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Hands-On

Hands on: BBEdit 12 is the Swiss Army Knife of text editors for the Mac

The more of a programmer's kind of brain that you have, the more you will get from this app but the sheer range and power of its tools is compelling. AppleInsider dives in.




Everything looked so easy. We wanted to explain how to pick the best writing tool in the spectrum of options from text editors to word processors —and we did. Yet there was one example that just stubbornly refused to slot neatly into one spot in that mix of purpose, features and usability. Also there was one developer who suggested that their app has broader, deeper and perhaps more specific appeal than we'd said.

For BBEdit 12.1.5 from Bare Bones Software can be the most basic note taking app you'll ever use but in the next moment it can do the most powerful text manipulation.




That power makes this compelling for any writer but it is definitely designed with programmers in mind and that can be a barrier.

You just can't touch it for little geeky features, either. So if you type an opening speech mark in BBEdit, the app immediately adds a closing one just the other side of your cursor. It's the tiniest thing but it's a treat and there are bigger delights.

Our favorite is particularly simple. but we haven't seen it in other text editors. If you copy a lot of text before you open BBEdit then you have the option to create a new document with that text already in it. This saves you just about no time at all compared to opening a new document and pasting the text in, yet in practice it makes a huge difference.

The speed and convenience of it makes BBEdit feel fast and responsive.




Then you can get BBEdit to compare two documents to find the differences in them. If you can't remember where you wrote a certain phrase or referred to a certain person, you do a search —but BBEdit will look across all your documents rather than just the present one.

Speaking of searching, BBEdit supports regular expressions.




You're used to Find and Replace, you've done that a thousand times, but every once in a while it's not good enough. You've been landed with someone else's academic paper and it constantly cites author names the wrong way. It has them listed throughout as Shakespeare, William and you want William Shakespeare.

That might be okay if he were the only author mentioned in the paper or if he only came up twice. What you've been saddled with, though, is countless authors mentioned countless times.

Find and Replace won't cut it —but regular expressions will. You have to learn the codes and symbols of regular expressions but when you do, you can tell BBEdit to search in certain parts of the document for these names, find the comma between them and then effectively reverse the order.

The first time you do it, you'll spend longer figuring out how to use regular expressions than it would take you to do the work by hand. However, the second time it comes up, you'll fly.

There is a chance that you'll actually fly back to Word, though. The niceties of word processing that you may be used to such as having Styles don't strictly speaking exist here. It's actually hard to definitively say BBEdit can't do something because you can add or alter features in it yourself through the right Terminal commands.

Yet if you want to write 100,000 words of book and be able to move every chapter around at will, you should be looking to Word or Scrivener.

However, if you're writing shorter pieces for online use then BBEdit is better than either of those. It's a boon because normal word processors add invisible characters to your document which make sense in that app but result in your online text looking peculiar.

BBEdit doesn't insert any of these hidden codes so what you write in it, you can post online immediately.




We say that the app is laden with features. Given that it has that number, and range, and adjustability of options that it does, BBEdit 12 presents its tools well. It's just that sometimes there is a logic that isn't exactly universal.

BBEdit is that Swiss Army knife that we alluded to in the headline up there. It has that toothpick, the spork, the seven blades, the screwdriver, and 15 other pop-out things. This is all good, until you want that one specific saw blade to pop out in the kit and can't find it.

For instance, BBEdit 12 introduced a dark mode and naturally you'd expect to find that option in the app's preferences. It is there, but you'll search through different sets of preferences under headings such as Appearance, Application and more before you'll think to look in Text Colors.

Once you know, it's fine, but when you're used to more traditional writing tools you won't be used to how you have to search for options and features. Because of this, it's not right for everyone and will actively turn off some. But if it is right for you, you'll think that it is nothing short of magical.

BBEdit has been around forever. The current version is 12.1.5 costs $49.99 direct from the developer and requires macOS El Capitan 10.11.6 or higher.

You can download a trial version which runs for 30 days. It's a generous trial because after that time, the app just switches off certain of its extra features and leaves you with a completely workable text editor.