The Return of the iPad Writing Apps Showdown

March 22, 2011 | 12 Comments

Last fall, I wrote an overview of writing apps available for the iPad. It was already a competitive space, and others have continued to crowd in. Between the comments left about apps that I missed in the first showdownMonster truck, plus a few others since released, I decided it was time for The iPad Writing Apps Showdown 2. (Queue monster truck rally soundtrack.)

I should acknowledge something before we get deeper into this. Religion and politics should be spared only for times when you want a lively discussion. With the birth of our first child several years ago, I added child rearing to this list. (If you want to hear people express unsolicited opinions, just enter the public arena with an infant. You will hear what others think about everything from nursing tips to pacifier brands.) I’ve since added iPad note and writing apps to this list. Wordsmiths get passionate about their capture methods…probably to a fault. But feel free to weigh in with your own opinions after reading mine.

First, a quick review and update on the original showdown. I looked at Elements, IA Writer, PlainText, and Simplenote. I concluded that PlainText was my preferred app because of it’s ability to sync folder structures that played well with Scrivener. I also used Simplenote, but that was more for keeping notes and information than for writing. All of these apps have had updates since the original post, but they still hold the same core strengths and weaknesses.

Showdown1

Showdown2

I compared the first round of apps with five priorities in mind, and it’s the same priorities for round two. Here’s a reminder of those priorities, and then we’ll jump in:

  • Effortless sync — I want the text to be waiting on my Mac with no additional effort on my part, and I want it to be available in Scrivener. (Dropbox syncing is the method of choice.)
  • TextExpander support — Beyond essential.
  • Clean and simple — I want nice aesthetics and very few bells, whistles, gizmos, or gadgets.
  • Word count — Lower priority than the others, but useful.
  • iPhone-ability — Also a lower priority, but also useful.

Audiotorium ( website | iTunes )
Audiotorium
Audiotorium includes the ability to record audio, so it is meant to be an app for taking notes in a class or seminar. There is a sister product called Notorium, which lacks audio support, but otherwise appears to be identical.

  • Effortless sync: Yes — Saves to Dropbox as separate text files in a folder specific to Audiotorium. But, it only seems to recognize the projects created within the app. A project I exported from Scrivener into the Audiotorium folder was not recognized.
  • TextExpander support: Yes
  • Clean and Simple: The added functionality means there is more to look at. It does offer a nice icon set to identify unique projects, but overall more cluttered than I prefer for a writing app. The default text is too small, but both the font and the size can be adjusted. It also goes the full width of the screen, meaning the lines get too long for my preference.
  • Word Count: No.
  • iPhone: No.
  • Extras: It includes the ability to record audio too, as I mentioned above.
  • Cost: $4.99

Nebulous Notes ( website | iTunes )
Nebulous
Nebulous notes is a markdown user’s dream, with an extra row of keys useful for navigation and quick entry. It is open to all of Dropbox, so you can move in and out of folders and edit any text file you choose. So, it isn’t confined to a certain folder structure.

  • Effortless sync: Almost. The app doesn’t push your changes back up to Dropbox, but requires you to tap the Upload button when you are done editing.
  • TextExpander support: Yes
  • Clean and Simple: The default look is small black text on a white background, though you can customize it to your heart’s content or use one of the included themes. Pictured above is the Focused Writer theme.
  • Word Count: Yes.
  • iPhone: Yes — it’s a universal app.
  • Extras: Includes the ability to preview a markdown document, plus the extra row of keys. For those reasons, markdown wizard David Sparks loves Nebulous.
  • Cost: $1.99 (or try the free lite version)

Notebooks ( website | iTunes )
Notebooks
I considered Notebooks for the first showdown, but chose not to include it because it is much more than a writing app. It is designed to store, organize, and collect a lot of data. In that regard it is similar to Audiotorium. However, several people responded that I should have included it, so here it is in round two.

  • Effortless sync: Yes and no. Notebooks can be saved to a specific folder within Dropbox, but like Audiotorium, I couldn’t get it to recognize a new Scrivener project created within that folder.
  • TextExpander support: Yes
  • Clean and Simple: Also like Audiotorium (there is a theme here), the added functionality means there is a lot to look at. The default font is too small for the an iPad in landscape format, but it can be customized.
  • Word Count: Yes.
  • iPhone: Yes — a separate iPhone app is available for purchase at $5.99.
  • Extras: There is support for other means of syncing like WebDav or via WiFi. It also includes integration with OmniFocus or Things, allowing you to send an item to one of those apps as a task.
  • Cost: $8.99

Textastic ( website | iTunes )
Textastic
If your prefer to capture words in a simple editor like Textmate, you might cozy up to Textastic. It is text editing at it’s most basicest. (That’s totally a word, as of about eight seconds ago.)

  • Effortless sync: Not really. Full support for Dropbox or FTP means you can browse a folder structure to find the file you want, download it to your iPad for editing, and then upload it when you are finished.
  • TextExpander support: Yes
  • Clean and Simple: As simple as it gets. But, the text is too wide for landscape and can’t be adjusted.
  • Word Count: Yes.
  • iPhone: No.
  • Extras: Syntax highlighting — it looks at the file extension to determine if you are writing code and highlights pieces accordingly. I love textastic because I can use it for quick code edits on the go. But for writing, not so much.
  • Cost: $9.99

Writings ( website | iTunes )
Writings
Writings looks great, and it’s simple. Unlike some of the others mentioned above, it is designed for one thing only — capturing words. It reminds me a lot of IA Writer, though it is lacking the extra row of keys.

  • Effortless sync: Yes. Unfortunately, no support for subfolders, so it’s not as useful for working with Scrivener projects.
  • TextExpander support: Yes
  • Clean and Simple: It’s simple and it’s beautiful, both on the main screen where your documents live and on the writing screen itself.
  • Word Count: Yes.
  • iPhone: No.
  • Extras: None, which may be it’s strongest feature.
  • Cost: $4.99

And the Winner Is…

Sheesh, why does it always have to be about winning with you people?

These are all decent apps with unique uses. Writings is the only pure writing app in this bunch, though all can be used for that purpose. But for me, when it comes to capturing words, the choice is still PlainText. It looks great and it goes back and forth with projects I create in Scrivener without a second thought. It’s going to be hard to knock it off of my homescreen.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received promotional codes to download some of these apps. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

  • Thanks for mentioning Nebulous! One correction though: word count is available. Tap the Aa button, and it’s half-way down. You can tap the chevron next to it to move it all the way to the top.

    • John Chandler

      Phil,
      Thanks…somehow I overlooked that. I updated the post to reflect that.

  • Gino J. Piazza

    You mentioned that “Writings” has no extra features. Writings may be lacking the extra row of keys of IA Writer, however, you can tap on the right hand side of the screen to move the cursor to the right, and you can tap on the left hand side of the screen to move the cursor to the left. I find it a convenient feature!

  • Thanks for this post. I bought the majority of my writing apps after reading the first one. In fact, it was after readind that article I subscribed to your blog’s feed. I also love plaintext, but I’d glad to pay for it if it offered a way to customize fonts.

    Despite not being able to customize almost nothing, I still prefer IAWriter to capture the words, because I became attached to the customized keyboard they provide. Sometimes I feel it to be more confortable than the apple bluetooth one I got. But the lack of TextExpanded support is almost unforgiveable… Unfortunately, the perfect text editor for my taste and preferences is yet to come out to the light of day. 🙁

    • Nice post John. I like PlainText too, for same reasons… but, have now started working with WriteRoom, which is made by the same guys, and Alexandre, it is identical to PlainText in almost every way except it lets you customize fonts (for reading on screen) and background colour, etc. Unlike PlainText it isn’t free, but it is cheap none-the-less.

  • Hi John,

    Just curious to know if you use Dictation app as part of your workflow? I found it to be a real time saving part of my workflow. Once captured, the text can go anywhere.

    • John Chandler

      Rich,
      I don’t. I mostly work out of coffee shops or my home office…neither of which tends to be the best environment for dictation!

  • Bit more on Writings, you say that it doesn’t match up to sub folders so you can’t work with a Scrivener project. Actually you can- I have Scrivener 1 and I outputed text files in folders for each chapter folder in my binder and then set a Writings Workspace for each folder. I can sync at the Chapter level or at the individual text file level.
    Admittedly I have to copy and paste from each text file in Dropbox back into Scrivener (but it is version 1).
    Writings is pretty good in that it allows a degree of customisation and separation of elements in a combined structure (a la Scrivener). Another good one is Chapters.
    Hope this helps

  • Gilberto

    I really Plaintext too, particularly as it syncs so nicely with Scrivener. Yet, its problem is that half of the IPad’s screen is taken up, showing the reader the documents. I wish there was a way to hide that.

    • John Chandler

      Gilberto, There is a small icon (two arrows) in the bottom right of the editing window which lets you take it to full screen.

  • Fiona Webster

    Thanks for the great roundup, John! When you do your next one, you might want to look at WriteRoom. It works w/ TextExpander & Dropbox, and has a nice clean interface. By the way, I love it that you put “more cowbell” in your footer. =laugh=

  • This article is great, but I may have not understood correctly why you say that Notebooks can’t be synced with Scrivener. Actually, after using many apps, I found that Notebooks is the one that syncs with Scrivener effortlessly, compared to almost all the others. This is the trick: first, you create a new notebook on Notebooks and sync it with Dropbox. Once it’s created a new folder, you put away any new text files you have created there. Only after that folder’s been created, you open your Scrivener project and sync it into that folder. It will automatically create inside that folder the “Draft” folder and, if you chose it, the “Notes” folder. Note that you should also choose to sync .txt files instead of .rtf if you want editing abilities on Notebooks. If you choose .rtf, you’ll be able to read the files, but not to edit them. After that, you may move into the Draft folder the text files that you had originally created on Notebooks (if you had any at all), and sync Scrivener again. Once that’s done, all you have to do in order to sync with Scrivener is using the sync button on Notebooks or the sync option on Scrivener. It’s, truly, almost effortless.