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Quick and Dirty Text Diffing

Chris posted about something I often find myself needing: how do I do a quick diff on two sets of text?

He shows how to do it with GitHub Gists. He also links to the online tool Diffchecker, which is what I usually use for a quick and easy diff.

But a part of me has always wanted a native tool doing something like this. So I asked on Twitter what folks do.

A lot of the replies came in the form of CLI commands to diff two existing files.

@johncjago suggested the built-in diff:

diff file1.txt file2.txt

@pawelgrzybek suggested vscode’s CLI tool (hats off to him for having a blog post on the matter).

code --diff file1.txt file2.txt

And @geoff_l suggested the nuclear option (or the enlightened option, however you look at it): vim.

vim -d file1.txt file2.txt

All great suggestions.

What I really want, though, is a solution that lets me diff two pieces of text that aren’t yet files. Copy/paste some text into pane 1, copy/paste some text into pane 2, and hit the big red “DIFF” button.

@hybrid_alex suggested Kaledeiscope (which I’ve always thought to be just a beautiful Mac app) and, turns out, you can diff text from the clipboard!

Copy/paste two different sets of text and you’ve got the Kaleidoscope diff tool at your disposal.

Granted Kaleidoscope costs money, but it’s a great looking app, has lots of other features (including image diffing), and has been around forever, so I thought that would be my solution.

Then along came @MRWweb who suggested looking into an extension in vscode. Turns out, there’s a great extension called Partial Diff which allows you to diff snippets of text — from the clipboard, from saved files, from unsaved files, it’s quite versatile — and compare them right inside vscode.

What I love about this tool is it lets me do exactly what was in my head:

  1. Open a pane and paste some text.
  2. Open another pane and paste some text.
  3. Hit “Diff”

You can see here I have my two unsaved tabs of text in vscode.

I then right click and get a menu with Partial Diff’s options (my favorite is the “Compare Text in Visible Editors”).

Then a new tab opens showing my diff (similar to what you’d see if you can code --diff from the CLI).

It’s a great solution that gains an upperhand by being integrated right into my code editor.

Update 2022-05-19

Turns out, you don’t even need an extension to do this!

@chrisofspades came late to the party noting that you can do ephemeral text diffing in vscode without any extensions at all.

  1. Copy/paste to untitled doc1
  2. Copy/paste to untitled doc2
  3. CMD + Shift + P “Compare active file with…” and select doc 1.

Animated gif showing the command palette in vscode running the “compare active file...” diff command.