Plain text consists of unformatted characters that are program independent and require little processing. Any text editor can read a text file, including a DOS text editor, a Windows® text editor, Macintosh®, UNIX®, Linux®, generic open-source, etc. The text file, which always ends in .txt, is cross-platform compatible. Word processors do not generate plain text unless one chooses to save as a .txt file. In this case, a warning will indicate that all formatting will be lost.
Virtually all operating systems come with a built-in text editor or notepad. Programs that create logs do so in plain text. Operating system or event logs, anti-virus logs, multimedia logs, etc. are all files of this type.
Word processors differ from text editors in that the former utilizes unseen characters to display text in unique ways, making documents easier to read and more attractive. A formatted file can contain headlines that stand out, images, bolded letters, and unique paragraph spacing. Word processors are used in the vast majority of cases where a text editor isn’t required, and is a must in those cases where saved formatting is required. A text editor will not display formatted documents correctly, as it renders the formatting as extra characters.
One of the more familiar examples today of the use of plain text is in website coding. HyperText Markup Language (HTML) is a set of instructions written in plain text designed to create graphic webpages. Web browsers act as interpreters or translators of HTML, rendering the text to create frames, load images, display information, run scripts and carry out interactive tasks.
Although plain text cannot itself include formatting or markup such as bold lettering or headings, HTML uses this style of text to indicate which letters on a webpage should be bolded, which should appear as headlines, which font should be used, and so on. It accomplishes this through elements that include tags and attributes.
HTML text editors are plain text editors with special tools geared towards webpage creation. Using point-and-click menus, these programs make it easy to write HTML code, particularly for novices. A WYSIWYG (pronounced wiziwig for What You See Is What You Get) editor allows the user to create the page in graphic form, generating HTML code on the fly in the background.
Text editors are fast little programs that are quite handy for pasting links or bits of material off the Web for later use. A folder of how-to or fix-it text files kept on the desktop can be handy for compiling answers to infrequent but recurring hardware or software tasks or problems, avoiding the need to research an answer more than once. Gedit™, a popular open-source text editor, even offers tabbed text files. To keep the text editor a click away, place a shortcut on the task bar, quick launch or desktop.