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Two Pluses for a Notepad Alternative

by Alan German

The Notepad utility in Windows has always provided a quick way to create and edit simple text files, but it also has some limitations, not the least of which are its inability to handle more than one file at a time, and the lack of a spell checker. Notepad++, an open-source program, released under the GNU General Public License (GPL), provides a ready alternative to Microsoft's old warhorse, and offers a vast array of additional features.

Executing the 2MB installation file produces a simple wizard that prompts for the selection of the default language, license agreement, program location, and a wide variety of program components. For most users, the default selections will probably be quite acceptable. The actual installation takes only seconds, and provides a desktop-icon with which to launch the new program.

Running the program produces a blank page that is ready to accept typed text. However, the enhanced nature of the program is very evident by the large number of menu options arrayed across the top of the window and a second line, almost full of icons, for various program actions. The other obvious differences are the fact that the current page appears as a tab, and the left side of the page contains line numbers.



Some of the menu options, such as File, Edit and View, are standard items in Windows' programs, but others, such as TextFX and Plugins, are specific to Notepad++. Similarly, the well-known icons for actions such as New File, Open and Save, are accompanied by a variety of unfamiliar items. Hovering the mouse over any individual icon pops up an explanatory text box, so icons such as Synchronize Vertical Scrolling, and Light Explorer, can be readily identified. But, even so, the precise purpose of such icons is not necessarily apparent.

And, here is one minor drawback of Notepad++. While many of the program's operations are quite intuitive, the information relating to unfamiliar features is only available over the Internet, through a series of links provided in the Help menu. Furthermore, the help files on the web, while containing some very useful information, are not particularly well structured. One has to look through a number of sections of material to locate a specific item of interest, rather than having a well-defined and orderly series of pages aligned specifically to each of the program's menu items.

Nevertheless, the basic program operations are very intuitive. Start typing on the blank page and text accumulates, just as if you were using Notepad, wrapping around onto the next line automatically. In this simple text entry mode, the “line numbers” actually refer to individual paragraphs rather than the lines of text themselves. The line numbers come into their own when using Notepad++ as a program editor. The Language menu has options for about four dozen programming languages including C++, Fortran and Visual Basic. Also included are web tools such as HTML, Javascript and PHP. Notepad++ understands the syntax of these languages and assists the programmer by, for example, providing numbers for the individual lines of code, handy for finding and fixing compilation errors, and by highlighting specific code structures (e.g. HTML tags) in different colours.

As noted previously, there are many menu items and, in turn, each menu item has a large number of options. Given that Notepad++ is a multi-file text editor, such features as File – Save All (open files), Close All, and Close All But Active Document are very useful. The Edit menu includes an extensive series of find and replace commands, and some unusual options such as Trim Trailing Spaces. Similarly the View menu has an option to Show End of Line that results in CR LF being displayed at the end of each paragraph of text.

Some of the more obscure items that you may not find in other editors are in the Run menu. Launch in Firefox, or Launch in IE, displays an HTML file in a web browser; and Google Search launches the well-known search engine to seek hits based on a word or phrase highlighted in the text. Other useful commands include TextFX Tools – Clean Email > Quoting which can be used to strip the quotation characters out of E-mail messages, and PlugIns – Light Explorer that provides a disk directory tree in a column to the left of the text page.

It is also possible to display two open files in side-by-side windows, but, the process for doing this is not intuitive. The help system indicates that you need to right click on one of the file tabs and select Go to another View. You can then use Plugins – Compare to visually highlight any differences between the two files in their respective display windows. Here is where clicking on the icon to Synchronize Vertical Scrolling becomes useful. Scrolling down one file's contents now causes the contents of the file in the second window to scroll in unison, so that similarities, and differences, in the files become very apparent.

On a basic level, Notepad++ functions just as simply as its Windows' cousin, but it has many more available features. All you have to do is dig around the menu system to identify the different options and, occasionally, consult the web-based help system to figure out how specific aspects of the program work. But, if you find any deficiency in the Windows' original, it is quite likely that Notepad++ will provide the tool(s) that you need. And, it costs nothing to find out.

Bottom Line:

Notepad++ (Open source)
Version 5.0.3
Don Ho


Originally published: November, 2008


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