Revitalize Your Work With Plain Ol’ Text Files

With just a few clicks on your Mac, you can start making your life easier. Enter the new, simple, elegant world of synced text files.

A very quiet revolution began a couple of years ago among Apple users.

It started with Dropbox, the cloud service that turns a normal folder into a magic syncing carpet for all your files. Dropbox quickly became ubiquitous on Macs, iPhones, and iPads. (The rest of this article will assume you have Dropbox installed on your computer and mobile devices.)

Then some brilliant nerds wrote some elegant apps. These apps did one thing: They edited text files in Dropbox.

Why is this cool? Because text files are easy (for both human and machine), small, and workable on any computer ever created. And while syncing other kinds of stuff like contacts and calendars is hard for computers, syncing text files is relatively simple.

As the revolution was fomenting, David Sparks said, “Plain text: It’s timeless. My grandchildren will be able to read a text file I create today, long after anybody can remember what the heck a .dotx file is.”

So what can you do with text? Any kind of writing, notes, lists, or snippets. I use it instead of Apple’s Notes app. I write all my blog posts and newsletters in text, and also a lot of emails when I care about what they look like.

Start with TextEdit

There are growing options for text editors out there. But let’s start with Apple’s own TextEdit. This will go really fast, I promise.

TextEdit in Dock

You can find it in Spotlight or Applications.

Search for TextEdit

Open TextEdit > Preferences. Click here…

TextEdit menu

Then here…

TextEdit Preferences

Change the default format to plain text.

Format as plain text

Close the Preferences window.

That’s it. Just create and save files as you would any other document.

When you start, they’ll look like this:

Plain ol’ blank space, ready for you to fill it. And just like any other document, you should put them in Dropbox. Create a folder in Dropbox called Text.

Text folder

Open up Dropbox on your phone or tablet or another computer, and your file is there. You can refer to your notes, or copy text from them to paste into another app.

In Part II, I’ll show you how to edit that text on your iPhone and iPad.

How Can I Access My Files on a Different Computer?

I’m out if town, and need to access my documents on my home iMac from the laptop I have with me. How can I do that?

Mac on Mac action

1) File Sharing: You can easily get to files on the iMac when you are at home with your laptop. All you do is, on the iMac, make sure File Sharing is on: Apple menu > System Preferences > Sharing. Then, on the MacBook Pro, go to Finder > File menu > New Finder Window > left sidebar > Shared section. Click on the iMac, and to the right, click Connect As… Enter the user name and password you use on the iMac (it’s nice to standardize these on all computers). Here’s Apple’s more complete tutorial on File Sharing.

Mac File Sharing

Also, you can turn on Screen Sharing in that same System Preferences pane, and then the button Share Screen… will appear next to Connect As…

2) Back to My Mac: You may have the Back to My Mac part of the MobileMe service set up in System Preferences > MobileMe > Back to My Mac. If that’s working, your iMac will appear on your laptop, in that same Shared section of the left sidebar of your Finder windows, even when you’re not in the house. Note: Back to My Mac is notoriously finicky about routers; unsurprisingly, it plays very smoothly with Apple Airport devices. See item (1) for getting to your stuff once you’ve found your Back-to-My-Mac-enabled Mac.

3) iCloud: This fall, Apple will evolve the MobileMe service into iCloud The cost will change to free, and syncing files and photos between your computers will be one of the flagship features. One can look online for some previews of how iCloud will work.

4) Dropbox: This to me is the winner. Until iCloud appears, and perhaps even after, my favorite way to see my files everywhere is called Dropbox. There are other services almost exactly like Dropbox, but they don’t have its simplicity, accessibility, and widespread adoption. I use Dropbox to synchronize not just my documents, but also my secure databases, shopping and task lists, and frequently used text snippets. Some of our clients share and sync their QuickBooks company files with their bookkeepers.

Dropbox illustration

Dropbox’s pricing is either free for 2GB storage, $10/month for 50GB, or $20/month for 100GB. (That’s a referral link: you and I each get an extra 250MB of storage, up to a 10GB limit!) The iPhone/iPad app is free, and the iPhone word processor I’m typing this on now is $5, and syncs with Dropbox.

5) LogMeIn: Finally, the best free service for remote screen-sharing is LogMeIn. It has a good, albeit $30-pricey, iOS app, and I use it and the web app all the time to help clients. Until this year, LogMeIn Free only offered screen control of your remote computers, but recently they added the awesome feature of being able to access and download files from a remote machine, even to your iPad. This is not sync à la Dropbox, but very useful nonetheless.

Any of these solutions is easy and cheap to implement. I keep Dropbox and LogMeIn going all the time. Call me if you would like further guidance.