Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New breed - conclusions

What works for you may not work for me. At this moment, I'm looking for a storage system focused on plain text, Dropbox and (to a lesser extent) Google. Then, I want to be able to get to my files, to revise them, from any of my platforms. I want a clean editing environment that has a handful of functions readily to hand, that doesn't get in my way.

So based on this quick review, I seem to have settled on a few clear choices. All of them (other than Simplenote, which has its own cloud storage) allow me to edit files sitting in Dropbox, which makes them cross-platform.

Windows: Simplenote (and ResophNotes), WriteMonkey and Writebox. WriteMonkey begins to look like a true, new, writing environment. Focuswriter is another good choice. Note that all of these are free.

Mac: Simplenote (and nValt), Writebox, and Focuswriter. But I'm leaving that platform. Again, all are free.

Linux: Simplenote in browser (Nixnotes as a standalone app), Focuswriter, and Uberwriter. Uberwriter costs $5; the others are free.

iOS: SimpleNote, Daedulus, Writebox, and I still like Plaintext 2. Editorial would be the next step up, but I don't seem to need it, just yet. Only SimpleNote is free. But the others are all very inexpensive.

Android: Simplenote, and Writebox. Again, SimpleNote is free. I didn't get into JotterPad X, which seemed another fine choice, and also offers *local* storage on Android devices. I can also use a combination of the Dropbox app and some built in editor options. Writebox, then, would be used for the creation of new files.

My broader conclusion is that I like the shift to minimalist, plain text, markdown files. I like the look of the apps, I like the robust durability and portability of the files, and I like the new, surprisingly low cost of the applications. While my preferred writing environment continues to be the cross-platform (at least on Windows, Mac, and Linux desktops) Notecase Pro, I find that it's easy to write in these new applications.

What do you think?

New breed - Daedulus

Daedulus is iPad only, and has a unique UI. Instead of the file and folder metaphor, or the two column approach, Daedulus uses "stacks." A stack is like a folder. Sheets can be created within it - and can be flicked around within the stack, or across them in one of the best uses of the touch screen I've seen. I'm writing these reviews in Daedulus, and it's a lot of fun. With the ability to shuffle the sheets, and search across them, this is far better than Plaintext. 

While the basic version is free, to get Dropbox syncing and exporting, you need to shell out some cash. I bought the bundle for $3.99.

Daedulus syncs up with Ulysses III through iCloud, I understand, but I haven't tested that. Although I have a Mac (my son's abandoned laptop), it's not really my basic platform.

It is Dropbox enabled -  the files are syncing to a Daedalus folder within Dropbox.

New breed - Plaintext2

One of the first iPad applications I bought was a version of WriteRoom -- arguably, the Mac app that kicked off the whole minimalist writing movement. 

In general, WriteRoom was a stripped-down screen that offered either one or two columns of text. In the two column version, it offered the title of notes on the left, and a wide panel on the right for the text of the selected entry. WriteRoom could be toggled to one pane - full screen text entry, an immersive environment that left you with nothing but space to write. 

WriteRoom no longer works on my recently updated iOS 8.1.2 iPad 2. So I replaced WriteRoom with Plaintext 2. Frankly, Plaintext 2 is not quite as good. It also isn't free (although it's not expensive). Although it does a fine job of integrating with Dropbox, and makes word counts even handier, it has lost the powerful search function, both within and across notes. Still, for short pieces, and for organizing those pieces into something very like folders, it's a pleasureable, intuitive, plain text and focused writing experience.

New breed - Uberwriter

Uberwriter is a Linux-only, Ubuntu-based markdown editor with some strong export options (odt, pdf, epub, rtf, html, latex source, MediaWikie markup).  It sells for $5.

Other features inclue:

- 'Focus' Mode greys out all but the sentence you are actively working on.
- Fullscreen Mode
- Inline Markdown Highlighting
- Live Word and Character counting
- Preview
- Out of the box math support.

I haven't tried it, but it seems a useful tool, and maybe the only Linux markdown editor of note at this writing.

New breed - SmartDown

The Aflava software, SmartDown, is billed as a minimalist markdown editor for Windows. After its free beta, it had an introductory price of $19.95, down from its retail price of $24.99. (This compares to $14.99 for MarkdownPad for Windows, another contender.)

It has a simple, "sandwich" menu interface, with a pleasant enough gray-blue background. It seems to be close to my essential writer tool chest requirements. 

Note: it appears that I can only edit one file at a time. That's too bad.

It has a full complement of text editing and navigation commands, excepting movement by paragraph ((ctrl-up/down). 

Folding 

SmartDown offers *folding*. Anything that follows a heading (line preceded by hashtags) until another heading of the same level or higher can be collapsed simply by clicking on the along the left edge of the window. I guess this includes any other text, until the next header. That's my primary interest in this program.

Spellcheck

It works as expected: anything it flags has a wavy red underline. The dictionary files came with the program, based on Hunspell and Chromium dictionary files for English.

Focus mode

I went to preferences and turned on this toggle. All it seems to do is highlight the current sentence. Once one finishes the sentence, it grays out. Not terribly useful for me, I think, and not the "hoisting" feature (pulling an outline level up so that it is the only visible section on the screen) I thought it would be.

Summary

I like it. It's fast, easy to learn, easy to use, not a bad place to work. Again, I have a growing preference for elegant software. I suspect there is much more that I could do with this - setting up text snippets, and digging a bit deeper into markdown syntax. 

After having spent some time looking at other "zenware" type writing tools , I think SmartDown is quite good. I can thinking of two things that distinguish it from WriteMonkey: live preview of markdown (on demand, rather than constantly on screen), and no need for .net. That probably increases its portability. But I also think that I probably wouldn't use it. I use outliners for complicated things, or LibreOffice for standard documents, and a variety of other apps on other platforms (Workflowy, SimpleNote). My usual discovery is that I don't actually need more tools. I need to spend more time using them.

New breed - WriteMonkey

This writer's environment is free (although donations are accepted, and there is a fee to get various plug-ins), Windows only, and first requires the download and installation of the 4.0+ .net platform (so needs to be installed in anything up to Windows 7, but is there from 8.0 on) . WriteMonkey is a zip file download; once extracted, it can be copied to anywhere, including a USB drive.

The screen is by default perfectly white paper blank. F1 brings up a host of commands. 

Cursor tests

After running through the usual keystrokes:

- all good. There's one change: Alt-Up arrow moves the whole paragraph up, which I adore. Ctrl-Up moves the cursor by paragraph.
- I like the automatic indenting that happens after the insertion of a hyphen.
- Search and replace is solid - one file at a time, I believe.
- ///Bookmarks may be placed - three hyphens, or Alt-M. And the jump command (Alt-Left or Right) allows one to skip around by headings or by bookmarks.

Text checking

- Automatic word count at lower right corner of screen.
- Spell check is a batch process - F7.

Formatting

F1 pops up the help screen. And there are a bunch of interesting commands like "select next sentence." 

After using the complement of various markdown commands, you can check them by entering Ctrl-Shift-E, then selecting Markdown preview.

Exporting

I seem to be able either to export to various formats, or to copy and paste as, for instance, HTML. Through various plug-ins, I can also get a live preview, as opposed to choosing to export to a print preview.

Other

No code folding, at least as of yet. 

WriteMonkey doesn't allow working with more than one file at a time, howeer, the Ctrl-Tab commands allows the rapid recyling through recent files.

There are some interesting things going on with "repositories" - a section within the existing file? 

Summary

The navigational tools and general aesthetics feel good. Rather than just a markdown editor, it really is a writer's toolkit.

New breed - StackEdit

Stackedit (https://stackedit.io/) is a browser-based, markdown editor. It's simple enough for content creation: type on the left panel, see the result on the right.

It also offers a word count, although I had to look for it. On the lower end of the right panel, there's a vertical three dot icon. Touch that, and a box pops up with a panel including a charcter count. Touch that number, and get a word count. The panel will even stay on the screen. It doesn't seem to have a search function, or navigation.

Moreover, although this stores content in the local browser cache, it can be set to sync with Google Docs or Dropbox. Unlike some of the browser editors I've seen, it works well on mobile platforms. It is free, although it prompts you for a $5 donation.