Word processing apps are as old as the personal computer, but what counts as a “word processor” turns out to be almost as contentious as determining the “best” word processor. In this TidBITS reader survey, our goal is not to crown any particular app but to collect your opinions about those word processors you’ve used.
That said, what does count as a word processor? Plain text editors have been around forever, but when came out in 1978, it popularized the concept of a word processor: an app that not only let you edit text but take control of how it would appear on the printed page. Although WordStar has been defunct for years, some professional writers still rely on it, most notably George R.R. Martin, author of “A Game of Thrones.”
Although there were plenty of worthy word processors on the Mac early on, including, , , , and , Microsoft Word eventually came to dominate the market, in part due to running on both the Mac and in Windows. Word’s .doc format is in many ways a de facto standard when it comes to exchanging editable text documents, even when there’s no need for anything beyond plain text. Put simply, for millions of people using Macs and Windows, Microsoft Word is the only app they consider when they want to put words on paper.
In recent years, Word’s fiercest competitor on the Mac is Apple’s, which has had a tumultuous history. As Apple moved toward an iCloud-based strategy that emphasized workflows that could seamlessly switch between macOS and iOS, the Mac and iOS versions of Pages clashed. You could create a document in one version and move it to another, but something often broke in the process. To resolve this, Apple retooled Pages, starting with Pages 5.0 on the Mac. It eliminated most compatibility issues but at the cost of losing many Mac features. Only now, four years later, have the semi-unified Pages apps nearly caught up with the capabilities of Pages 4.3. Since Pages 4.3 still works fine and is widely owned (if not readily available), we separated the versions in the survey.
Of course, as powerful as Word and Pages are, they’re far from the entire story. Numerous lesser-known word processors offer different approaches. Take Control started with Word, switched to Pages, and is now using Nisus Writer Pro because it offers a robust set of writing and document layout tools, solid collaboration features, and most importantly, a full programming language that makes possible things that no other word processor could ever do. But these full-featured programs can be overkill — sometimes a small, focused app like Bean, Growly Write, or Nisus Writer Express is more appropriate. And for those who move in the open-source world, there’s Open Office and its variants.
Apps for Another Survey -- Although we’re happy to add more word processors to the survey, we did have to limit ourselves in a variety of ways to keep the list to a manageable size. To that end, we’re not including online word processors, Markdown-based writing tools, plain text editors, desktop publishing apps, or iOS-only apps. If there’s enough interest, we can run another survey on these categories. Here’s why we’re keeping them out of this survey:
Online word processors like Google Docs are great, because they can provide a solid set of word processing tools and powerful collaboration capabilities. But because they’re not Mac apps, they have slightly odd interfaces, lack basic system integrations, and often don’t work at all without an Internet connection. We use Google Docs a lot because of its collaboration tools.
Many other writing tools avoid the formatting and layout capabilities of a true word processor, arguing that such gewgaws get in the way of serious writing. If the final destination of your text is a blog, for instance, one of the Markdown-based writing tools like Byword or Ulysses might be perfect for writing with a modicum of styling. There’s nothing wrong with these apps, but they’re not in the same category as Word and Pages.
Even simpler are plain text editors, which don’t allow any formatting. They’re still great for writing in Markdown, HTML, LaTeX, or another markup language, but tend to focus on features more of interest to programmers. We’ve long used BBEdit to write and edit TidBITS articles, using Markdown for the eventual formatting on our Web site and Subversion for version control. Tweaky, but effective.
Desktop publishing apps go in the other direction, often providing a full word processor within a layout program. Nothing prevents you from writing a simple report in Adobe InDesign, but it’s generally overkill, both in expense and complexity. We adore InDesign, but we wouldn’t pull it out to create a simple document.
Finally, although it can be helpful on occasion when a Mac app has a companion iOS version, as Pages and Word do, we’re focusing on the Mac here. Few iOS apps come close to competing with Mac apps for power and ease-of-use, particularly when it comes to writing and editing.
With all that in mind, it’s time to turn to you, the TidBITS reader, and ask you to share your opinions about the word processors you have used on the Mac. We’ll collect and summarize the results, as we did with personal information managers (“,” 18 January 2016) and personal finance apps (“ ,” 29 February 2016). The survey is embedded at the bottom of this article on our Web site or you can .
Notes on Ratings -- A few important notes before you start clicking your answers:
Please rate only those apps with which you have significant personal experience. That means weeks or months of use, not something that you launched once before discovering that it lacked a feature you need. Don’t enter ratings for apps you haven’t used.
We’ve listed a lot of apps in the poll, but if we missed the one you use, let us know so we can add it. To keep this manageable, we’re focusing on full-featured, Mac-based word processors. Please don’t suggest Web apps, text editors of any sort, desktop publishing tools, iOS-only apps, or anything that’s not in active development. There’s nothing wrong with these tools, but we have to draw a line in the sand.
Some apps will get more votes than others, so when looking at the results, take that into account. A lot of votes may indicate popularity (or a successful attempt to game the system), but an app with just a few highly positive votes is still worth a look.
Ratings don’t give a complete picture, so feel free to say what you like or don’t like about apps you use in the comments for this article; we’ve seeded the top-level comment for each app, and please keep your thoughts within the appropriate top-level comment. Searching for the app name will be the fastest way to find its associated comment thread.
We’ll report on the results next week, calling out those apps that garner the most votes and have the highest ratings. Thanks for the help!