A quick look at Ulysses 15

With the release of Ulysses 15, I review its new features, and ponder my future with the app in the wake of growing competition and a few niggles.

| Reviews | 5 min read

It's been about six or seven months since I last blogged about my journey with Ulysses. In the meantime, the developers have updated app several times, fulfilling at least part of the developer’s justification for moving to a subscription model.

With the release of version 15, I thought it was time I wrote another post. I've been using Ulysses now almost daily for ten months. On balance, I've been happy with the experience, and the pace of development — but I have some niggles (I'll get to those shortly).

But first, what's new and shiny in version 15...

Welcome new features

Ulysses 15 introduces substantial new features. Some are long overdue, adding some much-needed improvements to my workflow, while others are nice-to-haves. I should note too that this release is predominately focussed on the Mac version.

Split screen editing

What I most grateful is split-screen editing, something Scrivener has had for as long as I can remember. Split screen editing allows you to display two sheets side-by-side in the editor. This is useful for short-form writing and necessary for writers of long-form content. At last, there's an easy way to view two scenes simultaneously, or the scene you are drafting and some research material. While this was sorta/kinda possible before (by opening a new window and stacking them), this is far more convenient.

Split-screen view in Ulysses
Split-screen view in Ulysses

Keyword improvements

Fans of keywords will love the new keyword search facility. In any group of sheets, you can now view all the tags contained within the group. Click on one, and you’ll instantly filter your sheets accordingly. It also works nicely in Filters (aka smart groups).

Searching by keyboards in groups.
Searching by keyboards in groups.

There’s also a new keyword manager, that displays all your keywords and provide a little maintenance, such as the ability to rename or delete keywords.

Keyword manager
Keyword manager

Personally, I don’t use keywords much — having grown more accustomed to Scrivener’s custom metadata system — but they are definitely Ulysses’ native way for tagging and sorting documents. These new features make keywords even easier to use.

Image handling

Image handling also gets a welcome boost. Ulysses 15 allows you to resize and rename an image on export. This is something I appreciate as a blogger because it means I won’t have to manually post-process images before or after I pull them into Ulysses.

Adjusting image export size and name
Adjusting image export size and name

Ulysses can now also provide you with a live preview when linking to an image referenced from a URL. Again, as a blogger dealing with a lot of pictures online, this is welcome.

Web Image previews
Web Image previews

Dark export preview

Another very welcome feature is the dark preview mode. Since I do most of my writing at night, it’s lovely not to have my eyeballs fried when I want to preview my work.

Dark preview mode
Dark preview mode

They have also added this to the iOS version.

Dark preview mode in iOS
Dark preview mode in iOS

Niggles

With almost a year under my belt, it's safe to say my honeymoon period is over with the app. I use it every day, and with that, its initial glow has faded. I've noticed warts — or, perhaps I’ve become less tolerant of them.

My time's not been without issue. For a while, I thought Ulysses represented syncing Nirvana, but I, and others whom I trust and respect, are experiencing cracks in this facade. I've had the occasional conflict, and moments where documents refuse to sync. Whether this is Ulysses' fault or iCloud's, I can't comment, because both Ulysses and iCloud are about as transparent as a brick wall.

Regardless, syncing is one of those critical areas that must be done right in our multi-device, cloud dependent world. I cannot afford to lose my data, and my faith in this app and its reliance on iCloud is starting to waiver.

I'm also more than a little irritated by the limitations of Markdown XL and Ulysses' rendering capabilities. Ulysses still lacks support for tables, definition lists, tables of contents and several other features present in MultiMarkdown. There's no published road map, or a firm public commitment of if or when these features are coming. Some of these omissions limit Ulysses as a complete writing and publishing platform, at least for technical content. Workarounds involve other apps, like iA Writer or MultiMarkdown Composer, beggaring the question of not why just use them in the first place?

Ulysses, I've found, is also opinionated in the way it imports markdowns. For example, it will attempt to escape certain characters with a slash (\), whenever I try to copy markdown either manually from another source, or programmatically using X-Callback-URL calls. As someone who likes to automate, manually correcting this drives me nuts -- regex support would help with cleanup, but Ulysses doesn't support that either…again, no roadmap on that one either.

For a writing-oriented app, Ulysses also falls short as an editorial tool. There's no ability to highlight grammatical structures like you can in iA Writer and Scrivener. It also doesn't work natively with third-party grammar tools such as Grammarly and ProWritingAid. Because Ulysses locks away its files in the hidden guts of your device, using external tools means you have to export your document and then re-import it (assuming you want to).

Another niggle is Ulysses export capability. A year ago it was great, and I had high hopes it would do a good enough job at producing bonus content for my subscribers direct from a sheet. Alas, its export capability remains mostly unchanged, and with the missing features I described above I can't use it in isolation, and typically fall back to MultiMarkdown Composer and my own build system based on PrinceXML.

Concluding thoughts

Ulysses 15 is an excellent release, with much needed and welcome features. I like the steady pace at which the app is evolving — consistent, incremental updates do wonders to improve the app, and uphold the developer’s side of the subscription bargain.

I have my niggles, no app is perfect, and being as human as the next nerd, I often look over the fence. Ulysses is great, and I love drafting articles in its gorgeous UI, but the competition in this space is fierce. I’m content with Ulysses for now, but I will have to think hard when my annual subscription is up in July.

Read Cadoc's Contract