Hands On: Ulysses 12.3 for Mac and iOS aims to be where you do all your writing

in Mac Software edited February 11
The more technically-minded you are, and the less dependent on paper, the more you'll love Ulysses, the comprehensive writing tool for both Mac and iOS.

The trouble with Microsoft Word, Apple's Pages and apps like Final Draft is that they were built in a time when you printed everything out. Ulysses 12.3 for Mac and iOS is a text editor for today when you aren't sure where your printer is and you definitely can't remember when it last worked. It's for writers whose work is going to go online.

It's a writing environment and also wants to be where you go whenever you want to write anything.

If it suits you then Ulysses is a true marvel. Instead of thinking in terms of documents, you have one single Ulysses library and everything you ever write goes into the same place. Individual pieces of writing are called sheets and maybe you decide that these 50 sheets are a book while that 1 sheet is your shopping list.

Ulysses comes in versions for the Mac and iOS and the two are remarkably similar. You could swap between the two all day and forget which one you are using, the experience is that similar. Then, too, you could swap around and also know that everything you write on one platform is instantly on the other.

The syncing via iCloud is fast and it all contributes to this idea that you stop thinking about where your writing is. Just reach for the nearest device and carry on working.

You find that you very rapidly grow a huge library of material. There's no way to count but we've certainly accrued in excess of a thousand sheets' and see no ill effects like slower launches or syncing.

Dragging sheets around to collect into folders or to reorganize a book is instantaneous too.

Then so is picking and collating some, many or all of your sheets to send them to someone else. If you are writing for online then you can send your work directly from Ulysses to blogging platforms like Medium and WordPress.

For any other service you can either email text into them, if they support that, or just copy-and-paste like an animal. If you copy and paste from Word, you bring along all sorts of formatting gubbins that online doesn't understand but if you do it from Ulysses, you get exactly what you need.

If you are writing for print then a magazine will probably want the same kind of plain text that online does so you could again email directly from within Ulysses. They may prefer Word, though, and book publishers always do, so if you want it to, Ulysses will convert your selected sheets into a Microsoft Word document.

In the same way you can also prepare a PDF or an ebook in Ulysses. Whatever you want it to end up as, you write your sheets, choose which ones you want, pick the order and Ulysses will format your writing in the way you need. It's not the best ebook-making app: it won't compare to the design options of, say, Vellum. Yet this ability to always write in the same way in the same app yet later choose how to send your text out is a boon.

It does remain a reasonably basic writing experience, though: it won't do automatic cross-referencing, for instance, and it won't build you an index. What it can do is get you writing the text, bashing the keys, doing the work. For it optionally contains what proves to be a preposterously addictive goal feature. Tell it that you want to write 2,000 words today and as you type, it counts.

It counts the words and also displays a growing blue circle as you go. As you reach your target, it turns green. When you're writing for a magazine and are on a tight word count, it is ridiculously satisfying to turn that circle green and know you're done.

Spot the difference, if you can: this is the iPad version. The target word count circle is reduced to a small icon instead of a large one but otherwise there's no difference in writing on either platform. If you tap on the main text and start writing, you lose the Library columns and regain the large word count circle.

Last August, Ulysses moved to a subscription model, saying that this was necessary to ensure the app's development continued. Since then there have been some eight updates which chiefly refine features and fix bugs.

On the iPad and iPhone the releases have steadily added more and more iOS 11 features so that you can now drag and drop. Plus there have been improvements to searching but the key change has been in how you can now see a preview of any image you put into your text.

This, though, is a litmus test of whether Ulysses will suit you or not. Until the new version 12, you could include an image in your text on the Mac by the kind of series of steps that only a techie person would love. Very briefly, you'd write a tag that told the app to embed the image. If you understood that, if you can spot the steps we missed or if you know some mistake in our description then knock yourself out: Ulysses is definitely for you.

For anyone else, let us refer you to how you include an image in Scrivener, Word, Pages or absolutely anything else: you drag it in and that's it.

Things have improved in the new version for macOS but it's not exactly intuitive. We struggled with this, dragging images into the text, dragging them to a note attached to the sheet and so on. At first, we could load up an image into that note but nothing would make it appear in the text. Now without being able to find any information on the Ulysses help pages and without doing anything differently that we can see, we can suddenly drag an image in and it's fine.

Prior to this new version, you could attach an image but not actually see it until you exported your text to send to someone else in some other format like PDF or Word. Now you can see the image in your text and that's great. However, the makers say that Ulysses will preview any image in black and white so that it doesn't distract you from your writing.

That feels a bit spurious but it's also a bit wrong: drag a color image in and it will show in color - for a while. Then at some point soon it changes to black and white.

This is all the kind of thing that makes Ulysses feel less for writers and more for programmers. It does what it says and it offers you a great deal, but if you're an author coming from Word or Scrivener, it's sometimes bewildering.

The logic is that Ulysses wants to be a minimalist writing environment so that you can get on with your writing instead of fiddling. You don't think about images, you don't think about headers or footers, you focus on only the text that matters to you.

You can do that and we have written these thousand sheets, we've enjoyed writing them. We've especially enjoyed having our entire writing library with us on every device we own.

Yet for a writing app that wants you to focus on your writing, Ulysses at least likes it if you also know what's called Markdown. This is a tool, a language, that is meant to make it easy for you to add bold, italic, headings and so on into your work. So to mark some text as bold you would begin and end it with ** two asterisks, for instance.

That's definitely better than how you would write it in HTML to go on a webpage but it doesn't seem all that much better if you're a writer used to pressing Command-B.

Then say you're a journalist with a quote from someone that's absolutely perfect except they way they've said it, it's not clear whether they're talking about the defendant or the bishop. You can't misquote someone so what you do is take, say, "he admits he bought the truffles" and write "he [the bishop] admits he bought the truffles".

Try doing that in Ulysses, though and it interprets the square brackets as the Markdown code that means you want to insert a link to a website. You can stop it doing that, you can stop Ulysses interpreting Markdown yet it's another unnecessary fiddle when all of this is meant to be helping you get on with your writing.

We've just gone from enthusing about Ulysses to making it sound like you have to be a geek to use it and that's not what we really mean. If you are a geek, you'll get more from Ulysses and you will deeply love it. However, if you're a writer genuinely only concerned with the text you're writing, then Ulysses is schizophrenic: half the time it's brilliant and half the time it gets in your way.

We really, really like writing in Ulysses on the Mac and the iPad. We like having all sheets together so much that we don't stop saying it. Then the ability to write text in Ulysses and just copy it straight over to a website's Content Management System is first class.

We just don't quite like it enough to be sure that its subscription is worth the price to us. This is preposterously subjective but then all software is and we don't quite enjoy Ulysses as much as we wanted or even expected to.

Fortunately, there is a 14-day trial version on the Mac and iOS App Stores. If you're either looking for a minimalist writing tool or you are already a fan of Markdown, try Ulysses for two weeks and see how it fits with your work.

If you decide to buy then you get use of Mac, iPhone and iPad versions via a subscription which is either $4.99/month or $39.99/year though an in-app payment.


  • Reply 1 of 13
    c_barrickc_barrick Posts: 1unconfirmed, member
    I used to be a big fan of Ulysses, buying Mac and iOS licenses for years — until the subscription model was implemented.  Simply put, Ulysses is a very good text editor, but that’s it.  In no way is it worth the price the developers are asking.  IA Writer and Bear to essentially the same thing for less, and IA Writer has more features and is available on Mac, iOS, Android, and Windows (in the future).  The subscription price would possibly be worth it if there was some sort of service offered along with the software (along the lines of Omni’s or Panic’s sync server).  But there are no such services, just a developer with an inflated sense of worth.  Sad to say, because, as I mentioned, I used to really love Ulysses.
    edited February 11 Avieshektoysandmemacplusplus
  • Reply 2 of 13
    It uses iCloud and still is based on subscription.
    There, stopped reading.

    Evernote still does the job.
    edited February 11
  • Reply 3 of 13
    Avieshek said:
    It uses iCloud and still is based on subscription.
    There, stopped reading.
    Yep. I already have Scrivenor and I kinda prefer to have an upfront payment and not lose access to my work when:-
    1) The subscription ends
    2) The company goes belly up/gets bought out and product support canned the next day.

    Add to that, I spend a lot of time working totally offline (just so that I don't get interrupted, tracked, spied upon) anything that needs an internet connection to work is just not suitable. Paranoid? Possibly but in this day and age I think it is a sensible approach to take.
  • Reply 4 of 13
    You've nailed it on this review--I have recently been looking at both Ulysses and Scrivener--your thoughts on Ulysses echo mine almost exactly. 

    I like their minimalist ethic--focus on the writing, yes!--but I can't figure out why I then have to not only memorize a complex set of Markdown formatting codes--sort of a mini, simplified html--but I also have to *see* all those codes displayed, mixed in with my text. They are dimmed, but they are there, which I find distracts the hell out of me. Maybe you can get used to it. 

    I'm completely bewildered why is it against the Markdown religion to have a toggle where I could turn the visibility of the Markdown codes on and off, and when off I could see the text as boldfaced, italicized, and so forth, just like you might expect without any formatting codes, and edit and interact with *that* text. Italicizing, especially, isn't "worrying needlessly about formatting"--it can be an essential part of crafting the sentence.

    Ulysses's photo support is a strike against them, as well, but i am a photographer so perhaps other writers won't feel this as strongly.

    They do have what appears to be excellent syncing capabilities--it just works, don't have to worry about it. Scrivener struggles a bit here with their complex file structure (they want you to use Dropbox, although the app may use iCloud syncing. You can also use iCloud Drive and mirror your desktop, placing your files there, but there are some risks and issues with that approach).

    I do like Ulysses's "do all writing here" approach--the equivalent to a photographer's digital asset manager. Scrivener can do this, too, but I think the real intent of the designer was that you'd have each writing project in a separate file group.

    Right now I'm going with Scrivener (which has many other strengths, especially for long form writing, that I'm not mentioning here and which have no equivalent in Ulysses) but if only I could mix the two feature sets a bit....
  • Reply 5 of 13
    Great review. I’ll stick to Scrivener. 
  • Reply 6 of 13
    I use a Mac, an iPad/iPhone and a Windows computer, so I need a writing app that syncs to all platforms.
    I have never really liked Evernote, and I found Ulysses to be an interesting app.
    There is also a Windows-version of Ulysses, but it does not sync with the Mac/iOS-version.
    I ended up using Simplenote. It supports Markdown (no preview on the Mac yet) and syncs to all platforms. And it is free.
    edited February 11
  • Reply 7 of 13
    HyperealityHypereality Posts: 17unconfirmed, member
    Bought this a little over a year ago for iOS and Mac. Loved it. Not a cheap outlay but I liked it.

    Then the developer said my apps would stop working if I didn’t pay a subscription. 

    Nein Danke!

    90% of the function is available with the Macdown app, free.  For organisation I use tagging, iCloud Drive and the tagging app Yep.

    WIth the files app on iPad Pro and iCloud I get seamless markdown docs replicated and organised with no subscriptions.

    Job done.

    edited February 11
  • Reply 8 of 13
    While I'm not excited about the subscription, I'm happy to pay it because Ulysses does exactly what I want it to do: it lets me enter text, my way, and keeps it all together across devices. It's not cutesy like Scrivener (at least in older versions I tried), with notecards and the like, and it lets me focus on the writing. I'm both a writer and someone who produces a great deal of text for distribution and performance, and there's no better tool I've found than this app. My wife, also a writer, gave it a week 2-3 years ago and hasn't opened Scrivener since, except to grab some materials she hadn't moved over yet. 

    Export is also great — going from Ulysses to epub is near seamless, and saving to Word or Markdown works just fine, especially when paired with Pandoc (being able to move from Markdown to LaTeX through Pandoc is also pretty painless). Does Ulysses fit everyone? No. No app does. But if you're a writer, and focused on getting the text down and dealing with presentation later, this app is the best option by far.
  • Reply 9 of 13
    dewmedewme Posts: 1,159member
    As much as I personally dislike the subscription based software model, if you rely on a particular software product for your livelihood it absolutely makes sense because it increases the probability that the software developer will continue to invest in the maintenance and improvement of the product and support the end-users of the product.  When someone else, like my employer, is footing the bill for the software I'm using I have no complaints at all about the subscription cost. The tough scenario for me is when I want to use a "pro" product for personal use and cannot justify the personal expense. Some software vendors, like XMind, try to cater to this need by also offering single version pay-once licenses. These often come with limited support, reduced features, and no future upgrades other than repurchase, possibly at a reduced cost.

    I really wish that more software vendors offered prosumer, hobbyist, retiree, etc., versions of their professional products in addition to just academic versions. Anyone who hopes to be successfully employed in any technical profession over a long career must always be climbing the learning curve and many of these software products have a lot of utility for self-directed lifelong learning. However, the other side of the coin is that whenever software vendors offer up price concessions on pro software, even with reduced functionality, mainstream professional consumers who probably should be paying for the full ride package will cheap out and get the lower cost one. I cannot tell you how many times I've encountered difficult problems developing & supporting software for critical line-of-business operations for very large companies that were caused by these companies buying lower capability software, e.g., Windows "Home" or non-Server editions, because those version were cheaper and they needed thousands of licenses. Of course the customer wants you to plug the missing holes on your end rather than them buying the appropriate OS that has what they need built-in. You'd think that big companies wouldn't cheap out and expect to use limited functionality OS/software versions where pro or server OS/software versions were actually needed. You'd be wrong.

    The moral of the story is that when a software vendor puts together tailored versions to accommodate different pricing tiers the "wrong" versions inevitably end up in the wrong customers hands, whether intentional or not. When I see a pro level software package that I would like to own and then I see that it is a subscription that I am unwilling to pay, I usually come to the conclusion that the particular software package is not intended for me. If it was for me, the subscription cost would be a non-factor.
    edited February 11
  • Reply 10 of 13
    There’s some value here, but not subscription-level value. Once the devs implemented subscriptions I was out the door. 

    Trending: don’t bother diversifying your product line, just nickel-and-dime users and then justify it by telling them how super hard it is to (in this particular case) maintain a minimalist writing app. 
    edited February 12
  • Reply 11 of 13
    Remember WordPerfect?
    That’s the one perfect for type-writing. No mouse, no touch. Your hands never needed to move away from the keyboard.  Your eyes might not even need to look at the screen when you type.  You could close your eyes to think while typing. Fast, strong editing functions.  I miss WordPerfect for PC DOS!
    If you can find any currently available word processors on Windows or Mac matching up to 60% if efficiency of WordPerfect, let me know.
  • Reply 12 of 13
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 1,901administrator
    ivanh said:
    Remember WordPerfect?
    That’s the one perfect for type-writing. No mouse, no touch. Your hands never needed to move away from the keyboard.  Your eyes might not even need to look at the screen when you type.  You could close your eyes to think while typing. Fast, strong editing functions.  I miss WordPerfect for PC DOS!
    If you can find any currently available word processors on Windows or Mac matching up to 60% if efficiency of WordPerfect, let me know.
  • Reply 13 of 13
    dewmedewme Posts: 1,159member
    ivanh said:
    Remember WordPerfect?
    That’s the one perfect for type-writing. No mouse, no touch. Your hands never needed to move away from the keyboard.  Your eyes might not even need to look at the screen when you type.  You could close your eyes to think while typing. Fast, strong editing functions.  I miss WordPerfect for PC DOS!
    If you can find any currently available word processors on Windows or Mac matching up to 60% if efficiency of WordPerfect, let me know.
    IA Writer is an excellent (but not free) keyboard centric text editor with versions for iOS, Mac, and Android. A Windows versions is in the pipeline. It has a very minimalistic user interface and a lovely dark mode.
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