iPad Text Editors, Reviewed

Writing has a fine edge, regardless of whether you’re doing prose or code.

And people who write a lot (or, like me, who wish they had more time and opportunity to do so) tend to be constantly on the lookout for ways to sharpen that edge - hence the seemingly endless search for the perfect text editor, the perfect writing device, even the perfect physical location for doing so.

For coding, things are pretty straightforward - I spend a tremendous amount of time inside vim, fire up Xcode whenever there’s some hardcore stuff to be done, and hop into TextMate to deal with most stuff in between.

But for everything else - and everywhere else but at the office - things are different, and the iPad has changed that game in as yet unfathomable ways. There seem to be a whole lot of people out there writing on an iPad, and nary a week goes by without someone gushing about some editor or other that they happen to use.

How this came about

There is a seemingly endless variety of iPad editors out there (as this insanely detailed comparison table of iOS text editors readily attests) but I’ve been using four that I think are worth singling out and comparing - some for over a year now, but all of them have already found (and, in at least one case, lost) their place in my writing habits.

Those four are:

All of these were used, at one point or another, to write complete posts. And, of course, this entire text was typed and repeatedly revised across them all, with the requisite round-trips between my MacBook, my iPad, and other devices.

My main use for plain text editors is in writing blog posts and short stories, although I’ve been known to use them for drafting fairly extensive work documents. My reference output is fairly short bits of text (1000 or so words) that I then annotate with links and references in Markdown format and move to the Dropbox folder where my site resides, thereby publishing them.

So all of the above have Dropbox support of some kind (which rules out fairly obvious contenders like, say, Pages for iOS) and a degree of Markdown support.

And yes, I happen to have vim installed on my iPad, and if it ever gets Dropbox support (keep an eye on this ticket) all of this will probably become redundant, but alas…

As a side note, most of them also have TextExpander support (even though I’ve since switched to the native iOS abbreviations system), and most of them have some form of live word count.


iA Writer

This one was a bit of a trendsetter for minimalism and is still quite popular for a number of reasons, among which its availability on the desktop as well. I was a bit annoyed at the lack of updates of its iOS version for a while, but it’s since gone universal and now runs on the iPhone as well as the iPad.

Overall, though, iA Writer doesn’t seem to be updated frequently and its feature set is perchance too minimalist - even though its desktop version got some love mid-September, the iOS version still doesn’t have the minimal (but very pleasing) visual hinting for Markdown syntax that makes it eminently useful on the desktop, and any of the others listed here has more features.

Storage

Writer on iOS supports both iCloud and Dropbox simultaneously - that comes in pretty handy, especially considering that you can access the entirety of your Dropbox simply and without fuss.

It bears noting, however, that moving things to and from iCloud on the desktop is a needlessly fiddly process, requiring you to save a file locally before moving it to iCloud storage, and reopening being done via a rather shy and counter-intuitive little submenu hanging off File.

Desktop

The desktop version is probably the only application that I wanted to run in Lion‘s brain-damaged full-screen mode even on multiple display systems, and the first where I actually used Lion‘s versioning features to good effect - and that’s saying something. A nice touch is that it provides a Quicklook preview handler for Markdown files that matches its onscreen rendering.

Fonts and Layout

iA Writer has the glorious total of one (yes, one) mono spaced font called Nitti Light that is one of its selling points, and employs a row of non-customizable soft keys that focus on basic punctuation but that, rather unaccountably, do not cover any Markdown formatting whatsoever (square brackets would come in handy at the very least).

Unfortunately, the soft key row takes up an inordinate amount of screen real estate in landscape mode - which, coupled with the rather too large default font size, means that you can only read 6-8 lines of text at a time.

Even considering that two of its main selling points are its exclusive font and “focus” mode, it’s a bit of a hassle to put up with such a narrow window when you’re drafting fairly long paragraphs.

Furthermore, it has an annoying propensity to repeatedly hide and show the title bar that I find very distracting. Rotating the iPad to portrait mode makes for a considerably more pleasant experience (at the expense of input accuracy for me), but not much that much better - and, confusingly, the font size changes, shrinking noticeably.

Word Count

iA Writer has a somewhat fussy (and, let’s face it, rather arbitrary) feature that complements the usual word count - it gives you an estimated reading time for your opus, which you may or may not find useful - I mostly didn’t.

Preview

Finally, it lacks any kind of preview mode (on any platform), which, coupled with the lack of markup hints on iOS, makes it hard to check your draft for errors before posting.

And that gaping hole in functionality is precisely why I pretty much stopped using it on the iPad.


Nebulous

Nebulous was one of the editors that I least cared about when it came out but which has grown on me over time thanks to getting the basics right - you can edit practically anything you want, and (just as importantly) its file browser allows for image previews and simple file management.

I can use it to preview and publish complete sets of files to my site (with some care and judicious placement of files inside Dropbox), something that most other editors simply cannot achieve1.

Desktop

There’s no desktop version, but I use it extensively on iOS - most of the updates I do on this site (not new posts or drafts, but updates to existing pages) are done in Nebulous on an iPod Touch, since - given that the whole site lives in Dropbox - it allows me to quickly drill down into the page I want to edit and add a new line or fix a typo over breakfast without having to dig out anything larger.

For that alone, it’s priceless.

Fonts and Layout

There isn’t much sophistication, but you get to pick from a number of fonts and font sizes (including Georgia, my favorite), and it supports pinch-to-zoom for instantly resizing text to your liking - a simple and unobtrusive feature that can make all the difference when you’re drafting or revising longer pieces of text and need to quickly scan through them.

Like most other editors, there is no syntax highlighting whatsoever, but it sports a (admittedly largish) programmable soft key row that is not only customizable but also delivers basic macros (such as wrapping a selection in selected markup or inserting entire blocks).

It’s not perfect, but I find it very useful to have simple things like timestamps readily accessible.

Preview

Nebulous can render Markdown previews and do so with a custom (global) stylesheet and specific base URL), making it a pretty good drafting tool. Sadly, it can’t handle MultiMarkdown footnotes.


Textastic

Textastic is primarily a code editor, and the reason I’m including it here is that I use it extensively for a number of things including drafting posts. It is not, however, something you’d ordinarily include in a “pure” writing editor comparison, even though it is often way better than most minimalist editors I’ve come across.

But it is the editor to get if you’re serious about your writing, regardless of whether or not you want to code on it. It supports file templates, custom themes and code completion (which you can use to accomplish a number of interesting things), and, again, is pretty much the best possible text editor for finishing and publishing stuff.

For quick drafts, your mileage may vary - it all depends on how well you adjust to it.

Storage

Textastic does offline work very, very well - I can grab an entire project tree off a filesystem (alas, not yet directly from git, but hopefully it will get there), tweak it to my heart’s content while completely offline, and then upload my changes (to entire sets of files) without any niggles - which you simply can’t do with any of the others.

You can also manage (i.e., preview, rename and move) non-text files with it. Sadly, like all the other editors here, it won’t let you add new image files to your workspace by itself (something I have to do manually using the Dropbox app).

Fonts and Layout

The current version has an amazing soft key row that essentially packs five symbols in a single key - you simply slide your finger slightly and highlight the one you want to get upon release - and that will let you type just about anything you need, even though it won’t necessarily be useful for Markdown.

This being a programmer’s editor, you get working syntax highlighting for Markdown, MultiMarkdown (including footnotes as of the latest revision) and just about anything else you might need (line numbers, etc.), plus easy navigation between sections and headings and an absolutely killer find and replace feature that puts a lot of desktop editors to shame.

Font selection is, of course, centered on mono spaced fonts, but you get to customize just about every other aspect of it (size, colors, overall theme, etc.) way more than any other editor, and it too supports pinch-to-zoom to adjust font sizes on the fly.

Preview

The built-in preview is, of course, eminently usable and pretty much feature complete - besides tackling all the Markdown and MultiMarkdown features I need, you can copy the generated HTML easily if that’s your thing.

Furthermore, it was the only editor that could deal with previewing inline images without any hassles (as well as allowing me to manage them alongside the post), as well as the only one where I could simply add a link tag to a local stylesheet to customize the Markdown preview.

Word Count

You can get a line, character and word count from a popup menu at any time, if you’re so inclined.


Byword

Byword has a few peculiarities that make it useful to me, such as support for MultiMarkdown footnotes2 and a clever arrangement of soft keys that I will go into briefly. It also happens to be developed in Portugal, which I found intriguing.

Storage

Byword supports both iCloud and Dropbox syncing, but unfortunately not both at once right now - you have to toggle between them on iOS, which is a bit of a hassle if you need to switch for some reason. Also, it doesn’t remember your Dropbox path setting if you toggle to and fro, so you’d better stick to a single cloud storage provider.

Despite supporting subfolders, run-of-the-mill file management seems to be unavailable (besides deleting and renaming the current file, you can’t create new folders or manage images for your posts).

Also, sync conflicts are merely flagged (you don’t get information regarding each file’s timestamp), or an easy way to fix them inside the editor.

On the desktop, it shares iA Writer‘s fiddly approach to moving documents to and from iCloud, but sports a very useful pop-up dialogue (very much like its iOS sidebar) allowing you to actually manage (as in filtering, renaming and deleting) iCloud documents - which easily gives it the upper hand over iA Writer, but not quite over Nebulous or Textastic.

Fonts and Layout

You get a reasonable font selection for editing (it has distinctive monospaced fonts, but I happen to like Georgia, and it was readily available). Font sizes are apparently fixed, which is a nuisance, but the defaults are sensible and the font size does not change with tablet orientation.

The Mac version renders Markdown formatting inline and allows for both focus mode and zooming text, all of which work on an optional “night” mode - and all of which I would like to have on iOS as well.

The only thing I’m not overly keen on is the altogether too “light” design (menus and controls are rendered in a very light grey that becomes hard to read sometimes).

An upside of that is that its soft keys don’t take up an inordinate amount of screen real estate, since they appear to be part of the text area.

The fact that the soft keys are actually useful - sporting a number of Markdown formatting shortcuts and cursor keys in two sets that you can swipe between easily - also helps considerably3.

But since there are some visual inconsistencies between the iPad and iPhone versions (different icons for the same soft keys in different platforms), things can get somewhat confusing if you switch between devices frequently.

More to the point, though, I see no reason for the popup menus and sidebar being rendered with so little contrast.

Preview

The iOS version has a serviceable (but, alas, not customizable) preview option that renders MultiMarkdown (including footnotes as of version 1.0.1), which is the main reason why I immediately switched to it from iA Writer.

Word Count

Byword on iPad displays a word and/or character count in lieu of its soft keys if you swipe all the way to the left, and you can toggle that between each or both counts by tapping the bar. There’s no time estimate, but that’s a somewhat bogus measurement anyway. On the desktop, you get a menu option to display/hide it.


Conclusions

The overall winner on the iPad (if you have to have one) is, of course, Textastic. It does all I need for writing (even though some people will be put off by the “extra” programmer-oriented features, I need those as well, so…), previewing and managing content (except for allowing me to upload images), but it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

On the whole, I prefer drafting stuff in Byword these days (on any platform), largely because of the uncluttered display and working, no frills preview.

It lacks focus mode, night mode and visual hints on iOS, but it’s simpler and more practical than the other options without the arcane narrow-mindedness of iA Writer.


  1. After all, there’s always a time when you have to include and upload images, and the least editors can do is acknowledge such things exist. 

  2. In case you haven’t noticed yet, I’m quite keen on them. 

  3. Overall, Byword’s soft keys are the ones I found easier to use for drafting text (even though I like Nebulous’ macro features for more complex markup), and my only gripe is that the link button insists on inserting Markdown inline links when I prefer reference links at the bottom of the document.