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A comprehensive guide to diff tools

Kenny DuMez
Kenny DuMez
Graphite software engineer


Note

This guide explains this concept in vanilla Git. For Graphite documentation, see our CLI docs.


Diff tools are essential for developers who need to compare and merge files and code. These tools highlight differences between two files or directories and are invaluable in version control, especially in collaborative environments. This guide explores various diff tools, including those available online, Windows, Mac, and within Git environments.

A diff tool, or a difference tool, compares files line by line, helping users to see what has changed between file versions. It's particularly useful in software development for comparing code files, but can also be used to compare any text-based files.

Diff tools can be broadly categorized based on their platform and integration:

  • Online diff tools: These are accessible through web browsers and do not require any software installation.
  • Desktop diff tools: These include standalone applications for Windows and Mac.
  • Integrated diff tools in version control systems: Tools specifically designed to work with systems like Git.

Online diff tools provide a quick and easy way to compare text without the need for installation. They are particularly useful for quick checks or when working on machines where you do not have the necessary permissions to install software.

Features:

  • Text, PDF, and image comparisons: Diffchecker allows users to compare plain text, as well as PDF files and images, highlighting differences in content.
  • Privacy: Claims to securely handle your data, ensuring that files and information are kept private.
  • Ease of use: Simple interface where users can paste text directly or upload files for comparison.

Features:

  • Rich text editor: Mergely incorporates a rich text editor, making it easier to make edits directly within your browser while comparing texts.
  • Real-time visual diffing: Provides a more interactive and visually appealing way to see differences, using color coding in a side-by-side format.
  • Embeddable widget: Offers a widget that can be integrated into other web applications, ideal for developers looking to add diff capabilities to their apps.
  • Support for code and HTML: Besides plain text, it can compare code and HTML, showing syntax highlighting which is beneficial for developers.

Features:

  • Broad file format support: Draftable supports a wider range of file formats including Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and PDFs, making it versatile for professional environments.
  • Side-by-side document viewing: Unlike basic text comparisons, Draftable provides a more robust interface for viewing documents side by side.
  • Private and secure: Emphasizes security and privacy, particularly important for sensitive business documents.
  • Account-based features: Offers features like saving comparisons for later viewing with an account, which can be useful for ongoing review processes.

For all three tools, the process of comparing documents or text is straightforward:

  • Users navigate to the tool’s website.
  • They either paste the text into provided text boxes or upload the files that need to be compared.
  • After initiating the comparison, the tool highlights the differences between the two inputs. The highlighting might vary, showing added, deleted, or changed lines, often in different colors to facilitate quick identification.
  • WinMerge: An open-source tool that is popular among Windows users for its user-friendliness and feature set. It supports file diffs, directory diffs, and merging.
  • Beyond Compare: A more advanced tool that not only compares files and folders but also synchronizes them, supports FTP sites, and more.
  • DiffMerge: Offers visual file comparison and merging, as well as folder comparison.
  • Kaleidoscope: Is known for its clean user interface and powerful features, including image and text comparison.

Git comes with built-in tools for diff viewing, but it can also integrate with third-party tools for more advanced diff and merge functionalities.

  • Using Git’s built-in command: You can view diffs directly in the terminal using commands like git diff which shows differences between commits, branches, and more. For more details see this in-depth guide on the git diff command.
  • Integrating external tools: Tools like Meld can be configured to work with Git for a more visual diff experience.

Meld is a visual diff and merge tool available on Linux, Windows, and Mac. It is highly regarded for its clarity and ease of use, making it a favorite in the open-source community.

  • Features: Compare two or three files, and directories, and perform three-way merges.
  • Usage: You can launch Meld, select the files or folders to compare, and it will display the differences side by side with changes highlighted.

Diff tools enable developers to track changes and ensure consistency across project versions. Whether you choose an online tool for convenience or a powerful desktop application for comprehensive features, the right diff tool can significantly streamline your development workflow.

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