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Installing the Atom Program Editor

Why a Program Editor

There are almost as many program editors written as there are programmers. All have their adherents, some of whom defend their choices with religious zeal. So, granting everyone their right to their own opinions, I will here suggest that the Atom program editor is an excellent choice for a beginning programmer to install on a Mac.

Why do you even need a program editor? You probably already have Word or Pages, so why not use them? The simple answer is that they embed lots of formatting codes into every file that you write, codes that program compilers or interpreters don't understand. So you need an editor that simply stores the exact keys that you type into your file -- nothing more and nothing less.

You could use TextEdit or NotePad for this. Apple's text editors are simple and straightforward and will indeed produce text files containing nothing but what you type.

More sophisticated program editors, however, add lots of additional features that help with the programming process, including

  • File managers
  • Terminal windows
  • Syntax highlighting and type-ahead
  • Collaboration tools
  • Git and GitHub integration

and so many more features that your head will spin. Some are free, while others are fairly expensive.

Atom is a free, open-source editor that offers many if not all of these features through a series of add-ons, So you can start with a fairly simple approach and then, as your level of sophistication increases, you can add all the features you may want.

Installing Atom

Installing it is simple. In your browser, navigate to Click the big yellow Download button to get the latest Mac version (1.27.2 at this time). That will download to your computer.

Double click that file in Finder (it should be in Downloads) and wait while your computer unzips the application. Then move the app, Atom, from Downloads to Applications. It is now installed. The site has lots of information about Atom, including many, many add-ons. The documentation section includes a link to a getting started video that may be of some help.

Run Atom like any other program, i.e., double-click it in Applications in Finder, but make sure you then right-click its icon in Dock and select the "Keep in Dock" Option. You will be using it a lot, so this makes it easier to find.

Now that it is running, take a look at its layout. The sidebar on the left is a file manager. You can focus it on a particular folder (a project) to see only the files for that project. Use a project for a course or for development of a particular program.

The main screen is a tabbed display. You probably have two tabs: Welcome and Welcome Guide. Leave those in place until you are comfortable working with Atom. They have useful shortcuts to some of its features.


I suggest that you install two simple add-ons now. In the Welcome Guide, click "Install a Package" then Open Installer. This opens Setup in its own tab. Look down Featured Packages and click install on the atom-clock entry. This will install a nice little clock in the bottom status bar. You can customize it to display dates, times, 24-hour or AM/PM, etc. That's just an example of a nice little add-on.

A bigger add-on is the PlatformIO IDE Terminal which lets you run a terminal inside atom. While still in the Install Packages area, copy the text "PlatformIO IDE Terminal" (no quotes) into the package search line and hit Return. Atom will find the package -- you should click the install button. To open a terminal window, click the plus sign in the left end of the bottom status bar. Now you have a terminal window that is part of your Atom setup.


Something you can play with at your leisure are themes. Do you like light text on a dark grey background? Or dark on white? Or what colors for syntax highlighting? All these are controlled with themes, a few of which come with the basic install, but hundreds of more are available through Atom's website. I particularly like the Predawn UI and Syntax Themes. To install these, go to Install Themes and search for and install "predawn-ui" and "predawn-syntax" After you install them, then go to Themes and select Predawn in both the UI Theme window and in the Syntax Theme window.

Project Environment

This is about how to organize the files you will generate as you learn Python. My suggestion is that you create a folder named Python inside your Dropbox folder. Then create a folder inside Python for each project you will work on, e.g., one for a python tutorial, another for a python course. As time goes by and you become involved with python development projects, each of them should be given their own folder.

Then, use Atom's project facility to show these projects and their files in the file manager area in the left sidebar. That will facilitate navigating to where your files are stored.

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