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Cross-platform Text Editing in 2013

Update 2/22: Revised to address bug fixes in TextDrop. See my notes below.

In 2011, I wrote a post about Crossplatform Note Sync with Dropbox. For the most part, the workflow and apps I wrote about still work well. However, times change I thought it would be a good idea to go back and check on some new developments, both platforms and tools, that may give you some new note-syncing options.

In a few cases, new features make this workflow even more flexible. For example, Elements now allows you to select which folder it uses for syncing files.

Dropbox has much more flexible options for sharing files and folders. There’s also a revamped iOS client and a client for Windows 8, but not for Windows Phone 8.

One new development the deserves a look is TextDrop, an online text editor for Dropbox.

TextDrop

TextDrop is a web app that lets you access your Dropbox folder and edit, in the browser, any text-based document there.

I learned about TextDrop from Gabe Weatherhead of Macdrifter, who’s written some great introductory posts about it, most notably here and here (plus an interview with TextDrop developer Sam Nguyen that’s worth a read).

There’s not much to the app: one pane shows the contents of the current Dropbox folder, the other lets you view and edit the selected file. It provides minimalist text-editing features, plus MultiMarkdown preview.

There are options for enabling hard tabs, non-text file previews and full-text search. That’s pretty much it.

The good news is that TextDrop works fine in some popular desktop browsers, specifically Chrome, Firefox and Safari. TextDrop also works in Mobile Safari on the iPhone and iPad, though the site is a bit too cramped for regular use on the smaller phone screen.

The not-so-good news is browser compatibility. IE 6 and 7 are not supported by design, and I couldn’t get the site to load in IE 9. Google Chrome Frame might help. Windows 8 is not supported. No joy in Opera, either. The site does load on Mobile Safari, but it’s marginally useful at such small screen sizes.

Update: After a recent update to TextDrop 3.8.3, the site loads and works correctly in IE9. I haven’t tried IE10 yet.

TextDrop is priced on a sliding scale, the actual subscription price rising a small amount with each new user. This is similar to the pricing scale used by Pinboard.in. You lock in a yearly subscription fee based on current price when you sign up.

I purchased a subscription (at around $10) because TextDrop does add some helpful flexibility to my writing work and I want to support Sam’s continuing development of the app. The price recently jumped to almost $30.

Is TextDrop valuable at the current price?

If you work mostly within the toolset currently supported — namely, Chrome, Firefox and Safari — TextDrop can be quite useful. Once authorized, your documents are just a browser bookmark away, wherever you may be working.

Although TextDrop has some missing spots in its compatibility checklist, it does cover the most popular platforms. Expanding compatibility to Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 could win TextDrop some vocal supporters. On the other hand, improving mobile compatibility and expanding the editing capabilities probably addresses the needs of a larger user base. I’ll be watching with interest.

Update: It’s worth noting that Sam is making regular updates to the service and making changes in response to user feedback. Not only did he fix the IE9 loading issue within a week of my pointing it out, but he also fixed a minor tab-spacing bug as well, among other things. This is the kind of service where your subscription dollars are really going to support the work of an independent developer, who in turn is working hard to address the needs of his paying customers. I like it.

The State of Things

TextDrop aside, how has the cross-platform document editing scene changed since I wrote about it in 2011?

Not much.

Dropbox seems to have become the most reliable and flexible service for syncing your data, reinforcing the reasons I settled on it in the first place.

Apple’s iCloud service still isn’t ready for prime time and is, anyway, currently restricted to Mac and iOS.

Microsoft’s SkyDrive service offers cross-platform syncing, including Android, iOS, Mac and Windows/Windows Phone clients.

There are two reasons I’m wary of this service. First, given the history of support for now-defunct sync services like FolderShare/LiveSync and Live Mesh, I wonder how long SkyDrive will stick around.

Second, you have to wonder about support for competing platforms with Apple reportedly rejecting updates to Microsoft’s SkyDrive iOS app.

Text editing apps have proliferated. I run Sublime Text 2 on all my desktop systems — Linux, Mac and Windows. For iOS devices, Brett Terpstra has compiled an extensive list of iTextEditors - iPhone and iPad text/code editors and writing tools compared. I’m still happy with the latest updates to Elements.

I’m less familiar with the Android text-editing scene, but LinuxLinks has a roundup of the 8 Best Free Android Editors. Here’s another Minimalistic Text Editor for Android, though I’ve seen a few forum posts recommending vi. Seriously.

Code-focused editors are another, more specialized category. I’ll be looking into that soon…

Apps of 2012

2012 was the second full year back using a Mac as my full-time work machine since the mid-90s. The transition from Lion to Mountain Lion hasn’t been smooth as I would have liked, but it’s still a nice place to get some work done.

In theory, I don’t need many tools to get my daily work accomplished: a browser and a text editor handles 90 percent of my needs. Nonetheless, it was interesting to look back and think about the tools that did end up being used on a daily basis.

On Mac OS

My most-used machine is still the 2010-vintage Mac Mini I purchased used two year ago. I’m using it with a Filco Majestouch-2, Tenkeyless keyboard and Apple Magic Mouse. The displays are an old 23” Sony IPS monitor and an even older 20” Samsung.

Chrome is my current go-to browser. Fast and flexible makes up a great deal for horrible memory hog.

Template is a Chrome extension written by Alasdair Mercer that I use extensively for quickly grabbing information about a web page that I can then paste as formatted text into other documents.

Instapaper and Pinboard are my preferred bookmarking/read later services.

TableTools2 is a handy Firefox add-on for grabbing data from HTML tables and pasting it in CSV format. It does other tricks, too.

Sublime Text 2 is my text editor these days. It works enough like TextMate that moving over was a breeze, and now I have a consistent text editing experience across my Linux, Mac and Windows machines.

Reeder is my RSS client of choice, providing a much better window for keeping track of the feeds in my Google Reader account.

TextExpander holds boilerplate bits and pieces of text that I use frequently, and also has the ability to run scripts that grab and insert data on demand. Priceless! Pro tip: start your snippet abbreviations with a semicolon and you’ll never have to worry about premature expansion.

Alfred App mostly gets used as an app launcher, but I’ve slowly been adding extensions (including a few of my own) to automate CLI-like file creation, tweeting, data conversion and other operations. Another can’t live without app now.

Witch is Command-Tab task-switcher that’s a huge improvement over the default Mac OS feature. I have it set up to work much more like the traditional Windows Alt-Tab functionality of switching between open windows.

Marked is a great app for creating previews and HTML markup of Markdown documents. Created by Brett Terpstra, who’s also behind nvAlt, which I use for Crossplatform note syncing.

1Password keeps track of my passwords across iOS, Mac and Windows, and also provides great tools for creating new, strong passwords.

Twitterrific is my preferred Twitter client on both iOS and Mac OS thanks to the unified timeline and being just generally easier to read than other clients I’ve tried.

Dropbox is my primary tool for sharing important data across devices as well as providing a first line of backup, along with Time Machine. I also use SuperDuper! as a secondary on-site backup and CrashPlan for off-site backup. Yes, I’m paranoid about backups.

µTorrent is my (very) tiny BitTorrent client, for sharing large files and live show trading.

GeekTool is a flexible utility for displaying data on the desktop.

On iOS

I’ve already mentioned 1Password, Dropbox, Instapaper, Reeder and Twitterrific, all of which see active duty on my iOS devices as well as the Mac.

Camera+ serves as a feature-rich alternative to the native Camera app.

Check the Weather, by David Smith, is my current weather app, and a pretty good one — pretty, not overly information-dense and easy to read. I highly recommend listening to David’s Developing Perspective podcast if you’re a mobile app developer.

Dark Sky is a different kind of weather app, more focused on current and near future precipitation. Extremely useful if you don’t want to get wet.

Downcast keeps track of my podcasts.

Due reminds me to take out the garbage. I’m not a huge fan of the interface of this app — I find setting the time for reminders unintuitive — but it’s better than others I’ve tried for recurring reminders.

On Windows

I don’t use the old Windows 7 box much anymore, but I do keep it around for browser testing, working on documents in Office and a bit of PC gaming (which, unfortunately, I haven’t had much time for lately).

iRacing.com is still my racing sim of choice. I use a Logitech G27 Racing Wheel.

Baldur’s Gate — the classic Windows version — has been kicking my ass for much of the year. I’m really not very good at it, but keep coming back for more punishment.

Black Mesa is my more recent obsession. I was introduced to this universe through Half-Life 2, so playing through a Source engine-powered re-boot of the original Half-Life feels like a long-overdue pilgrimage.

Valve’s Steam service and GOG.com are great ways to get games for both Mac and Windows, and getting better all the time.

On Linux

Linux is my preferred server OS for personal projects. Nothing much exciting happens here. I run various flavors of Ubuntu for no other reason than it was at hand when I got started and the documentation is quite good.

Nginx is my web server. I prefer its concise, additive configuration to the Apache alternative.

staticDimension, with a few customizations, is my static blog engine.

AWStats handles my minimal web stats requirements.

Full disclosure: some of the links on this page are Amazon or Apple affiliate links and I could receive a payment from them for any purchases you make during a shopping session initiated via these links.

10 Westerns

Because all the cool kids are doing it, here’s my list of great Westerns:

  • High Noon
  • Little Big Man
  • The Outlaw Josie Wales
  • The Long Riders
  • Unforgiven
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • The Searchers
  • Bad Day at Black Rock
  • Bronco Billy
  • Jeremiah Johnson

Apparently I like movies about loners. Not terribly surprising.

I also now have a great, new list of movies to check out thanks to the top-ten lists from Jim Coudal, John Gruber and Gary Hustwit.

Cross-platform Note Sync with Dropbox

Update: The information here is still valid, and I’ve added some updates to keep it current. For the latest developments, see Crossplatform Text Editing in 2013.

Say you regularly use several different computers and want to make sure any notes or simple documents are always saved and synced between all your systems — between work at home, a desktop and a notebook, a Mac and a PC and even on your iPhone or iPad. Turns out it’s pretty simple to sync notes between platforms. And if you choose note-taking apps with a bit of forethought, it’s pretty simple to have an always up-to-date store of your notes wherever you go.

That you can sync textual notes — or any documents for that matter — between computers is no secret. There are quite a few apps that let you do this including Dropbox, Live Sync, SugarSync and no doubt others. There are also a few applications that specialize in syncing notes and other specific document types across platforms. I’ll get to that in more detail later.

I’ve used all of the above-named sync solutions over the years with generally good results. Beyond the broader sync tool, though, what I specifically wanted was a platform-agnostic set of tools for taking notes and creating simple documents in such a way that the files would be accessible and editable at any of my current computing devices, which include a desktop running Windows 7, a MacBook Pro, an iPad and an iPhone.

Here’s the simple solution I’m using.

I should start out with the disclaimer that this method applies only to plain ASCII text notes. It’s great for platform-agnostic writing, light coding, and basic HTML markup. If you need to sync bookmarks, images, documents and so on you might be better off with something like Evernote, Goodreader or SugarSync. I’m personally more interested in lightweight, single-purpose apps, though, and find Dropbox sync between dedicated apps more useful.

Having decided that I just want to sync notes, the next step is deciding whether to use Simplenote or Dropbox as your sync platform. They don’t play all that well together, apparently, but choosing on or the other is not a forever decision. Most of the note-taking apps support both methods and you can switch if necessary. There’s no lock-in.

I chose the Dropbox route because I am already using it to sync other files. I didn’t want to add a separate sync platform to the mix, nor did I want to limit my note-taking app choices to those that use Simplenote sync.

The note-taking apps are open source for the most part so you have several choices. The defining and common element of these apps is that they can save your notes as individual text files in a shared folder.

Mac: Notational Velocity or one of its forks. I’m using nvALT 2.0.

Windows: I’m using ResophNotes, another fork of the NV code.

iOS: As noted, you can sync with Simplenote, and NV also supports Dropbox sync with PlainText, Elements, iA Writer, and other iOS apps. I’m using both PlainText and Elements.

Setup is simple:

  1. Install Dropbox on all your devices, ResophNotes on Windows, and NV fork of choice on your Mac.

  2. Create a folder in Dropbox that will hold all the text files for your notes. I think most apps will allow any root-level folder, but Elements currently requires an Elements folder. If you’re considering Elements as an editor (it’s pretty nice for the price), you may want to go with that as a default. Elements creates this itself when you run it the first time, so that was my first step. check the documentation. As of version 2.0.1, Elements now lets you set the folder.

  3. In ResophNotes, click Options, then go to the Storage tab. Select “Plain Text File (.txt)” as your storage type. Point it at your Elements folder (or equivalent) for the file directory. In my case it was C:UserstpdorseyDocumentsMy DropboxElements.

  4. In NV, open Preferences and go to the Notes tab. Under Storage, set it to store and read notes as plain text files. Set “Read notes from folder:” to the appropriate folder in Dropbox, in my case Elements.

Done! Now any notes you create on any of your devices will be saved to DropboxElements and will be sync’d in real time to all other devices. (Technically the iOS apps seem to access the web store on demand, but that detail in transparent in execution.

To get some additional formatting and the ability to create HTML markup from your notes, check out John Gruber’s Markdown formatting. There’s a great introduction to using Markdown on the Practically Efficient blog. These are Mac demos, but it works the same in any Markdown-enabled editor, including ResophNotes.

In practice, using a sync’d note-taking system like this is simple to set up, simple to use and you never need to commit to a particular application, platform or workflow. If you decide this just doesn’t work for you, any text files you’ve created will still be saved in Dropbox, ready to use in another application. And if you switch machines — or platforms — the files are all there as soon as you’ve set up Dropbox.

Full disclosure: some of the links on this page are Apple affiliate links and I could receive a payment from Apple for any purchases you make during a shopping session initiated via these links.

10 Great Features in 10 Different OSes

If you were making the ultimate operating system, what features would you choose? I’ve been fortunate to use a pretty wide range of OSes over the years — some by choice, others by necessity. Each OS has some nugget that we can enjoy, learn from and build on.

So here, in no particular order, are 10 different features I love in 10 different OSes (Redmondmag.com).

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