Versatil Markdown Shows Promise but Is Not Ready
Product: Versatil Markdown | Sometimes you need something a little more...Versatil
Marketed as a "…hyper notebook built around Markdown/CommonMark, with 1Password integration, HTML/CSS support, syntax highlighting, frictionless keyboard flow, smart drag-n-drop insertion, multiple themes, document aliasing, and more," Versatil Markdown is a new entrant in the field of notebooks.
It is a congested marketplace that Versatil Markdown is trying to make its mark in. Direct competitors include LightPaper, TextNut, and iA Writer. Indirect competitors would include a whole host of players, Byword, nvALT, and the like.
I have written about LightPaper, here, and here. TextNut was covered here. TextNut has improved some since I wrote about it. It has gained a couple of siblings, an iOS version, and a stripped down version for the Mac called TextNut SD. iA Writer was reviewed here.
These products are similar in that, they let you write in Markdown. But they are different beasts when it comes to how they conceptualize and implement their vision of a perfect note-taking Markdown editor. I will try to cover these differences as I write this review.
The Location of Your Files
The first difference and a critical one to the adoption of a Markdown based text editor is the way these programs handle files and their location.
LightPaper doesn't care where your files are. If you have a folder of files on your hard drive, you can add them to LightPaper and the app will be happy to deal with them. You can add to them, delete them, rename them. You have the ability to add multiple folders and LightPaper will manage all the folders you add to it. If you are used to the way established text editors like BBEdit and Sublime Text 3 handle folders in projects, you are going to be comfortable in LightPaper.
TextNut does more than LightPaper. TextNut handles folders on your Mac, much the same way that does LightPaper. It includes the ability to have a folder in iCloud. You can add, rename, and edit files in the iCloud folder and they are synced and available for you in the iOS version of TextNut. LightPaper or Versatil Markdown do not have an iOS version and thus are not interested in the benefits of iCloud syncing although Versatil Markdown lets you manage your files in iCloud.
iA Writer has added the ability to add folders of files to its file management arsenal. You can add any folder, and as many folders you want, and it deals with iCloud. iA Writer has an iOS iteration and they both share access to the files stored in iCloud.
Versatil Markdown implements a dedicated folder for its files and folders. You can have this folder anywhere you want. It can be in your Documents Folder, in your Dropbox folder or any other cloud based folder you want, including iCloud. But this is the only folder Versatil Markdown will manage. You don't have the ability to add a folder from Documents folder and another from the Dropbox folder. If you already have a system in place, Versatil Markdown is not going to work with that. Versatil Markdown falls short of the competition in this regard. I am not sure that I understand the logic behind it either. Versatil Markdown does not have a search system implemented across files. It can search within files but not across them. So, this particular arrangement of one folder and its sub-folders does not benefit the search function. It seems to be a design decision and it might not be painful to the new user, but for those who already have a collection of text files they have been working on, this is a deal-breaker, unless you want to change your system to fit the one provided by Versatil Markdown.
Versatil Markdown is built around the concept of "Display First." The idea is that unless you are explicitly writing or editing Markdown, you shouldn't have to see it. In Display mode you see your Markdown rendered in Versatil Markdown. It is an interesting twist to the preview function and it is a beautiful rendering of your document.
When you choose to edit your document, you hit ⌘+Enter, and the look changes and you are in Markdown mode.
I like the look of a folder of Markdown documents in Display mode.
Both TextNut and iA Writer have a preview mode, they are not particularly exciting but they work. LightPaper can preview a document using the style and look of your blog or web site, and that is an unique feature of LightPaper.
I like Versatil Markdown's attempt at differentiating the Markdown code from the display, it is an interesting differentiator. Typora does a similar thing but the preview is "live." You finish the Markdown code and the display turns into rendered Markdown. Versatil Markdown separates the process of previewing your document and editing it and that is an interesting effect.
LightPaper comes with complete built-in support for MultiMarkdown and Github Flavored Markdown.
iA Writer comes with full support for MultiMarkdown.
What does this mean for the user? If you write in Markdown, all four apps are good at handling it. The difference is really in the implementation of the features. For instance, how easy is it to make a table in the four products?
Table support in Versatil Markdown seems rudimentary but it is powerful. When you ask for a table, Versatil Markdown gives you a table, 3 columns by 2 rows. You can add columns and rows by typing them in and when you are done entering your data, highlight the whole table, and choose Cleanup Table from the View menu and the app aligns the table to look pretty. TextNut fails in this one. I couldn't figure out any in-built way of adding a table. In fact, after playing with it for a while, I am not sure TextNut in any way supports tables.
iA Writer is good at supporting tables. Gives you a pop-up where you get to choose the number of columns and rows in your tables and it is a feature which is usable. LightPaper does something novel when it comes to tables. It outsources the creation of tables to Tables Generator. You make your table on the web site. Copy and paste the code in to LightPaper and you have a table.
When it comes to tables in Markdown, Typora is the clear leader. It is the best implementation of a table creator for Markdown I have seen so far.
Slightly Geeky Stuff
Versatil Markdown supports embedded HTML and CSS. If you are going to be adding special sections of formatting you can. You have the ability to utilize the embedded Bootstrap 3 framework. This is an interesting addition in Versatil Markdown. Makes the resultant files incompatible with most other Markdown editors but it adds some unique features to Versatil Markdown.
Versatil Markdown has the ability to syntax highlight embedded code, a feature it shares with LightPaper and TextNut.
Versatil Markdown builds in MathJax for TeX and LaTeX support. When enabled in the Preferences, it includes MathJax, so that your TeX and LaTeX equations are rendered beautifully. This is another feature which is shared by LightPaper.
I think Versatil Markdown and LightPaper are the clear winners when it comes to supporting the more esoteric geeky features. LightPaper is extendible while Versatil Markdown is constrained by what is already built in. Both TextNut and iA Writer fall short in the support of these features.
Some Nifty Additional Features
This is a Versatil Markdown exclusive feature.
You can drag a login item from 1Password into the editor window and it will insert a link which lets you click on it to log into the site whose link you have chosen. Provides another link to show you the item in 1Password. This is specially useful if you want to bring in information on software licenses or Servers.
I am not sure that I understand the use case, but it is a feature which no one else has.
Another feature which is unique to Versatil Markdown.
In Versatil Markdown, you get to organize your content into sections and folders. In use, I didn't see any difference between a folder and a section. For the purposes of this review, I am going to just concentrate on folders. A document in a folder might also belong to another folder. Versatil Markdown gives you the ability create aliases to virtually place a specific document into multiple folders. You create an alias by ⌃+dragging a document into the new folder. You can do that to multiple folders and a little icon on the right of the document shows the aliases. You can edit the document from any of its aliases. It is an interesting implementation of an idea which hasn't been tackled by any of the other note-taking applications.
Dark Appearance and Multiple Editor Themes
Versatil Markdown gives you the option of using a dark appearance. Makes the sidebar dark. It also ships with three different editor themes (normal, solarized dark and light). I didn't find a way to customize the themes or add new ones to Versatil Markdown.
Both TextNut and LightPaper are extendible by the user when it comes to themes. You can design your own theme and use them. iA Writer doesn't provide any such user customization. The choice in iA Writer is restricted to either Night mode or not. Night Mode is the dark mode.
Once in a while, and only once in a while, you see a feature in a program which makes you smile. This is one of those. Versatil Markdown implements a Spark File. While in Versatil Markdown, you type ⌃+S, and you are taken to a file called a Spark File. It is timestamped and you get to type in your thought. Then you go back to whatever you were doing. The Spark File is a place for your random thoughts kept for eternity if you wish.
LightPaper implements a similar feature through its LightPaper Mini feature and its support for Scratch Notes. It is a great way of entering data into LightPaper, without LightPaper needing to be launched or active. It is a different implementation of the same idea. Unlike Versatil Markdown's Spark File, LightPaper is constrained by an extra step or two. You have to move the data into your Spark File from Scratch Notes. In some ways, LightPaper's implementation of Shadow Notes, is a different enhancement. Shadow Notes have the advantage of being associated to a particular program or a particular web site URL.
These are features designed to make the process of note-taking easier and clearly Versatil Markdown, and LightPaper are ahead of the competition.
TextNut and iA Writer doesn't have anything comparable to this.
While speaking of a Spark File, I use an Alfred workflow called AppendText2File which lets me append any text I want to my Spark File. There is another solution, PrependText2File, if you are interested in prepending the data.
Stored as Text and Export to HTML, PDF and Web Archive
All of the programs do this well. The individual files are text based markdown files and you can access them through a plethora of applications so there is no lock-in to a particular application.
In Versatil Markdown, you can export to HTML, PDF or a Web Archive. In LightPaper, you can export to HTML, PDF or an audio file. TextNut exports to HTML, PDF and an rtf file. iA Writer exports to HTML, PDF and has the added benefit of importing and exporting to a Microsoft Word file (docx).
Comments on Actual Usage
Feature lists are all good, but how do the applications perform in actual use?
Versatil Markdown lets you drag a link from your browser window and that is a great feature. It fills in the title and generates a formatted Markdown link. TextNut has no idea what to do with a dragged link. LightPaper shows you the copied link as text. iA Writer knows you are looking for a markdown link, formats it as such, and puts the cursor in the middle of the square brackets to wait for the title. Versatil Markdown does it better.
However, this is not the only way I add links to my documents. Sometimes I have the link in my clipboard, I want to highlight a word, press a keyboard command and have the word formatted as the title of the link and the link appended to the word in Markdown format. Other times the link is obvious and I don't want to be dragging and dropping anything. I just want to type. I want to press a keyboard command and have the syntax show up. If I have a highlighted word, like Apple, and I press the keyboard command for a link, I want this to show up, Apple and the cursor in the middle of the parenthesis. Versatil Markdown falls short in its support for keyboard commands. Both iA Writer and LightPaper does an excellent job of supporting keyboard commands geared towards a Markdown writing environment. TextNut is not as good as those two but it is better than Versatil Markdown at supporting keyboard commands.
Versatil Markdown does a good job of formatting lists if you start off with the right syntax. Sometimes you don't know that you are going to turn a section into a list, you type it and then highlight it and change it to a list. You need a keyboard command to do this, or choose it from a menu item. Versatil Markdown doesn't have a list menu item, and no keyboard command either.
LightPaper and iA Writer are both much better equipped to deal with Markdown through keyboard commands. TextNut is also better than Versatil Markdown.
This is a list of keyboard commands available in iA Writer.
This is a list of keyboard commands available in LightPaper.
And, this is the list of keyboard commands available in edit mode in Versatil Markdown.
These screenshots came from a program called KeyCue - find, remember, and learn menu shortcuts. It is from Egonis, and is a great way to learn the keyboard shortcuts that are built into an application.
Versatil Markdown supports search within a document, but it doesn't support searches across documents. A note-taking program without across document search is not a viable solution. LightPaper is fantastic at this function. It's Open Quickly function searches across the files it manages and gives you results instantly. Similarly, iA Writer is instant in its locating files within the folders it is managing. TextNut has a filter based approach to search, but it doesn't work reliably.
Full Screen Mode
Versatil Markdown has a full screen mode. It is not usable on an iMac, the text covers the whole screen and no one can write like that. All of its competitors do a better job of this. The leader in this is iA Writer.
Versatil Markdown shows promise. It's developer has added some features to the note-taking genre which makes the product interesting. But it has some ways to go before it is competitive in the marketplace. Across files search is a key element of a note-taking application. Without that, Versatil Markdown is hobbled and not a serious contender.
I would recommend iA Writer and LightPaper at this point without any reservations. Versatil Markdown is not ready, and TextNut is buggy.
Areas of Improvement
- Across files search. Both file names and content.
- Ability to add folders irrespective of location.
- Focus on ease of use features specific to Markdown.
- Keyboard commands.
This list would be a good place to start improving the product.
A review license was provided by the developers of Versatil Markdown and LightPaper. I bought iA Writer and TextNut.
macosxguru at the gmail thingie.