TextWrangler freeware text editor review

Sections: Mac Software, Reviews, Writing / Publishing

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Provides: Text composition and modification
Format: Download
Developer: Bare Bones Software
Minimum System Requirements: Mac OS X 10.5 or later (10.5.8, 10.6.6 or later recommended)
Processor Compatibility: Universal
Price: Free
Availability: Now
Version Reviewed: 3.5.3

Do you use TextWrangler, and if not, why not? It’s free, and it’s very, very good.

TextWrangler, was originally introduced in February, 2003 by Bare Bones Software as a $49 commercial software general purpose text editor for composing and modifying plain text and text-oriented data, including Unicode (UTF-8 and UTF-16) files and most non-Roman single-byte files. TextWrangler’s powerful text engine made it an excellent tool for editing and manipulating text, but it was also easy to use and consumed very few system resources in light-duty service, making it a nimble alternative to ponderous word processors for basic composition, as well as having muscle enough to handle the heavy lifting when processing large amounts of text data.

With the release of version 2.0 in 2005, Bare Bones made TextWrangler a high-performance freeware sidekick for their flagship editor, BBEdit—successor to their previous freeware editor, BBEdit Lite, which has been discontinued, making TextWrangler one of the most spectacular bargains in the Mac software world.

Unlike a word processor, which is designed for preparing formatted hard copy output, text editors focus on producing and manipulating text content. Several years ago, it occurred to me that since I do almost everything on the Internet nowadays, my printer would sit for literally months between actually printing out any hard copy text documents. I didn’t really need the text formatting power and cluttered feature set of a full word processor anymore, except for extraordinary tasks like when I actually do have to produce hard copy correspondence. I switched to using text editors as my main production text-crunchers, and never looked back.

TextWrangler is a pure text editor, as opposed to styled text editors like Tex Edit Plus that support a considerable degree of text styling and formatting, straddling the category margin between text editors and word processors. As such, it does not support any fancy formatting capabilities, headers and footers, graphics tools, a thesaurus, and other staples of feature-laden “office” software. Instead, it focuses on helping you manipulate text in ways that word processors generally can’t. In service of that goal, TextWrangler offers regular expression–based (“grep”) search and replace, multi-file search, sophisticated text transformations, intelligent text coloring, an impressive set of text manipulation cleaning and checking tools, and other features not usually found in word processors. It also has an integrated spelling checker, as well as integration with Word Services-aware spelling and grammar checkers, and supports spellchecking as you type.


One TextWrangler feature I particularly love is that you can access multiple open documents in a single interface window. Document titles can be selected from a pop-up menu in the TextWrangler toolbar, or from a list in the program’s Cocoa slide-out drawer.

TextWrangler also incorporates two really slick file navigation features: a disk browser lets you navigate directories without switching to the Finder, while the “Find File by Name” command locates all files of a specified name.

There is also a “Show Clipboard” window in which you can preview the contents of the Clipboard and even select and drag text from the Clipboard window to other TextWrangler windows. This way, you don’t need to paste the entire clipboard. Or actually, Clipboards: TextWrangler has six. Each time you use the Cut or Copy command, the text is placed on the next clipboard in sequence. This way, you can always paste your choice from the last six Clipboard contents you cut or copied. By default, the Paste command pastes from the last clipboard you put something on.

Something TextWrangler doesn’t include is the HTML markup tools found in its even more powerful sibling application—BBEdit—so any HTML tagging you do with it must be done manually.

As a Unix and server administrator’s tool, TextWrangler offers the ability to open and save files in a variety of line-ending formats, open and save text files located on remote FTP and SFTP servers, authenticated saves (you can modify files not owned by you, provided that you are an administrative user), and the ability to integrate TextWrangler with Unix tools and scripts, by means of the “edit” command-line tool.

Programming features include syntax coloring and function navigation for ANSI C, C++, HTML/XHTML, Fortran, Java, JavaScript, Object Pascal, Objective-C, Perl, PHP, Python, Rez, Tcl, TeX, Unix shell scripts, and XML.

TextWrangler is a good Mac OS citizen with AppleScript support; not as slick and user friendly an implementation as we find in in TextEdit Plus, but still scriptable, recordable, and attachable.

I’ve really only scratched the surface of what this program can do. A few more TextWrangler features I found particularly notable include:

Find Differences
If you have ever had to reconcile changes between two different versions of a file, or even larger numbers of documents, you know how laborious this task can be. TextWrangler’s Find Differences command is a powerful tool for doing such comparisons faster and more effectively. Using Find Differences, you can compare any two files, or the contents of two folders. You can specify options to eliminate minor variations in document content—such as different amounts of white space—from being considered. If you have two or more text documents open, choose the Compare Two Front Documents command on the Search menu to quickly compare the topmost two documents. (TextWrangler will automatically determine which document is newer and which is older based on their modification dates.)

Strip Quotes
This command removes all Internet-style quoting from the selected hard-wrapped text, or from the current line if there is no selection.

Zap Gremlins
I love Zap Gremlins, which has saved my bacon many times when some pesky stray invisible character in text originating in press releases or downloaded from the Web cause picky news posting CGI engines to choke. Use this command when you have a file that may contain extraneous (sometimes hidden) control characters, or any non-ASCII characters that you wish to identify or remove.

Text Wrap options
TextWrangler wraps text in one of two ways: soft wrapping or hard wrapping. Soft wrapping is like the word wrapping found in most word processors. When the insertion point reaches a right margin as you type, the word processor automatically moves the insertion point to the beginning of the next line. You never need to type a carriage return (that is, press the Return key) at the end of a line, but only to start a new paragraph. If you place the insertion point in the middle of a paragraph and start typing, the text reflows so that words that are pushed out beyond the right margin end up on the next line.

Usually, you use soft wrapping when you are editing memos, mail messages, and other prose. It is also useful for HTML documents. With soft wrapping, you generally do not have to scroll the window horizontally to see all the text in the file. Unlike soft wrapping, hard wrapping requires a carriage return at the end of every line.

When soft wrapping is turned off, TextWrangler lets you type as far as you like on a line, and never automatically moves the insertion point to the beginning of the next line. You have to manually type a carriage return to start a new line. You usually use hard wrapping to write programs, tabular data, resource descriptions, and so on. With hard wrapping, each line of source code or data appears on its own line in the window, although you may have to scroll the window horizontally to see the entire line if it is long. Note that when you use the Hard Wrap command on a rectangular selection, lines will be padded with spaces as necessary. If you open a file in TextWrangler that appears to consist of a few very long lines, just select the soft wrapping option for that file. I wish there was a way to make soft wrap the default, but if there is, I haven’t found it.

This is an extremely capable text editor. Don’t let TextWrangler’s simple appearance and freeware status fool you. It’s a very powerful program that comes with a 258 page PDF manual that can help you get the best from this application, and comprehensive online Help as well.

TextWrangler is currently at version 3.5.3, which was released late last month. It can be downloaded from either the Apple Mac App Store, or the Bare Bones Software Website. You may also want to consider the differences between the App Store versions of Bare Bones software and the versions available directly from the developer’s website.

For example, in TextWrangler, authenticated saves (the ability to save changes to files that you do not own) and the command-line tools are not available in the App Store versions in order to comply with Apple’s submission guidelines.

For customers using TextWrangler purchased from the Mac App Store, Bare Bones has installers available that install the command-line tools in your system. These are only for use with versions of BBEdit or TextWrangler obtained from the Mac App Store, and not suitable for use otherwise. They say they are currently at work on a solution for authenticated saves.

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TextWrangler review

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  • Matthew

    A few things I love about TextWrangler:

    1. Prefix/suffix lines. When I need to turn an article into something for the web, I can suffix every line with in one step and then I have all the spacing I need for when I upload the article.

    2. Multiple-file find and replace. No longer do you need to learn unix scripting when you need to change a hard-coded URL that's in every file on your site. Just open all the files with TextWrangler, then do a find/replace on all of them at once. Amazing time-saver!

    I'm just a novice coder, but already I've found these two features to be incredibly useful. I keep finding things the more I use it. What a great piece of software for web designers, coders, or anybody who needs to work with lots of words.