Product Review:
Programmer's File Editor (PFE)


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

At A Glance

Creator:       Alan Phillips <A.Phillips@lancaster.uk.ac>
Price/License: Free of cost; Minor restrictions on redistribution;
               Closed-source.
Home Page:     http://www.lancs.ac.uk/people/cpaap/pfe
Requirements:  Win32, Win16


What Is Pfe?

PFE is pretty much what you would expect it to be from its name: A text editor with a focus on working with source code. PFE is an MDI Windows application (both 16-bit and 32-bit versions are available) that is easy to install (just unzip the archive), easy to work with, and has high-quality online help. And maybe best of all, PFE is costs nothing to use or distribute. In my own experience, PFE is one of the first things a lot of programmers will install on a new Windows computer that they will be working on. PFE is a great step up from editing your text files with Notepad or edit.com.

Special Features Of Pfe

Three of the top-level menus push it a step up from a simple text- editor; and make PFE into a basic integrated development environment. These menus/functions are Template, Execute and Macro. All of these functions are quite useful, although they each take a little bit of work to optimize for your own purposes.

TEMPLATES. A template is boilerplate for your text file. You might use it for an HTML skeleton document, or for a function or class outline. Besides just inserting a block of text, you can use the special mark <???> to indicate fields you want to fill in within the template. Pressing F4 (the default key-binding) will jump between mark fields and let you fill in values. It is a handy way to insert repetitive batches of code or markup. You can create as many template files--each containing multiple templates--as you want (such as for different programming languages), but PFE doesn't come with any templates "out of the box."

EXECUTE. You can launch whatever programs you wish from PFE menus, either dynamically or by specifying new menu items. By itself, this doesn't amount to much; where execution can be very helpful is when you setup PFE to launch a program using the current data file as input and/or to capture the program output in a PFE window. For example, you can have a menu compile the current source code file, and display any compiler messages in a new window. Or you can launch a web- browser to display the currently edited HTML file.

MACROS. Much as with templates, PFE can have multiple libraries each with multiple macros. But as with templates, PFE doesn't come with any predefined macro libraries. Macros let you play back series of PFE editing actions, including repeating them multiple times and a limited control of branching within macros (but only on errors or on pressing the escape key). PFE actions are recorded and edited using symbolic names such as EditDeleteLine. You may capture these actions using a basic keyboard recording mode, then modify the actions later, as needed. With some planning, some pretty complex repeated actions can be reduced to single-key macros.

General Editing Facilities

PFE has most of the bells and whistles you would expect in a programmer's editor. You can display line numbers if you want. You can control tab and indentation settings. You can use wordwrapping for textual content. You can use different window and text colors for different file types if you wish. You can change the key-mappings of the editor. You have some miscellaneous options about toolbars and appearance. Pretty much, it does what you want it to do.

There are a few little things that PFE does that are unusual in a text editor. PFE can act as a print filter for file types associated with it. This lets you do drag-and-drop printing of text files. PFE also gives you a bit of printing control over, for example, line numbers and headers. Most programmer's editors let you do things with blocks such as change case, indent, unindent, reformat. PFE does all of these. One small but helpful trick I have not seen in any other editor is to do both brace-matching and brace-match-selecting. That is, you can select everything within matching parenthesis with one keystroke. Moderately handy for changing function arguments or HTML tags/attributes.

Limitations Of Pfe

There are a number of things that PFE does not do that would discourage me from using it full-time. Unfortunately, although the binary is free of cost, the source code for PFE is still proprietary, and development of PFE has stopped. So whatever limitations PFE has now, it will probably have forever.

Probably the sharpest limitation is the absence of syntax highlighting. Even though I never had this during most of my years of programming, I have for the last few and feel like I am missing something important without syntax highlighting. I just parse code faster with some coloration or font changes for contrast.

Two features that I do not necessarily use that often in other editors are nonetheless extremely helpful when I do use them: Column selection and bookmarks. Neither of these exists in PFE.

The above limitations are the only ones that I would sorely miss using PFE full-time. But there are a few more exotic features that a more full-featured editor might have: regular expression searching; spell checking; word count; folding; file-tab interface; tab/detab blocks; calculator; box/line drawing; multiple clipboards; full macro scripting language; multi-platform versions. I can certainly live without these features, and external programs can do the job of some of them. But these are worthwhile things a fleshed-out editor might include (I do not know of one that includes every one of these, however).

Overall

PFE is a nice little programmers editor that is very simple to get started with and easy to use. If you need an editor for Windows platforms, PFE is quite usable. However, PFE is not quite as powerful as some higher-end programmer's editors, even some other free-of-cost ones. If you need a lot of room to grow with your editor--or if you need something strongly cross-platform--PFE is a bit too much on the "handy and little" side. Still, it is usually a lot less work to get PFE set up than it is those higher-end editors, and much of the time PFE is more than enough.

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/.