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My 5 favorite Linux text editors (and why you should be using one)

Name your desktop distro and I've got a great (and easy-to-use) text editor to recommend. And no, you won't find vi or Emacs​ on this list.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Nastasic/Getty Images

Linux has always had text editors. Back in the early days, the infamous editor wars that pitted emacs against vi and those on either side of the fence were fiercely loyal to their choice.

That was then. Now, the text editor has become something quite different. It's no longer only for configuring Linux or writing code. Although text editors are still used for both of these tasks, they can also be used for note-taking, journals, and even writing a novel. Although I've never used a text editor to write a full-length book, I have used them for short stories and flash fiction.

Also: The best Linux distros for beginners: Expert tested

I expect to catch flack for this, but neither vi nor Emacs is included on this list. Why? Although both of those editors are exceptionally powerful, I've always found them to get in the way more than they help. Emacs and vi aren't for everyday use or for the average user -- and that's what I'm focused on here.

However, if you find the editors listed here too simple or not flexible enough, you can always turn to those two powerhouse tools to help you code, configure, and administer.

For those who appreciate tools that are easier to use (but still effective), read on.

1. nano

The nano editor has been my go-to for decades. Yes, it's basic, but it gets the job done. Nano includes all the features I need in an editor (and not much more). With nano, you can write simple flat text files (meaning that they have no formatting), and enjoy features like interactive search-and-replace, undo/redo, syntax coloring, smooth scrolling, auto-indentation, go-to-line-and-column-number, feature toggles, file locking, and internationalization support. 

Also: 5 Linux file and folder management commands you need to know

One thing to note: Nano is a terminal application, which means it doesn't have a GUI app. You open the terminal and issue the command nano filename (where filename is the file you want to either edit or create). There are several options you can use, such as --backup (which creates a backup of the previous version of the file), --tabstospaces (which converts typed tabs to spaces), --locking (which locks the file when editing), --smooth (for smooth scrolling), and many more.

Nano is free and comes pre-installed with most Linux distributions.

2. Gedit

Gedit, the default text editor for the GNOME desktop, is a basic but effective GUI application. With Gedit you'll find features like tabs, support for internationalized text (UTF-8), syntax highlighting, markdown support, configurable fonts and colors, print support, auto-save, create auto backup, keyboard shortcuts, theming, full-screen mode, and more. 

The thing that sells me on Gedit is its simplicity. Although I almost always default to nano, when I need a GUI, it's usually Gedit. Ultimately, however, one of the main reasons I keep Gedit around is that the nano editor has to be opened from the terminal window, which means clicking on a link to a text file doesn't exactly work as planned. Ergo, Gedit. There is, however, another reason why I sometimes will opt for Gedit. You can use this text editor in fullscreen mode, so when I want to edit a text file without distraction, I can go fullscreen and chase everything else away.

Also: The top 5 GNOME extensions I install first (and what they can do for you)

Gedit is free and ships with most GNOME-based desktop distributions.

3. COSMIC Text Editor

COSMIC Text Editor will be the default text editor for System76's COSMIC desktop (once it's finally released). However, the COSMIC Text Editor is already showing great progress and promises to be the Gedit equivalent of COSMIC. COSMIC will include a fairly typical feature set, such as syntax highlighting, standard keyboard shortcuts, find, spellcheck, project support, revert changes, document statistics, and even Git management support.

It's a rare occasion that I find a dark theme preferable, but with COSMIC Text Editor, it just seems fitting. Like Gedit, COSMIC Text Editor is very simple to use and can be employed for basic or even more complicated tasks (such as writing code). If you use Pop!_OS, you can get an idea of what COSMIC Text Editor will look and feel like by installing it from the Pop Shop.

COSMIC Text Editor is free and will be officially available when the COSMIC Desktop OS ships.

Also: Linux distro hopping is a fun way to find the perfect desktop operating system

4. Kate

Kate is to KDE Plasma what Gedit is to GNOME. The difference between the two is that Kate offers a few more features, such as multi-cursor and multi-cursor selection (which allows you to select multiple strings of text at once or even manipulate multiple strings at the same time). Kate also features project support, syntax highlighting, standard keyboard shortcuts, and even plugins. With the plugins feature, you can add SQL query support, GDB debugging, one-click project build, and more. Think of Kate as a supercharged version of Gedit that can also be used for creating and editing simple text files.

Kate is free and ships as the default text editor for the KDE Plasma desktop.

Also: My top 5 user-friendly GUI backup tools for the Linux desktop (and why you need one)

5. Sublime Text

Sublime Text is the only proprietary editor on the list. Sublime Text is also the most powerful (by far) of those listed. One thing to understand about Sublime is that it is geared toward programmers and proves it with features like GPU rendering support, tab multi-select, context-aware auto-complete, powerful syntax highlighting engine, in-editor code building, snippets, command palette (to launch specific commands with keyboard shortcuts), simultaneous editing, and more. Yes, Sublime can also be used for creating and editing basic text files, but that would be like going to the grocery store in a Ferrari. 

Also: My 4 favorite Android note-taking apps for staying organized and on track

Sublime can be tested for free on Linux (as well as MacOS and Windows), but to continue using this powerful text editor, it will cost you a one-time payment of $99.00.

If you're just looking to create and edit simple text files (or edit Linux configuration files), stick with nano. If you prefer a GUI, any one of these tools will work for you. If you like the idea of Sublime Text (which is a fantastic tool), just remember it's probably more power than you'll ever need for simple text editing.

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