Ulysses III – A Markdown Writing App Like no Other

You’ve likely used word processors like Word, TextEdit, and Pages, as well as plain-text writing apps like iA Writer and Byword. If you’re a serious writer, you’ve likely used or at least looked at advanced writing apps like Scrivener or the original Ulysses.

But you’ve never seen anything like Ulysses III. It’s a totally new take on an advanced writing app, bringing the best of Markdown-focused plain text editors together with a multi-document management system that makes sense. Throw in HUDs that make Markdown formatting easier to use than rich editing in Word, and you’ve got one serious writing app. One that must be seen to be believed.


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A Fresh Take on a Writing App

First off, Ulysses III is a brand new app, albeit one with a 10 year legacy. The Soulmen team even listed the version number as Ulysses III 1.0. No stone has been left unturned; everything in the app is new, yet familiar if you’ve been using plain-text writing apps. If you never liked older versions of Ulysses — perhaps thought they were too complex or confusing — you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised with Ulysses III. If you loved older versions of Ulysses, you’ll likely love the new version, but you might have to learn to love it for itself. You’ve really never used an app like this.

Ulysses III is a writing app built around a library of documents, fused with a super-charged plain text/Markdown editor. You won’t want to use it as the default app to open text files; in fact, if you open individual files in Ulysses, it saves them as a new version in its library, and the changes won’t be saved back to the original file. That in itself is a leap for most people used to writing in plain text apps, but it’s a leap that can make a lot of sense if used right.

Ben Brooks describes Ulysses III as a notebook, where traditional text editors and plain-text writing apps are a piece of paper. That might be one of the most apt descriptions yet.

The Best Onboarding Process Ever

With that, Ulysses III needs a bit of an introduction to get you started in it. It surely delivers. On first launch, you’ll be asked if you want to enable iCloud sync (which you can always go back and change if you want), and then asked if you prefer Markdown or Textile style formatting (you’ll want to select the asterisks options for traditional Markdown). But hey: when’s the last time you’ve seen a writing app actually give you the option?

Getting Started settings that make sense

After that, you’ll be introduced to the app with a group of documents about how to use Ulysses III, inside the app itself with all the features you’ll learn to love in the app. There’s the main content in the right 3rd of the app, a list of the documents in the current group in the middle, and a left sidebar much like the one in Finder that contains your groups of documents and more. It’s simple and familiar at first glance.

You’ll have iCloud documents — default if you enabled it — but you can also add “External Sources” from the buttons on the bottom. This lets you, say, add a folder of plain text note files you have saved in Dropbox right into Ulysses, where it’ll feel as integrated as any other document in Ulysses. You can even create new files in that folder, change their file names from the top of the sheet, edit the files as sheets with the changes saved immediately to the original file, and more. So, while it won’t work well with your individual files, it will work well if you already have an organized system of working with plain text files, as you can bring the whole folder into Ulysses with you.

Ulysses III looks like many notes apps at first glance

Dig in, though, and you’ll find dozens of delightful differences, hidden just below the surface right until you need them. There’s line numbers on the right side, a near-absence of buttons, and a delightful iA Writer-style editing theme that morphs to a dark mode, single column of text when you go full screen (with equally beautiful integration of the Solarized light and dark color schemes). There’s even a “Pure Mode” for those who love flat UIs. Typing feels as smooth as you’d want, with a blue iOS-style cursor or a traditional OS X one. There’s nifty additions to the extras you’d expect: scroll to the end of a document, then pull up a little further on your touchpad, and you’ll see the next document. It feels natural, yet new.

Who knew word count could look so nice?

Markdown, Simplified

Ulysses III is organized with groups, subgroups, and sheets. Sheets are individual documents, while groups are essentially folders. There’s also Filters, which are smart folders that’ll surface everything that meets your filter criteria — pretty handy if you use Ulysses to store everything you write and clip.

Everything you write will live on a sheet, which can be as long or short as you want. You can easily move sheets around, select multiple sheets to view them together in a continuous sheet (and it really acts like one sheet while selected, even showing the total word count of the set of sheets together, and letting you search through the whole set). Or, you can glue a set of sheets together to save them as one sheet when you’re done writing. That makes it easy to break up your writing into, say, a sheet per section, then pull it all together when you’re ready to share your work.

Gluing your sheets together

Writing in your sheets with Markdown formatting is simple, even if you’re not well versed in Markdown. You can simply press CMD+B or I to set text as bold or italicized, respectively, and you’ll see the Markdown formatting along with actual formatting on the text itself. Press CMD+L to add a link to selected text, or type brackets around text, and you’ll be greeted with a small popover to enter your link and its title.

You can add footnotes in much the same way by typing (fn), or can drag in images and videos to have them added to your text with Markdown formatting — albeit hidden Markdown formatting. You can add in-line comments that won’t be exported, to help you keep track of what’s going on in your document, and can add notes to a document itself, again saved only in your Ulysses copy. It’s a brilliantly simple way to edit text with faux-rich text formatting powered by Markdown.

I thought Markdown meant no UI. Guess I thought wrong.

There is one odd thing: Ulysses treats links and footnotes the same way, pushing them to the end of your document. It’d be nice to see it treat links the same way most Markdown writing is done, with the link right after the linked text, but perhaps this is necessary for Ulysses’ UI. But that’s a small complaint, and any app that takes Markdown files will have no problem reading files created in Ulysses.

There’s more awesome text editing features, of course: full OS X integration, so Dictionary, spell check, and even versions works perfectly in Ulysses. You can search for — and preview — your groups and sheets from Spotlight. It’s a great experience, from writing your initial ideas and drafts to pulling it all together into a polished work.

Publishing from Ulysses

Ulysses may be a great app for simple writing, but it’s aimed at long form writing and publishing. That’s apparent in the tools to glue sheets together, the reading time in the info pane, the Markdown headings powered quick navigation pane (which is awesome for finding your way around in longer pieces of text), and in the Favorites section that lets you add related sheets to the top of your sheet for quick reference.

But it’s most apparent from the Quick Export tool, which lets you turn a sheet, group, or set of sheets you’ve selected into a polished PDF, export it as HTML or plain text, or send it to Word in RTF form. There’s more coming, too: Brett Terpstra already announced that Ulysses will be tightly integrated with the next version of Marked which should bring more export formatting options, and the Ulysses team has already listed ePub support as forthcoming, along with the potential for Tumblr publishing and more in the future.

Now that’s a simplified way to export documents

Daedelus Touch: Ulysses on the go

There’s one more little extra with Ulysses III: it integrates perfectly with The Soulmen’s mobile app, Daedalus Touch. This app shows again The Soulmen’s willingness to redefine how apps should work, this time with an innovative stacks-based document navigation that makes sorting through your text simple on your iPad or iPhone. Check iPad.AppStorm’s review for more info, but it’s an app that has to be seen to be appreciated.

Now, it integrates with Ulysses III as well, giving you a simple way to write across your Mac and iOS devices. There’s only one cavort: your Daedalus notes will show up only as one section in your Ulysses library, and only the notes in that section will sync with iOS. You’ll need to move any notes you want synced with your iOS devices to the Daedalus section to make sure they’re everywhere. In fact, if you only have one Mac, you might want to use the Daedalus section as your default writing area instead of iCloud. Both are powered by iCloud, but only the former will sync with your iOS devices.

Conclusion

Ulysses III is an incredibly impressive writing app, one any serious writer should strongly consider getting. It’s that good. It can compete with Markdown plain-text editors and top-of-the-line longform writing apps. It’s excellent for longer projects — the PDF export almost tugs at you to turn your random writings into something more lasting — but equally excellent for individual short writings. It could be your next notes app, but it could also be so much more.

Again, you need to appreciate it for what it is. It’s not your traditional text editor, and you’ll need to work around how it works to get the best out of it. But as you bring in your text folders, and start putting it to use for new projects, you’ll likely find it indispensable. I’m already starting to, just two days in.


Summary

A rewrite of a writing app with a 10 year legacy, Ulysses III brings the best of Markdown editors to a full-featured writing environment. It's built to make plain text writing more powerful.

9
  • Endem

    Great, finally the app that can sync with the most innovative iOS text editor Deadalus. I hope that they will continue developing both apps and especially the stack of paper metaphor that I really like (that isn’t fully visually implemented in the new Ulysses.

  • http://dima.cocotype.com Dmitry Nikolaev

    App not revolutionary absolutely, but little things within editor makes it not so bad. Video (first) is absolutely… boring. As a second one.

  • Reid Leamaster

    I used Ulysses II to write some longer pieces and really liked it. But it was so difficult to get notes into the projects, there was absolutely no cloud sync (other than putting the project file in Dropbox, which inevitably led to lost data), and the multi-document management was clunky. This app is a great improvement.

    The one thing I don’t get is why there is not complete integration with Daedalus Touch? Why not just have all iCloud documents available in both places? For example, Wednesday I had a meeting and used Daedalus Touch to take notes. The notes were for a specific project I was working that reside in a group on U III. The only way to get the notes into the project is to move them into the group, but then they are no longer on Daedalus. Unless, of course, you move the whole group into Daedalus. Just seems a little awkward to me.

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  • http://palobo.tumblr.com Pedro Lobo

    Great review indeed. I ultimately bought the app but from my yet limited testing there are still too many points of friction for me. I’ll be waiting to see what the next few updates bring but for now, I’ll keep to MultiMarkdown Composer, Byword, nvALT, etc.

    - Very strong distinction between .txt and .md files is bad and makes no sense to me;
    - Lack of global search another point of friction, I know that the filter is great, but it’s like creating a smart folder in finder when you want to find 1 file once… pointless;
    - Having to drag an image into the documento instead of using Markdown syntax is also dumb. Drag and drop is a neat feature but being the only way to do it is a turn off for me;
    - Markdown XL is only available for documents/sheets store within Ulysses 3 storage and not available for external sources.

    • Thiago A.

      You can make it treat everything as Markdown. Double click on the title of the “sheet list” and check “Always assume Markdown syntax”.

      The distinction between .txt and .md makes (even more) sense for general editors; if a file has an .md extension, the editor can apply a special syntax, keyboard shortcuts and other sugars. Ulysses supports textile too, so it makes some sense.

      • http://palobo.tumblr.com Pedro Lobo

        Hey Thiago,

        I can’t really agree with that. Every app I’ve used has treated files with .txt .md .mdown etc the same, as a plain text file.

        I’m aware that you can set it to assume markdown, what this will accomplish is that .txt files with markdown syntax will be recognised, but new files will be created with .md extension.

        I’m sure that these things will be sorted out soon but still, for such a long development cycle and beta testing, some things simply shouldn’t have been missed.

        A simple experiment: Type a frase with a word in strong emphasis like so:

        This is an ***important*** word that I want emphasised… You’ll see what I mean by small things that were missed.

        • Thiago A.

          After a more careful analysis I think this is really confusing. You can’t use textile in external source documents, but there is a distinction between plain text and markdown. In my point of view, that distinction would only be justified if there was a textile option for external source documents, which I thought there was. Regarding that point and the little details that were missed, I agree with you. It’s currently a bit unstable, and some options are missing or confusing, but it still has a lot of potential to become my main writing app in a near future.

          At least there is a good reason to use the .md extension. It’s desirable that external apps recognize the syntax, without you telling them to assume markdown. Take GitHub: a README file with markdown syntax shows as plain text, while a README.md is converted to a nice HTML doc. NVAlt works with generic plain text: the text area doesn’t assume markdown at input time, but by using the preview you tell it to parse whatever the text is as markdown. Byword is markdown focused, so parsing at input time makes sense whatever the text file extension is.

  • GG

    Is it possible to incorporate equations in your writing in this app. I am a student and desperately want a great writing platform to help with my notes.

    • woowoo

      Use Texts (from texts.io)! Get it while it’s 50% off. GREAT writing app!

      • GG

        Awesome! Thank you!

  • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

    After publishing this review, I’ve been made aware of the fact that Ulysses III’s best features – the extra Markdown formatting – only works with documents made in Ulysses’ own app or iCloud storage. External folders’ text files aren’t treated the same. Sorry for not noticing that originally.

  • Carles

    Notational Velocity + Mou.app = Free
    What else do you need?

    • Dan

      I know Mou.app … but what is Notational Velocity ?

  • http://www.if.pro.br Igor Freiberger

    I begun to use it yesterday and find Ulysses excellent. Of course, there are some points to be improved, as an option to set the library place, the possibility to manage more than one library and a local backup feature.

    Export to rtf turns each heading 1 a section beginning in a new page and makes the normal text very small. A way to map how markup styles will translate into rtf format would be very good.

    The lack of a search tool is not a problem as Spotlight is able to index Ulysses sheets. But an internal tool would be nicer.

  • CarlosSz

    Weak points:

    - the lack of a global search within the app is almost unbelievable;
    - the spotlight search displays a number ID instead of the note/sheet name (well, well…);
    - I can’t, or at least I couldn’t find an option for that, have .txt as the default format
    - I wish I could simply use markdown to add an image or link
    - it seems that Ulysses does not read openmeta tags (none of mine were displayed) so Ulysses is not exactly an alternative for nvALT users;

    Of course that are some nice things about Ulysses but it seems to lack the basics for a plain-text lover.

    • http://www.if.pro.br Igor Freiberger

      For me, spotlight search shows sheet names using the first heading mark or, in the absence of headings, the first line of text. It is working fine.

      Regarding the txt as default format, I suppose you means the export format as the sheets are hold in no specific format. You can define this simply choosing “Plain text” in TXT group from the export panel (reach with arrow icon from the menu, Cmd-6 or contextual menu).

      A small tip, as Ulysses documentation is not complete: you can duplicate a sheet simply draging it while holding Opt key.

      • CarlosSz

        I have just tried spotlight search and it is displaying the name now. Maybe spotlight was still indexing by the time I did my first search.

  • Abbi Vakil

    So was this review written in Ulysses or perhaps Daedalus Touch? If not, then why not and which is the App that *you* use to write? I saw elsewhere on this site that some of the Editors use iAWriter, others use ByWord. I didn’t see anyone mention that they use Daedalus Touch even though it got so much effusive praise above :-/

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      I wrote this review in Ulysses on my Mac, and wrote the Daedalus Touch section in Daedalus Touch, synced via iCloud to Ulysses. My default writing app — on the Mac and iOS — is iA Writer, though I believe I’ll be switching much of my writing to Ulysses now.

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  • http://www.thepapermail.com Jacob Penderworth

    I would love to see WordPress publishing capabilities. That feature would instantly make me want to purchase Ulysses.

    • http://palobo.tumblr.com Pedro Lobo

      That would indeed be golden, then again I’m not sure we’d be able to take advantage of that on AppStorm ;)

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Actually, I think there’s a distinct possibility they’ll add that; they’re saying they’ll add ePub export and Tumblr publishing for sure, and then plan to add more from there. I sure hope so, anyhow.

      And if they do add it, you’d better bet we’ll use it at AppStorm :)

  • Renée

    I’m having some problems with Daedalus syncing…in the ‘sidebar’ preference pane, the Daedalus option is grayed out. Am I missing something? I have iCloud enabled in both apps. :\

  • http://alphaefficiency.com/comments Bojan – Alpha Efficiency

    What does it offer that Byword doesn’t?

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Document management, easy ways to merge separate text document into one final work, powerful quick export tools, and Daedalus Touch integration :)

  • Dan

    Anyone know if there are any Markdown editors with basic Vim keybinding support like there is in Sublime Text 2 ?

    • Thiago A.

      Yes. There is one damn good markdown editor called “Vim”, it even supports vim keybindings :) Just get some extensions.

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