Battle of the Text Editors

Whether you’re a coding master or a total technophobe, a good text editor is a must-have for the molecular ecology toolkit.

Text editors are great for managing code, formatting input files, or jotting notes. But with so many different text editors to choose from (depending on your platform, your budget, and your skill set), how do you know which is right for you?

Here is an overview of the most popular text editors I’ve encountered in molecular ecology.

TextWranglerText Wrangler Logo

My review: Best simple editor for OS X

TextWrangler is a great all-purpose text editor that seems really popular in the molecular ecology world. It’s 100% free (free as in free speech and free beer) and easy to use. One feature I often use (accidentally) is its auto-saving cache; you can open TextWrangler, take a quick note during a meeting, and your note will still be there even if you restart the program without saving.  If you like TextWrangler but are ready to graduate to something more advanced, you can also try BBEdit, which is made by the same developers.

Cons: Only available on OS X. May be too lightweight for programmers.

Notepad ++notepad++logo

My review: Best simple editor for Windows

I’ll admit that I have never used this program, but Notepad ++ comes recommended by my officemate (@jfmclaughlin92), who uses it for input file editing and some programming in python. Again, this is a popular, free, and easy-to-use option for your everyday molecular ecology needs.

Cons: Only available for Windows. May be too lightweight for programmers.

Sublime TextSublime Text Logo

My review: Best all-around multi-platform tool

Sublime Text works on all operating systems and is loaded with some cool user-friendly features, including a powerful search shortcut feature and “distraction-free mode” (which I could definitely use). I’m also giving Sublime Text the award for best design – it’s a really beautiful environment to work in.

Cons: Sublime Text is a shareware, not freeware. You can download and test it free for as long as you like, but you have to pay $70 for a license (and you really should support the developers).

Vimvim logo

My review: Best editor for people who live on the command line

Ahh, Vim: a time-tested, cross-platform, fast and free text editor for programmers. I’ll be honest: I find it incredibly frustrating – but only because it has a steep learning curve that I haven’t invested enough time to learn! Vim is the de-factor Unix editor, which means that you can edit text in a remote environment via SSH (e.g., you university’s computer cluster). That alone is an incredibly important feature, and is why Vim earned a place on this list.

Cons: Steep learning curve.

Other TME-recommended Text Editors

Programmer’s Notepad comes recommended by @arunsethuraman, who is the most celebrated bioinformatician at The Molecular Ecologist (based on number of posts in the How To… section). Arun says that this editor works great for programming, although it looks like it’s only available for Windows.

@RD_Denton recommends jEdit, which is advertised as a “mature programmer’s text editor.” jEdit is written in java and appears to be user-friendly, plus there is a good collection of macros and plugins available to expand its capabilities.

@reidbrennan recommends Atom, which is relatively new to the scene but is quickly becoming a popular tool. Atom is made by Github and has a minimalist core, but a huge number of open-source packages make it highly customizable.

Finally, some Text Editors that almost made the list include ICEcoder (a browser-based text editor), Brackets (a free product from Adobe), and Emacs (another time-tested and powerful editor with a steep learning curve).

Don’t see your favorite text editor on the list? Tell us about it in the comments!


About Katie Everson

I'm a PhD candidate at the University of Alaska Museum studying the evolution of Madagascar's tenrecs. Alaska is really far from Madagascar -- that's why I love museum collections! My core research interests are phylogeography and species delimitation.
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  • Kevin Emerson

    Emacs does have a steep(ish) learning curve, but with it comes a great deal of power and flexibility. Once I learned how to use Emacs, I have migrated all of my research and personal notes, calendar, to-do lists, and everything else in to Emacs. I write my lecture notes, create my website, and so much more all within Emacs. The beauty of one program, using simple text files, to manage all sorts of things is really great.

  • Mike Procario

    I have used all of the recommended editors and basically agree with the authors choices. If you are doing serious coding you should consider Vim or Sublime Text. I have been trying Microsoft’s new Visual Code for javascript coding, and I have liked it. It is free and open source. It is based on Github’s Atom editor. I haven’t tried it for python yet.