I have been using Ulysses as my writing tool of choice for several years, and with the release today of Ulysses 2.5, the best writing tool just got better. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of today's combined release of Ulysses 2.5 for iOS ($19.99) and Ulysses 2.5 for Mac ($44.99) is that developers The Soulmen have accomplished something no other firm has been able to do -- create a distraction-free writing tool that works equally well on any iOS or OS X device.
I was able to beta-test Ulysses 2.5 over the past several months on all platforms, and I'm happy to say that it was one of the cleanest beta testing experiences I've ever had. Ulysses 2.5 added features that make it completely iPad Pro-compatible -- something that had temporarily moved me to another editor on the big tablet -- and now I can move between iPhone, iPad Pro and Mac to work on documents depending on which device I happen to be closest to. For brevity's sake, I'll be focusing primarily on the iOS version of Ulysses today, but will point out those features that are available on all platforms.
The High Level View
Ulysses isn’t a substitute for Microsoft Word or Pages; if you’re used to being able to insert tables and photos into your text, add a plethora of styles, or set up a page layout with multiple columns, you’ll want to stick with those other apps. But for writers, Ulysses — and here I mean the OS X and iOS apps — is simply the best writing tool out there.
Yes, there are many “distraction-free” writing apps available for iPad and Mac, but none of them work together across platforms as well as Ulysses does. For those of us who make our living stringing together words on a page, Ulysses just gets out of the way and lets us work.
One of the big questions that potential Ulysses users might have is how the app organizes documents — called sheets in Ulysses-speak — in a way that works equally well in both OS X and iOS. Ulysses uses the concept of panels that are a bit like the Finder 3-column mode on a Mac. At the top level, there’s a panel with access to your Library of documents, including those that have been worked on in the past 7 days, those that are open, and even those that have been recently deleted (Trash). Then there are groups (consider them to be folders) and sub-groups, favorites and filters that can be used to organize and quickly find current projects. The image at the top of this post shows the three-panel view, which can be collapsed down just to show a sheet you're working on or a group of sheets and the current sheet.
For new users, Ulysses provides a set of Introduction sheets — individual sheets of virtual paper showing how to use a specific feature — organized in groups (folders) named First Steps, Finer Details, Shortcuts and Other Tips. Creating a new Group is easy, and it’s fun to add a descriptive icon to the group from a huge available selection.
The Filters in Ulysses are like Smart Folders in OS X. They’re applied to a group or sub-group to look for keywords and other metadata and make it easy to pull together sheets that match a common set of criteria.
What’s amazing about Ulysses is that the paneled user interface works equally well on Macs, iPads, and iPhones. The Soulmen have been able to do something that not even Apple has accomplished with its cross-platform apps.
So, where are all of your sheets? In the Library, which is located in iCloud. If you’re a big fan of other cloud services, well, you can have access to external folders from that service — say Dropbox or Google Drive — but that information isn’t synced with your other devices. For example, when I am editing articles for MyApple Magazine, I have an external Dropbox folder linked that I can use to find, open, edit, and save those articles, but all the saves are done in Dropbox.
I’ve been totally impressed with Ulysses’ ability to synchronize my work between my devices. There’s no “Save” function — your work is updated across iCloud instantaneously. It’s fast and totally reliable, and in all of my testing of the OS X and iOS versions of Ulysses 2.5 I never saw a hiccup.
Ulysses provides a way to do backups, and the backup process is very Time Machine-like. When enabled, Ulysses creates hourly backups for the last 12 hours of work, daily backups for the last 7 days of work, and weekly backups for the past 6 months of work. Browsing backups brings up a Ulysses window that has yellow-and-black “construction tape” across the top, letting you know that you’re not in the usual editing environment. The backups work well — I was able to retrieve a document that I had deleted back in November with a few clicks.
One other plus - if you're switching between devices on the run, say from the Mac to an iPhone, the apps support Handoff really, really well.
Writing and Editing
Let’s get down to the raison d’être of Ulysses: writing and editing. The developers call their editor “plain text enhanced,” a mashup between Markdown and using styles. For writers who prefer to use their muscle memory to toss in Markdown to emphasize or add a style to some text, that works. But for those of us who started using Markdown later in life, the Mac version provides a right-click context menu and a Markup menu in the menubar to add the Markdown code. For iOS, selecting text adds a shortcut bar with a huge number of available commands.
My writing is currently done on two platforms: Squarespace, which includes a Markdown block into which Markdown can be pasted, and WordPress, which likes HTML. With Ulysses, it really doesn’t matter as I can do my writing, add in links and styling where necessary, and then export the text in HTML or Markdown to paste into the content management system I’m currently working with.
There’s a lot to be said about distraction-free editors; if used properly, you can focus on your writing for quite a while without getting distracted by the “squirrels” of email, Twitter, and so on. On the Mac, I’ll often place my current sheet into full-screen mode and type away. It’s oddly like those days in the 1970s where a Smith-Corona electric typewriter was my writing machine…
On the iPad Pro, though, Ulysses 2.5 shines in its ability to work with other apps. In fact, it was shortly after The Soulmen added Split View to the beta version that I decided to sell my 12-inch MacBook and use nothing but the iPad Pro as a portable writing platform. Split View works so well for being able to research a post and write it on the Pro…
The Mac flavor of Ulysses provides a way to create themes for the app, and those themes are downloadable to iOS devices as well. Although I don’t really use the themes all that much, I do use the Dark Mode available on Mac and iOS after sunset to keep from having that glaring white page in my face (not that it will be too much of a problem when iOS 9.3 brings Night Shift…).
There are so many other editor customizations that I can’t list them all here, but if you prefer a different font, line height, spacing between paragraphs, or want to indent the first line of a new paragraph, you can do it. Ulysses for iOS supports custom fonts, and there’s a way to open font files in Ulysses if you want to add an old favorite. I should also note that other markup styles like Markdown XL, Textile’d, and Minimark are also available.
One other comment here; you might think it’s insane to think about writing on an iPhone, but with Ulysses, it works pretty well. I have started many a recent Apple World Today post on the iPhone while walking by opening a blank sheet and then using dictation to write a rough draft. Sure, you have to be pretty good at dictation, but with Ulysses 2.5 now on the iPhone a lot of barriers to writing anywhere, anytime have just disappeared.
The iOS Shortcut Bar
If there’s one Ulysses feature that made me throw away all of the other writing tools I had taking up space on my iPad and iPhone, it’s the way it handles Markdown shortcuts. It’s integrated into the text suggestions bar on the iPad, but due to lack of space on the iPhone it’s located above the text suggestions. As you can see in the screenshots from the iPhone below, tapping on one of three shortcut buttons brings up just about any Markdown code you might want to apply to selected text.
Two of the iOS shortcut menus also provide instant access to tools for indenting or outdenting text (perfect if you’re using Ulysses as a plaintext editor for writing a book, for example), clearing markup, or adding line breaks. The shortcut bar also gives immediate access to undo and redo on the iPhone, and adds a paste button on the iPad. Want to search for something? Tap the magnifying glass (search) button.
A tap-and-hold on the search button allows writers to do a “find and replace”, ignore case of words, and ignore diacritics. A tap to deselect the search button brings up a metrics bar that usually shows just the number of characters typed in a sheet, but with a tap it expands to show a lot more — word count, sentence count, how many lines, pages, and even how long it will take to read the document. A gear button lets writers manage how the counters are displayed.
Most of the time when I use Ulysses, I’m just writing and adding formatting, then moving the document to a content management system. But there are some additional “power tools” that are very useful. Of course, they’re the same on both iOS and OS X: Tags, Goals, Notes, and Attachments. Accessing the power tools is a snap; either tap the “paper clip” icon on the iOS toolbar or swipe left in any sheet.
Tags are keywords added to a sheet that make it easy to use those filters I talked about early. As an example, I add a tag of either AWT for Apple World Today or OWC for the MacSales.com blog, and a filter lets me immediately see all of the documents I’ve written for either website.
Goals are very handy for anyone who has a writing goal to meet. Let’s say you’ve been given a writing assignment for a 2,500-word review. Set a goal for 2,500 words, and a small circle appears at the top of your document. As you write, the circle slowly fills in, finally turning into a green circle when you’ve met your goal. Goals can be set for “about, at least, at most” a certain number of characters, words, sentences, paragraphs, lines or pages. I like that you can share goals, which might be useful for those who want to brag about their progress on NaNoWriMo novels.
Notes? Well, I find these really handy when writing longer posts, as I can add little reminders to myself of things I need to add. They’re surprisingly useful.
Attachments are useful for adding in or referencing images and other documents. There’s a standard picker that can bring in images from your Photo Library, take a photo with your device, or import a document from another source (iCloud Drive, Dropbox, Google Drive, Documents, PDF Expert, or an FTP server with Transmit, among many...).
Speaking of integration with other apps, one I was particularly thrilled to see was TextExpander. Over the years, I have built up a huge collection of snippets and I can now use those on any OS X or iOS device I'm using.
Getting your work out of Ulysses
Eventually you’re going to want to move your work from Ulysses to some other format. Well, that’s another powerful reason to use Ulysses on Mac, iPad or iPhone. One interesting thing that authors can do with Ulysses sheets is choose to merge them or export them as one big document. For example, let’s say I’m working on a book that has 11 chapters; I can work on each chapter as a separate sheet, then merge those all at the end of the day as a PDF or ePub (ebook) document.
When exporting, you get to see what the document is going to look like in the specific format. Your docs can be churned out as plain text, HTML, PDF, ePub, DOCX and a new-to-this-version format — Medium. For those who are using Medium as a blogging tool, the ability to write in Ulysses and publish directly to Medium (even multiple accounts) is impressive. I’d love to see a direct-to-WordPress publishing capability as well, although it is rather easy to just copy Ulysses text as HTML and paste it into the standard WordPress editor.
Over the years I have collected a large number of OS X and iOS text editors, blogging tools, and writing tools. Since I began beta-testing Ulysses 2.5 on my Mac, iPad Pro and iPhone, almost of those other tools have been deleted. I love being able to start work on one device and move to another seamlessly, and the iPad Pro support means that I’m now doing even more of my daily work on the big tablet.
For some specific use cases, Ulysses probably isn’t the tool to use — for example, there are apps that are much better suited for writing screenplays or laying out ebooks. But for those who work the fields of the Internet or just need to crank out words for a variety of purposes, Ulysses is the best cross-platform app there is.
We don’t often list apps as Apple World Today Top Picks, but Ulysses 2.5 is deserving of designation as a Top Pick for 2016.