Byword is a solid text editor for Markdown-focused writing
By Kirk McElhearn
At a glance
Among the recent glut of minimalist text editors for OS X, Byword (Mac App Store link) stands out by focusing on creating documents using Markdown, a markup language that lets you write for the Web using plain text and a simple formatting syntax. Byword does let you write in rich text (RTF)—with all the regular styles of a word processor—but many of its features are designed specifically to make it easier to work with Markdown.
Within its no-frills window, Byword offers only two themes: a light one (black on a light-gray background) and a dark one (light gray on a black background). You can choose your preferred font, but you can’t otherwise tweak these themes—for example, if you prefer a different font color or background. (WriteRoom, a similar program, lets you make your own themes.) The default appearance is elegant, though, with Byword’s window showing nothing but a title bar on top with buttons for Find and full-screen mode, along with word and character counts at the bottom.
Byword’s Typewriter Mode keeps the line you’re typing at the center of the screen, while Paragraph or Line Focus dims all text other than the current paragraph or line, respectively, letting you focus on what you’re writing. (I especially appreciate Paragraph Focus, as iA Writer, a similar app, can focus only on the current sentence.) Full-screen mode works as expected, showing your text against a uniform background that fills your screen.
Byword’s Format menu includes options for lists, quote level, paragraph indent, and more, so you don’t have to remember the Markdown syntax for these styles. And a neat feature automatically closes quotation marks, parentheses, and brackets—type one such character, and the program immediately adds its counterpart, inserting the cursor between the two. I like this feature, but if you don’t, there’s unfortunately no way to disable it.
Another feature unique to Byword is an iOS-style popover that you can invoke while in RTF mode to add styles. Oddly, you need to use a keyboard shortcut to display this palette, so if you know the shortcuts for formatting text as bold and italic, or to increase and decrease font size, using the palette doesn’t save you time. A way to invoke the feature with a gesture or mouse button would make it more useful. Byword does offer a number of keyboard shortcuts for Markdown styles, letting shortcut users save a lot of time.
If you work with Markdown, you’ll like Byword’s ability to display a preview of what your document will look like when converted to HTML. However, you can’t edit in preview mode, and you can’t view that preview in a separate window, so you end up switching back and forth between editing and preview modes. In addition, if you don’t use Markdown, you’ll wish you could disable Byword’s automatic highlighting of Markdown formatting characters—those characters will always appear in medium gray in editing mode.
You can export Byword documents to HTML, PDF, RTF, Word, or LaTeX. However, unlike with iA Writer, Byword doesn’t offer a companion iOS app or iCloud syncing between Macs.
Though not ideal for non-Markdown writing, if you use Markdown and want a minimal tool to write with, Byword is a good choice, despite its limited selection of themes.