Much as coelacanths have changed only slightly despite millions of years of evolution, some bundled Windows apps have scarcely progressed since the dawn of Microsoft's operating system. Today's Notepad text editor, for one, barely differs from the 1985 version.
Although a text editor should be a lightweight tool (and an inexpensive one), it should still pack a decent punch. If you need or want more from a text editor than you get from Notepad -- but you don't want to waste money or system resources -- we have six free options for you.
(For links to all of these downloadable text editors in one convenient place, see our "New Notepads" collection.)
Everyday Improvements for Taking Notes
If you don't care about syntax highlighting or other coding features, and you just want "Notepad, but better," look at Ted Notepad, which delivers improved just-plain-text editing for simple notes, memos, to-do lists, and other text-oriented tasks. It looks a lot like classic Notepad, but has quite a few more options, such as improved searching, sorting, and conversion functions (for dealing with text files from Unix or Mac environments.)
The versatile Notepad Tabs goes beyond single-file editing. In addition to the tabbed interface that allows you to have multiple files open, Notepad Tabs offers the ability to save sets of files in groups, so you can open several files at once. It even includes a small file browser on the main screen to make opening files easier. The sole drawback is that the browser shows only .txt files, when you might need to open many other formats such as .html or .cpp. (You can still open these via the standard Open dialog box, of course.)
Powerhouse Text Editors for Coders
The following programs are all perfectly good for taking notes, but they also offer functionality mostly of interest to coders, Web mavens, or sysadmins. If you often need to work with structured text such as HTML or source code, consider these editors.
Residing in the Goldilocks zone between "too much" and "too little" functionality is Notepad2. While it doesn't support tabs, it does have a lot of useful features for working with an opened file, including flexible syntax highlighting, encoding conversion, block formatting (for coders, indent or "outdent" blocks of code), case conversion, and more. As a stand-alone .exe file of under 700KB, it's also a good portable app to put on a USB drive or a small netbook.
Aimed primarily at programmers, TinyEdit boasts a tabbed interface and built-in support for syntax highlighting for a host of programming, scripting, and markup languages. This very small program (less than 600KB) runs as a stand-alone .exe file, no install needed, making it perfect to slip onto a USB drive. Unfortunately, the interface is marred by somewhat broken English (one dialog box asks, 'Are you sure to associate with main support files with TinyEdit?'), and the Find dialog box forgets selected options (such as 'whole word') when you open it.
Another program focused heavily on multiple file usage, ConText has a built-in browser that's similar to Notepad Tabs' but lists many different types of files. ConText comes with a large suite of syntax highlighters for programmers, as well as a template for you to make your own. It also allows you to search all open files for a given string, and shows the results in an output window -- ideal for mass changes or analysis.
Finally, at the top of the functionality pile is Notepad++, a full-featured text-editing powerhouse masquerading as a humble Notepad replacement. The interface is a bit cluttered and busy with overly long menus, but the feature set is immense. Tabbed browsing, syntax highlighting, macro recording, text processing (convert smart quotes to plain quotes, and much more), and even an FTP tool are all built in. The only drawbacks: The program has so many options, some users may be overwhelmed. And at 10MB post-install, Notepad++ isn't exactly lightweight.
Any of these six downloads will handle the basic job of editing text -- and manage it better than Notepad. The trade-off is between size and functionality: A program bloated with features you will never use is not better than one that omits those features entirely. Because "text is text," there's no reason not to have more than one of these free programs installed for different purposes, or to keep one of the more complex editors on your main system and one of the smaller editors on your netbook or USB drive.