Q&A: Which text editor for OS X configuration files?

Q Which is the best text editor to use when working with OS X configuration files and scripts? Do I need to use Emacs or another editor driven from Terminal?

A Although OS X is now much less reliant on Unix-style text configuration files, advanced users need to keep a text editor around in case they need to edit text files which are still used at that level. It is also helpful if the editor can handle property lists (.plist) used to store preference settings.

If you are a command-line junkie and relish perverse keystroke commands, you can type emacs into Terminal and fire up a bog-standard version of this venerable Gnu text editor.

However unless you need to learn to use it for other Unix or Linux systems, you will probably be much better off with a text editor that works more like a proper Mac app, such as the industry standard BBEdit, or its free sibling Text Wrangler. These work excellently with a very wide variety of different text formats, and even have special editing modes to support shell script language, .plist property lists, and other standard file types.

Some may prefer a half-way house such as the free Aquamacs, which has all the features and ethos of Emacs ported sensitively into an Aqua working environment. There are dozens of other capable text editors, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, if you prefer.

Possibly the worst choice of all is the normal Finder text editor TextEdit, which has limited features and seems happier working with RTF rather than plain text files, although if the worst comes to the worst you can get by with it.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 26 issue 14, 2010.