Product Review:
Folding Text Editor (FTE)


David Mertz, Ph.D.
Gnosis Software, Inc.
June 2000

At A Glance

Creator:       Marko Macek <Marko.Macek@gmx.net>
Price/License: Free of cost; source under either GPL or Artistic
               License
Home Page:     http://fte.sourceforge.com/
Requirements:  Win32, Linux/X11, OS/2, DOS


What Is Fte?

FTE is a programmers' text editor with a few tricks up its sleeve that you won't find in most editors. The main thing that distinguishes FTE is right in its name: it folds. If that does not mean anything to you, keep reading and we'll give you some examples and illustrations. Other handy features FTE gives you are: state-machine based syntax highlighting; custom modes for many languages (including HTML, Perl, Java, etc); configurable key-bindings (with nice CUA-style defaults); a number of subtle programming aids; and pretty much all the miscellaneous features a programmer expects to have handy in an editor.

Who is FTE for, exactly? For me, the biggest "selling point" for FTE was that it runs on the three platforms I use most, and can share a configuration between them. But I am fairly uncommon in using OS/2 most of the time; it is a lot easier to find a cross-platform editor if you use only Win32 and Linux (and if you use MacOS, BeOS, or other platforms, you have some porting work if you want to run FTE). But even for two-platform compatibility, FTE occupies a middle ground without much else directly comparable. FTE does a lot more than most shareware/freeware editors, even compared to those that target programmers. On the other hand, FTE neither gives you all the power, nor requires all the effort and commitment of emacs or vi. Most specifically, although it is quite configurable, FTE does not have any builtin scripting language the way emacs--or some high-end commercial editors--have.

On the negative side, although FTE has less arcana to it than vi or emacs, it still has more than I think it should. To configure FTE, you have to mess around with text-based configuration files, rather than use friendly configuration screens like you would find in most commercial programmers' editors. Also, like much free software the documentation tends too much towards "accurate, but not friendly."

A folding Text Editor

If you haven't used an editor that does folding, you really just do not yet understand how useful it is. The idea behind folding is that the text you are editing is often composed of conceptual blocks that you want to be reminded of, but don't necessarily want to have to scroll through. For example, you might want to see all the methods of a class on screen at once, but not necessarily the whole implementation of each method (and if you did show the implementation, it wouldn't all fit on one screen). But even more than programming code, one thing that benefits hugely from folding is HTML. Here is an example, based on the FTE documentation:

<H2>SaveFolds</H2>  (0:10)
<H2>Colorizer</H2>  [0]
    Specifies a previously declared <A
    HREF="#colorizer">colorize</A> mode to use for syntax
    highlighting in this editing mode.
<H2>Loading files in various formats</H2>  (0:43)

The first and last line here are color-highlighted within FTE itself. The parenthesis (also color-highlighted to stand out) after the folded lines tell you quickly that, e.g., the "SaveFolds" section has 10 lines in it, and is a top-level fold (it might contain sub-folds). It takes just a couple keystrokes to fold away "Colorizer" and display the "SaveFolds" body.

If you happen to need to look at the same file in a different text editor, the folds are indicated by comments appropriate to the language being used, for example:

<H2>Loading files in various formats</H2> <!--fold00-->

It adds a few extra characters, but doesn't interfere with the actual function of the file outside of FTE.

Making Things Easy

There are some nuggets buried in FTE that you might not even notice at first. The modes are pretty obvious. Most of them just set up syntax highlighting and indentation; but a few (like HTML) add some extra menus to insert templates (the HTML mode has most tags in the menu). You can also make your own modes with a little bit of work (for a Python mode, download http://www.vex.net/parnassus/apyllo.py?i=55744778). In no particular order, here are some more subtle nuggets:

- Support of ctags (see http://home.hiwaay.net/~darren/ctags/).

This is a way of creating automated hypertext links between, for example, function calls and function definitions (even across files).

- Highlights matching parenthesis when cursor is on a

parenthesis (same with the various brackets and braces). Really handy to help see how nested expressions line up.

- Hypertext list of "routines". This is part of language

definitions. The idea is that you can open another screen that just shows a summary of the meaningful units of your text (function definitions, HTML headings, class declarations, etc). Highlight one unit and press enter to jump there. The concept is similar to folds, but operates independently of what's folded.

- Bookmarks. Lots of editors have this nowadays. FTE is not

left out on this. They are named in FTE, rather than simply numbered.

- Highlight all occurances of a word. Handy, for example, to

quickly see everywhere a call to function FooBar() is made in a file.

- Lots of stuff you might expect: block indenting,

entab/detab, case changes on text block, sort lines, column marking/copying, call to external programs (such as compiling), regex searching, screen splitting. A lot of this stuff is expected in a good editor, and nothing obvious is missing from FTE.

Overall

FTE does a nice job at a good number of things, and is especially a good choice for users who want a consistent editor across platforms. A few rough edges make FTE more work to configure than it should be, but the learning curve on FTE is still comparatively mild. You can get a lot of power and convenience--free of cost, and in an open-source spirit--by selecting FTE as your text editor.

About The Author

There is hardly anything David Mertz feels more strongly about than text-editors. It stands to reason after a tally of the hours and minutes of his days. You can find out copious biographical details by rooting around at http://gnosis.cx/publish/.