I didn’t use to be a fan of Markdown, a plain-text syntax that’s designed to be easy to write and read while letting you easily publish to HTML. I write to HTML for several blogs and websites, but I’ve been fluent enough in that language over the years to be comfortable typing the code directly. (I also use a number of TextExpander shortcuts to handle some of that code for me, so I don’t need to remember the details of certain tags.) In addition, Markdown handles only a subset of HTML tags for styling text, and I often need other, more-complex tags. But if you’ve read my reviews of Mac writing apps here at Macworld, you may have noticed that I’ve slowly been coming around to Markdown—for much of what I write, it does what I need with little complication.
These days, many Mac writing apps support Markdown, though they handle Markdown code in different ways, and they offer different approaches to HTML previews—from showing a preview in a separate window, to showing text and previews side by side in the same window.
The Soulmen’s $45 Ulysses III (Mac App Store link) takes a different tack, showing styling right inline with your text: When you apply styling to a bit of text—such as the italics on the word “with” just above—Ulysses shows the text in the style you’ve applied, with the style-syntax characters displayed in a lighter or darker color (depending on which theme you use).
However, Ulysses masks some Markdown syntax, such as the code for links and image URLs. For example, if you insert the code to place an image in your document, you see an IMG tag, but you can’t see any caption you may have included. Since the point of Markdown is to let you write in plain text, in these situations Ulysses introduces a level of abstraction that separates you from some of the actual Markdown syntax, which some people will find more difficult to grasp than when using other text editors.
Ulysses III is much more than just a Markdown editor, though, as it includes a good number of organizational features. The most prominent is a sidebar that allows you to organize parts of your documents as separate files called sheets, and store them in folders. Ulysses III extends its predecessor’s capabilities by letting you save to iCloud.
For those still learning Markdown syntax, you can press Command–9 to show or hide a Markdown cheat sheet. The app also offers convenient popovers that make it easy to add links or image tags, though it took me a while to figure how to add a footnote within Ulysses, as that isn’t in the list. (Footnotes aren’t part of standard Markdown. However, Ulysses supports Markdown XL, an extended version of Markdown that includes syntax for footnotes.)
By default, Ulysses presents a three-pane view that displays your locations and folders on the left; the documents in the selected location in the middle; and the editor on the right. You can instead opt for a two-pane view that shows only the files in the selected location and the editor; or choose an editor-only view. You can also enable full-screen mode, though this mode shows only the editor—I’d like to have a way to view the sidebar, too, when going full screen.
Ulysses provides multiple themes for how text and Markdown characters are displayed. You can tweak these themes to fit your preferences, and you can download others from the Ulysses website. You can also add keywords—which function much like tags—to sheets within Ulysses, and you can create Filters in the sidebar. Filters are like smart folders in the Finder, and you can configure them to look for specific text anywhere in a sheet, or to find sheets with specific tags.
Ulysses III also offers a preview window (File > Preview) that lets you view your formatted text in a number of rich-text, HTML, and ePub styles. You can even add your own CSS file to preview a sheet as it would display on your own website or blog. From this window, you can copy the text’s equivalent HTML, send that HTML to Safari to view it there, or Save the HTML.
However, this preview window doesn’t look like it’s part of the app, and because Ulysses sheets are not separate text files, you can’t use a third-party Markdown-preview tool such as Marked 2, at least not the way I want (to show a preview that updates as you work). You can only export a sheet to Marked 2, and you have to repeat this procedure each time you want to view your changes. I also don’t like the fact that, when scrolling, if you reach the end of the current sheet, Ulysses switches its edit view to the “next” sheet. This behavior can be very confusing, as you have to figure out why you’re looking at text that’s not in the sheet you thought you were editing.
The app also has an Export feature that brings up a popover offering export options. (I found it odd that this command is hidden in the Windows menu, instead of the File menu where you’d expect it; its toolbar button also looks more like a Share button than one for exporting.) As with the preview window, this popover lets you easily copy your text as its equivalent HTML, which is great if you want to post that code to a blog, save it, or send it to another app.
When you create a new document in standard, three-pane mode, the editor shows a gray area only a few lines long; I’d prefer that the editing area be gray all the way down. Ulysses also doesn’t display statistics in a header or footer, but in a popover that you can tear off if you want it to be visible all the time (though it takes up more space than a footer would). You can set word-length goals, and a small circle shows your progress, but I think in numbers, not in degrees. But these are minor complaints.
Ulysses III is a feature-rich tool that’s very different from the many text editors I’ve reviewed. It’s an excellent tool for writing in Markdown, and its organizational features—the sidebar, folders, and filters—make it a great app for those who write a lot and want to have quick access to everything they’ve written. Using Ulysses means buying into that workflow, however, so if you’d prefer a file-centric approach, Ulysses III is not for you. But if like Ulysses’s location/folder/sheet approach, this may be the text editor you’ve long been looking for.
[Updated 7/3/2014, 2:30pm, to clarify procedure for using an external preview app, and to note that the statistics popover can be made always visible.]