Ulysses III: A Next Generation Writer’s Environment for OS X

| In-Depth Review

Ulysses III is a complete rewrite of the legendary Ulysses II writing tool.  It uses a wide range of OS X technologies to create a focused, elegant writing environment. By using Markdown, it separates how the document looks from the content. Version 1.0.1 is missing a few minor features, but is a solid and impressive initial release.  I liked it a lot.

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The most important things to know about Ulysses III are:

  1. It's not a grander, updated version of Ulysses II. It's a new product and draws from the Soulmen's experience with Daedalus, previously reviewed.
  2. It's not a word processor as we think of it.
  3. It's more than a simple text editor.
  4. It's described as "An enhanced plain text writers environment." It uses Markdown as meta tags. Then you can export your document to, say, PDF, RTF, or Text. RTF documents can be in Pages or Word format. (Pages has limited support for some RTF features, like page numbers are footnotes.) Text formats include plain text, Markdown or HTML.
  5. Markdown allows you to focus on your writing without concerning yourself with the appearance of the final document until it is exported.

I should mention right away that this review was written with Ulysses III, exported to HTML and then entered into TMO's publishing system.

A very familar 3-pane design.

Markdown

Markdown is a lightweight markup language. For example, suppose I want to mark a word to be in italics, like this: italics. If I were writing pure HTML, as I do for my articles (with BBEdit), I would include the HTML tag. <em> italics </em>. (Actually, I use the TextExpander app for those frequent tags, but that's irrelevant here.)

However, if I didn't know what the final format would be (.rtf, .pdf), that would be a mistake. By using Markdown, I can defer the output formatting and focus on my composition instead. As the Soulmen say:

The beauty of this should be obvious by now: Instead of worrying about how your output looks, you can concentrate on what your content is supposed to mean. This may be frightening at first, but trust us, it’s not.

As an aside, to defeat the Markdown syntax and introduce literals, use the backslash key, like this (for links) \ […]. Another way to deal with conflicting Markdown syntax is to redefine them in the preferences.

Just enclose text in [...] and enter the URL for a link

A Programming Analog

Opting for an app like this is a bit like the decision to program in C versus Java. C is very low level, direct and fast. The compiler will compile into native code. For Java, you compile to Bytecode so that a Java VM can interpret that code on any machine. It's more general and more flexible. Often slower. But we have these kinds of options because developers have different needs. And so, the same applies to Ulysses III.

Structure of Ulysses III

This app presents itself by default with three panes (shown above), something any Mac users is accustomed to. On the far left is the library. In the middle are your "sheets," documents that comprise the app. On the right is the editor window. Users of Ulysses II will be happy to know that there is a full screen mode that shows only the editor and has a pleasing white text on a grey background and blue Markdown tags.

A cropped view of full screen mode. A nice writing environment.

HTML Gotchas

In my case, I had to be careful about how ambitious I got with the Markdown tags. For example, I could have marked my section titles with "# Heading 1," but that would have produced <h1>…</h1>. That's not how TMO's publishing system handles section titles, and so a certain awareness of the structure of the end product is called for.

That said, the HTML exported from my review required very few tweaks in order to drop into our publishing system.

Features

Now that you have a feel for this app's concept, it's time to look at some key features that support and flesh-out the concept.

  • Edit Multiple Sheets as One · Export and Statistics From Every Part of the Library
  • Links, Lists, Quotes & Footnotes · Comments, Code, Keywords & Annotations · Drag’n’drop of images and videos · Preview of Images and Videos
  • Bookmarks & Favorites · Multiple Text Statistics · Functional Markup Cheat Sheet
  • Dark, Light, Pure and Paged Writing Modes. Pure mode is designed to reduce the "visual weight" of the app.
  • Several Hand-Picked Color Schemes
  • Free Choice of Editor Font
  • OS X Integration: Full iCloud Sync · Versions · Full Screen · Spelling and Grammar · Text Substitutions · Dictionary · Speech · Spotlight Search · QuickLook Preview · State Restoration · Sandboxing · Enhanced for Retina
  • Auto-Capitalization When Holding the Shift Key · Line Breaks, Spaces and Left-To-Right Writing Direction

What You Don't Get

  1. Because this is not a WYSIWYG editor, graphics and videos are marked with place holders. But you can preview those items.
  2. There's no typewriter scrolling in this version. That's when the typing line remains fixed on the display.
  3. There's no Library search in this version. Spotlight can be used in the meantime. However, you can easily search and replace within a sheet.
  4. A UIII to UII exporter. That's coming soon, according to the developer.

For more details, The Soulmen have a fairly extensive FAQ that fills in the details.

Using Ulysses III

As I mentioned above, I used UIII to write this review. It was then exported to HTML. I found the environment to be pleasing, and the app very much does what it claims: allows you to focus on composition, not housekeeping and formatting.

I wrote this review on a MacBook Air, then used iCloud syncing to "move" the article over to my TMO iMac. It worked just fine. Note: you must go to System Preferences -> iCloud and enable "Documents and Data" syncing and also have the document in iCloud in the UIII Sidebar. Syncs across the two Macs took about 10 seconds to appear.

Quick Export

In terms of file saving, UIII takes things to their logical extreme in Mountain Lion. You create sheets and they're auto-saved on the fly. There is one file operation: "Save Version."

I never once thought about saving my changes, and I must admit that if you go all in with the concept, it can be liberating. And perhaps a little unnerving at first. In fact, UIII invites several new ways of thinking, and if that upsets you, you may feel unsettled by this app.

The preferences are easy to understand.

Markdown customization

Analyzing this App's Approach

At this point, you may be wondering: is this tool for me? Is Ulysses III the writer's Nirvana I've been looking for?

I think the answer has to do with what you're using now. Is it getting the job done, or does it create headaches? Is it compatible with the publishing system you already use? Do you need to export to different formats for different publishers?

We've come a long way from MacWrite. Back then, we were thrilled to see real italics and bold text appear on our (tiny) Mac displays. However, the evolution of the Internet and writing tools have changed. HTML and PDF are dominant.

The approach to this app also involves how convenient you think Markdown is. If your workflow doesn't require it, you may not think to drop everything and move to this app. In my view, the approach this app has to be something you want to do, serves your needs, and elicits a certain technical affection. Also, because it is a single library, sandboxed app, it may not meet your needs for very large and complex products.

Will I switch to it for daily writing? Probabaly not. I like having each of the 4,100+ articles I've written for TMO as individual files, visible in the Finder and globally searchable. It's my thing. However, I should add that you can use "External Sources" to link to a folder of text files on your Mac. They are edited in place.

All that said, I can see how, at some point, this app may be exactly the right tool for a certain job, and I appreciate having it available to me.

Software Tools for the Writer

For reference, back in 2009, I wrote a series of reviews on software for writers. There you'll find the review of Ulysses 1.5 and 2.0 plus some other apps. Here's an article that links to all of them.

It's beyond the scope of this review to delve into the differences between Ulysses II and III. That's something for the developer to focus on.

System Requirements

Ulysses III was launched April 2nd, 2013 and is now at version 1.0.1. It is available in English only (for now) and requires OS X Lion (10.7.3+) and is optimized for OS X Mountain Lion. It's available via the Mac App Store only.

There is a free, time limited, feature limited demo. Because UIII is a new product, sold exclusively in the Mac App Store, there is no discount for Ulysses II customers.

Summary

I found it easy to adapt to Ulysses III. The fact that I could immediately compose this review with it is testament to that. I admired the all in approach to OS X technologies, and I admired the design of the app -- notably its simplicity and focus on the craft of writing. The last thing we want when writing our masterpieces is to be confused and frustrated -- reaching for the manual to find out why the app is driving us crazy.

You won't have that problem with Ulysses III. If you've already bought into the Markdown formatting in Ulysses II, this app will be a no brainer. Plus, it's an app that's easy to love and get your head around. But, to be practical, I can't say that I think it will have broad appeal for everyone, for every use.

Product: Ulysses III, version 1.0.1

Company: The Soulmen

List Price: US$39.99

Pros:

A clean, elegant, focused writing environment that uses many of the best OS X technolgies. Most writing features of interest included in this version. Reasonably priced.

Cons:

Missing typewtitter mode, global search (for now). Markdown, while capable, may not be for everyone.

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3 Comments

Darren

Doesn’t seem to have spell check, either. wink

aardman

I don’t have knowledge of desktop publishing and word processing software beyond a non-pro user’s perspective but from afar it seems like UIII has brought us full circle to the pre-WYSIWYG days where you typed your document content and formatting codes on a text screen and hit a button to preview the formatted output.

Everything old is new again.

Tim

If simplicity is your thing, and you love working distraction-free raw text, Ulysses 3 is pure bliss.

And yes, aardman, it does harken back to the pre-WYSIWYG days, just cleaner with more focus.

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