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Perfect Text Editors for Coders

by Ron White
04/20/2004

Most of us, if we bought a pair of shoes that didn't fit, would buy a different pair that did. Not Microsoft. If the first pair of shoes doesn't fit, the creator of Windows must reason, then the thing to do is buy a second pair that doesn't fit either.

That's silly, of course, but no sillier than the inclusion in Windows of both Notepad and WordPad, two applets that prove two inadequate text editors don't equal one, single competent editor. The bottom line: neither of the puny programs lets you open more than one document at a time. They limit the size of files you can open. They have no spellchecker and only limited formatting. From there, they pretty much get even worse.

To the rescue: one freeware and two shareware editors that outperform Notepad and WordPad combined and add special features for writing code. For the person who may actually like something about Windows' two Pads but needs just a bit more, there is metapad. More demanding writers and coders will prefer EditPad -- Lite or Pro-- while TextPad awaits the code jockey who must occasionally write home to Mom.

metapad

metapad is a throwback to the early days of shareware, when a person would get tired of a program's quirks and just sit down and write a better one. Then the programmer passed this work along freely for the betterment of humankind. metapad's creator, Alexander Davidson, sees it as a Notepad replacement that may not improve on all of Notepad's underachievements, but that corrects the most grievous offenses when it comes to the user interface.

Davidson's decision not to revamp Notepad into a do-all editor pays off. Written in ANSI C, metapad is about the same size as Notepad and at least as fast. It boasts enough configuration choices, such as Alt-number keystrokes for pasting common phrases like an address, to let you mold it to your idea of how it should work. If you fail to see the advantages of metapad's semitransparent writing surface, banish it with a couple of clicks. (If you do see the advantages, let me know what they are.)

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metapad is not the editor to die for, but it has an eccentric charm. Having proclaimed that the program's goal is to banish Notepad forever, metapad's instructions go on to tell you how to link metapad to Notepad to take advantage of Notepad's better printing abilities.

Even if you don't like to mess with what Microsoft hath given unto you, you owe it to yourself to give metapad a try. It's free, after all. If metapad is more wildness than you can handle, try metapad LE (Light Edition). LE sacrifices some of the interface improvements in the heavy edition in exchange for a bit more speed. Too small a bit, really, to justify giving up such bell and whistles as no limits on file size, multiple undo/redo, and drag-and-drop text editing.

TextPad

If metapad is not enough, if you want a Notepad that's still faster, still cleverer, look at TextPad. This editor is in a different universe from the grocery-list world that Notepad and metapad inhabit. TextPad includes typo-fixes-as-you-type, unlimited undo and redo, spellcheckers in 10 languages, macros, customizable toolbars, text formatting designed more for organization than paper-dressing, as well as keyboard and command emulators for Microsoft Office users and even those still enamored of WordStar.

Other bells and whistles make up an environment that beckons programmers who write in anything from C++ to dBase to write their code in colorful style. TextPad uses colors to highlight different syntax in HTML. Multiple workspaces allow you to save and retrieve different combinations of documents as groups. Tabs on documents let you move among them easily. A side window provides your choice of a clipboard history, HTML tags or characters, ANSI characters, or a few other collections of handy shortcuts.

Give TextPad a try. It's $27 to register it, but the unregistered version is not crippled and runs without a time limit, even if it does bug you with nag screens.

EditPad

TextPad could be overkill. If you're a Goldilocks among text/code editors, you'll find EditPad Pro to be just right. It has the numbered lines and colored text syntax to bring order to the most obscure coding in a dozen of the software languages most in vogue, including Java, Eiffel, Python, and HTML.

You can create your own color schemes. You can also add menu tools, such as your programming language's compiler or interpreter. EditPad makes it simple to compile and run your program without leaving EditPad itself, which can also capture the program's output or error messages in a separate text document.

If programming is something you leave to others, EditPad has features -- comfort features -- that make those used to a word processor feel at home without the feature bloat of Word and WordPerfect. EditPad's use of nicely color-coded tabs to identify the multiple documents you can have open at the same time is found in other editors, but EditPad does it better, making the tabs seem as familiar a part of the interface as the menus. EditPad's ability to save different groups of files as "projects" helps keep code separated from more mundane text.

You have easy access to the full range of fonts on your computer, something TextPad and metapad lack. You can compose a love note with curly script and little red hearts as easily as you can lay down an SQL query. An excellent spellchecker and the ability to compose and send email make it easier still.

After giving EditPad Pro a test drive, you'll find the price of making it an honest program is stiffer than the others -- $40. If that's too stiff, an EditPad Lite is free. You do give up the spellchecker and some of the coder-friendly tools, making it marginally better than Notepad, which is where we came in.

metapad

PROS: Small, fast, fixes Notepad's most obvious lackings.

CONS: Lack fancy formatting for code or normal correspondence.

Download at Liquid Ninja; free.

MetaPad
metapad has a sparse, no-nonsense look and relatively few settings to massage. But the settings it does have are well-chosen for customization.

TextPad

PROS: Do-it-all code editor with decent power for ordinary documents.

CONS: The complexity boggles at times.

Download at TextPad; lite version free, full version $29.60.

TextPad
TextPad's most valuable feature is a table of HTML functions that paste into a code page with a click.

EditPad

PRO: Good blend of coding tools and helpful features for everyday and business writing.

CONS: You have to pay for the best features.

Download at EditPad Pro; Lite version free, Pro version $39.95

EditPad Pro
EditPad's preference settings are detailed enough to tune the editor to your own idiosyncrasies.

Ron White is a longtime technology journalist and author of numerous books, including How Computers Work.


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