March 10, 2015

Typed: The New Markdown Editor on the Block

I was having a conversation the other day about different Markdown editors, and a question came up: isn’t any text editor a Markdown editor?”

The answer, technically, is yes, and even though it’s just plain text, it turns out that how your text is presented to you as you write can have a big impact on your workflow and productivity. Work environment is as important to writers as anyone else, so we tend to have a Markdown editor of choice.

Mine may have just changed.

You see, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been working with the beta of Typed, the newest app from Realmac Software, and I think they’ve managed to find a sweet spot between immersive design and functional flexibility that will cater to a variety of preferences.

Let’s dig in!

Surveying the Landscape

Before I talk about Typed in detail, it might help to take a step back and introduce the competition; after all, the minimal writing app market has quickly become a crowded one.

The idea itself is not new, but along with Markdown’s surge of popularity came an increased focus on developing writing environments that stripped away the bloat of traditional word processors in favour of keeping the focus on the words—very much in line with Markdown’s own philosophy.

As a result, I have no fewer than four Markdown editors currently installed, and I could easily install twice as many more if I wanted to. The ones that have earned a permanent spot on my machines are:

  • Byword
  • iA Writer
  • Ulysses

Chances are you may have heard of one or more of these, and there are a number of reviews out there describing each one in detail, so rather than delve into that, I will refer to each only in how it compares to the new kid on the block: Typed.

Opinionated Design

Different Markdown editors are more or less opinionated” about things, for lack of a better word.

iA Writer, for instance, is notorious for giving you zero control over how it looks. The design is expertly researched, but if your writing preferences don’t align with the developer’s, then you’re essentially out of luck. In this instance, I consider the app opinionated about how it expects you to work.

This is even more exacerbated in the Pro version, which has a very specific workflow that will either appeal to you or not—an unfortunate limitation given the extraordinary syntax highlighting tools that make editing a breeze. I’d love to see those make their way to more editors, but for now you’ll have to use Writer Pro to access them, or appeal to a separate app like Hemingway, which provides similar tools.

Meanwhile, something like Ulysses is almost infinitely configurable for both writing and exporting, with an entire style exchange dedicated to letting users share their custom setups, but it only really shines as an editor if you keep all your writing locked away inside it. In other words, it’s opinionated about how you store your documents rather than how you write them.

My previous favourite Markdown editor, Byword, sits in between these two, offering some basic interface customizations and allowing you to organize your documents however you see fit. It’s a very neutral app that adapts to you rather than expecting you to adapt to it, and I’m pleased that Typed falls into this same category.

The Goldilocks of Markdown Editors

Like all minimal writing environments, the goal of Typed is to keep you focused on your work.

It does this by keeping the interface free of distractions, and providing you with a relatively limited set of configuration options designed to help you make yourself at home without allowing you to become obsessive about it.

After all, if you’re tweaking the interface, you aren’t writing.

Configuration Options

In Typed, the level of control sits comfortably between the zero options of iA Writer and the endless customization of Ulysses. It is most comparable to Byword, which allows you to select a typeface, column length, and switch between light and dark backgrounds.

Typed is similar in that you can select a typeface, but only among the six carefully selected choices that it ships with (which includes Courier, but sadly not the superior Courier Prime). On the other hand, you have one more option as far as background, with a neutral parchment colour added as a middle ground between light and dark.

In the app’s preferences, you can also choose to enable or disable window transparency, which makes each window tastefully translucent in keeping with the general aesthetic of OS X Yosemite. I found myself leaving this on as it’s pleasantly subtle.

Text size is determined automatically by default, using the same philosophy that underpins iA Writer’s responsive typography. If you disable Responsive Layout in the text options, you’ll be able to select between three different pre-determined text and column width options.

Writing

Visually, the writing experience is most akin to iA Writer, where interface elements fade away while you’re working, leaving the impression of a completely neutral sheet.

On a fresh document, Typed removes some of the anxiety of a blank page by showing you one of several quotations pertaining to the craft. These can be disabled, but I found them charming.

You can also disable the word count by clicking on it, but I would prefer if the word count faded in and out along with the title bar, like iA Writer’s does. I would also love to see a writing goal feature implemented, similar to the excellent one in Ulysses.

With minimal writing apps, I find myself being more attentive to the small details of the design (for better or worse), as it’s that attention to detail that sets them apart from each other. This sometimes leads to seemingly tiny things being disproportionately bothersome.

For example, I prefer the fact that when iA Writer’s title bar fades away, text becomes visible underneath it, meaning that your work flows smoothly right off the top of the virtual page.

In Typed, this effect does not occur, as the title bar fades but remains invisibly in place, obscuring text underneath it.

Again, this is a minor thing (and it bothers me in Byword too), but when you spend hours working in an app, it’s these kinds of things that tend to stand out once you get used to the broader aspects.

On the positive side, Typed does something magical that I noticed almost immediately and now miss in all of the other editors: when typing headlines, letters appear beautifully as if emerging from the bottom of the line.

The effect is subtle and difficult to describe, but it’s delightful.

Workflow

The most important aspect of any writing environment is not just how it looks, but how its design contributes to your ability to work effortlessly.

Each writer has their own preferences, but there are some apps that have more corners” for you to bump your proverbial knee into as you work. Little speed bumps that interrupt your flow.

The fewer of these, the better, and I’m pleased to say that Typed is among the most streamlined Markdown editors I’ve ever tried.

Zen Mode

Perhaps the most unique feature is Zen Mode, which reminds me very much of one of the very first minimal writing apps I used: Ommwriter.

Like Ommwriter, Typed’s Zen Mode offers a number of different audio environments (selectable via the app’s preferences) that pair the usual full-screen view with some musical accompaniment.

I suspect that this will be extremely valuable to many writers, but it’s one feature that I find impossible to appreciate.

This has nothing to do with the quality of the audio design—which is impeccable—it’s just a consequence of me working primarily as a composer. There’s no such thing as background music” while I’m working because my brain is tuned to focus on the music instead of the writing.

However, it’s worth mentioning that even outside of Zen Mode there are a number of subtle interface sound effects present, not unlike in Realmac’s most famous product, Clear.

These are more sparsely implemented than in Clear though, with just enough presence to lend a delicate tactile feel to navigating the interface. They are never distracting, but you can disable them from the app preferences if they bother you.

Shortcuts

Much of the workflow’s smoothness comes down to the implementation of extensive shortcuts to handle almost any task. This means you almost never have to go digging into menus to do something.

The shortcuts for formatting work the same way they do in most Markdown editing apps, allowing you to set text in italics or bold without having to highlight the word first. Simply having your cursor in the word or adjacent to it will automatically wrap the tags appropriately, which is very convenient and one of the annoying corners” in Ulysses. In Typed, iA Writer, and Byword, you only need to highlight the text if you want to format multiple words.

The hyperlink shortcut is one area where iA Writer bests Typed, and this is because iA Writer not only places the tags and moves your cursor to the parentheses, it will also automatically paste the link in your clipboard if you have one copied. In Typed you must paste this link manually. This is more deliberate but in most cases just means an extra step.

I was hoping that Typed would be the editor that introduces a simple shortcut for handling footnotes in Markdown, but it seems as though that’s a feature I will have to continue waiting for.

Previewing & Exporting

The subtle option icons that fade into view along the left side of your document put the most common non-writing tasks close at hand: text settings, previewing, and exporting.

These all work as you’d expect, and my only complaint is that the preview doesn’t have an export icon—I often preview my document just before exporting, and it would be nice to be able to flip to the preview view and have an export button waiting for me rather than force me to slide back to the editing view.

Of course, you could always use the File menu instead, or the dedicated shortcut for HTML and RTF export, but since there’s a button on the interface for it, I feel it’s fair to expect that it be displayed where it’s most useful.

A New Favourite?

I oscillate between iA Writer and Byword a lot, but I think that if there was ever an editor to displace them as my top choices, Typed would be it.

The only reason I haven’t switched to it full-time is because it still has some stability issues that have persisted through the beta stages and caused unexpected crashes. This happens infrequently and hasn’t caused me to lose any work thanks to the excellent auto-saving, but each crash is an interruption that wouldn’t happen in iA Writer, or Byword.

The folks at Realmac are dedicated to making superbly polished products, so these remaining bugs will be squashed in no time. And once they are, I may just have one Markdown editor installed.

Typed gets my recommendation either way, and I look forward to seeing where the team takes it.

Summary

Here’s a birds-eye view of my thoughts for fans of bullet points:

The Good:

  • Clean, uncluttered, and intuitive design
  • Smart configuration choices
  • Neutral workflow lets you write how you want to
  • Extensive shortcuts
  • The way letters appear when typing a headline!
  • Zen Mode is a quirky but potentially great focus aid…for others

The Bad:

  • Still some stability issues
  • A few interface quirks that could use ironing out
  • No iCloud Documents support

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