FoldingText: A Swiss Army Knife for Plain Text Lovers

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.

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Meet FoldingText

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.

Screenshot of the welcome screen in the main window of FoldingText.

The minimalist yet classy main window should look familiar to iA Writer or Byword users.

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.

The inline Markdown syntax is hidden when not in use.

The inline Markdown syntax is hidden when not in use, giving a neat, uncluttered look to your writings.

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.

Screenshot showing the Expand Text Selection menu command and its keyboard shortcuts.

Precise and quick text selection can be performed using menu commands or keyboard shortcuts.

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 hide as many sections as you want by folding them.

You can hide as many sections as you want by folding them. A great way to work within long documents.

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.

A document in Outline mode.

By folding everything, you have a bird’s eye view (so-called outline) of your document.

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.

Stay focused

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.

You can focus on any section. The text from other sections is then hidden from view.

When in focus mode, a discrete black and white indicator is shown in the upper left corner of the window.

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.

The todo mode adds special markup to offer a clean, readable interface.

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:

The timer mode of FoldingText.

The timer mode is surprisingly easy to use due to the natural language parser.

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.

The timer mode in action.

You can easily see if and when the timer started and where you are in your 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.


Summary

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.

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  • http://www.foldingtext.com Jesse Grosjean

    Thanks for your review. It’s exciting for a developer to wake up and read about their software in such a positive light! :)

    Just a few notes… I think this review must have been in progress for a while, and I changed two things at the last moment. In the current 1.0 release that’s submitted to the app store you can’t filter by clicking on a tag. This is definitely something that we’ll be adding back soon, but it just was’t quite polished enough for the 1.0 release.

    Also I took away the “roadmap” link. It was getting to hard to maintain and so was out of date. Generally our roadmap is: 1. Make the core editor better. 2. Add ways so that our users can extend that core with with themes and plugins.

    Thanks again!

    • Pierre Wizla

      Thanks for your comments, Jesse.

      Indeed, I constantly rewrote this review for a month ;-)
      On one of my machines, I didn’t updated to the last version, and tag filtering still worked at that time. Hope this feature will be back soon as I heavily rely on it in TaskPaper!

      About the roadmap, thank you for clarifying.

      Oh, and a question: will dev versions remain free and outside of the Mac App Store?

      • http://www.foldingtext.com Jesse Grosjean

        Dev version will remain outside the app store. Eventually I’ll probably make it so that you must run the app store version once to be able to run dev versions. But for now they will be free time limited demos.

  • http://www.foldingtext.com Jesse Grosjean

    Just realized I forget to mention difference between “Indent” and “Move” commands. Indent just effects the current or selected lines of text. Like you would expect in a free form text editor. The “Move” commands work more like an outliner. The current line, and any child items that it has are all moved together.

    So if you’ve got a item that has other items indented under it. “Indent” that item and it just gets indented. But “Move Right” and it (and the child items) all get indented.

    • Pierre Wizla

      OK, now I get it! Thanks for the precision, Jesse.

    • Marc

      Hi Jesse (I love Taskpaper and use it everyday),

      if FoldingText is a rewrite of the Taskpaper’s engine, will Taskpaper be updated in the future?

      Is Taskpaper still developed in parallel with FoldingText, or should I understand that it won’t be updated anymore and – maybe – I should move to FoldingText?

      • http://www.foldingtext.com Jesse Grosjean

        Long term I think FoldingText will replace TaskPaper. But at this point it’s not ready to do that. TaskPaper’s still more polished for the todo list case. And TaskPaper also has an iOS client, which FoldingText doesn’t have yet. I expect TaskPaper to continue to get small updates until FoldingText can fill in the gaps.

  • WIlliam Oquendo

    Thanks for the article! I want to say that this reminds me a lot the fantastic org mode for emacs (http://orgmode.org/): It is also plain text with all (and more) of this useful tools. Also syncable to mobile devices. A comparison could be very useful … . Thanks again.

    • Pierre Wizla

      Glad you liked the article, William!
      Indeed, the similarities between org mode and FoldingText have been pointed out by some users in the FoldingText forums.
      I’ve never given org mode a try, nor have I given Emacs a try (yet?).
      I know, my bad, maybe am I not geeky enough? Haha

      Anyway, as far as I can see, you have to get your hands dirty to install org mode and configure it, am I right?
      That is what seduces me with TaskPaper and FoldingText: it’s extensible yet really, really easy to use. Nothing special to learn to work with it.

      But I take note of your suggestion of a compared review between the two. Will think about it, thanks!

  • http://www.trigunas.com Rick Dee

    Jesse,

    I have tried without success to purchase your FoldingText App from the App Store, since I received your announcement e-mail yesterday…

    Do I need a Secret Decoder Ring to do this? I never had problems when I purchased WriteRoom? What Up Brother? I does not show up in the App Store when I go there with my Retina iPad.

    Thanks Mate!

    – rick in St. Petersburg, FL

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      FoldingText is a Mac App, so you’d need to buy it for a Mac computer from the Mac App Store.

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