The Return of the iPad Writing Apps Showdown

March 22, 2011

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.



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 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 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 )
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 )
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 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.”

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