Best free text editors roundup 2015

Rock ‘n’ roll and cola wars

No joke, I have this reoccurring nightmare about text editors. Really it’s probably better described as a nightmare about acceptance and looking cool with other serious web designers of the world, but text editors are a part of it (and so is coffee and Belle & Sebastian and a giant accordion that smells like pipe smoke — another story, another time). In the dream, we’re all wearing swanky name tags with our name and our text editor of choice printed in crystal clear #333333 Helvetica. See what I mean? Web designer’s conference.

In the dream, everyone’s using text editors I’ve never heard of and talking to one another about how it’s changed their lives and helped them focus on being the creative geniuses they always knew they were. Me? My tag says Notepad. Which drives me nuts. I don’t own a PC and I’m too scared to markup anything without customized syntax highlighting with just the right colors. How in the world did I get Notepad? And how can I be so out of the loop that I’ve never heard of Cheetah or Rocket Toaster or American Ultra?

When the dream wraps up, I’m usually in the corner of the conference room feeling sorry for myself and watching designers point fingers at me and giggle amongst themselves.

Which text editor is right for you?

Why do I bring this up? Two reasons. First, my subconscious has a good point: there are a lot of text editors out there and the people who use them are as varied as the patrons at your local coffee shop. And second, it’s all a matter of preference.

I do know a couple of web designers who use Notepad to piece together a site (not just in worse-case scenarios). There’s no need to mock the few who have no idea what UltraEdit is and think that TextWrangler has something to do with secret messages on the back of blue jeans. If it helps you ship more creative work a little bit faster, good for you. Who cares what the rest of us think?

With that in mind, I’m taking a slightly different approach to covering the best free text editors for 2015. Consider this an introduction of sorts. If you’ve heard of these editors, great. Revisit them. If you haven’t heard of one of them, check it out. I’m grouping them in a way that makes sense to me (said the guy that has dreams about giant accordions and designer thugs), but don’t let that stop you from trying them all. I have and they’re all legit.

Oh. And they’re all free and run on multiple platforms. So there’s that.

For hipsters: Codeanywhere

So new you probably haven’t heard about it

codeanywhere-editor-screenshot

This is the editor I’ve turned to for web development for the past six months or so, and here’s why: I can use Codeanywhere on any modern computer or tablet with an Internet connection. Like it says on their website, Codeanywhere is like Google Docs for web development. I’ve found myself in multiple situations when I needed to format a new HTML newsletter or update a web-based presentation and I didn’t have my MacBook with me. No worries. I borrowed a PC, opened Codeanywhere in a web browser, and got to work.

Codeanywhere has all of the basic features we know and love in a good text editor: syntax highlighting, code hints, auto complete, code folding, tabs, file view.

 

Where do you save your files in the cloud? Up to you. FTP, Google Drive, Dropbox, or Amazon S3. There’s more to it than the basics. You can use Codeanywhere as a full-blown IDE and connect to your server using SSH. Visit their website to see how far you can take it.

  • Platforms? Web
  • Is it really free? To start. You can upgrade for more goodies.
  • Interesting tidbit? Codeanywhere was part of Techstars Boston class of 2014. Techstars is a mentorship-driven entrepreneurial program in cities all over the world. They’re working hard to help great ideas (like Codeanywhere) see the light of day.

For tinkerers: Atom

If only this came in coffee and turquoise

atom-editor-screenshot

What I love about Atom is that it’s beautiful, even adorable, out of the gate.

Atom works great as a basic web editor — but you can hack it beyond recognition if you want to.

 

Everything is customizable: fonts, colors, buttons, layout. You can do the same thing with other editors, but I’ve never seen one make it so easy. If you know some JavaScript and CSS, you can customize your interface and change how Atom works by creating different packages.

Not interested in doing the hacking on your own? You have access to hundreds of themes and packages within Atom. Want a Batman-inspired theme or one based on Google’s Material Design guidelines? They’re a click away. Need a color picker or a simple way to run Ruby test files? Click away. No need to download zip files and drag them into a folder and relaunch the application. You can install and extend Atom from within the application.

If you love to tinker, you’ll love Atom.

  • Platforms? Mac, Linux, Windows
  • Is it really free? Yep.
  • Interesting tidbit? Atom is a desktop application that uses Google Analytics to report on the most used features. I think that’s rad. If it freaks you out and you think they’re going to track you to your favorite Greek restaurant or publish your latest CSS3 master hack, you can disable it.

For designers: Brackets

CSS3 for you and me

brackets-editor-screenshot

If you only remember one thing about Brackets, this is it: Brackets loves Photoshop.

 

See, you can do all of the basic stuff with Brackets — and do it well: edit HTML and CSS, configure your syntax highlighting, extend it with plugins. The reason Brackets is so great for designers is that it can pull design information straight from PSD files. Add your PSD file to the project space and you can create a CSS file using the built-in contextual code hints. No more opening Photoshop, figuring out the color, going back to your editor, typing in the hex, and going back to Photoshop to figure out the width of your columns. It’s all built in.

Even if you’re not a Photoshop kind of designer, Brackets is one the best text editors out there. It’s lightweight, it’s clean, and it’s customizable. There are new releases and new extensions released every three to four weeks. With that kind of active development, I’m sure we’ll see some other cool stuff for web designers in the upcoming year.

  • Platforms? Mac, Linux, Windows
  • Is it really free? Yep.
  • Interesting tidbit? Brackets is an open-source editor created by Adobe — the same company that’s behind some of the most popular web development tools of all time: Dreamweaver, Photoshop and Illustrator. I don’t know when or why they decided to release such a great editor and keep up the development work on it, but I’m grateful they did.

For writers: Dillinger

Focus, focus, focus

dillinger-editor-screenshot

I am, perhaps unfortunately, making a couple of broad generalizations about writers by recommending Dillinger. The generalizations? One, that writers have a hard time focusing on their job. We like to distract ourselves with formatting copy or tinkering with our text editors. And two, we tend to lose things. Especially things we try to save to our computers. Dillinger helps solves both of these problems.

Dillinger is another web-based editor that uses Markdown to generate HTML. What’s Markdown? It’s basically shortcode HTML. I won’t go into a lot of detail about Markdown here, but trust me, it’s a lot easier than wrapping tags around all of your content. It’s not necessarily an editor you’d use for a full-blown web application, but it’s perfect for writing content for your website.

Dillinger is one of the best and well-known Markdown editors available.

 

It has a beautiful and simple interface. It generates a real-time preview of your content. And it makes it super-simple to save (Dropbox, Github, Google Drive, OneDrive) and export your final draft (HTML or PDF).

  • Platforms? Web
  • Is it really free? Yep.
  • Interesting tidbit? If this is your first introduction to Markdown — thank you John Gruber—I hope you like it. It’s great for web writing. I’ve produced more HTML in the past three years using Markdown than any other means, including this article. Check out this site and this site for more information. Welcome to the tribe.

For utilitarians: Vim

Simple and clean and just works

vim-editor-screenshot

Ah yes, good old Vim. The standby. The reliable uncle who just does what we need it to do. A version of Vim has been around since the early ‘90s.

What does that mean? It means that it’s stable. It means it has lots and lots of potential add-ons, depending on what you’re looking for. It means there’s a large community built around it with lots and lots of support available. It means it will probably be around forever. And it means that if you decide to invest a lot of time and energy into learning Vim and all its little power features, you’re not likely to move onto something else.

You don’t have to become a Vim master to make it work for you.

 

You can use Vim in a pinch if you need to edit files via SSH on your web server. It’s pretty straightforward once you get past the command vs. insert mode, but you’ll want to really learn how to use it if you want to take advantage of its features.

As far as features go, you can make Vim do what you want: syntax highlighting, code-folding, versioning, custom congratulation messages when you save your files. Download it and play around with it, you’ll see what I mean.

  • Platforms? Mac, Linux, Windows, Amiga, OS/2
  • Is it really free? Yep.
  • Interesting tidbit? Vim is one of those recursive acronyms that’s been really popular with open-source developers. It’s when the acronym is part of the acronym. Very meta, I know. But I like it. It makes me feel like I’m in on a geeky little secret. Vim is an acronym for Vi Improved.

What do you think? Any Notepad and TextEdit diehards out there? Or maybe you’re still swimming in the shell prompt and sipping on Pico and Nano poolside? Anyone else suffering from nightmares about elitist designers? Let us know in the comments.

Shawn Pfunder
Shawn's been working with freelancers, entrepreneurs, and business owners for more than 20 years. He's consulted companies large and small on communication, social media, and marketing strategies. At heart he's a small-business superfan. He believes that working for yourself is one of the most courageous and creative moves anyone can make. Currently, he's the Editor in Chief for The Garage. When he's not hanging out with solopreneurs, Shawn loves to write, run, and travel. He's passionate about teaching and he's convinced that a good story is the best way to do it — especially if it involves El Caminos, potato fields, and really loud music.