In this Ulysses App Review I ask the question, “Is Ulysses the best word processor for Mac?” I discover that Ulysses is a professional Mac word processor, which aims to be the best writing software, both online and off.
Does the Ulysses app live up to the challenge and beat Scrivener for the crown?
Ulysses is a Mac word processor I’ve been curious about for some time.
It’s pitched as a catch-all tool for writers: the developers are proud enough of their efforts to call it “the greatest text editor the world has ever seen”.
Whether you’re writing a blog post, or a full-blown novel of several thousand words, Ulysses claims to be the app you’ll want to use.
And to be sure of that, they provide sibling writing apps for Mac, iPad and iPhone – all for one annual (or monthly) subscription.
Having taken somewhat longer to write this review than I normally would (sorry, Rebekka at Ulysses!), I have spent several months testing it out.
In summary, Ulysses is a fantastic writing application:
It’s one of the best word processors for Mac, and one of the best pieces of writing software on any platform, particularly if you write online.
Whether you think their subscription price is worth it, will depend a lot on how much you write, but also where you write.
Read on to find out more.
Disclosure: this review is based on a free copy of the Ulysses app, provided by the company (Ulysses GmbH & Co.).
I need to be open with you, right from the start: I’ve been a fan of Ulysses’ main competitor, Scrivener, for some time.
My viewpoint was therefore already biased when trialing Ulysses’ offering because:
In other words, I’m very comfortable with Scrivener, thank you very much.
I needed Ulysses to come out of the gate firing on all cylinders, as it were, in order to be convinced that it could be a serious contender.
Therefore, throughout this review, I will compare the two applications, side by side.
Does Ulysses succeed? Yes, at least in part…
Ulysses has several “killer” features that I would love to have in Scrivener. But one or two things hold it back, depending on what I am writing.
First impressions of Ulysses are generally favourable.
The app seems to take a few seconds more than other apps to open up, whichever platform you start on.
However, once inside, it’s very easy to understand and get around.
On Mac and iPad, you’ll see 3 main work areas, or tabs:
The way this looks and operates is similar to the project structure in Scrivener:
Select an icon or folder in the left hand sidebar, and you’ll see the list of associated documents in the middle tab.
The very first document in the middle list will be displayed in the writing area on the right. But you can click or tap on any document in the list, to see that instead. It’s all very intuitive.
The iPhone app has a slightly different layout, to cope with the smaller screen size, but the principles are exactly the same.
In reality, the only difference is that each sidebar or tab on the larger devices, becomes a separate screen on the phone. It’s neat, it’s nothing you haven’t seen elsewhere, but it gets the job done.
It’s important to understand the terminology used in Ulysses: it calls documents “sheets”, and folders are known as “groups”.
I thought this nomenclature a little odd at first. However, I think it’s to help you get your head round the idea, that each group or sheet can represent anything you like:
At any time, you can display or hide the tabs, to see as little or as much as you want.
This means you can plot the outline of your new book by adding in chapters and scenes, as placeholders to add text to, later.
Or you can hide away all the distractions and focus purely on the text you are writing, right now.
Groups can also expand or collapse within the left hand tab, so you can focus on your current project and ignore the rest.
When you first open the Ulysses app, you’ll see 3 default sections setup for you in the navigation tab:
Library holds all your writing in one place and includes several useful icons:
This section contains a comprehensive getting started guide, including lots of help on the following topics:
If you don’t know what Markdown is yet, then don’t worry, I’ll cover that shortly. Just know that it’s well worth getting to know and use it, as part of your writing toolset.
You can hide the Introduction section, once you’ve gotten everything you need out of it.
I’m keeping it around for the moment, for the odd time when I can’t remember how to do something.
The quick access icons within the Library section are handy, but they don’t give you the same context for your documents, as this section does.
It includes an inbox, the idea being that you can quickly dump into it any new ideas you get, so you can file and edit them later. It’s much like a task manager, such as Things 3, only for your writing.
This is a good idea, in principle, but I think the inbox would be better sitting at the top of the Library section. This would make it more easily accessible, instead of having to hunt for it, amongst all the other icons.
You can have whatever structure you want within this section, with as many groups and sheets as you like.
When adding a new group you can also assign an icon to it. There are plenty to choose from, ranging from your typical smilie, through to a thumbs up, numbers, or idea clouds.
There are no colours available, which might be a bother for some. However, I think it fits well with the Ulysses app purpose of being a distraction free writing tool.
Since a lot of my writing is online, I chose to setup a group for each of my websites, then within each added:
I’ve yet to try writing a book inside Ulysses, but I’ll think long and hard about it, before I give up some of the features I love in Scrivener.
Ulysses takes one major departure from most other writing apps: one library to hold ALL of your writing, in one place (yes, you heard that right).
As a writer, that may either fill you with excitement, or dread.
Let’s pause for a second and think about why you’re here: since you’re reading this review, you’ve almost certainly discovered that there’s a problem with word processors.
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, and particularly if you work on longer documents and books, you’ll know that Microsoft Word simply doesn’t cut it.
Word is great for letters or work documents, or even for final formatting of books, prior to printing or publishing.
However, Word becomes very unwieldy, very quickly, for simply navigating around, let alone editing, a long book. And God help you, if you want to swap any of your chapters around!
The best writing software tools, like Scrivener, add a project structure to your work:
In Scrivener, I can start a new book and I get a view very similar to Ulysses’ navigation sidebar.
But Scrivener allows me to not only drag and drop my chapters and sections around freely, I can also switch to multiple views of my book. This helps me understand the overall structure of my magnum opus.
Between Scrivener’s “cork board”, outline and “Scrivenings” modes*, I can see everything I need to know about my book and edit it, at whatever detail level I want.
*In case you were wondering, Scrivener’s Scrivenings mode allows you to select multiple documents or text fragments, and view them as though they were one document, even if they are from completely separate parts of your project.
But Ulysses wants to take that one step further: it wants me to commit all my work into its one and only, omnipresent and omniscient library. – Every blog post and subscriber email, and every book I’ve ever written, or ever will.
What happens if your library gets corrupted? It wouldn’t be so bad if you’ve only just begun your writing career, but …I’m sorry, I just can’t go there!
[Pause, breath deeply, recover] Where was I?
Ah yes, you better have some really good backups in place (you have got backups, haven’t you?) and you better have a really good sync service, too.
Thankfully, Ulysses has it’s own backup feature, built in. Also, since Ulysses is an Apple only app, your Mac should have Time Machine working in the background, too.
It’s good to know that whatever you write will end up in iCloud, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that a sync service is the same as a backup. – The two are quite different beasts.
Before I go on, let’s have a closer look at that syncing functionality.
The iCloud section in the left hand tab is named by way of a reminder that everything in the app synchronises into the cloud.
And of course, it comes back out of the cloud, to whichever Ulysses apps you have, on Mac, iPad or iPhone.
It does this by having you sign into the same iCloud account on each device where you use the app.
Sync happens automatically, whenever you open the app, or after you make any edits.
Here’s the good news: Sync is so quick, I haven’t really noticed it.
A little cloud icon appears next to whatever has changed in the sidebar, then goes away again. I’ve only seen it occasionally, and it’s never interfered with my work.
As Ulysses has filled up with more folders and “sheets”, the sync cloud hangs about a bit more and the process takes slightly longer. But I do mean slight, and it hasn’t become a real overhead yet.
The only hiccup you’ll encounter is if you manage to create a conflict, like this:
Thankfully, the one time I did this, Ulysses handled my mistake gracefully:
Scrivener also has a sync option, but you have to set that up and trigger it manually. Ulysses is seamless and stays out of your way.
Now that I’ve calmed down again, there’s actually some really good reasons for having all your writing in one place.
In fact, I’ve been syncing Evernote between multiple devices for years, and never batted an eyelid.
While I’ve yet to be convinced that Ulysses can replace Scrivener for my books, I’ve found that it’s the bees knees for online writing.
Having all the text for my online endeavours in one place has been really handy, particularly during my recent product launch. (If you must know, it was for the 4 Steps Prophecy School on timbaderonline.com).
Ulysses made coordinating all the blog posts, emails and lessons, so much easier. And even better, Ulysses gives me native markdown support and the ability to publish my post to my WordPress website, all without leaving the app.
With all this talk about navigation and libraries, I haven’t even got to the good part:
What is Ulysses like where it really counts? You know, for the actual writing?
Well, I’m very happy to say that it doesn’t disappoint.
The writing area is clear and concise, with plenty of white space and small, grey line numbers, to the right hand side.
You can hide the Navigation sidebar and list tab, at any time, by clicking a toolbar icon.
If you decide to put Ulysses into full screen mode, then these elements are automatically hidden, along with the toolbar itself, so you can write completely distraction free.
Enable typewriter mode and Ulysses will keep your cursor within a discreet grey bar and move the text around your writing, for even more focus.
There’s even a dark mode, if you’re that way inclined (personally I hate dark modes, on anything).
I don’t have space to go into every single feature, but here are a few of my favourites:
Markdown is one of the internet’s best kept secrets, but more and more writers are discovering how useful it is.
It consists of a simple syntax you can use when writing plain text, which can be interpreted into headings, text formatting, or HTML.
Ulysses fully supports markdown, so as I write this review, I enter an underscore before and after a word, like this, to make it italic.
Two underscores or asterisks on either side, like this make a word bold.
I can add headings by placing a hash mark (or pound sign) # in front of a sentence: the number of # symbols determines the heading level.
Typing in markdown means I can write without having to think about the format, or clicking on style options.
When Ulysses publishes my blog post, it translates the markdown to HTML automatically, so I get a fully formatted article appear on my website!
As you add headings in markdown, the Ulysses app creates a “table of contents” accessible from an icon in the toolbar.
You can click the icon, see the available headings and click on one to navigate directly to it.
A future “nice to have” for the developers: it would be great if they could add an option to insert this table directly into the text, as HTML with anchors. This would make my longer articles dead easy to navigate (hint, hint!).
Clicking the paperclip opens up a new sidebar, on the right hand side, with some smaller icons:
All these meta-descriptions sync up to your other devices, alongside the text. So you can just as easily update them, while on the move.
It’s great that one of my favourite apps, TextExpander, is integrated natively into Ulysses.
TextExpander lets you create text shortcuts that automatically expand into full words or sentences, when you type them.
If you’ve never tried it, you may not realise quite how useful it can be: my advice is to give it a go, and I suspect you’ll never look back.
Theoretically, TextExpander works in any app where you can type. However different apps vary greatly, in the level of support they provide, particularly on mobile devices.
Ulysses supports it very well, even on iOS, so you don’t have to swap keyboards on iPad or iPhone, in order to use the expansions.
Ulysses also includes some helpful functions, including text transformations.
This means you can select a word or sentence and instantly set it to lower or UPPER case, or quickly Capitalise A Heading.
I already mentioned that Ulysses can publish directly to the web and translate markdown to HTML, in the process.
If you don’t write for the web, and want to move your writing to a Word document instead, then that’s no problem either:
Just select the DOCX option instead of HTML and Ulysses can still translate your markdown correctly.
There are several options hidden inside the seemingly innocuous publish, or share button.
There are multiple output formats, including plain text, ePub and PDF, as well as different destinations, such as a preview option and copy to clipboard.
And within these, it’s completely flexible: you can output the complete text, or just a section, and it even works with a straight copy/paste.
The ability to write on multiple devices isn’t unique to Ulysses, but there are surprisingly few writers apps that do this.
Obviously, Scrivener is one of the others, but as mentioned previously, I think Ulysses’ sync is better.
With reference to the different apps, the Mac version is the best all round solution. This is partly because of the presence of the keyboard and TextExpander integration. But there’s just something about the experience on Mac that makes it enjoyable.
Ulysses on iPad comes a close second. While you can get an external keyboard for iPad, I don’t have one, but you can still get the overview of your documents, similar to that on Mac.
The iPhone app is good in a pinch, and I use it to write some of my text, during the odd lunch hour. But it’s not really that good for the planning side of things.
However, that’s really a limitation of the screen size, rather than the app itself. In my opinion, Ulysses still does a great job of delivering a writing experience, despite the difficulties of the format.
What’s missing from Ulysses? The answer is “not much”.
It’s certainly a complete experience as far as writers are concerned, but there are some things in Scrivener I couldn’t live without.
I have already mentioned the cork board and other modes, present in Scrivener.
These are great “power” features for book authors, but your needs may be less strenuous than mine.
You can still create an outline in Ulysses and I expect that the overall structure will be just as flexible as Scrivener’s would be.
I do miss one or two small features from the Scrivener iOS app, such as delete ahead and cursor keys for moving a line up or down, in their virtual keyboard.
However, the experience of actually writing is pretty much on par, between the two.
There is no option to see ordinary plain text directly in the Ulysses editor.
Sometimes, I have got confused with “accidental” markdown I entered. The only way to see what happened is to use the markdown text preview.
Some aspects of the user interface are not always obvious:
Ulysses is sold on a subscription model and at the time of writing, it costs either $4.99 per month, or $39.99, if you pay for a year in advance, via the App Store (£35.99 in the UK).
The apps themselves are free, and iCloud sync is included in the price. There is also a 14 day free trial available, so you can test the complete suite, including the sync process.
Personally, I dislike subscriptions and try to avoid them where I can. But I recognise that businesses need an income, if they are to survive and nurture the apps we all love.
A Scrivener Standard license costs $45, as a one-off fee. They do charge for major upgrades, although at a lower rate for existing customers, and they don’t release such upgrades very often.
It probably all comes out in the wash.
The question is whether your usage will justify the subscription for Ulysses.
I tried using Scrivener for web writing, but it never quite clicked for me. However, Ulysses now has me hooked and I can’t imagine doing without it.
I guess I’ll end up using both: Scrivener for books and Ulysses for anything online.
Ulysses is one of the best writing apps for the Mac, as well as one of the best for iPad and iPhone.
Comparing Ulysses to Scrivener, I think Scrivener is better for writing books, while Ulysses is better for blogging and online work.
You could probably write a book or novel in Ulysses, but I feel the interface could get too cluttered for the purpose.
IMO Scrivener has better organisational and reordering functions, such as the cork board and outline modes. Plus, Scrivenings mode is really helpful to see the bigger picture and flow of the text.
Scrivener also has more output destinations and more comprehensive control over the final format.
However, their compile process is more complex to understand, as a result. And while they do support markdown, it’s not as easy to use as in Ulysses.
The markdown support in Ulysses is superlative, with a live preview and navigational table of contents generated, as you type. This leaves you free to worry about the text, rather than the potentially esoteric workings of the formatting.
Finally, Ulysses will publish fully formatted blog posts directly to the web, including the most popular blogging platform, WordPress.
Sharing and publishing text from Ulysses is easy and quick, and works well for novices and pros, alike.
Anyone who writes a lot, who is happy paying a subscription, with an emphasis on the web.
Yes, particularly for online writing.
I'm Tim Bader, founder of ErgonomicToolbox.com and the Ergonomic Toolbox training course. I am a writer, author, blogger and church leader, and I help people to overcome RSI and live comfortably with technology. When I'm not writing, helping or training people, I live at home with my wife, two teenage kids and Playstation.
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