Byword for Mac (which in turn was very similar to iA Writer for iPad ;)). On the surface, both these apps look quite similar, but there are quite a few differences once you start using the applications. This comparison will be a simple feature by feature comparison.

  • Color scheme: Byword has two, a light and a dark. The iA color theme and the Byword one are basically the same. iA Writer however, uses a paper-like texture as background. Also notable, is that iA Writers cursor is light blue and slightly thicker than a regular cursor (actually, it is just a bit thinner than the size of the gap between two characters).

  • Fonts: iA Writer offers no choice (applies to both font size and font face) by design. Byword gives the user a choice of five preset fonts (Baskerville 17pt, Cochin 17pt, Courier 15pt, Georgia 16pt and Helvetica Neue 15pt), but also allows the user to select any other font using the standard OS X font selection dialogue. iA Writer uses Nitti Light somewhere around 20pt by Bold Monday, the same font as in the iPad version of Writer.

  • Markdown: iA Writer is definitely in the lead here. Markdown is recognized and nice stuff is done with the text in the editor. For example lists using asterisks have their asterisks put in the margin, whereas asterisks used to put emphasis to text result text being underlined. Headings in iA Writer are also highlighted. Markdown support in Byword is in the form of a preview mode. In my experience, I have never had much use of Markdown previews in any application. Syntax highlighting on the other hand, is very nice. iA Writer’s syntax highlighting is also nice as it also has some layout magic thrown in (similar feel to the kind of Hogbay’s TaskPaper).

Update 2011-10-22: Byword has since my first review added syntax highlighting, or rather, de-lighting, as characters part of recognized Markdown syntax are faded into the background. The font weight is also changed depending just like in iA Writer. ByWord does not change the layout (no list indents, or outdent of ‘#’ heading markup). ByWord also added an additional feature which iA Writer does not have — completion of parenthesis, just like TextMate. It also adds them in on either side of a selection. I think this is great!

  • Focus Mode: iA Writer gives you an on-off switch. Byword gives you a choice of different focus modes/forces you to choose. Byword’s focus can be set to either a specific number of lines (1-9 lines) or to a paragraph. iA Writer’s focus mode seems to have some heuristics built on. It defaults to a single sentence, but certain (undocumented) conditions extend the focus to the previous sentence (current sentence is still focused). Scrolling using the trackpad (and mouse I assume) in iA Writer temporarily disables the focus mode, which is resumed as soon as a key is pressed.

Update 2011-10-22: Byword has since my previous review added functionality for temporarily exiting focus mode when scrolling with the trackpad/mouse and then resuming the previously selected focus mode.

  • Full screen mode: Byword has a scrollbar near the text. iA Writer’s full screen scroll bar is located at the right edge of the screen and disappears when you start writing. Choice between two different widths. Both iA Writer and Byword fade the text into the background at the top and bottom of the page. iA Writer’s fade is complete after half a line, whereas Byword’s fade is slower – one line. Also, iA Writer has smaller top and bottom margins – about one line. Byword’s top and bottom margins are about four lines. Byword has three width settings for fullscreen mode; Narrow (40 characters), Medium (58 characters), and Wide (80 characters). iA has one width setting at 64 characters.

Update 2011-10-22: Byword has been updated to also fade the scrollbar, and it seems like fade gradient has also been adjusted to half a line.

  • Windowed mode: Both apps loose their chrome when you start to type. iA Writer retains the exact column width of 64 characters per line. Byword on the other hand, re-flows the text if the window is narrower than the chosen width.

  • On screen information: In full screen mode, iA Writer does not present any information. In windowed mode, iA Writer has a status bar indicating whether Focus Mode is turned on or off, current word and character count and the total reading time of the text.

  • Statistics: Both iA Writer and Byword count the number of words and characters. As mentioned earlier though, only Byword displays them in full screen mode as well as windowed mode. iA Writer also has a reading time estimate.

  • Find/Replace: iA Writer uses a Find/Find & Replace bar at the top of the screen/window. Byword uses a popup in the top right corner of the screen/window. Byword has a search history and an option for case sensitivity. There is no case sensitivity option in iA Writer. Byword highlights all instances of the found word. iA Writer only highlights the current found instance.

  • File Formats: iA only does plain text using the .txt extension. Byword supports both rich text and plain text. If a plain text document uses a Markdown file extension, Byword assumes it is written in Markdown. iA always assumes Markdown.

Update 2011-10-22: iA Writer now supports the .md extension and uses it as its default.

  • Spell checking: iA has turned this off by default. Good choice.

  • Keyboard shortcuts: iA Writer has sentence level movement bound to cmd-left/cmd-right, i.e. the cursor moves to the next and previous sentence using these keyboard commands. Regular line begin and line end are accessed using fn-left/fn-right. Byword keeps the system default of moving to the beginning and end of line when using cmd-left/cmd-right. Both Byword and iA Writer move the cursor to the beginning/end of the paragraph using opt-up/opt-down. The full screen shortcut is the same for both Byword and iA Writer – cmd-. Focus mode shortcuts however are different. iA Writer used cmd-d whereas Byword has several for its many focus modes; cmd- for line focus and cmd-opt-1 for paragraph mode.

Final thoughts

Writeroom was the first dedicated commercial fullscreen text editor which sole feature was to provide a minimal, distraction free writing environment. Several other apps followed which provided similar functionality. I would like to say that Byword is not much different from Writeroom or the applications that followed Writeroom. In my mind, Byword is a Writeroom-like application that uses an iA Writer for iPad inspired theme. This theme however is a very nice and useful theme, and it works quite well. iA Writer for Mac however, feels like a new kind of dedicated fullscreen editor that has evolved from the Writeroom-like applications. iA were the first to introduce focus mode with their iPad app. Byword wanted to do something similar, but iA’s approach is better in my opinion. The Markdown support is also more useful in iA Writer. Byword has support for reading Markdown (and that is not really needed – the whole point of Markdown is for it to be readable even as markup), iA Writer has support for writing Markdown.

Since these are all paid apps, I should mention price. Byword (USD 10) is almost half the price of iA Writer (USD 18). Writeroom is selling for about USD 25 which is USD 7 more than iA Writer at the moment, and USD 15 more than Byword. I think Byword is definitely worth USD 10, unless you already have Writeroom as you can just chose your font and colors in Writeroom to mimic those of Byword unless you want Bywords focus mode and better width settings in window mode. If you want the better focus mode though, I would recommend you choose iA Writer which gives you a really good support for writing Markdown. The one reason not to choose iA Writer would be if you want to write Rich Text, in which case, Byword I think is the best choice (unless you want to choose you own foreground and background colors, in which case you should choose Writeroom).

Update 2011-10-22: Byword has added features which mimic those of of iA Writer. In addition, Byword has parenthesis completion like TextMate which I think is great. Which app you choose is up to you. All apps are great, but which is best for you depends on your needs as always.

Update 2011-11-07: I found this review by Brett Terpstra (Marked, nvAlt) which informed me of some really cool and useful keyboard shortcuts which are not available in e.g. iA Writer. I have started to use them now, and they are great!

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4 thoughts on “The battle of the Markdown enabled, typographic, full screen editors”

  1. Helpful post, though for people stumbling across this now (October, 2011) I would suggest reevaluating ByWord which has added a great deal, refined other things and has become my go-to app of choice in this area.

  2. Of course! It’s good to see these apps being actively developed. There are at least a few very good choices now. Thanks again!

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