What text editor should I use?
What is a text editor, and why does it matter which one I use?
Text editors are programs that type simple text without the sort of formatting a word processor will so rudely slip in. No comic sans, no forced margins, no line breaks (I just tested this with a line of Python, and yep, I can make a line of code that will wrap around the planet if I want). A text editor is just you and your ASCII, absent bells, whistles, or beauty.
As you start out programming, you’ll quickly find your text editor is your best friend. Or your frenemy, depending on how coding is going that day. It’s essential to start figuring out which text editor works best for you. Like most tools, the basics of every text editor are the same. They all have a place to interface text (because, of course), most feature syntax-based color coding, virtually all feature hot keys and intuitive text features to lighten the load of a long coding project.
As you start out programming, you’ll quickly find your text editor is your best friend. Or your frenemy, depending on how coding is going that day. It’s essential to start figuring out which text editor works best for you.
There are already plenty of blog posts on what kinds of text editors to use, but I happen to be retaking One Month’s Python course at the moment, and felt like this would be a good opportunity to test out a few different ones (despite the fact that Eric expressly tells us to work with Sublime Text; we students are rebels).
I’ll mostly be looking at Mac-based editors (or cross-platform editors that work on Mac), because that’s the type of machine I’m working on. When you’re starting out coding, it’s also best to give yourself a little flexibility in terms of the tools you use; you don’t want to limit yourself to working on one platform because you never know where you’ll be working.
I’m also going to try to focus on editors that will be good for beginners, since that’s where I am with coding (and that’s where we all need to start out).
(A brief aside before we start: I am ethically obligated by the higher order or people who write about text editors to point out at this point that text editors aren’t the same as IDEs or Integrated Development Environments. IDEs are more like Swiss Army Knives, whereas text editors are like screwdrivers. Word screwdrivers. A couple of the text editors we look at will tread the boundary between these.)
Sublime Text: $70
This is the first editor I wrote code in, and there’s a soft spot in my heart for it. It passes what I think is the most essential test for any text editor, which is that it’s intuitive to start using. You just open up a file as you would with any interface, and can begin coding.
The extra features with it are pretty bog standard things like code folding (What’s code folding, I wondered, can I make code origami? Imagine my disappointment when I found out it just hides lines of code when I’m not actively working on them. Useful, but no cranes for me.). I like the dive in and begin aspects of Sublime Text. If you’re used to typing in a word processor, Sublime Text is a pretty solid introductory text editor.
If you’re used to typing in a word processor, Sublime Text is a pretty solid introductory text editor.
There’s also an open secret with Sublime Text: While the program isn’t free, it comes with an unlimited trial period. You should absolutely buy a copy if you love using it, but I like that there’s no deadline bearing down on me to make that decision.
I’ll be honest: Vim scares the crap out of me. If Sublime Text is the cozy programming home I feel comfortable putting my feet up in, Vim is an enormous mansion set high atop a hill with a heavy iron gate between it and me. even downloading and installing Vim is fairly difficult, which makes it a tough text editor to touch if you’re new to programming.
That’s not to say that Vim is bad — far from it. Vim is a great text editor; it’s free, heavily customizable, has a huge community of users and a long history of use. You can make Vim work the way you want it to. It is so useful, in fact, that it’s occasionally compared to an IDE, because it has tools aplenty. Vim just won’t hold your hand. In fact, it sort of slaps your hand away while shouting at you “Get up! Learn to walk on your own!”
If Sublime Text is the cozy programming home I feel comfortable putting my feet up in, Vim is an enormous mansion set high atop a hill with a heavy iron gate between it and me.
All those tools, all that customization means there’s a pretty steep learning curve, which makes it kind of a nonstarter for a beginning programmer. In fairness, Vim’s designers are up front about its difficulty; personally, I’ll save real play on this for when I’m writing more advanced code.
Coda: $99; One Week Trial
I really liked playing around with Coda. This is another tool that feels more like it’s leaning toward an IDE than a text editor; in fact, despite what they say on their website, I’d go so far as to call it an IDE. It’s heavy on features like a built in Terminal interface, SSH connectivity, controls for pushing code automatically to a hub. It’s not exactly bells and whistles-free, but a lot of the features are easy enough to figure out and are essential tools for developing a web app.
I’d go so far as to call Coda an IDE. It’s not exactly bells and whistles-free, but a lot of the features are easy enough to figure out and are essential tools for developing a web app.
My favorite aspect of Coda, which you won’t find in almost any text editor, is a preview button that lets you see what the code you’re writing will look like live. This is a major time saver compared to pushing code, running it on a server, failing, pushing again, etc.
There’s definitely a bit of a learning curve for using Coda, so if you’re just looking for a tool that lets you dive in and start writing some code, this is probably not the way to go, but with a little experimenting, it has some pretty powerful features you’ll want anyway. Worth the investment if you’re an intermediate coder who’s going to be sticking with it for a while.
Basically, it’s like getting a knife that you can later turn into a scalpel and then into a LASIK tool.
Atom is a groovy text editor to work with. Its interface has a similar feel to Sublime Text’s, but the iconography of their file structure is ever so slightly more intuitive. It also has a convenient hotkey to list all available command functions. What makes Atom so cool to use, though, is that it’s open source, completely (and easily) hackable, and entirely user friendly. There isn’t any learning curve with it — you can dive right in and start entering code — but as you become more advanced as a programmer, you can make Atom a more complex text editor for your needs. Basically, it’s like getting a knife that you can later turn into a scalpel and then into a LASIK tool.
So which of these is the best?
From my perspective, which is to say the perspective of a novice, a good text editor is one that allows me to dive in and start coding, while also giving me room to grow and get more experience as part of a broader community. It’s what I like to call the bike shop problem: when you walk into a bike shop for the first time, odds are pretty good it’ll be a bit intimidating with all the experts walking around talking the talk. Odds are good you just want to get on a bike and go. The rest of the stuff you can learn later as you become more of an expert, but if you need all that expertise just to get on the bike, you’ll never get started.
It’s what I like to call the bike shop problem: when you walk into a bike shop for the first time, it’ll be intimidating with all the experts walking around talking the talk. If you need all that expertise just to get on the bike, you’ll never get started.
With this criteria, Atom is the best program on this list for letting you get started and also giving you room to grow. Atom has a large community of users, just like a more intimidating program like Vim, but it also gives me room to start working with it right away. It’s intuitive and easy-to-use, but also expansive and flexible to the needs of its programmer.
To me, this is a great feature of any program, but especially one that I know I need to use as a long-term tool. Part of the frustration of working with a tool is the FOMO of it all. Am I really getting the maximum functionality out of my text editor? Is this the best possible tool I could be using? Atom clears that up by letting me build from a simple text editor to a more complex one.