Saturday, December 29, 2007

Software Review: DarkRoom v. JDarkRoom

Someone did a search for "Darkroom vs. Jdarkroom" [sic] and it brought them to my blog.  I've reviewed and recommended both pieces of software in the last several months, and I still swear by them.  But I've not done a comparison, however precursory, of the two side by side.  I thought today, since I have nothing else to post and I'm not generally interesting, I would do a light treatment of DarkRoom in comparison to JDarkRoom and see how the two stack up to one another.

First off, both editors have their roots in WriteRoom, a black-with-text editor that does nothing but process text files, and which is exclusively for the Mac platform.  With nothing out there for Windows or other *nix platforms, some clever folks came up with some knock-offs for other platforms.  DarkRoom was thus born, and in an attempt to extend the portability to other platforms (like those *nix platforms aforementioned), some other clever duck came up with JDarkRoom.

What's the difference?  DarkRoom (hereafter referred to as DR) is a Wind0ws-based text editor, built on Microsoft technologies and utilizing Microsoft technologies in its implementation.  It's based on the .NET programming architecture and utilizes the .NET Framework within the Windows infrastructure to run.  One of the requirements of the latest build of DR is to have .NET Framework 2.0 running on your Windows machine, or to download and install it.

JDarkRoom (hereafter referred to as JDR) is a Java-based text editor.  It's built using Java, and is therefore not platform-specific.  Because the Java programming language was designed to allow programs to run without specifically targeting any operating system in general, JDR is compatible with any and all platforms running the appropriate Java environment.  This may also have to be downloaded, but it's a simple task to install it.  Once completed, JDR will run on a Unix-based machine, a Windows-based machine, or a Mac (which, technically, is also a Unix-based machine).

So, why choose one over the other?

Well, if you're a Windows user, there are certain conventions you've become used to.  Your keyboard shortcuts, for example, or being able to use your wheel mouse to scroll up and down a long page to keep reading, editing or whatever without having to use the horizontal and vertical scroll bars.  They're nice little touches that make the PC more friendly and familiar to us, and we come to depend on them.  In some cases, you don't really know how to work without those shortcuts, so being able to have them available to you is important, not just a luxury.

Enter DarkRoom.  DR allows you to use a lot of your standard keyboard shortcuts within Windows.  It also includes the familiar Windows interface in its menus and selection dialog boxes.  Since it's Microsoft-technology built, its menus and dialogs make standardized Windows menus and dialogs.  With JDR, you have to navigate through the textual menus.  That's not difficult, and when you're in them it's not like you'll be lost, but the standard, theme-based Windows look may not exist in JDR the way it does in DR.

JDR and DR both allow you to control the font and background colors in their environment.  Both have a nearly unlimited array of selections you can make in those capacities.  In DR, you get the standard Windows color selection screen when making your color choices; in JDR, you get one that's not quite as familiar but is just as easy to use.  And JDR's selection dialog presents tabs for RGB and HSB sliders.  Utilizing these, you can adjust the color infinitely to get exactly what you want.

DR and JDR both allow font selections, but here's a big difference.  In JDR, there are 5 fonts to choose from:  Bitstream Vera Sans Mono (whatever the heck that is), Courier New, Lucida Console, Lucida Sans Typewriter, Monospaced.  Remember, the purpose of this thing is to produce text, not get fancy with formatting tricks, and that includes fonts.  So those are your font choices; love 'em or leave 'em.

In DR, you have your entire compliment of standard Windows fonts to choose from.  If it's in your Fonts folder, it's available for use in DR.  That amounts to hundreds of font choices in my case.  Which, naturally, makes the decision a bit harder, but also allows me to find one that fits my mood or the piece I'm working on.  Of course, none of that information is going to be saved in the final document, because it'll be a text file with characters and nothing else.  So pick to your heart's content -- it's not going to make it into the final save regardless.

JDR allows you to configure things pretty deeply, but it doesn't allow you to set the column width.  It's a fixed width, which is easy on the eyes, and prevents you from having to jump long strings of text from one side of your monitor to the other.  It's a nice feature, but you can't control it.  DR, on the other hand, does allow you to set the column width.  You can also adjust other aspects of the page within DR.

Both allow you to see the number of words and lines used in your document.  DR includes a couple of arrows at the upper right of the screen instead of the scroll bars standard in Windows.  This means you can use your wheel mouse to roll around on the screen.  JDR now has this feature too, but it doesn't include the little scroll arrows on your screen.

JDR is a full-screen environment.   When you're in it, you're in it.  You can't see your system tray, your Start button, your desktop or anything else.  Just the editor.  It's fantastic for getting things done.   There's no IM window popping up to let you know your annoying friend from MySpace just came online and is trying to get your attention.  You don't see the clock ragging at you, telling you you're up past your bedtime.  You don't have the distraction of that stupid little animation on the web page trying to get you to click.  Nothing.

That's great for getting things done.  It is -- you can just concentrate on what you're writing and get it done.  It's a Godsend.  NaNoWriMo'ers, take note for 2008!

DR is a bit more flexible here.  It allows you to have that same, black-out type of distraction free environment, but it also permits you to make the app a separate window on your desktop like any other Windows application.  This was a cool and much-needed feature, and one I would love to see implemented in JDR.  Especially while at work, where distractions may be necessary (like your boss IM'ing you or sending you an urgent email you'd better know came).  You can normalize the window into a size that allows you to scoot it off to one side of your Windows desktop and work on things when you can, want to, etc.  Or, you can maximize it so that it takes up your whole screen, but still shows you the task bar, systray, etc.  Or, you can go full-screen, and be left distraction-free.  That's a nice touch.

And, as a bonus, in any of the window modes, DR allows you to see the menus available, so you can use the commands without having to memorize the keystroke combination(s) to call them.  In fact, I usually normalize DR when I need to do something requiring a menu command, just so I get the menu bar.  Then I put it back into full-screen mode for editing when I've finished.

I thought, and it could just be me, JDR's interface was a little crisper.  I don't know why, but the text seemed clearer, and the program seemed to respond more sharply.  DR isn't slow by any means, but it seemed to be more "blurry" for lack of a better term and it seemed the tiniest bit sluggish relative to JDR during editing.  (I could be imagining that, though, so judge for yourself.)

In the end, the decision to use one over the other came in the output file for me.  When I launched a JDR-generated file in a standard text editor (Notepad), the Java-created file included little sets of squares instead of paragraph spaces.  (This is due to the interpretation of the program of the commands and translation into characters, I'm sure -- or something equally techie and over my head.)  So, when I went to copy and paste that text file into a web-document, or my beloved Windows Live Writer, it didn't work out very well.  I ended up having to open it in some program that interpreted the little squares correctly and re-saving it, then copying and pasting into WLW for posting to the web.  This was a considerable PITA when considering how many things I was writing at the time, and JDR became a slow-down instead of a help.

With DR, I didn't have that trouble.  I saved; opened it in Notepad; there were no little squares anywhere, it was just a reproduction of what I'd produced on the screen, including paragraph breaks.  So, I started using DR instead of JDR, but I still recommend JDR to anyone and everyone interested in creating a distraction-free writing environment that lets you be alone with your thoughts and words.

JDarkRoom is available from, and DarkRoom is available from  Give 'em a try -- I think you'll like them.


Update:  Bryce Beattie of Baby Katie Media and StoryHack has chimed in to let me know you can add more fonts to JDR.  You simply have to find the installation folder (where the program files are), and edit the file; specifically, the line that starts with "font.choices=".

Just add in the fonts you want separated with commas but no spaces, and you can have any fonts you want available.  You could add them all if you want, but you have to know the font names to add them here.  Until and unless the source code is made available, at least.

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