Why PopChar X is the Ultimate Special Characters Tool

We reviewed an app called Characters back in August. It gives you quick access to a large number of special characters, making it an indispensable tool for web developers, technical writers, and anyone else who needs to go beyond the standard ASCII fare on a regular basis.

But I think the best tool for the job is PopChar X, not Characters, nor OS X’s built-in character viewer (and not any of the many web-based alternatives, either). It nestles itself in the top-left (or right) corner of your menubar, and it has everything you could need. Allow me to explain.

ALL The Characters and Symbols

PopChar X includes every character that Mac OS X supports. Need to write in traditional Chinese? No problem. How about Sinhala, Cherokee, Hebrew, Armenian, Ancient Greek, or even Braille? They’re all in there, along with more arrows and glyphs than you can poke a stick at. The organization is a little different to the built-in character viewer, but you’ll get hundreds of thousands of characters and symbols at your fingertips.

So many fonts and characters! Don’t be intimidated by all the stuff; it’s actually quite easy to use, even if the UI looks dated.

You have characters grouped into five types: Unicode Blocks, Scripts and Symbols, ASCII, MacRoman, or Recent. Each of these divides into appropriate subcategories. You can limit the selection to only characters supported by the current font — every font installed on your computer is available for use — or go with the union of all fonts. This latter option is important for when you’re writing in a standard ASCII-derived (i.e., Latin) font such as Times New Roman, Helvetica, or Lucida Grande, and need something in a more exotic script.

Now let’s take this back to the Characters comparison for a moment. Characters has two modes: Designer and Developer. The former copies the character to the clipboard, while the latter copies the HTML entity. Why? If I’m pulling this tool up with a keyboard shortcut, chances are I want to use the character now.

Characters may have style and grace, but PopChar has power, versatility, and tremendous depth.

Insert or Copy, in Any Format

PopChar X inserts the desired version of the symbol when you click on it, while a simple right-click allows copying as HTML, Unicode Decimal/Hex, or Name, and also lets you add it to your favorites or mark all the fonts that contain it. Plus there’s an option to have it always insert or copy in the same font as the foreground text document (provided the character is supported by that font). And designers can play around with font sheets and previews for that little bit of extra convenience. Simple, powerful, straightforward — I love it.

Programmers rejoice — PopChar has you covered even if you’re not a web developer.

Searching is straightforward, too. Pop the standard character that most resembles your desired symbol into the search box, then choose it from the list. If you hover the mouse over a symbol, you can see its internal name, unicode or HTML entity number, and (where applicable) keyboard shortcut for future reference. If you happen to already know the keyboard macro for the character, like, say Option-Shift-O for the symbol Ø, but need this other data for coding purposes, just type that in and it’ll come up.

Accept No Substitute

So why would I — or anyone else — choose Characters? It’s convenient, sure, but with a limited character set, no insert feature, and no Unicode references, it seems crippled compared to PopChar X. And I hope you’re not so shallow as to dismiss PopChar for its inferior looks — it has everything else, after all, and beauty’s only skin deep, remember.

You pay a lot more for PopChar X than its alternatives — it’s priced at 30 Euros (~$40 USD), compared to just $2.99 for Characters and nothing for most web-based options — but I say it’s worth every penny. There’s no substitute for quality, and, while PopChar X isn’t the prettiest app around, it’s brimming with “how did I ever get things done before?” excellence.


The most functional - even if not the prettiest - character chooser for OS X.



Add Yours
  • I used to use this when it was made for OS 9. It was a lot better back then. They also had a free version PopChar Lite that sat in about a 6 pixel area of the top right menu bar and you just clicked on it and it brought up a small character window where you could easily select what you wanted.
    Now it is a big complicated app with too many options. I am disappointed where this app has gone over the last 14 years.

  • $40?! For something like this? No thank you.

  • As a tech writer, PopChar X is one those utilities I consider absolutely essential for my writing toolbox. I’ve been using PopChar since it first came out and I’ve never found another tool that even comes close to doing a better job.

  • I have no patience with people who want everything dumbed down. PopC’s interface is as tight as you want to set it, so anyone who complains it’s too complicate is just too lazy to take control. Learn to use you machine instead of letting it use you.

    I’ve used PopC ever since slipping to the dark (Mac) side five years ago, and it has been used at least once every day since. But that being said…

    $40 is ridiculous! I won’t be upgrading it again anytime soon. Lately I’ve seen a lot rises in overpricing in the Mac universe.

    • Only a fool mistakes simple with dumbed down.

  • So… why would I use this over the built-in character viewer?