Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Markdown Editors (for Linux or cross-platform)

I’ve been using markdown more and more, and use pandoc to make a PDF from it. But it often comes out differently to how I expect, so I have been looking for an editor with live preview.

(This article has been updated, end-March 2016, to add Atom; and I've checked for any improvements in StackEdit, RStudio, NetBeans 8.1 and Remarkable. I've also added spell-checking as a requirement.)

Quick summary: all of them are (fatally) flawed.

Here is a quick review of each; well, more a summary of the flaws with each. (When I say “wrong”, in the below, I am treating pandoc, with default settings, as correct.)

stackedit.io: Online. That is a fatal flaw when looking for an offline editor! It also gets the 1-2-3 case wrong (see below). Not open source. I do like how it exports to Blogger, though. (I use it for writing blog posts.) Has same spell-checking as your browser (which is good). Additional Fatal Flaw: your data is stored in the browser, so almost impossible to backup separately; I've just discovered my recent clearing of all cookies has destroyed all my articles.

RStudio: It supports its own .rmd format (which allows embedding live R code inside markdown), but can also be a normal Markdown editor. But no live preview, so you need to keep clicking “Preview HTML” to see what it looks like (though it does have syntax hilighting as you type). It handles underlines wrongly (see below). No spell-checking.

Remarkable: Gets the 1-2-3 case wrong. Open source and looks nice. But it feels black-box-ish. E.g. I don’t know how the code syntax hilighting works, and I don’t know if writing {php} or {r} is being listened to. (It highlighted a short PHP code snippet, with or without a hint, but not R code.) Another fatal flaw: it resets the preview window to the top every time you add a new line, making it useless for a document longer than one screen. It is also very slow - a distinct sluggishness as you type.

Mark My Words. Gets both the 1-2-3 and underlines case correct in the preview window, but the underline case is wrong in the syntax highlighting in the editor window! The icons at the top are a bit confusing.

NetBeans, with the “Markdown Support” plugin. 8.0 had an unusable preview window, but as of NetBeans 8.1 that is better; however the editor and preview windows scroll completely independently, rather than staying in sync. No word-wrap in the editor window. On the plus side it gets the 1-2-3 and underline cases correct. (NB. NetBeans also has most of the problems I point out with Atom, below: in fact they are very similar.)

Haroopad: This makes me nervous, as it does not appear to be open source, and is a 40MB download. It gets the 1-2-3 case wrong. It also doesn’t do syntax highlighting (but that is not an essential feature for me). No spell-checking. No new releases the past 6 months, so this may be a dead/dying project.

Atom (built-in plugin): Currently (March 2016) this is the number one choice at a comparison of Linux Markdown Editors, so I just installed it. I think it is one to watch, because Atom is actively developed and with some more development the markdown support could become the best of the bunch. It handles 1-2-3 and underline cases correctly. There is live preview, but sadly the two panes are unconnected - when you scroll in one, the other just sits there, with no way to sync them. Also they do not agree what is correct markdown: the left window goes all weird with "*.txt", whereas the preview window handles it just fine. It underlines wrong spellings, but right-click does not suggest the correct spellings. It is more a programmer's editor than a writing tool, e.g. ctrl-b with a word highlighted does not make it bold. No print/export options.

My choice? Initially I went with Remarkable, as the best of the bunch, but I hadn't discovered the one-screenful limit at that point. (it beats Haroopad by being open source, and much smaller). Go with stackedit.io if working in a browser is okay for you. March 2016 Update: I've been using Haroopad the past 6 months, but the lack of spell-checking has become an irritation. Atom and NetBeans have very similar pros and cons; of the two I prefer Atom. Not sure if it is quite good enough yet to make me switch from Haroopad, though...

(Your suggestion? Let me know in the comments.)

The 1-2-3 problem. When I type:

(i.e. 1, 2 and 3 each on their own line, with no blank lines between them)

I should see “1 2 3”. A blank line is needed to start a new paragraph. It is nice if it shows the line break, but no good if I send that code to pandoc and all my neat formatting is lost! [BUT, maybe there is a nice flag I can give to pandoc to preserve that formatting, as I’d rather it worked that way!]
The underline problem. When I type:
Then you should open my_special_file.txt
It should not treat those underlines as italics or bold formatting. That formatting only applies with preceding whitespace:
This word is in _italics_ this one is in __bold__
That appears like this:
This word is in italics this one is in bold


Grant Morgan said...

I am just installing Atom now so I have not tried these yet but there is a scroll sync package.
and there are two spell checkers that make suggestions

Unknown said...

Thanks Grant; I actually stumbled upon the "plugins for the plugin" the other day, and have been using markdown-scroll-sync, and it works well. But you get through one problem, only to find the next, and I'm back using Haroopad as Atom was just so sluggish. :-(
I'll be interested to hear how you get on.

Unknown said...

Oh, one more minor irritation with Atom: it has built-in spell-checking, but I trawled the options and could find no way to tell it to not spell-check code blocks in a markdown document. (But it is open source, and popular, so I expect someone will sort that out soon... I should probably post a bug report.)