The iPad Writing Apps Showdown

October 14, 2010

Update: Since this was first published, I’ve now written a second showdown which includes five more apps. After you read this, read The Return of the iPad Writings Apps Showdown

The iPad has settled nicely into my workflow as a device for capturing and shaping ideas for content. Most of my recent writing has been drafted in the focused simplicity of my iPad, then polished and published from my laptop. I’ve had enough conversations to know that I’m not the only one using it this way. (Not to mention all the people who show up here searching for Scrivener for iPad!)

A few months ago, I described my workflow to bring this content into Scrivener, the writing app of champions and starving authors. A number of new options have since appeared. I’ve looked them over, scrutinizing some key features:

  • Effortless sync — I want the text to be waiting on my laptop with no additional effort on my part. (Dropbox is the method of choice.)
  • TextExpander support — I’m not as organized in TextExpander as David, Eddie, or Patrick, but I use enough shortcuts that I can’t imagine not having it available.
  • Clean and simple — I want nice aesthetics and very few bells, whistles, gizmos, or gadgets.
  • Word count — Lower priority than the others, but it’s useful at times, especially for would-be NaNoWriMo‘ers.
  • iPhone-ability — Also a lower priority, but being able to do a quick edit on the iPhone while waiting in line for tacos is a plus.

And with those priorities in mind, here’s a rundown of the apps I’ve tried:

Elements (website | iTunes )
Other than SimpleNote, this was the first app released of those reviewed here. I’m a user of SecondGear’s Today app, so I expected this to be a solid app, and it is.

  • Effortless sync: Yes — Saves to Dropbox as separate text files.
  • TextExpander support: Yes
  • Clean and Simple: Yes, but — It’s not ugly, but it’s the least attractive. It does offer the ability to change your font and text size which none of the others do.
  • Word Count: Yes — and the most reliable count in my sample.
  • iPhone: Yes — it’s a universal app.
  • Extras: Has the ability to search across documents
  • Cost: $4.99

iA Writer (website | iTunes )
I developed a chip on my shoulder when this one was released because everyone went crazy about it. (I guess I’m a contrarian.) I only bought it for this comparison, but you know what? It’s a great app.

  • Effortless sync: Yes — Saves to Dropbox as separate text files.
  • TextExpander support: No (Really?)
  • Clean and Simple: Very. It’s specialized enough that it might be a turn off to some, but I think the focused writing mode looks great.
  • Word Count: No — Offers a character count and estimated reading time, but that’s not as helpful as word count.
  • iPhone: No
  • Extras: If you are typing on screen, an extra row of navigation and punctuation keys are added on top of the keyboard which are well thought out. A great addition.
  • Cost: $4.99

PlainText (website | iTunes )
I’ve been anticipating this one since the developer posted a screenshot a few months ago. It was worth the wait.

  • Effortless sync: Yes — Saves to Dropbox as separate text files and can sort into subfolders. (This is huge, as we’ll see below.)
  • TextExpander support: Yes
  • Clean and Simple: Yes — Beautiful because of it’s simplicity and typography.
  • Word Count: No
  • iPhone: Yes
  • Extras: I’ll say it again — it sorts into subfolders. And that’s still huge, as we’ll see below.
  • Cost: Free (future in-app upgrades to remove ads)

SimpleNote (website | iTunes )
I’ve talked about SimpleNote before, but here’s how it compares:

  • Effortless sync: Yes — Syncs to Notational Velocity (and other apps too)
  • TextExpander support: Yes
  • Clean and Simple: Yes
  • Word Count: Yes — but it seems to inflate the count by 10-20%
  • iPhone: Yes
  • Extras: Includes search and tagging. This app is designed more for storing and finding notes than writing, but it works well for both. But, also see below…
  • Cost: Free (premium upgrade with extra features available)

My Conclusion

All of these are solid apps, and you might have their own favorite depending on what features you care most about. But I have landed on PlainText and SimpleNote, because both will be able to sync with the upcoming release of Scrivener 2.0. Here’s how I plan to use each:

  • SimpleNote: As I’ve written before, I have several hundred notes tucked in here for instant retrieval. It’s a helpful general research and capture tool, especially before a project starts. And this video shows how I capture some of those notes when I start a new project in Scrivener 2.0
  • PlainText: Storing hundreds of notes would be cumbersome for PlainText, so it can’t replace SimpleNote. However, Scrivener 2.0 can sync Drafts and Research folders to Dropbox that can be recognized, sorted, and edited by PlainText. (See this blog post and video to see why I’m giddy.) Syncing a Scrivener project would effectlively make PlainText into an editable Scrivener for iPad. I don’t think I could ask for more.
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