Software Review: BBEdit 8.5 Upgrade

With a significant upgrade to version 8.5, one of the most powerful text-editing packages available on any platform acquires some new features and refines existing ones. It also sees a big price drop. Check out our previous review (“BBEdit 8.0”) for the full story on this remarkable software package, or read on to learn what’s new in the upgrade.

Discovering the Power of Text Editing

If you’ve read through the first part of our earlier review (“BBEdit 8.0”), you’ll know just how powerful this text editor can be. Whether you’re maintaining a website, occasionally banging out a bit of programming, or undertaking wholesale modifications to sets of hundreds or even thousands of files, BBEdit is your friend. The beauty of this upgrade is that it makes the software’s remarkable capabilities easier to understand, access, and control. All the same features are still there (plus some new ones), but finding them and using them productively is significantly easier than it used to be. In fact, in the course of testing the software for this review, I kept discovering ‘new’ little features which, when I checked, weren’t new at all, but were just easier to find or use.

Perhaps the best example of the sort of refinement which makes the software’s power easier to use is the overhaul of the preferences panel. Although it might not sound very exciting at first glance, the addition of a search facility for the preferences panel (much like the Spotlight searching now available in the Mac OS X System Preferences) makes it vastly easier to figure out how to enable, disable, or tweak the package’s hundreds of settings.

If you’re an existing user of BBEdit, you may well use the new preferences pane to find capabilities you’d long since forgotten; if you’re a new user, you may wonder why all applications with complex configuration options aren’t designed with searchable preference panes!

BBEdit 8.5 preference pane overhaul

BBEdit 8.5 searchable preferences pane.

What Else is New in BBEdit 8.5?

But if a newly re-organized preference pane were the only notable change in BBEdit 8.5, it really would be fairly boring. Fortunately, there’s more — quite a bit more, in fact. The publisher’s release notes say around 160 changes have been made (including new features, bug fixes, refinements, etc.), but I’ll just mention a few of those which I personally have found most useful. (The link goes to the notes for the main 8.5 release, but as of this writing, BBEdit is up to version 8.5.2, a minor bug-fix release.) These range from the subtle to the much more obvious.

Among the more obvious new features is what Bare Bones Software calls ‘code folding’ — enabling a selected portion of text to be collapsed temporarily. BBEdit supports folding of arbitrary selections of text as well as all the material inside the coding tags it recognizes. For example, the entire contents of a <body> tag within a web page could be collapsed, or the entire contents of a single paragraph tag. This will be familiar to users of other packages such as Dreamweaver, which also supports collapsing of both selections and tags. Although I’m very glad to see Bare Bones bring code folding to BBEdit at long last, I would have liked more consistency in its implementation: while tag-based collapsing and expanding is handled via small disclosure triangles displayed in a narrow column along the left of a page, folding of arbitrary selections requires a menu selection (for collapsing) and double-clicking (for expanding). In my view, a single consistent approach using disclosure triangles would have been preferable — perhaps with a visual indicator to distinguish triangles for arbitrary selections from tag-based selections.

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Among the less obvious new features is the ability to include comments within Text Factories. These handy sets of transformations (see our original review) can now include comments within each step documenting what they are intended to do. Previously, there was no way of documenting the steps of a Text Factory, and as a result I invariably wound up maintaining a separate document to describe my intention for each step. Now, at last, that information can be included within the Text Factory file itself. It would be even handier if it were possible to see the entire Text Factory structure — comments included — all at once. In the current incarnation of Text Factories, it is possible to see a summary of the sequence of transformations which will be applied, but without being able to see the comments for each step simultaneously, finding the place in a Text Factory where a particular job is performed requires an iterative hunt clicking buttons to reveal the comments on each transformation in turn. In other words, it’s a great idea, but in actual use, it turns out not to be nearly as handy as it might have been.

More helpful in actual use is the overhauled system for re-using snippets of text. A new user interface makes it easier than before to save and re-use ‘clippings’. As far as I have noticed, there isn’t anything actually new about clippings themselves, but they are significantly easier to use.

The new release also sports improved keyboard navigation, which is now working great after a problem remedied in the version 8.5.2 bug fix release. If you ever used the numeric keypad to navigate and select in Microsoft Word — a feature which Microsoft unfortunately removed in Office 2001 and later — then this capability will be very familiar. Keyboard shortcuts also make it possible to select items from the navigation bar without using the mouse, and as with the previous version, if you don’t like some of the built-in keyboard shortcuts, you can change them.

The only noticeable limitations I have encountered involve the sensitivity of BBEdit’s HTML syntax checker and the new version’s ability to handle very large files.

Taking the second problem first, the new version is (on my system, anyway), actually less capable when it comes to opening very large files — say, of 500 MB or more. I encounter this limitation when attempting to open raw server logs, which are often very large. Before the update to 8.5, I had no problems opening server log files of 600 MB or 700 MB; after the update (but with no other changes to my system), BBEdit now cannot always manage to open these files at all.

With regard to BBEdit’s syntax checker, there is still an unfixed problem which arises in situations where a server side include (SSI) — most often an “echo” — occurs inside an anchor tag on an HTML page. This throws off BBEdit’s syntax checking, convincing it that the anchor tag hasn’t been properly closed; unfortunately, this in turn convinces it that every other subsequent tag on the page hasn’t been closed, and all the “<” symbols haven’t been properly encoded as HTML entities. In other words, that one little “mistake” causes so many errors to be generated on the page that the syntax checker ceases to be of much use at all. Since BBEdit correctly ignores the contents of other HTML comments (which always enclose SSI instructions), it’s disappointing to find SSI instructions throwing it for such a loop.

On balance, however, these minor niggles are exactly that — minor. The upgrade itself offers such a great combination of new features and refinements to existing ones that I can’t see very many existing customers wanting to stay with the previous version.

System Requirements and Updated Pricing

BBEdit 8.5 logo

And for those existing users who do want to upgrade, the new price is $30 (or free for users who purchased version 8.2 after 1 January 2006). Meanwhile, those new to the software can now get it for $125 — a full $75 lower than the previous retail price of $200. See the Bare Bones Software site for full details.

BBEdit 8.5 requires Mac OS X 10.3.9 or later, and Automator support requires 10.4 or later. It comes as a Universal Binary, supporting both Intel and PowerPC processors.

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