Ulysses 13 review for Mac and iOS: The best Mac minimalist text editor gets even better

Whenever I tell other writers why they should consider bringing
a Mac into their lives, Ulysses inevitably enters the
discussion. In fact, this sometimes happens without any
proselytization on my part: They simply see me typing on the
minimalist app on my iPad or Mac at trade shows or conventions
and demand to know how they could use it on their PC. But they
can’t, and in my experience alternatives come up short. Ulysses
is elegant. It’s intuitive. And thanks to the recent
introduction of a couple of new features, it’s more useful than
ever.

But it’s important to keep in mind what Ulysses is. It’s not an
organizational powerhouse in the vein of Scrivener, which
allows for Herculean feats of research collection but ends up
wallowing in ugliness in its dogged attempt to be a one-stop
shop. Ulysses can organize its various “sheets” into groups
with keywords and it lets you search through every one of them
at once, but that’s about as complex as its organization gets.
It’s not a full-blooded word processor like Microsoft Word,
with its tables and drawing tools and WYSIWYG export options,
but Ulysses allows you to export documents into a variety of
styles (and some of them are even user-made). Better yet, you
can publish your articles directly to WordPress or Medium.

ulysses Leif
Johnson/IDG

Adding keywords to the various “sheets” (documents) allows
for further organization in the library bars to the left.

In practice, Ulysses is about just you, the words, and the
page. It’s about crisp white words stamping on a fullscreen sea
of inky black (or white on black, if you don’t like working in
Dark Mode). It’s the finest of the minimalist writing apps, and
it earns that distinction in part because it allows for a
single custom font for writing while still exporting to plain
text. (Sorry, iA Writer, but I simply think better in 14-point
Verdana.) There aren’t any confining page borders to worry
about, and its resource-friendly minimalism allows new
documents to launch with blazing speed, and I can shrink
Ulysses the corner of the monitor while I dedicate most of my
screen to the webpage I’m referencing. Traditional word
processors, like Word, feel too much like drudgy busywork.
Ulysses’ beauty and minimalism makes writing feels more akin to
creation. Compare it to Pages or Notes, and it even out-Apples
Apple.

But more to the point (and down from my cloud), Ulysses is
first and foremost a minimalist Markdown editor. Don’t know
what Markdown is? You can use Ulysses entirely without it if
you wish and simply paste your copy into a more featured editor
like Google Docs. But it doesn’t take long to learn, which is
part of Markdown’s appeal. Happily, Ulysses comes with a bundle
of easily digestible sheets explaining the simple and popular
formatting language for internet content, as well as a handy
cheatsheet for shortcuts available through a toggle. You can
learn the basics within seconds.

Markdown works beautifully on Ulysses, and, blessedly, without
any of the distracting visible code for hyperlinks you find in
rivals like iA Writer. Converting Markdown text to HTML in
Ulysses is a simple matter of selecting everything,
right-clicking and choosing to copy the text as HTML, and
dumping it in your CMS of choice. The vast majority of my
content for Macworld starts this way.

Ulysses converting Leif Johnson/IDG


Ulysses has worked this way for years, but the latest updates
make it more agreeable for coders. Coders have long liked
Ulysses as much as regular writers, but in the past it was easy
for the actual coding to get mixed up with the regular text
with all the minimalism and Markdown going on. Now, you simply
click the ` key to start a block of code, and it formats it in
a monospace typeface that’s distinct from the regular text
around it. For coders, at least, it significantly improves
Ulysses’ usefulness, particularly as it recognizes over 40
programming languages and accurately colors their syntax.

And for all of Ulysses’ apparent simplicity, you’ll find other
options waiting unobtrusively in the background. There’s a word
and character counter, visible only through a tiny icon on the
taskbar. There’s a typewriter mode, which keeps your attention
focused on the handful of words directly in front of you. You
can set word count goals, and watch as a minimalist circle on
the right side of your screen grows ever more full as your
hurdle toward your word count. It’s elegant and satisfying. The
latest patch made goals even more satisfying, as you can now
set deadlines to keep you on your toes.

Ulysses Deadlines Leif Johnson/IDG

The ability to add deadlines adds a mild dash of
Flowstate-like pressure (but in a good way).

So what’s the catch? The big one is that Ulysses requires a
subscription of $4.99 per month, although it allows for a fully
featured trial (across Mac, iPad, and iPhone) that lasts two
weeks before you have to pony up. I’m still not too sure how I
feel about subscription models, but in my case, I certainly use
it more than enough to justify the relatively agreeable price.
I find the cross-platform subscription especially useful for my
workflow, as I tend to write drafts on my Mac at work and then
edit them on my iPhone or iPad while lying on the couch. It
usually works perfectly, but I’ve experienced some syncing
hiccups and I’m not sure whether to blame Apple or Ulysses for
them.

touchbar Leif Johnson/IDG

Yes, I’m gonna say it: Few if any apps understand the
potential of the Touch Bar so well as Ulysses. It saves
significant time, particularly in fullscreen mode.

This isn’t enough to send me running into the arms of a
competing app (although I consistently try out others to make
sure my admiration isn’t misplaced). Ulysses may not be an
Apple product, but it’s one of the best things about using a
Mac, and iPhone, and iPad. The experience remains remarkably
the same across each device, and it’s usually just as
satisfying on each. May it stay that way for a long time to
come.

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