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The best code editors in 2021: our guide to the top options

Best code editors
(Image credit: Maskot via Getty)

The best code editors can have a huge impact on your productivity and workflow. Most of us, however, stick with "what we know" out of lazy habit. If you shop around instead, though, you could find the kind of fast and intuitive interface or killer features that help you get your work done more quickly and efficiently.

The best code editors offer a number of things. A fast and flexible interface that makes you more efficient at writing code. Functionality to help you examine code for mistakes, and discover where edits need to be made. The potential to be easily customised, so you can create the kind of UI and user experience that suits you (quality website builders can also help here). 

All that might sound like a lot to ask but consider how many hours you're likely to spent looking at your code editor, day in day out. With that in mind, you want to make sure it looks and works the best it possibly can (and also make sure you've got one of the best monitors for programming, too).

Everyone codes in a different way, of course, so it's impossible to single out any one specific code editor as the best overall. However, what we can do is bring you a selection of the best code editors available today, explain what each offers, and let you pick the one that suits you best. So read on, and you may just find a tool that makes a big and positive difference to the way you work, day-to-day.

On this first page, we take an in-depth look at the six best code editors for web developers and designers. On Page 2 you'll find more options to try, then on page 3 you'll also find information on code editors in general, including how to pick the right one. While you're considering your toolkit, also check out our roundup of the best web design tools

Worried about troubleshooting? Our guide to the best antivirus software will keep your precious programming safe and a top web hosting service will give you more support.

6 best code editors for developers and designers

best code editors: Sublime Text 3

01. Sublime Text 3

The best code editor all-round – but you'll have to pay for it

Price: $80 (free indefinite preview) | Platform: Windows, Mac OS, Linux | Developer: Sublime HQ

Lightweight and speedy
Extremely extendable
Not free
Nagging popup

Sublime Text is the editor that really changed the way the best code editors worked. It is lightweight, open and ready to edit your file almost as soon as you've managed to click the button. This responsiveness is one of the things that makes it the best code editor 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 big benefit of Sublime Text is that it's crazily extensible, with a huge and ever-growing list of plugins available to install via the package manager. Options include 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 more.

Sublime Text is free to download and start using, but for extended use you'll need to shell out $80 for a licence – and the programme will remind you fairly regularly about payment until you cough up. If you decide to pay, the same licence 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 licence, however, is perhaps Sublime Text’s biggest downside – there are a number of competitive products available to developers for no cost.

best code editors: Visual Studio Code

02. Visual Studio Code

The most fully featured, well-rounded code editor

Price: Free | Platform: Windows, Mac OS, Linux | Developer: Microsoft

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, is open-source software. Of the code editors in this list, it's probably the closest to being an IDE. It's 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 has seen a meteoric rise in popularity – it is continually growing its user base and attracting 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. Its ‘IntelliSense’ feature offers autocompletion of code as well as information on the parameters of functions and known variable names.

Best code editors: Codespaces

(Image credit: Microsoft)

03. Codespaces

A new browser-based code editor from Microsoft and Github

Price: Free | Platform: Browser | Developer: Microsoft

Work from anywhere
Good for collaboration
Functions offline
New and untested

Microsoft, owner of Github, has made it clear that its vision for the 2020s is all about the cloud, and here's a good example. Launched this May, Codespaces is a code editor based on Visual Studio Code that's entirely based in the browser.

Codespaces has a browser-based editor with support for Git repos, extensions, and a built-in command line interface so you can edit, run, and debug  your applications from any device. Obviously this enables you to work from anywhere, and makes collaboration with other devs easier. Code-editing functionality in GitHub will always be free, although Microsoft plans to offer simple pay-as-you-go pricing for Codespaces cloud environments.

You launch Codespaces straight from Github, which makes for a nice bit of synergy. If you prefer not to use a browser, that's fine too, as support for Visual Studio Code and Visual Studio is built-in.

best code editors: Atom

04. Atom

The best free code editor, with a friendly UI

Price: Free | Platform: Windows, Mac OS, Linux | Developer: Github

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

Atom is open source and developed by GitHub. In its initial development, it was heavily influenced by the new style of editor made popular by Sublime Text. However, there are key differences: Atom is free and open source, and offers 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 matured. It’s true that it still launches slower than some code editors, but it’s just as reliable and quick to use as any of the rest after that.

Further reading: Get more from Atom text editor

best code editors: Brackets code editor

05. Brackets

The best code editor for new users

Price: Free | Platform: Windows, Mac OS, Linux | Developer: Adobe

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

Brackets is Adobe’s open-source editor, and seems to be a very well rounded software. It doesn’t natively support as many languages 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 on top on many of the usual speed and reliability metrics, but it does have several unique features worth investigating. It is mostly configurable via its menus, whereas most of the other editors in this list require you to edit configuration files (you can also edit the configuration file in Brackets if you prefer). 

There's also an interesting feature for quick CSS editing. You can use a hotkey to pop out a small section on an HTML page, then edit any CSS rules that are currently affecting the element that you have selected. This means you can quickly locate a styling problem and fix it without having to waste time 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. Got a lot of files? Reliable cloud storage is crucial.

best code editors: Vim code editor

06. Vim

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

Price: Free | Platform: Windows, Mac OS, Linux | Developer:

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 for many old-school programmers, and keyboard enthusiasts. 

The program is navigated entirely via the keyboard, making it much faster and more efficient – but only if you make the effort to learn how to operate it. It is also extremely customisable (to the extent that a command line program can be customised). You can use a number of keyboard shortcuts to speed up the code editing process, and even better, create customised commands to fit your own workflow.

Vim earns the award for the steepest learning curve and perhaps one of the worst user experiences overall, due to its complete lack of UI. Learning how to navigate Vim isn’t all that challenging, but building the muscle memory of shortcuts and figuring out how best to customise the editor (which you needs to do to get the best from this programme) takes a lot longer. 

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.

best code editors

(Image credit: Espresso)

07. Espresso

One of the best code editors for Mac users

Price: $99 | Platform: Mac OS | Developer: Kangacode

Sleek, easy-to-use interface
Live preview while you code
Can be buggy

Espresso is a long-standing option for Mac users. Some have found it to have become buggy of late, with some unexpected crashes, but its sleek interface, live preview and drag and drop functionality make it easy to use for beginners for front-end design work. It's divided into three columns – your files, the code editor and the navigator, which lets you see the various sections of code you’re working on. The live styling feature allows you to change CSS code for live websites and see the changes in the preview without publishing or saving.

Next page: More great code editors