Reflections on a Month with BBEdit and Nova

What works, what doesn’t, and where did this experiment lead me in the end?

Assumed audience: People interested in personal toolkits, especially for software; and people who want to better understand detail-obsessed people like me who always talk about their preferences for platform-native software.

As I described at the start of the month, I have taken the opportunity of some downtime to revisit some of my longest-standing developer tool choices: I have made a point to do my writing and software development in BBEdit and Nova rather than my long-standing daily drivers” of Sublime Text and Visual Studio Code. For background, do see the introductory post!

The rest of this post is structured as a series of journal entries authored as I reflected on my experience using the tools, with a concluding summary. If you want just the takeaway, jump to the summaries:


BBEdit is one of the oldest Mac apps out there; when you read its Testimonials page you will see people who have been using it for over 30 years (it was first released in 1991). So how does it stack up for me against its modern competitors?


A blow-by-blow description of my experiment, which you can skip in favor of the summary below if you like; click to expand and read on if you want the details!

July 4

BBEdit feels quite good as a writing tool. I initially tried working with it as a replacement for Code, and… it did not work out. That was apparent within a day. While it added support for language servers a few years ago, that approach is very clearly a second-class one in the editor, and things I take for granted when working in Code I could only sort of — very jankily — make work in BBEdit. Renames work well. Go to definition works decently. Finding all references… when it works, it’s nice, but it did not, in general, work.

Writing is a different story. As I noted at the end of the post in which I proclaimed my intention to do this, it feels really, really good. The editor is fast and snappy and gets out of my way, and all of its affordances are native affordances.

There is one key thing I miss from Sublime when using BBEdit as a primary authoring tool, though. Amusingly, it is the thing which sold everyone on Sublime all those years ago: multiple cursors. I end up using that feature extensively for fast text transformations that do not require doing an actual find and replace — not least because I can choose whether to include a given selection in Sublime (or Code, which has the same ability).1 I suspect I may get used to just using a find-and-replace mechanic again, but it is the kind of thing I wish BBEdit would just add and make this a non-issue.

The only other issue I have is that BBEdit does not let me set certain view defaults on a per-language basis. When editing a Markdown file, for example, I never want to see line numbers. I can configure Sublime or Code to do that; I cannot find any way to configure BBEdit to do that. I therefore have to toggle it off manually every time I open a Markdown doc, and then it is persistent across all document types. Meh.

July 18

I have continued to use BBEdit as my go-to text editor over the past few weeks, and I continue to really like it. I recognize that I have barely tapped its power, and that I am still largely using it the same way I have used Sublime Text for the past six or seven years (since first Atom and then VS Code took over as my daily driver”): for light and fast text editing with a minimum of fuss. In that role, I am finding that it is indeed noticeably better than Sublime in some ways, most of all in the ways that I hoped when I set out to do this experiment in the first place: feeling native and at home on macOS. The text editing itself is comparably nice in both, which is a testament to how well Sublime works — but the text rendering definitely feels like it fits more correctly on macOS.

Certainly the rest of the user interface does: it has a normal (meaning: mostly graphical!) settings panel — though that settings panel allows far more customization than most other Mac text editors. It lets you set which menu items you want, for goodness’ sake! The counterpoint here is that setting the advanced” — BBEdit calls them Expert” — settings requires writing plist values from the command line with defaults write com.barebones.bbedit.<some preference> <some value>.

The quibbles I noted above about per-document-type settings remain mildly annoying. Other issues I hit along the way were apparently at least partly of my own making. For example, I regularly create Markdown links by selecting some text and hitting [ with the expectation that it will wrap the selected text with a matching ], after which I can just CtrlF it and hit ( and then V to paste in the link.2 BBEdit apparently supports this behavior out of the gate: the manual says it is the default behavior. I somehow turned it off and was going to write it down here as a gap, and then thought, Nah, there must to be a preference for that, right? Sure enough, the incredibly extensive User Manual told me what to change, and things are as they should be.

July 24

Two days ago, on opening BBEdit from the command line to jot down my note (below) on going ahead and buying Nova, I noticed that as well as the bbedit command there are also bbdiff, bbfind, and bbresults commands. These are all interesting in their own right, but it is bbdiff that got my attention: I have had some annoying issues using Kaleidoscope as the diff editor in my other experiment this month, and wondered if BBEdit’s built-in diff editing capability would do the trick.

It turns out: I cannot get it to work either,3 and I do prefer Kaleidoscope to bbdiff overall, but there are some really smart and helpful features to bbdiff that mean I am likely to use it in certain very specific scenarios where it actually beats out Kaleidoscope. Most notable among those: it makes it easy to diff and merge at a level more granular than lines: it provides word-by-word/token-by-token breakdowns. For an example of the kind of change I mean, consider this change to some Rust code:

- pub(super) struct Metadata {
+ pub(crate) struct ItemMetadata {

There are two separate changes here:

  • the visibility change from pub(super) to pub(crate)
  • the rename from Metadata to ItemMetadata

Most diff tools do not expose those different levels at all, because they work purely on the level of lines, not words or other kinds of tokens. BBEdit’s diff view does. That comes in quite handy when breaking up a change into multiple commits.

July 28

I am really quite satisfied with BBEdit at this point. Every one of the ~17,000 words I have written and published this month has been drafted in it. So likewise with every single commit message for the side project work I have done, and no few of the journal entries for a side project where I am consistently logging my work. Honestly: I am now having a hard time imagining going back to Sublime or other such non-native editors! I am still barely scratching the surface of its capabilities, but all the parts I am using just feel… good.

The interesting bit now is to consider: do I buy it? BBEdit comes with a free version: a spiritual successor to TextWrangler, which used off and on years ago. When I look at the list of features which are in the paid version, the simple truth is I will not use most of them in the role I have carved out for this particular tool. Where Nova was easy to decide to buy, this is much less obvious. The biggest selling point is the U-triggered Commands menu… but I just bought Finbar and the honest truth is it solves that particular need.

That leaves me in the interesting spot where I am going to be a happy user BBEdit, but not (yet, at least) a paying one! If at some point my usage pattern shifts, I will happily pay for it, because it is a great tool. Indeed, I may at some point pay for it just because it is a great tool and I like supporting the developers of good tools. For the moment, though, I think BBEdit in Free Mode is going to be all I need!

July 29

One way of summarizing my current very positive sentiment about BBEdit:

I like to write on my iPad sometimes. (Less since switching to Apple Silicon-powered laptops a couple years ago, but still sometimes.) Just now, I was thinking about picking up to write with it and thought, Which app, though? Hmm. I really wish BBEdit were on the iPad.


BBEdit has successfully graduated from experiment’ to daily driver’ for me. Every word I have written this month has been written in it, and that is not merely because I was doing this experiment. Rather: it was because the experiment was a smashing success. This is a great text editor. It is not perfect, mind: there are a few things I wish it did, or did differently. But it is an extremely good citizen of the Mac, it is incredibly fast, and it was easy to get it to a point where I did not miss Sublime Text — the previous editor I used in this role. So much so that I actually uninstalled Sublime Text yesterday!

As I hoped would be the case when I set out, the editor is snappy, responsive, stable, and very, very Mac-native. (Honestly: it is more Mac-like” than no few of the apps Apple itself ships these days! That is a conversation for another day, though.) Most important of all: the text rendering is exactly what it should be on a Mac. Sublime’s text rendering is really quite good, but never felt exactly native — not least because it did not respect the system settings for text drawing out of the box, and requiring you to set it via its JSON settings view! That goes double for Electron-powered apps like Atom or Code; Chrome’s text rendering is just not the same — and surprising no one who knows me, I do not like it.

Speaking of settings: Weird to say, perhaps, but I particularly appreciate a thoughtfully-designed, well-organized, well-laid-out Settings (née Preferences) interface! Compared to Sublime’s very, very long JSON object, or Code’s mediocre web UI or its JSON blob. There is a kind of programmer who wants everything to be in text, editable in a text editor, preferably without leaving a terminal. I am: not that kind of programmer. I think GUIs are good, actually.

Happy surprises along the way:

  • bbdiff is an incredibly powerful diff editor, with capabilities I have seen in very few other diff editors. I expect to make good use in particular of its ability to drill down well past the level of differing lines to different subsets of lines going forward.

  • The ability to customize what appears in the menu bar system is delightful. I wish many more Mac apps did this!


  • There is exactly and only one thing I really actively miss from Sublime: D for duplicating one’s cursor. However, in practice I mostly use that in the contexts where I would use something shaped more like a lightweight IDE — Code or Nova or similar (on which, see the section on Nova below!). Find and replace does the job (and BBEdit’s is very good!) but it feels different; I think multiple cursor support would be a great addition to a future version of the editor.

  • It would be nice for the full set of per-document options — thinking here especially of line numbers and page guide — to be available on a per-language basis. (Possibly some of the Expert Mode” settings, i.e. settings accessible via the defaults CLI tool, would afford this, but I have not dug in to find out.) Since BBEdit is primarily going to be a writing tool for me, I have defaulted those settings to what I want for writing (they are both disabled!)… but for the occasion when I do pop it up for working on an actual bit of programming, I would like them on. This is just not something you can do via the program settings GUI, unfortunately.

  • My experience of BBEdit’s support for language servers was not amazing. I do not plan to use it in contexts where I particularly need that support, so this is fine so far as it goes. It is also possible there was some user error here: I only mucked around with it fairly early on in this experiment, and bounced off after finding it not to work quite as I hoped. I may muck around further with that later, since I do expect to spend a lot of time in this editor!

By way of conclusion, I begin with this thought from one of the journal entries above:

I am still barely scratching the surface of its capabilities, but all the parts I am using just feel… good.

The interesting bit now is to consider: do I buy it? BBEdit comes with a free version: a spiritual successor to TextWrangler, which used off and on years ago. When I look at the list of features which are in the paid version, the simple truth is I will not use most of them in the role I have carved out for this particular tool. Where Nova was easy to decide to buy, this is much less obvious. The biggest selling point is the U-triggered Commands menu… but I just bought Finbar and the honest truth is it solves that particular need.

That leaves me in the interesting spot where I am going to be a happy user BBEdit, but not (yet, at least) a paying one! If at some point my usage pattern shifts, I will happily pay for it, because it is a great tool. Indeed, I may at some point pay for it just because it is a great tool and I like supporting the developers of good tools. For the moment, though, I think BBEdit in Free Mode is going to be all I need!

I mulled on that for a bit… and then I concluded (actually in the midst of writing this conclusion!) that even though I do not require the paid component of the app, I want to pay for it. This is really great software. I want the people behind it to be able to keep making this tool as long as they want to keep making it. So, just now, I bought it.


Nova is a relatively young app: although Panic has a fairly long history of text editors (previous editor Coda came out in 2007), Nova itself was only announced in 2019 and released in fall 2020. (That feels like a lifetime ago! Thanks COVID-19.) It has been on a tear since then, with 11 major releases in the intervening nearly three years. But Visual Studio Code is well-entrenched, the default text editor for most programmers I know, for good reason, and I have tried Nova and given up on it at least twice in the past, because its ecosystem simply had not caught up sufficiently to Code’s yet. How about this time?


A blow-by-blow description of my experiment, which you can skip in favor of the summary below if you like; click to expand and read on if you want the details!

July 4

At this point, I have been using Nova for a couple of days for my ongoing side project work in Rust (see comments above about why I ended up not trying to use BBEdit for this!). It feels… really, really good. I have hit only a few things where I could not do everything Code does. I hit one consistent crash — a case where rust-analyzer seems to be crashing and Nova is not handling the crash well — but otherwise it has been incredibly snappy and reliable. More than that, when I had cause to reopen Code briefly (because of the aforementioned crash) it just felt… janky.

July 8

Over the past couple of days, I finished a major milestone in one of my side projects — a project written entirely in Rust, and with all of this work carried out entirely in Nova. This was a pretty good stress test for Nova: while the rust-analyzer language server does in fact implement the normal Language Server Protocol, the rust-analyzer project is also explicit that the Visual Studio Code extension is the primary target, and it gets attention and sometimes even features other editors do not as a result. How well, I wondered, would Nova stack up?

The answer, I was delighted to find, is: smashingly. Although I hit a number of little bugs and gaps along the way, none of them were remotely show-stoppers, and the overall experience is frankly so much better than the experience of using Code that I am now finding it somewhat difficult to imagine going back. As I said above, Code just feels kind of janky by contrast. As I noted in my original explanation for why I am running this experiment in the first place: every single thing about an Electron app is just a little bit off. Not so with Nova.

Most of these kinds of small quality-of-life details were also true the last time I looked at Nova. There was another problem then, though: the ecosystem around the editor. While still not massive, the ecosystem is much larger than it was 12 – 18 months ago. More important than there simply being more extensions is that the territory covered by those extensions has grown dramatically. There were Rust and TypeScript extensions back then; they are good now. Indeed, the ecosystem which exists for Nova appears generally to be fairly high quality.

The net is that, a week into this experiment, I am really liking Nova and I am very likely to end up switching to it as my daily driver” editor going forward.

July 22

I just bought Nova. I think that tells you the status of this experiment. Since I have been using it as my go-to editor/IDE for Rust, TypeScript, etc. for the past three weeks, I have hit the point where I actively want not to open VS Code. I do not miss it. As described above, I have a handful of small things I miss (and might contribute to the ecosystem), and I will have some work to do to make it viable as my editor for the mammoth repo I mostly work on for my daily work (rather than personal work), but I call this part of the experiment a smashing success.

There is very little to say here beyond what I said above in terms of the reasons. I just hit the point today where I knew that I had no more doubts. The question was not Am I going to buy this?” but simply When do I get around to buying it?” Given that Panic is a great developer — one with a long history of shipping some of the best apps on the Mac, including Transmit, of which I am also a very happy customer — I just decided the answer was: Today. I am happy to have switched, full stop.


My Nova experiment was a really smashing success. I bought the app over a week ago, when I hypothetically still had 9 days left to prove things out. It sits quite comfortably in the slot Visual Studio Code has occupied for the last half decade (and which Atom occupied before that): the text editor” with a high degree of extensibility, which via that extensibility pushes its way up into verging on IDE territory… without ever feeling as bloated and heavy as an actual IDE.

Nova is all of that, and feels equally at home on the Mac as does BBEdit, and is just plain beautiful. The attention to detail is incredible. It feels fast all the time (with one caveat below). The text rendering is just right. The settings panels are well-laid out and easy to navigate. The same goes for searching for and installing Extensions — good night, what a better experience than the comparable ones in Code or Sublime Text! Net, Nova is a really great app (albeit with a couple bumps, also described below).

That much was true every time I looked at Nova before, though. The big issue on those previous passes was that its language server integration was nominally present but just not that good: when I tried to use it to develop against real-world TypeScript or Rust code bases, it did not remotely measure up to the same experience in Code. I am happy to report that is no longer true — as you could likely infer from the fact that I bought it! Over the course of the past month, I wrote (and rewrote, and rewrote, and rewrote again!) many hundreds of lines of Rust, and did a bit of TypeScript as well. The experience was fantastic. Their Language Server Protocol integration works really well, and in fact got a nice upgrade in a release which came out during the course of this little experiment.

What is more, the general extension ecosystem around Nova has boomed since I last tried it, and there were only two extensions (1, 2) I particularly missed over the course of the month, and both are small niceties rather than must-haves. (I might end up porting both over to Nova myself, in fact!)

One other big upside: the good folks at Panic have been quite responsive when I have reached out with questions, feature suggestions, and bug reports. Even when they responded with a Sorry, we will not be doing that,” they took the time to get back to me about it and to explain why they would not do a particular thing.


  • I have had a surprisingly high number of crashes with Nova. I have reported all of these, and given the aforementioned responsiveness of the team, I expect they will all get fixed. Still, this has been a bit disappointing! One thing I can say for Code is that I do not think it has literally ever crashed on me (which is pretty impressive!).

  • I know (because I checked, even though I was off from work) that it groans a little under the weight of the 3-million-plus-lines-of-code app that I spend a lot of my time in at my day job. I have already started chatting with the Nova folks about this, and I hope to use that as useful feedback and input for them to help make it 100% usable for me in that mode. (Again: credit to VS Code that while it takes a while for the TS language server to become useful in that monstrously large code base, the editor itself stays responsive throughout.)

  • This is a really small niggle, but: the filter mechanic for searches needs an easy way to toggle it on and off with a single click without having had to run a search and without having had to launch the GUI editor for the filters. The filter editor itself is quite nice, using normal macOS controls for those dynamics, but this is also a place where I actually do think it would be nice to have a text-based variant as well, using glob-style syntax to control the search. Both-and, though, not either-or!

As the quibbles there might suggest, this is less of a slam dunk than BBEdit in some ways on paper… but experientially, it was just as much of an easy yes”. I mention in one of the journal entries above that even after just a couple days working in Nova, going back to Visual Studio Code felt astonishingly janky. I did that again to check on a particular extension’s behavior a couple days ago and again: so janky. Not because the folks behind Code are not good engineers and designers: but because they fundamentally do not care about the things I care about. The good folks at Panic… do.

In conclusion

I was really unsure, going into this month-long experiment, whether either of these editors would stick. I have tried a lot of different editors over the years. Last year and early this year, I spent a bunch of time with Zed, for example — which is a much better editor than Code in a bunch of ways I care about; but while I still think they are doing some really interesting things with it, they made it clear that they are building a cross-platform editor, and are explicitly not interested in hewing closely to platform conventions. I have also bounced off of TextMate 2 in the past, as insufficiently extensible in the directions that would make it competitive with Code; and off of Chime because while it is beautiful it likewise just does not do enough of the things I need.

As a bonus: I find it really delightful that these are tools made by small companies, not given away free by a mega-corporation.4 I am really — really — happy to buy a couple great apps from great companies. And I am looking forward to many years of using these to good effect ahead.

Thoughts, comments, or questions? Shoot me an email, or leave a comment on Hacker News or


  1. Where D duplicates the cursor to the next instance of the same text, the sequence K, D skips the next instance of the same text. This makes the tool equally flexibile to a pure find-and-replace, which can accomplish the same by hitting Next instead of Replace & Find. ↩︎

  2. Pro tip for people who might like to learn and use some of these Emacs-inspired CoreText shortcuts, or otherwise just get some actual utility out of the Ctrl key: swap it with the Caps Lock key, which most of us only very rarely use on a day-to-day basis. On macOS Ventura, open System Settings and then navigate to Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts > Modifier Keys. There, you can set ↩︎

  3. This suggests to me that there is something slightly odd about how Jujutsu invokes these tools such that they are not working; but I will leave aside those details for the dedicated post. ↩︎

  4. Yes, I work for a Microsoft subsidiary. No, that does not oblige me to approve of everything my employer’s owner chooses to do! ↩︎