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BBEdit 5.0

Volume Number: 15 (1999)
Issue Number: 2
Column Tag: Tools Of The Trade

Review of BBEdit 5.0

by Vicki Brown
Edited by Rich Morin

Editing Text in a GUI World

BBEdit, the text editor from Bare Bones Software is quite a product. If you haven't tried it yet, now would be a great time. Bare Bones has recently released version 5.0 of BBEdit, with more advanced HTML editing, improved language-sensitive syntax coloration, and several new features that are sure to make even experienced BBEdit users take note. BBEdit has been a terrific product for several years now. With the 5.0 release, it's gotten even better.

BBEdit is available in two forms. BBEdit 5.0 is a commercial product, available as a boxed distribution (HFS CD-ROM and a 290-page manual); a downloadable demo is also available. BBEdit Lite, also downloadable, is binary-only freeware. The Lite version has fewer features; for instance, it can't do text coloring. BBEdit Lite is a good editor; however, if you really want to give BBEdit's most interesting features a test drive, download a copy of the BBEdit version 5.0 demo.

This article covers BBEdit 5.0; many of the features described here are unavailable in BBEdit Lite. You'll find a table comparing BBEdit 5.0 to BBEdit Lite on Bare Bones Software's web site. Bare Bones offers a cross-upgrade discount price on BBEdit 5.0 to users of Lite (and several other products). Check the Bare Bones web site for more information.

Figure 1. BBEdit Session.

What is a Text Editor, Anyway?

For those who aren't quite sure, some terminology might be in order. What is a text editor, anyway, and how does it compare to all the other text editing, word-processing, and source code development tools on the market?

Quite simply, a text editor deals with text. No styles, no special formatting, no fancy fonts, no page layout capabilities, just text. If you want to write a fancy README file with bold, italic, and embedded pictures, use a Styled Text Editor (such as SimpleText). If you want to write a paper, a book, or a magazine article such as this one, with special formatting, paragraph styles and the like, use a word processor. (Although, to be honest, I wrote the first draft of this article in BBEdit, then "poured" the result into a word processor to finish it!).

Rich Siegel, of Bare Bones Software, puts it this way: "a word processor is used for producing documents in which the presentation of the content is the primary consideraton, and a text editor is primarily for producing documents which are subsequently used as input to other programs (e.g. compilers, MacPerl, Web browsers)."

Finally, don't think that using a text editor means you can only work with files of type TEXT. BBEdit is happy to open just about any file if you ask it. Just be careful what you edit!

Why would I want a Text Editor?

You might wonder why anyone would want to use a text editor on the Macintosh, that bastion of GUI, WYSIWYG, and other fine graphical acronyms! The text editor might seem a throwback to command-line systems such as vi and Emacs under Unix, or EDT under VMS. Besides, you've probably already got at least one word processor, as well as a code development environment (e.g., Metrowerks CodeWarrior).

Actually, a text editor can be very useful and very powerful. When writing in a text editor, the writer doesn't worry about styles or formatting (except for indentation), only text. This makes a text editor an excellent tool for composing code, in languages ranging from Fortran to C to Perl.

If you're willing to give up the convenience of a graphical page-layout application for the power of twiddling actual code, a text editor can be a very handy way to work with markup languages such as TeX and HTML. BBEdit has a number of features (described below) that make HTML editing easy, quick, and safe.

Although all text editors specialize in entering and editing text, the best also provide extended features to make this process simpler and more flexible. The best text editors share such features as automatic line numbering, find and replace, keyboard navigation, auto-indentation, line wrapping, and various simple text transformations such as changing case. They may also provide integrated capabilities for sorting lines, checking spelling, and comparing files.

BBEdit has oodles of preferences (27 categories in version 5.0!) which are fairly well organized under one, very large, easily navigable preferences dialog. Many preferences can also be changed temporarily for the current session (using the popup menus in the status bar) or changed permanently for a file (using the Window Options or Printing Options items in the Edit menu).

(Aside for those who like trivia - the Philip Bar in a BBEdit window marks the maximum width a window can be and still display completely on a classic Macintosh screen (512 pixels wide) without horizontal scrolling. In a standard font such as ProFont 9, the Philip Bar comes at 80 characters. The Philip Bar was named after Philip Borenstein, the technical documentation writer who requested the feature. Wouldn't you like to have a feature named after you? :-)

Figure 2. Preferences: Editor.

Source Code Development

BBEdit provides a wide range of features to support source code development. These include syntax-sensitive text coloration, function popups, line shifting, split window operation, and delimiter matching (when I type a closing parenthesis, brace, or bracket, BBEdit can automatically highlight the matching delimiter).

BBEdit currently supports more than a dozen languages: 68K Assembler, C, C++, Fortran, GuideScript, HTML, Java, Javascript, ObjectPascal, Perl, Rez, ScriptX, Setext, Tcl, and TeX. Language types are determined from filename extensions (e.g., .pl or .html); BBEdit does not (presently :-) "taste" the file's contents to determine its type.

You can designate your preferred default language, as well as setting a language for untitled windows and filenames without extensions, using the Languages preference dialog. You can also add extensions to the list. For example, when MacPerl sends a file to your preferred editor it appends " [Perl]" to the filename. I've set both ".pl [Perl]" and ".pm [Perl]" as Perl language file extensions.

Figure 3. Preferences: Languages.

Navigating your code

BBEdit takes note of all functions in the current file, listing them in a popup menu in the status bar at the top of the window. You can choose to list functions alphabetically, or in order within the file, using the Function Popup preference. Functions can also be marked (using the Mark popup), as can just about anything else in the file.

If you combine the marking and function-handling capabilities with BBEdit's split-screen feature, you have a very powerful editing and code-browsing tool. Just grab the black mark at the top of the scroll bar (using the mouse) and drag it down to turn one window into two. This creates a second, linked view into the file being edited.

Now, scroll (or jump) to a function calling point in the top pane; jump to the function definition in the lower pane. You can keep the function definition in view as you scroll through the code in the other pane. Edits made in either pane will be reflected in the other.

Syntax coloring

Syntax colors are editable in the preferences. For most languages, BBEdit differentiates between (and colors) keywords, strings, and comments. For HTML, BBEdit differentiates between Images (IMG tags), Anchors, and General keywords, as well using the Comment color defined for other languages. As of version 4.5.3, BBEdit has been able to print in color (if you have a color printer) or in grayscale (if you have a good grayscale printer).

Extending BBEdit's Capabilities

One of BBEdit's most useful features is the ability to install plug-ins which extend the text editor's capabilities. Plug-ins can add powerful text-transformation functionality. There's a plug-in that helps with indenting C code, several that work with HTML and web sites, and quite a few that perform text insertion (e.g., Insert Date, Insert Time) or modification (e.g., Sort..., Un/Comment, Copy Lines Containing..., Prefix/Suffix Lines).

One favorite of mine is the LineSort Plugin, an enhancement over the standard Sort... plug-in. This plug-in features a floating window, Undo capability, and the ability to choose to merge, remove, or retain duplicate lines. If you pay the shareware fee, you also get to sort based on grep-style pattern matching criteria.

I use a set of plug-ins, written by Brad Hansen, which turns BBEdit into my editor and code development environment for MacPerl. The MacPerl plug-ins allow me to write my code in BBEdit, check syntax, run the program, and browse any (gasp!) errors, all from within BBEdit. Other plug-ins interface to formatters such as OzTeX and Textures (Macintosh implementations of the TeX formatting language), PostScript (for printing), the VOODOO version control software from Uni Software Plus, and more.

A large set of third-party plug-ins is included on the BBEdit CD (although check the authors' web sites for recent updates!) Note, however, that not all plug-ins will work with BBEdit Lite!

If you're interested in writing your own plug-ins, a plug-in SDK is available. See the BBEdit online plug-in library pages for more information on extending BBEdit's features through plug-ins.

MacPerl - a Practical Example

Thanks to the MacPerl BBEdit plug-ins, BBEdit is my tool of choice for working with MacPerl, the freely available port of Perl 5 for the Macintosh. MacPerl is an elegant and powerful standalone application. Its internal text editor, however, is based on TextEdit (as used by SimpleText). As an code editing environment, this leaves, ahem, some things to be desired, such as good indentation, true monospace fonts, and the ability to edit large files (the 32 KB limit allows approximately 1000 lines of Perl code).

In contrast, BBEdit handles large files, line numbering, function lookup, syntax coloring, and more. The MacPerl plug-ins make calls (via Apple Events) to MacPerl, providing me with syntax checking as well as the ability to run my script and view the results without leaving BBEdit. Then, using BBEdit's FTP and line-termination capabilities (described below), I can push the resulting files to a remote (e.g., Unix) host for immediate use!

One of the MacPerl plug-ins provides the ability to create filters written in MacPerl. These filters can then be run on the text in any BBEdit window.

When you run a filter, any text selected in the active BBEdit window is written to a temporary file; the full path name of this file is then passed to the filter script as the first element in the @ARGV array. If no text is selected, then all the text in the window will be used.

A set of example filters is provided with the MacPerl plugin set. For example, there is a filter to convert runs of spaces to tabs:

   #!perl -p

   # Remove spaces at beginning and end of each line
   # change any other sequence of spaces to a tab

   s/^ +//;
   s/ +$//;
   s/ +/\t/g;

The -p option in the first line imposes an implicit loop, causing MacPerl to read through its arguments (in this case, the temporary file containing your selected text), processing one line at a time.

Here is another filter, which inserts an (editable) C header template; the <> structure is an input operator which retrieves the file name. $ucname is an upper-case version of the name, for use in cpp macros. Note that the print command sees a multi-line text string, enclosed by double quotes.

   # Insert heading for .h file
   # use selected text as file name.
   $filename = <>;
   $ucname = uc $filename;
   print "#ifndef ${ucname}_H
   #define ${ucname}_H

    *   File:         $filename.h
    *   Function:      Declarations for $filename.cpp
    *   Author(s):      <put your name here>
    *   Copyright:      Copyright (c) 1995 <whomever>
    *               All Rights Reserved.
    *   Source:         Original.
    *   Notes:         
    *   Change History:
    *         95_xx_xx_nnn   Started source.
   #pragma once
   #endif /* ${ucname}_H */

Writing for Heterogenous Networks

These days, many people work on networks. Text editing and code development, be it in C, Perl, or HTML, is probably being done for several machines. BBEdit recognizes that, while you are creating a file on a Macintosh, you may be deploying it on a Windows or Unix system. Or, the file may have been generated on another system, but you want to make some modifications under Mac OS.

BBEdit provides support for the three most common types of line breaks, those used by Macintosh (carriage return), Windows (carriage return/line feed), and Unix (line feed). You can set the default for saving files in the Filing preference. (When BBEdit opens a file, it always uses Macintosh-style line breaks in the open window. It's only upon saving that the line breaks may be converted to another style.) You can also reset how line breaks will be saved, using the File Options popup in the Status Bar.

If your file isn't local to your Macintosh, but you have FTP access, you can edit the file directly from the server. Just choose Open from FTP server... from the File menu. You'll receive a connection dialog (auto-connect and saved passwords are available, if desired).

Figure 4. Open from FTP.

Using the FTP dialog, navigate the remote system and select a file. It will be downloaded to a temporary location and opened on your Macintosh. The file name in the status bar shows the ftp URL of the file; selecting Save will automatically connect and save the file. It feels like you're editing the file directly on the server!

Similar options include saving a local file to an FTP server (as with Save As..., the file name in the status bar will change to show you are now editing the remote copy) and Save a Copy to the FTP server. I use this last option a lot. I keep my original files on my Macintosh and edit them there, then select Save a Copy to FTP Server and "push" the files over the wire.

FTP-editing has become more well-integrated with each release since it was first introduced. FTP-transferred files are now listed in the Open Recent menu. BBEdit keeps track of the file servers you visit, including your user name, password (if desired) and last-visited directory. You can define FTP bookmarks and define several global FTP preferences using BBEdit's Preferences dialog. Although BBEdit could only keep track of 12 FTP servers prior to version 5.0, the number is now, essentially, limitless!

Note that the various FTP Open and Save options only work with text files. If you want to move images (e.g., JPEG format files), StuffIt (tm) archives, or other non-text files over FTP, you'll still need to use an FTP client such as Fetch, from Dartmouth College, or Anarchie, from Stairways Software

Web Page Development

These days, the web is everything and everything supports the web. BBEdit is no exception. Since version 4.0, BBEdit has had integrated support for creating and previewing web pages (the latter via your preferred browser). The folks at Bare Bones have provided an enormous set of tools for working with HTML, accessible either from the Tools menu or an editable floating palette. There's even an editable HTML template; just choose "New HTML Document..." from the File menu.

With BBEdit version 5.0, in a move sure to win applause from many long-time users, the HTML tools have been moved into their own Markup menu (the palette is still available as well). This greatly reduces the amount of clutter in the Tools menu while emphasizing the importance of the HTML editing tools.

If you're a person who likes a GUI-style, What You See Is What You Get interface to web page editing, BBEdit won't be your choice. But, if you prefer to work directly with the HTML code, BBEdit provides a host of helpful tools. You can pick and choose the ones you want and forget the others.

For example, I find BBEdit to be very helpful in creating anchors of various types. If I want to create a mailto: reference, I simply type the email address:

Then select it and choose Anchor... from the HTML palette or the Markup menu (the Tools menu in BBEdit versions prior to 5.0). BBEdit guesses the type of Anchor, in this case a mailto:, and provides me with a dialog box where I can make changes if need be.

Figure 5. Anchor dialog.

When I'm happy with my choices, I dismiss the dialog and BBEdit changes my text accordingly, as:

   <A HREF=""></A>

BBEdit also supports Drag and Drop image insertion; drag an image file to the appropriate place in an HTML document and up pops another dialog box.

Figure 6. Image dialog.

Make any changes you like; BBEdit will create and insert the appropriate SRC tag:

  <IMG src="/gfx/pic.jpg" ALT="" WIDTH="297" HEIGHT="601">

There's also a Drag and Drop palette of Web Safe Colors and an HTML Entities table (with an Insert button for convenience).

Figure 7. HTML entities.

Search, Replace, and Compare


Like many applications, BBEdit has a "Find..." utility. Unlike many of the others, however, this one can use regular expressions (like those used in Perl and other Unixish tools) to make the search string far more powerful. The Find dialog refers to this as using Grep - grep is named for the Unix ed editor idiom g/re/p, where re represents a regular expression; that is globally search for a regular expression and print the results (to the screen).

Figure 8. Find.

The Grep option allows various wildcards or metacharacters to match certain types of characters. Character classes (ranges) can be specified by enclosing them in brackets. Metacharacters can be searched for literally if they are "escaped" by a preceding backslash. For example,

matches one of any character except line break.
matches zero or more of the preceeding character.
matches any digit, 0-9.
matches the beginning of a line.
matches the end of the line.
matches any lower-case alphabetic character (if the case sensitive option is checked) or any letter if not case sensitive.
matches a literal period.


Given a file containing the following lines

   abc def ghi
   abc 123 hij
   123 cgh ijk
   abcde 123

the (grep) search pattern


would find only

   123 cgh ijk

while the pattern


would find three lines:

   abc def ghi
   abc 123 hij
   123 cgh ijk

Several Regular Expression tutorials have been posted on the World Wide Web. There's also a book, Mastering Regular Expressions, by Jeffrey Friedl. For most searches, however, the BBEdit documentation should be enough to get you started.

Find Differences...

BBEdit includes a powerful capability to compare two files, view the differences, and apply those differences to either the "new" or the "old" file. Currently open files are available in the popup menus, or use the Other... button to select files on disk. You can also compare two folders or projects.

Figure 9. Find Differences.

Once you've chosen the files to compare, BBEdit places the selected files in two adjacent windows, adding a third, Differences window, below (or above, by preference). Nonmatching, extra, and missing lines are marked; by selecting and clicking the Apply buttons, you can make any necessary changes to the files. Note that, if you have Soft Wrapping set, BBEdit will turn it off to ensure accuracy before mking the file comparison.

Prior to version 4.5.3, I found the Differences screens to be somewhat nonintuitive and difficult to use. Changes in version 4.5.3, however, improved the interface substantially and I now have no complaints.

Figure 10. Differences.

BBEdit-Talk Support

If you like BBEdit and use it regularly, you may be interested in joining the BBEdit-Talk mailing list. The list is sponsored by Bare Bones Software and is monitored by Bare Bones technical folk. Questions are answered speedily and politely. A digest form is available as well. See for subscription instructions and an overview, or send email to

If you ever have trouble with BBEdit, find a (gasp!) bug in the software, or have questions or feature suggestions, just select Send Us Mail from the Apple menu. Your note will go to one of the most courteous, responsive, and intelligent technical support staffs I've dealt with. BBEdit's support folks always treat me as an intelligent "power user", even when I haven't phrased my question perfectly. Not all of my interactions with software tech support have been this uniformly positive!

5.0 Highlights - First Impressions

The following list highlights some of the feature additions and changes that were made to BBEdit between versions 4.5 and 5.0. These were the things that caught my eye in the first hour of using release 5.0. For a more complete, detailed list, see the BBEdit 5.0 release notes, posted at

  • The HTML Tools have been completely rewritten and are available from a new "Markup" menu. Their functionality is a superset of the old HTML tools; new tools have been added.
  • An HTML Entities window has been added.
  • A new "Set Menu Keys..." item is available from the Edit menu; this allows you to set or change the keyboard equivalents for any BBEdit menu items.
  • Language support has been improved; several languages have been added.
  • Several new categories have been added to the Preferences dialog, including an FTP Bookmarks panel.
  • Following a multi-file Search & Replace operation, BBEdit now presents a Replace Results browser showing all files changed by the operation.
  • Multi-file searches can now be performed, excluding matches.
  • PowerTalk Mail is no longer included in the Services preference (R.I.P.).

Alternatives to BBEdit

If you want Styled Text, you have several alternatives. Apple's Simple Text is, of course, well known, although it suffers from an unfortunate inability to open files larger than 32K and has no real capability to handle fixed-width fonts properly. There are several excellent alternatives, however, including Style and TexEdit+ Both are scriptable, styled text editors; both are available as shareware.

For source code development, Metrowerks Code Warrior provides full-on code development system, with an integrated compiler, source code management system, and similar tools. Unfortunately, while Metrowerks is well-suited to building compiled Macintosh applications, it doesn't have many tools for working with interpreted languages such as Perl, Javascript, or HTML. And, you might not want to write a README file in Code Warrior...

Apple Computer's MPW (Macintosh Programmers' Workbench) is a complete development environment, with a shell and many tools. Although MPW was originally available only to registered Apple developers, it is now available for anyone to download over the Internet Even if you use MPW, however, you may still want a simpler, lighter text editor such as BBEdit. For one thing, it takes less time to load.

Finally, Alpha is a shareware text editor with many similar capabilities. When discussions of text editors occur on the MacPerl mailing list, Alpha's and BBEdit's features tend to compare favorably. There are differences between the two editors, to be sure; for one, Alpha is based on the Tcl language. If you're interested in doing your own comparative analysis, you may want to try out Alpha.

Bibliography and References

Vicki Brown has been programming computers for about 20 years now. She discovered Unix in 1983 and the Macintosh in 1986. Unix is her favorite OS, but the Mac OS is her favorite user interface. She changed her desktop machine to a Macintosh five years ago. Vicki is currently employed as a Perl programmer for a Silicon Valley Biotech firm. She is the co-author of MacPerl: Power and Ease. When she's not programming or writing, Vicki enjoys relaxing with her spouse and their two Maine Coon cats.


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