I love writing articles on my Mac. It’s easy, fullscreen mode is convenient, and there are a lot of great apps available for the platform. Overall, the experience is a quality one. But when it comes to choosing what app to write with, I have some trouble. Every month there seems to be a “new” writing app on the Mac App Store that’s really just a reiteration of the existing apps available. I like to remain loyal to a single app, but sometimes it’s fun to explore.
The other day, I was browsing the Mac App Store in search of anything new and significant. I came across Free, a distraction-free writing app by Michael Göbel that, comically enough considering its name, is not free. Its purpose is the same as that of WriteRoom, iA Writer, and the many others in this genre: to create an environment that is the most straightforward it can possibly be so that you can focus on writing and not the app’s functionality itself. My purpose, however, is to take a look at how well an app performs its job, so instead of assuming this app is great, let’s submerge ourselves in all the little appealing ounces of Free.
Free starts up with a “thank you” message that, in addition to informing you that the developer’s cats have been fed using what you paid for the app, gives you a little bit of a background on the developer, what his goal with the app is, and a few little tips and tricks to get you started using it as your default distraction-free editor. There are also links to the app website, support area, and documentation. It’s a good way to start things off and I’m surprised to have not seen it in other apps before. I actually feel like he cares about his users more than other developers out there, which is a very good sign.
After reading the welcome screen and pressing OK, you’ll be taken to a document containing more in-depth documentation. You can close it and you’ll be prompted to delete the document or save it. You can access this information again by clicking the Free Steps option in the Help menu, so don’t worry if you mistakenly deleted it.
Write in iCloud
One of the most important features of Apple’s latest addition to the OS X family, Mountain Lion, is its solid and thorough integration of iCloud. In Lion, things were sparse and there was no way to place a document in Apple’s cloud environment without tweaking the system a little. Most users don’t want to go to this much effort just to save some documents, so they used Dropbox instead. Mountain Lion, however, further integrated iCloud into the operating system so that all apps could use it.
You can copy the HTML for a document by selecting the text, right-clicking the selection, and clicking “Copy As HTML”. Rich text is also available.
Free’s main startup screen is the iCloud documents window that you’ll find in other apps that use the service. It will allow you to create a new text file, but sadly, even if you’re in the iCloud tab, there’s no way to automatically place that document in the cloud from the start. This exact same thing happens with any other text editor that uses iCloud and you have to manually move the document once you’ve begun it; just hover over the title in the top bar, click the down arrow, select Move to iCloud, and confirm the place change. I know, it really should be simpler than that.
Typewriter Sounds and Markdown Reference Pop-Up
A month ago I found out about NoisyTyper for Mac: the best way to make it sound like you’re using a typewriter whenever you type anything on your computer. It’s a fantastic little tweak that’s systemwide, but I’ve not seen anything like it in an app before. Free employs a nifty little typewriter sound effects set that’ll entertain you while you’re writing something; it can also be distracting to some. I myself enjoy having the sounds enabled on occasion to make things fun.
You can enable typewriter sound effects by going to the Inspector pane (the “i” in the top right corner), click Text, and check the box beside “Play typewriter sounds”.
Another great feature that you’ll find in Free is a Markdown reference sheet. If you click the “?” button in the top right corner you’ll get an informative window for Markdown formatting. It has everything you’ll need to know and if there’s something missing, head over to John Gruber’s official documentation. There’s even a shortcut for basic Markdown formatting like blockquotes and links available in the right-click menu. You can find the shortcuts for them in the Edit menu if you are so inclined.
Fonts and Options are Limited
Free’s philosophy is to be minimal and that’s fine for some people, but it’d be nice to see more font options than one. If the default font were easy to read and not so irritating to my eyes, I wouldn’t be mentioning this lack of customization at all. Sadly, the size is too large to be productive, in my opinion. It should be readable, just not overly large.
At least the developer included some options for the font when printing. If you go to the Print window and click Edit Fonts…, you’ll be greeted with the option to change the document’s font to anything you wish in both size and name. I’m really glad to see that there’s an option for this since the app’s font would waste paper and the developer is apparently against doing such a thing.
Other than not being able to change the font type or size, Free lacks an option to adjust the editing display width. Sure, you can change the window size or even go to fullscreen mode, but that’s not going to improve the width of the text body itself. For some reason, the developer decided to leave out an adjustment for this. Byword is still my favorite editor because it productively uses up the screen. I don’t see a reason why any distraction-free editor should leave out such a vital piece of customization.
Access Free’s manual and other useful information by going to the Help menu.
Free has no preferences in the usual spot, surprisingly. (If you use the CMD + , shortcut, however, it’ll take you to the Inspector pop-up.) Instead, you’ll have to go to the Inspector pop-up to get a few little tweaks. There you can inverse colors to get a black background, change the cursor color to orange, green, or blue, modify the window size, and tweak with some text options. Even in this options pane, however, there are no ways to change the width of the text or its size, which is unfortunate.
I really like Free as an alternative to, say iA Writer. I’ll still be using Byword for my text editing though. Göbel’s app offers many reasons to use it, but none of them interest me personally. I also see the lack of being able to change the font as a downside and it hurts the app’s potential. I’m not advising against using Free, however. If you already own another distraction-free editor, there’s just no need to get this one. Stick with what you have unless you need something better, in which case this may suffice but is still just an alternative.
If you happen to be a new distraction-free Markdown editor user, then this is probably the best way to start things off. It’s very simple, the documentation is amazing, and it’s quite minimal. At $6.99, Free is a little more than Byword and a bit less than iA Writer. I think you should read our reviews of both (Byword, iA Writer) before making a decision, honestly. It’s a hard choice since they’re all deserving.