Ulysses III, enhanced plain text editor

Imagine a blank slate on which you can write your thoughts and ideas and work on them further, regardless of whether it's a note, a brief or a book you're trying to compose. You'll need an app that supports your stream of thoughts without intruding. Ullysses III is such an app.

Ulysses III is completely new. The few features that it has in common with the previous version are all accessible in different ways. Ulysses III is an enhanced plain text editor, meaning that everything you do in terms of semantic markup is typed in. It's also a single library app, which is the one thing it has in common with Scrivener. Everything you add inside Ulysses III, stays in one location, the Library. There's no need to save or open files. Open Ulysses III, and you're opening everything ever added to it (and not removed). Close Ulysses III and everything inside is automatically saved.

As soon as you've set up iCloud, Ulysses III will store everything on iCloud. There's a Preference to turn that off, as there also is a preference to turn off storing anything on your Mac. By default, you'll be storing everything on both iCloud and local Mac.

Of course, iCloud access also means you gain access to your documents from every Mac on the network. In addition, you can add document Resources, such as DropBox folders or mounted network volumes.

ulysses III editor window only

Ulysses III uses the familiar sidebar-main window approach with a twist. There's a sidebar holding your document Groups and Filters. Clicking on a Group or Filter will show you all the documents (or sheets, as they're called in Ulysses III) inside that Group or found by the criteria from that Filter. You create Groups for explicit collections while Filters are really Saved Searches.

The interface is bare in that you will have a hard time looking for buttons, icons, etc. The most useful actions/functionality can be found using subtle icons, but the whole idea is that you learn the command set, which is complete without being overwhelmingly large.

At right of the toolbar there are icons for Favorites (Command-5), Exporting (Command-6), Statistics (Command-7), a Navigator (Command-8) and a Markup Cheat Sheet (Command-9). At the top of each sheet — but only visible when you hover over the top with your cursor — are two dropdown menus. The centre one serves to select the markdown language you prefer. Currently, in version 1, there's a choice between Markdown, Markdown XL and Textile. The righthand menu gives access to "Attachments", i.e. Notes, Images and Keywords that you wish to associate with the document/sheet.

ulysses III editor theme

I could make the Notes and Keywords attachments work without a problem, but I could only attach an image by copy-paste. Drag-drop from the Finder didn't work with my copy. Could be a bug.

By the way, adding images in the text did work. That's as easy as dropping the image inside the sheet where you want the markdown/markup code to appear. Note, however, that you won't see the image full size in the text itself. You can, however, zoom in on a teared off image popover. An arrow in the top-right corner links you to the location of the image on the sheet. The IMG code in the sheet is in essence a thumbnail with a link and title field appearing in the popover of the image you dragged.

Which takes me to the next feature: popovers. A URL is written by entering the command "Command-L" upon which you'll be presented with a popover in which you can enter details. At the moment, only the URL and the Title attributes can be entered. I hope The Soulmen, the company of developers behind Ulysses III, will soon implement the Target attribute (and others) as well.

Popovers are everywhere in Ulysses III. The statistics, for example, live in a popover. For those who like to have some of these popovers on-screen all the time, you can tear off all of them and keep them visible as HUDs. As far as I could see, there is only one popover that has customisable settings, and not surprisingly it's the Statistics one. You can actually set how statistics are calculated, and which numbers you want to see.

ulysses III attached image

The Cheat Sheet is another clever thing. While it's advised that you use it as a cheat sheet, you can also use it as a button list. For example, if you want to create a level six heading, you can type six pound signs (in Markdown XL) or select the sentence and click on the Heading 6 line in the Cheat Sheet.

Exporting your work

The most interesting part about a text editor like Ulysses III or Scrivener is that you can take one text and output it to many output formats, e.g. Plain Text, RTF, PDF, HTML, ePUB, etc.

In Ulysses III, unlike Scrivener's feature, this is very simple: you Quick Export (Command-6) a sheet and select the format. You can choose from Plain Text, RTF, HTML, Markdown and PDF. ePUB will be soon to be added, The Soulmen have promised. Not only can you choose the formats, but also how it's exported. For example, RTF can be Microsoft Word or Apple Pages compliant. I liked the HTML export feature in particular as it lets you save to clipboard.

When you then paste the clipboard in the WordPress editor, the text and every markup code renders perfectly! Ulysses III doesn't add the HTML document headers, which you don't want, when exporting to clipboard, but only the heading levels, paragraph markup, etc. Exporting to a file, however, does make the document header appear correctly. Great stuff!

Ulysses III export feature

Text export (the group that contains HTML and Markdown) can also be exported to another app. For example, when I export to Markdown, the second item in the Quick Export popover changes from Open in Safari (and a dropdown list hidden under an OS X triangle) to Open in BBEdit (at least on my system).

Long document features

I keep referring to Scrivener for the high-end functionality of Ulysses III… If I want to write a book in Scrivener, I'll use the index cards, the Research group and the ability to write chapters in individual documents. Later, when I'm ready, I'll compile the grouped documents inside Scrivener into a Word file or something else.

Scrivener is great and powerful, but it can be daunting. Ulysses III is powerful but not daunting. Admittedly, it's less powerful than Scrivener in some respects. For example, there's no equivalent for index cards or research. But the features that are available as just as powerful, but less difficult to use.

To some extent, you can replace the index cards paradigm in Scrivener by Keywords Attachments in Ulysses III. That works very well and combined with Filters you get a very powerful overview of sheets that are associated with each other through these Keywords.

Attached Notes can be research notes. You can't link/load complete web pages in them — as you can with Scrivener — but using the Link feature in an attached Note, you can have Safari open URLs automatically from within that Note by clicking the shackle icon inside the URL popover. You can create about 20 Attached Notes, Keywords and Images before you run out of space at the top of the sheet (which is also called the Attachment bar). The Attachment bar always stays visible, no matter how long your sheet, so you'll have direct access to your Notes, Images and Keywords at all times. Individual attachments can be torn off too, so you can place them anywhere you want on your screen.

Ulysses III enhanced plain text editor: statistics settings

One thing that should be added for comfort is a way to get rid of all Attached Notes, Images and Keywords with one command. You can kill all markup, but that's not what we want.

For long document projects such as books, you can edit each chapter in its own separate sheet, and then, at export time, join them all together. Un-join them is easy too.

In a word: if you don't cling on to the way it all works in Scrivener, you can do exactly the same, with exactly the same power, in Ulysses III — only in less complicated ways.

Other cleverly implemented features

Moving from sheet to sheet can be done in several ways. In the sheets list, you can position your cursor and do what seems like the intuitive way: using your keyboard or mouse, scroll through the documents. But here's another way: at the end of a document, you can quickly tap twice on the down arrow of your keyboard and you'll find yourself at the top of the next sheet. Going back from the top takes two quick taps on the up arrow. You can also use Command-Option-up/down).

And yes, there's yet another way: take your Magic Mouse or Trackpad, scroll up or down and keep pulling. You'll see the bottom end (or top end, it's the same but in a reverse direction) make place for the black textured background and… the title of the next/previous sheet. Keep pulling and the sheet will "pull through" to the next document in your Group.

As you can group Sheet Groups together in folders, you might be tempted to try pull at the end of the group to get into the next group, but that doesn't work. I think it wouldn't make sense, either.

I don't have an iOS device, but if you have one, and you happen to own and run The Soulmen's Daedalus Touch app, it won't come as a surprise to find that Ulysses III integrates with Daedalus Touch.

In Ulysses III you will have hard time finding an explicit import command or menu. That's because importing text and markdown files you already have created is as easy as drag-and-drop from the Finder.

And of course, Ulysses III runs in Full Screen mode. And you can change the markup/markdown code in the editor. And you get a couple of design Themes with associated colour schemes built-in. And you can change the colours of the editor for better readability (depending on your taste — I find the defaults simply gorgeous). And you can have multiple windows open simultaneously. And you can zoom in/out. And changing the font is possible. And, and, and…

Your text editor, Ulysses III?

Will you like Ulysses III? I can't tell. It all depends on personal preference, but I can tell you this: Ulysses III looks like it's years ahead of the flock and that's simply because it is. Even in version 1 released only half a week ago.

As much as I love the power and interface of Scrivener, and as much as I love the power and simplicity of BBEdit to edit WordPress text with, Ulysses III beats them all and with ease. Contrary to what I always thought, writing text in any type of markdown/markup doesn't have to interfere with your stream of consciousness. Implemented in the right way, it only helps.

Ulysses III can be downloaded in the App Store for €35.99.