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Linux text editors: Do any make the grade?

Our exacting editor test-drives a whopping nine Linux text editors. Which ones crossed the finish line ahead of the pack?

August 17, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Linux buffs tend to scoff at one of the major reasons that Windows users like me haven't switched yet: We don't want to give up our favorite applications. With countless open-source options, plus a rising number of commercial apps for Linux, their argument goes, we can certainly find a replacement for whatever software we're running on XP or Vista.

But, Linux fans, it's not so simple.

"Replacement" applications don't always offer all the features we'd have to give up. Sometimes it takes multiple apps to fill in for a Windows-only favorite. Maybe the Linux alternative isn't as slick. Or maybe it just works differently -- which doesn't make it better or worse than its Windows counterpart, but it does mean that we have to relearn how to get things done. That's not a trivial obstacle for office workers whose time is one of their most precious commodities.

I spend a good chunk of keyboard time dealing with text in varied forms, so one of my top requirements is a robust application that can elegantly handle plain ASCII text and rudimentary HTML. That means offering functions such as macros and spell check and manipulations like "change case" or "join lines," all while treating files as plain text rather than junked-up, word-processed formats.

There are a couple of excellent, inexpensive programs that do all this in the Windows environment, including NoteTab Pro, which I've been using for several years; UltraEdit is another. Alas, neither has been ported to Linux. (UltraEdit's publishers said via e-mail that they're "actively scheduling for this for a future release" but declined to estimate when the software would be available. NoteTab's folks said the company has no plans for a port.)

In " Living (and dying) with Linux in the workplace," I detailed my struggle to get NoteTab Pro up and running on Linux. As it turns out, using CrossOver Linux Professional, which is designed to run Windows applications on a Linux system, did the trick. (My error, a helpful reader explained after looking at my screenshot, was trying to use a trial version of NoteTab Pro instead of the full, paid version.)

Still, I'd prefer to find a text editor that's meant to run on Linux. After my article was posted, readers offered a slew of suggestions for replacement editors. It's taken a while, but I've finally downloaded, installed, tested and rated nine free applications.



Faceoff: Nine Linux text editors


Since you may well have different requirements for a text editor than I do, I included scores for ease of learning and use, look and feel, content editing (spell check, search and replace and the like), simple HTML editing (adding bold, italic, links and so on) and customization (How easy is it to create macros? How powerful and flexible are they?).

Alas, of the nine programs I test-drove, only a couple seemed designed for the niche I want to fill. The good news, though, is that I found a lot of solid applications that did pieces well -- and some of those pieces may be all you need. If you're only looking for some of the functionality I require and need, say, just a lightweight text editor, or if you don't mind using a couple of apps instead of just one, there are some intriguing alternatives out there.


From the Paleozoic era

These longtime Unix apps still have devotees (mostly from the days when not much else was available). I'm not among them.

  Emacs

Emacs offers a lot of tools, but the interface is far from intuitive. (Click for larger view.)
Emacs
Emacs' tag line calls it "the extensible, customizable, self-documenting real-time display editor." Note there's nothing in there that touts "easy to use" or "intuitive" -- and with good reason. This is not an editor for those who like WYSIWYG software; nor is it one for someone who wants writing tools such as spell check.

Emacs has been around on Unix for decades, and it still has devotees who like it for programming. I can see why, based on its listing of features: "controlling subprocesses; automatic indentation of programs; viewing two or more files at once; editing formatted text; and dealing in terms of characters, words, lines, sentences, paragraphs and pages, as well as expressions and comments in several different programming languages."

However, I'd characterize the UI as actively hostile.



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