5 top code editors for programmers

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Whether you are new to the world of programming or an old hand, you need a great code editor to help you perform your magic. The best code editors will make you more efficient at coding and writing, assist you in examining and editing your code, and be customisable to meet your needs. They will also create a more comfortable user experience, which should not be underestimated, as you’ll be looking at your code editor for potentially hours every day.

There are dozens of text editors, code editors, IDEs, and more out there for you to choose from. So how do you pick? You really only want to have to make the switch to a new editor once in a while, as you'll lose some efficiency while you’re adjusting to the different software. Read on to discover five of the best code editors for developers and designers, and find the best-in-class tool for you to use every day. At the bottom of the post, you'll also find information on what is a code editor, and how to pick the right code editor.

Sublime Text 3

The most stable and quick of the editors with UIs.

Price: $80 (free indefinite preview) | Stability: High | Speed: High | UI/UX: Medium | Customisability: High

Lightweight and speedy
Extremely extendable
Nagging popup for payment

Sublime Text is the editor that really changed the way code editors worked. It is lightweight, open and ready to edit your file almost as soon as you have managed to click the button. This responsiveness is something that sets Sublime Text apart from other editors in its class. If you want to open a file and make a quick edit, waiting for a few seconds for loading may not sound like much, but the delay can grow tedious. 

Another of Sublime Text’s best points is that it is also crazily extensible, with a huge and ever-growing list of plugins available to install. The package manager makes a variety of things available, including themes with which to customise the editor’s appearance, code linters (which can assist with more quickly locating any errors in your code), Git plugins, colour pickers, and all kinds of other useful things.

Sublime Text is free to download and use, but will remind you fairly regularly about payment until you do so. If you decide to pay, the same license key can be used by you for any computer that you use, so you can enter the same code on all your machines to make the payment reminder popup go away. The paid license, however, is perhaps Sublime Text’s greatest negative feature, with so many competitive products that are available to developers for no cost.

Visual Studio Code

The most fully featured, well rounded editor.

Price: Free | Stability: High | Speed: Medium | UI/UX: High | Customisability: Medium

Good for complex, larger projects
Very robust
Built-in Git support
Slow to start up

Visual Studio Code is a code editor developed by Microsoft, and surprisingly, as an open-source software. VS Code is perhaps the closest code editor in this list to being an IDE. It is very robust, and is also one of the slower programs when starting up. However, while using it, VS Code is quick and able to handle quite a few interesting tasks, such as quick Git commits or opening and sorting through multiple folders’ worth of content.

VS Code is perhaps the most meteoric editor, popularity-wise, on this list, as it is continually growing its user base and attracting more developers away from other editors. VS Code has a built-in terminal, as well as built-in Git support, both of which are big winners for fans of this program. It also has a feature that it has dubbed ‘IntelliSense’, which helps with autocompletion of code as well as information on the parameters of functions and known variable names.

Atom

A free version of Sublime text, with a friendlier UI.

Price: Free | Stability: Medium | Speed: Medium | UI/UX: High | Customisability: High

Integrated with Git and GitHub
Quick and reliable
Slow to launch
Historical performance issues

Atom is open source and developed by GitHub. Its initial development made it apparent that it was heavily influenced by the new style of editor that Sublime Text made prominent, but its key differences are the free, open-source nature of this editor, as well as the easy out-of-box integration with Git and GitHub. 

Atom has historically had performance and stability problems, but those have diminished significantly as it has become a more mature software. It’s true that it still launches slower than some editors, but it’s just as reliable and quick to use as any of the rest after that.

Brackets

The easiest editor for new users.

Price: Free | Stability: Medium | Speed: Medium | UI/UX: High | Customisability: Medium

Simple customisation options
Pleasant looking UI
Well rounded option
Especially suited to macOS
Some performance issues

Brackets is Adobe’s open-source editor offering. To get started, Brackets was faster to start up than Atom, but not as fast as Sublime Text. Brackets was only introduced a few years ago, and is still maturing, but seems to be a very well rounded software. It doesn’t come with as many languages natively supported for syntax highlighting as some of the others, but it still has quite a few. Because of its focus on front-end technologies, it also supports CSS preprocessors like LESS and Sass. Brackets doesn’t come out the winner on many of the usual speed and reliability metrics, but it does have several unique features worth investigating.

Brackets is easier to use to some degree because it is mostly configurable via its menus, whereas most of the other editors in this list require configuration files to be edited to do much configuration (but you can also edit the configuration file in Brackets if this makes you more comfortable). The program also has a very interesting feature for quick CSS editing. You can use a hotkey to pop out a small section on an HTML page that will let you edit any CSS rules that are currently affecting the element that you have selected, enabling you to quickly locate a styling problem and then fix it without having to embark on a lot of searching around.

An interesting design decision is that Brackets doesn’t use tabs at all for showing open files. Rather, there is an open files menu in the top left, above the file tree. If you’re using the split-window view, this open tabs list also splits ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ for easier location of the file you’re looking for. VS Code uses a similar open files menu, for example, but also uses tabs. In Brackets, this enables maximum screen real estate, but could be a jarring experience if you’re used to tab navigation.

Vim

This command line software is a favourite for old school programmers.

Price: Free | Stability: High | Speed: High | UI/UX: Low | Customisability: High

Rock-solid and very fast
Good for keyboarders
Included with Linux OS and macOS
No UI – navigated via keyboard

Vim is perhaps the most contentious code editor in this list. Vim is a command line software, included natively with Linux operating systems and macOS, and available for download for Windows. Vim is a favourite option for many old school programmers, and keyboard enthusiasts. The program is navigated entirely with the keyboard, making it much faster and more efficient – but only if sufficient time is spent learning how to operate it. It is also extremely customisable (to the extent that a command line program can be customised). 

Vim gives you the ability to use many keyboard shortcuts to speed the editing of your code, and even better, enables you to create customised commands to fit your own editing processes.

Vim earns the award for the steepest learning experience and perhaps one of the worst user experiences overall, due to its utter lack of UI. Learning how to navigate Vim isn’t all that challenging, given just a small amount of time, but building the muscle memory of shortcuts and figuring out how best to customise the editor takes a much more substantial amount of time, in order to truly realise the benefits of this powerful program. 

Vim is incredibly stable, fast, and a real joy to use for veteran command line aficionados and new, interested users alike. If you have the time to learn it, Vim can really increase your coding productivity, and it’s a nearly seamless cross-platform experience, with so little UI to consider.

What is a code editor?

Code editors are the bread and butter software of many developers, designers, and even writers. Complex integrated development environments (IDEs) are often too bloated and heavy for smaller tasks, such as working on a single project or file. On the other hand, basic text editors such as Notepad on Windows or TextEdit on macOS are underpowered for the tasks of editing code – too many necessary features are missing, making code editing cumbersome. 

The interim type of software is the code editor. They shine at just this task, editing single files or single projects, managing a folder’s worth of content. Crucially, the slowest of the editors in this list are still much faster and more responsive than dealing with a fully-fledged IDE.

Code editors shine whether editing single files or managing a folder’s worth of content

Code editors often used to be very different on each operating system, but the editors in this list are cross-platform and many work to ensure that the experience on different operating systems is very similar. This enables programmers to shift between work and personal computers, or even shared devices, and still get things done without having to adjust to a different environment. 

In addition, many of the code editors here can have their behaviour modified via configuration option files (things like setting tab lengths, line lengths and wrapping, autocompletion, syntax highlighting, and more). This ability to dictate the program’s appearance and behaviour lets the programmer maximise the usefulness of the software, while the defaults enable a casual user to have a pleasant and useful ‘out of box’ experience.

How do you pick a code editor?

Picking a code editor can be a challenging task. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you know what you need. What features are most important to you? Keyboard shortcuts? Appearance? Speed? Stability? Cross-platform experience? Open source? Syntax highlighting options? 

Consider what you would like your editor to do for you. Do you enjoy autocompletion of function names, or automatic closing brackets or tags? Or do you find those things frustrating? Do you put a lot of stock in the ability to change the colour scheme of your UI often and easily, or are you a big fan of a simple light or dark mode? Do you wish to perform Git operations directly from your editor?

The list of potential features is endless, so figure out which are most important to you

The list of potential features is absolutely endless, and only you can say which are the ones that are the most important to you. Which make you more comfortable, efficient, and productive? Decide on your priorities, and then take a look around and find the editor software that ticks off all the boxes.

Another important note about choosing a code editor is to allow time to invest yourself in the software. Take a moment to look through the available settings, plugins, or other extensions. Find out which things you can change or set up to ensure that the experience is the best that it can possibly be for you. Getting your editor customised to your needs and spending some time with it will give you a real taste for whether it is to your liking or not.

This article was originally published in issue 303 of net, the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers. Subscribe now.

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