Every job is easier if you have the right tools. So what exactly is plain text, and why might you want a plain text editor instead of a word processor?
The world of text files can be broken up into two large categories: plain text and rich text.
Rich Text Versus Plain Text
Rich text files contain more information than just the text you write, they contain information about how that text should look on your screen. Any time you use a program to make text a specific color, add highlighting, add superscript or subscript, or make a font bold or italicized, the text editor saves that information in the text file. Here’s an example from Microsoft’s WordPad.
This is the text you’d see on the screen.
This picture is the actual information saved in the RTF file. Normally that information is interpreted instantly by the text editor you’re working with, and you never see it directly.
Plain text is the exact opposite — any formatting parameters you include are visible and must be explicitly written out.
Most all the configuration files applications — and operating systems — use are saved as plain text. Plain text is also the standard for writing code for scripts or for programs. Using plain text helps minimize compatibility issues and keeps file sizes to a minimum.
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Why You Need a Plain Text Editor
Generally speaking, plain text editors shine in situations where you don’t need, want, or care about automatic or fancy formatting options. They use fewer resources than sophisticated word processors, and there is no possibility of accidentally embedding formatting-related code in a file that shouldn’t have any.
The exact use cases vary — sometimes, the intelligent features of modern Word Processors might actually get in the way, like if you’re writing code in a language that requires specific formatting (which is a majority of them). Microsoft Word would constantly be complaining about your spaces, your capitalization, or how you’re using inappropriate punctuation because you have semicolons and paired brackets everywhere. Alternatively, you could be using a specialized typesetting language like LaTeX, which has specific formatting rules you need to follow.
Other times, you just need to jot down notes, write out some ideas quickly, or edit something like the hosts file. There is no need for a Word Processor in those cases, it’s like swatting flies with a sledgehammer — majorly overkill.
Notepad is the most obvious choice for a plain text editor since it has been included with Windows for nearly 40 years. It doesn’t have much in the line of additional features though, so if you’re looking for something more, here are a few good all-rounders:
All of those text editors have optional plugins available that add additional functionality, like syntax highlighting or other specialized language support, making them closer to an integrated development environment (IDE) than a word processor. They all also have large communities behind them, which means that there are constantly new features and plugins being released to account for new and changing needs.