There is no shortage of so-called ‘distraction free writing’ apps for our beloved Mac platform, a trend that started with the excellent WriteRoom from Jesse Grosjean’s Hog Bay Software in 2008. WriteRoom was the original full-screen minimalist text editor that inspired many similar writing apps that fill the App Store today. The company later followed up with a plain text to-do list app, TaskPaper, and also released QuickCursor, a simple app to edit text from any text field in your favorite text editor. Hog Bay Software not only made it nice to write plain text, but made it simple to do so whenever you want for whatever you want.
After creating the genre, the little company now re-invents it with FoldingText, an incredibly easy-to-use combination of plain text based tools. Geeks, nerds, writers, productivity gurus, rejoice: a new plain text productivity platform is born.
What strikes you when you first launch the app is its extreme minimalism. No toolbars, no buttons, just a clean, crisp, low-contrast window filled with dark grey text on a light grey background. It’s perhaps a bit too close to iA Writer or Byword’s design, though when you strip everything away, perhaps it’s hard to be more unique. Plus, seeing as it all started with WriteRoom, we’ll give FoldingText a bit of a break.
Really more than just another minimalist writing app
Every new FoldingText window includes a few lines of instructions that are enough to get you started. But you will miss some unique, powerful yet easy-to-use features (called modes) if you don’t look at the detailed, yet only 3-page long, user guide. Indeed, FoldingText is not only a Markdown-based text editor but also:
- an outliner
- a to-do list app
- and, surprisingly, a timer!
What is extremely pleasant about all these features is that everything is just plain-text based, as the user guide nails it down:
Remember, it’s just text.
FoldingText does some cool things, but in the end you are just editing text. If you know how to type, you already know most of what you need to effectively use FoldingText.
The real beauty of the architecture of this software is that you could use any mode wherever you want within the same document, while never being lost or distracted thanks to powerful filtering possibilities.
Markdown elegance at its finest
By default, the app hides all the inline Markdown syntax in your document, only showing you the resulting, WYSIWYG format. Just place the cursor within the formatted words and the syntax shows up again.
Because of that, editing text might slightly move around your words and sentences on the screen when the syntax is hidden or revealed. Not a big deal, but if you’d rather have the syntax permanently visible, there’s a menu command for that.
Headers, blockquotes and lists, however, are formatted but keep their identifying characters visible. Hiding all inline syntax while keeping the document structure easily identifiable is a really elegant compromise. After a few minutes of use, I even wondered why this has not yet been implemented in any other Markdown editor, at least as an option.
What I like, too, is that text selection is handled à la Byword. Starting from where your cursor is, by hitting Cmd-Alt-Up arrow several times, you can start a new selection and expand it to the current word, sentence, paragraph, section or whole document.
Where the ‘folding’ in FoldingText makes sense
One of the killer features of FoldingText is that you can fold/unfold blocks of text. You can do this with TextMate and BBEdit too, but I’ve never seen it in a ‘simple’ text editor yet.
Just click on the # of any header and the following section is hidden from view, only replaced by an ellipsis. Click again on the # (not on the ellipsis — this could be misleading the first times) and the section content is visible again.
You can also use menu commands (View > Expand and View > Collapse) or their corresponding shortcuts (Cmd-Alt-Right arrow or Cmd-Alt-Left arrow, respectively).
You can collapse all lists, code blocks and blockquotes as well, down to having just a backbone of your document on screen.
This way, the app could easily be used as an outlining tool. Indent/unindent items and move items up and down using the Items menu commands or with shortcuts. You can also “Move left” and “Move right” items, though in my testing this seems to be exactly the same as indenting/unindenting and I still wonder why these are separate options.
In addition to being able to fold/unfold paragraphs on the fly, you can also focus on any particular section. This is accessible via the View > Focus In menu command or its keyboard shortcut Cmd-]. As a result, everything else disappear.
Navigating in a long document is easy. Hit Cmd-L and choose (with your mouse or keyboard) a section to focus on. Just hit Cmd-L twice and you see your whole document again.
Interactive todo lists made easy
Let’s say you want (some part of) your document to be a to-do list. You could do this as in any other text editor: just type “To do”, hit return, start each line with an hyphen, and voilà.
The interesting way to do this with FoldingText is to add “.todo” (without the quotes) at the end of the line of your list title. It will tell the app that what you’re typing from now on has to be automatically formatted like a nice to-do list. Hypens in front of each list item will be turned into clickable boxes. Just click on a box: the item is marked as done and the text formatted as strike-through.
FoldingText started as a rewrite of the TaskPaper engine, a plain text-based todo list software from the same company. You clearly feel this heritage in the todo list mode:
- words preceded by @ symbol become tags
- completed items automatically get the @done tag
- you can assign value to tags between brackets: if your todo list is based on priorities, for instance, you could have @priority(1), @priority(2) and @priority(3) tags
- clicking on a tag filters the view, only showing tasks tagged with that given tag
Overall, this makes for an easy-to-use yet powerful todo list app.
A plain text-based timer
The timer mode is the most unexpected feature. Say you have some plan in mind for how to spend the next two hours and want to track it precisely. All you have to do is to type it in a natural language:
Notice that, each time you hit Return, a timestamp is added to the left margin of the line.
Don’t forget to indent each line — except the title one — else the timer won’t work.
Just click on a timestamp and the timer starts. When the timer is running a new line is added under the title, reading: “Start:” followed by the exact date and time it started. The current step is highlighted and when it’s finished, you’ll hear a “ting”. Another distinct sound marks the end of the list.
You can re-use timed lists any number of times. The timestamps are updated everytime. You’re totally free about the syntax when defining times: you can make grammar mistakes (e.g. forgetting the plural form), forget a space between the number and the unit, place the duration whenever you want on the line, and indifferently use plain words or abbreviations. This mode can be used for whatever you like, from a simple cooking recipe up a complete Pomodoro technique helper.
Sadly, there currently is no way to stop the timer once it has started. Also, if you run multiple timers at once, it might be hard to figure out what step the sound you’ve just heard was for.
What is still missing
- You can’t customize the interface: no font choice, no color choice, no zoom (but the font size is comfortable). However, you will eventually be able to create or download CSS-based themes.
- There is no character/word count. The lack of this basic feature might be a no-go for writers.
You can use the ‘Statistics’ feature included in the free OS X third-party service from DevonThink WordService as a workaround to this.
- There is no ‘replace all’ function. The rather basic implemented search functionality seems based on what you see in TextEdit, but curiously you have to replace occurrences one by one.
Is FoldingText worth it? Absolutely!
Following the same path as TaskPaper on which FoldingText is based, the app provides a blank canvas. You could use it just as a basic Markdown-based text editor. But if you take advantage of its unique features (section folding, focusing, and special modes like todo and timer) then you have in front of you one of the best all-in-one productivity tool you’ve ever used, while having next to nothing new to learn to use it efficiently: just type, it works.
FoldingText is still in its infancy (it has been submitted to the Mac App Store as a paid app but not approved yet) and might look unfinished in certain aspects, but the roadmap gives great hopes about what has to come. Users will sooner or later be able to extend the initial features by creating and distributing their own themes and modes, making me think FoldingText is not just a software but could become a plain text-based platform in the long-term. A platform as simple as TextEdit but as powerful as TextMate. That’s sure something we can get excited about!
Update: FoldingText is now in the App Store, and you can grab your copy for $14.99 for a limited time.
FoldingText is an elegant Markdown-based plain text app with unique features that go beyond basic writing. Create interactive to-do lists, outlines and track your time. Very ease to use, its minimalist interface hides its flexibility and complexity.9