Ulysses 3 Review
The Soulmen‘s new attempt to revolutionise plain-text editing is finally out after eighteen gruelling months in the oven: Ulysses 3. It’s all new from the ground up.
A Change of Heart
Ulysses (1/2) used to be primarily marketed to (slightly geeky) novelists who wanted a lightweight editor focused on content, not presentation. It sought to be the antidote to Desktop Publishing programs such as Microsoft Word by letting the user write semantically, a phrase I believe the developers coined themselves. Collections of texts were stored in ‘project’ files which allowed the user to organise, search, label and develop a piece of long form writing without worrying about the output until the export process at the end.
Ulysses was a tool based around the notion of projects. Interestingly, however, the new tagline reads:
All your texts. In one place. Always.
I found this initially a little confusing – most of my texts already are in one place, stored in individual files in my Dropbox – but it turns out that whereas Ulysses once sought to organise bundles of collected material into one cohesive piece, the new approach encourages you to hand off all document management to the application. Ulysses 3 doesn’t just want to organise the text within your projects, but the projects themselves. Every piece of text you’re actively editing should apparently end up in it.
This is problematic for two main reasons:
- The best features of Ulysses 3 require you to rely on iCloud or local bundles consisting of randomised file names and xml files hidden deep away in your file system.
- There’s no universal search functionality across groups, or any kind of tagging system. You’ll probably have a hard time finding anything if you need to manage more than a few document groups.
The first is the most problematic and requires some elaboration.
If you want to use Dropbox (or your local filesystem) to store ‘sheets’ as plain text files, then you’re required to add an ‘external source’, a rather hidden option in the left hand pane:
From now on you’ll be able to see this group in said pane and add groups/sheets to this section instead of ‘On My Mac’, ‘iCloud’ or ‘Daedalus‘ (if you have it). This would be fine, if a little cumbersome, if it wasn’t for the lack of support of some of Ulysses’ most touted features, mostly derived from the ‘Markdown XL’ syntax its file packages provide.
The FAQ elaborates:
Several advanced features are not available in External Sources or Daedalus. This is mostly a limitation of plain text files and Markdown which does not support these kinds of content.
Say goodbye to notes, annotations, comments and attachments. It’s true that these features are bonuses on top of the flexibility Markdown already provides, but they’re also key selling points for Ulysses as a composition platform. Take them away and the whole package becomes significantly less compelling.
Think you’ll just roll with iCloud and use Daedalus instead of your current Dropbox-enabled iOS text editor? Say goodbye (once again) to notes, annotations, comments and attachments, similarly unsupported in its iOS counterpart.
Until this is addressed in some form I can see a lot of people giving Ulysses 3 a miss. For an editor which wants you to put all of your eggs (or texts) in one basket, it stops at nothing to fragment your library into a variety of subsections with varying feature sets. You’ll likely end up using External Sources to manage existing files you need to version control or manipulate elsewhere, iCloud for OS X only projects, and Daedalus for anything you might want to edit on iOS.
Consolidate only at the risk of feature loss.
Cut to Size
This is what Ulysses used to look like:
This is what it looks like now:
The simplicity and minimalism of the new interface speaks volumes about the direction that The Soulmen have taken to refine, simplify and expand the audience of an application that (up to this point) has had a reputation for being more than a little unfriendly.
Yet it’s also a good example of an unnecessary embrace of iOS design. The original layout is less ‘clean’, but no space is wasted, and information is displayed without summoning up a series of detachable floating panels. If you wanted to remove them you could, but now everything is hidden away.
Worse, perhaps, is that a lot is simply gone.
The export options before (only a screenshot of some of the options):
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does denote a serious change of audience. You’re not going to be able to produce finally formatted documents in Ulysses 3 with the same flexibility as something like Scrivener:
On the plus side, the three-pane layout is a huge improvement over the tab system, and the ‘join’ functionality provides a long needed Scrivener-esque means of viewing multiple documents as if they were one.
The Ulysses 3 Rundown
The problem with Ulysses 3 is that it’s now an editor without an audience. The inability to utilise the full feature set with ‘external’ (read: portable) documents hampers its usefulness to those of us who like to keep an inventory of Markdown files in a Dropbox directory. Strip away the annotations, comments and file attachments and you’re faced with a decidedly mediocre editor with a few cute tricks with regards to hiding markup. Meanwhile, the aspiring novelist who doesn’t care about any of the above still has no universal text search, no hierarchical overview and extremely limited export options.2
Ulysses used to advertise itself as a long form writing tool, yet now in its third incarnation the focus has clearly shifted to short form pieces – a move likely inspired by the growing popularity of Markdown amongst bloggers. There’s some great potential here; the iCloud integration is tight, the interface is beautiful, the markup additions are clever; but in trying to cater to two separate user groups, Ulysses’ famously uncompromising ethos has become a little murky. As Gabe says, it’s ‘no match for nvALT or a nerd-editor like Sublime Text or BBEdit’, but unfortunately it’s also no match for more user friendly applications such as Scrivener, which offer a wealth of power user tools for those who need them and a basic toolset for those who don’t.
Ultimately, Ulysses 3 doesn’t do anything well enough to seriously recommend it over the alternatives. It’s a good application, but a lot less relevant than it used to be.