Not long after I got my first personal Mac in 2004, I began looking for a robust writing program to replace Microsoft Word. There were a few good offerings that catered to what I wanted -- a word processor and a project manager. There was Circus Ponies' NoteBook, and I also used CopyWrite for a time. I also tried the initial version of Ulysses.
Originally released in 2004, Ulysses was everything I wanted in a writing program. It was an organized text editor aimed at creative writers, but the big drawback was the extremely hefty price tag. At the time, a full license was around 80 Euros, a pricepoint that carried on for several more years. The price had dropped by the time version 2 rolled around in 2009, but years before, I was lured away by a little beta program called Scrivener Gold. This eventually became the Mac writing powerhouse Scrivener.
Nearly nine years after I first looked at Ulysses, I'm taking a second look. This time, it's a keeper.
Scrivener users will find that Ulysses looks familiar. The overhauled app resembles Scrivener now in its three-paned setup. The left pane identifies where files are stored, similar to Mail. You can see your entire library or drill it down to documents stored in iCloud (if enabled) or items stored locally. The middle pane features your documents, known as sheets. The right is your editing pane, and you can open a fourth pane that shows you basic keyboard and Markdown shortcuts, something I find extremely useful.
You can organize sheets by assigning a header at the start of the document, then use bookmarks, subgroups, filters, and smart folders to further organize them. I really wish you could give sheets unique names without assigning it a header, just in case you forget to remove that header when exporting it. If you have a long document with multiple headers, you can leap from header to header using an option in the toolbar. However, this feature doesn't work if you are using bookmarks and headers in a sheet. Deleting bookmarks is also cumbersome. Tip: Double-click on the part of the bookmark that sticks outside the document to get rid of it.
There are several view modes you can toggle among, and going into full screen provides true distraction-free writing.
Unlike other members of the TUAW staff, I'm not a power coder, and my knowledge of Markdown is rudimentary. I managed to get Sublime Text 2 set up, but felt the $70 was far too pricey for my needs. I write comic scripts in Scrivener, but I want just a nice plain text editor for my work with TUAW and PennLive.com.
If you've not explored text editors beyond TextEdit, or you're married to Microsoft Word, Ulysses is a good place to start. It visualizes links, images, headings, code and more. Typing the Markdown code for links and images brings up a popup box that allows you to paste in links or drag-and-drop an image to the file. Individual files are called sheets, and you can join them by highlighting two sheets and "glueing" them together.
One thing I really like about Ulysses is the handy cheat sheet included for Markdown. As someone who is still getting used to writing in the language, it's nice to have those shortcuts at hand rather than toggle between windows when I forget a shortcut. The cheat sheet changes depending on if you're using basic Markdown, Markdown XL or Textile in your document. You can change what style you're using by hovering your mouse at the top of the sheet, no matter where you are in the document. You can also use this to add keywords and notes to your sheet.
But you don't need to know Markdown to use Ulysses. There are keyboard functions for basic functions such as styling a text in bold or italics or adding a URL. It's the perfect marriage of a Markdown editor and the advantages of writing program such as Microsoft World. For Markdown fans, what few services are missing in Ulysses can be rectified by installing Markdown Service Tools, which can be used systemwide.
Another of Ulysses' strengths is the Quick Export tool, which does one-click exporting of your file as Markdown, text, HTML or a PDF, copies the text to the clipboard or opens your file in a number of programs. You can preview your text in a variety of applications, and Brett Terpstra says that with its next update, Marked will provide integration with Ulysses (he says it's in review right now). Basic statistics are also available, including an estimated reading speed.
Ulysses is also integrated with Daedalus Touch, an iOS text editor also by the Soulmen. You can sync among copies of Ulysses and Daedalus Touch with iCloud. I would like to see similar integration with non-Soulmen iOS text editors, such as Drafts, but can see why that would not be a priority.
Sync worked well with iCloud. I started this review on my MacBook Air, then picked it up where I left off on my MacBook Pro. I suspect there might be an issue when Ulysses tries to sync with iCloud and you can't reach it. The only time the program crashed on me was when I had Wi-Fi turned off and was unable to sync with iCloud. You can add Dropbox as a source, something I didn't figure out until it was mentioned in the Stale Coffee review.
Programs such as Microsoft Word and Pages put an emphasis on making your text look good. Ulysses, however, makes your text work. No matter how you set your preferences, the exported result will be clean code that will make your web producer very happy if you write for any website. While Scrivener will always be my go-to for creative writing, Ulysses will be the program I use for reporting.
Ulysses is on sale for US$19.99. But with a $39.99 regular pricepoint, there should be a demo version. There are just enough quirks with it that you need to try it before you spend nearly $40 on it.