In common with most writers I'm addicted to note taking apps and I prefer working in plain text with a minimum of distractions. These days I seldom need to prepare fancy documents for printing and I am only an infrequent user of traditional word processing applications such as Word or Pages. In this love of simple, plain text I am aligned with some leading lights in the tech blogging world - people like David Sparks of MacSparky who was the inspiration for this post.
Problem is, there are dozens of note apps for the iPhone and iPad so a little focus is needed. In this review I am concentrating on iPhone and iPod touch applications for quick text entry while on the go. I have chosen three applications that I have used and that have a good following in technical blogs and in reviews. Since I don't currently have access to an iPad I cannot draw any conclusions there. I suspect, though, that the features are similar on both small and large screen.
Before I get complaints that I have ignored perhaps the most popular text app of all, Simplenote, let me say that I use it constantly. It is not quite the same as the file-based apps reviewed here. In Simplenote you shovel in random thoughts and bits and bobs into one file and, thanks to the superb search facilities, you can usually find anything you want when you need it. It's ideal for bits of information that you need to access easily or frequently. Simplenote doesn't sync with Dropbox but has it's own server. On the Mac there are several applications that mimic Simplenote, including the excellent Notational Velocity. You should definitely have Simplenote and NV installed, but they are not a substitute for the apps we're discussing here.
Three of of the best text editors for iOS, in my opinion, are Elements, PlainText and Nebulous Notes. A must for me is Dropbox synchronisation; all three apps support this although all have a slightly different take on how to do it (see more on this later). Because of such easy and reliable syncing I was able to write this post partly on different apps. After a paragraph or two in Elements I moved to PlainText and continued writing; then a visit to Nebulous Notes. All this works surprisingly well and Dropbox works quickly. I don't need to emphasise that Dropbox only works if you have an internet connection but any changes you make to files will be synced as soon as a connection is re-established.
All three apps present a clean, quick and easy means of entering text. While none of them has a direct OS X sister application, the crucial fact is that the text file is sitting right there in Dropbox and can be attacked by any Mac editor such as Text Edit or Write Room.
This app is the most restrictive in where it expects to save and find text files in Dropbox. It creates a folder called Elements where all files are stored. You cannot navigate to other folders in Dropbox.
Like Elements, PlainText can address only one folder and suggests you call it PlainText. You can, however, choose any folder in Dropbox. I chose the existing Elements folder where I was forced to keep all my Elements files.
Here you have complete freedom - some might say too much because you could in theory try to open Dropbox files you really shouldn't. You can view the contents of any folder in Dropbox and open/save files into any folder. Obviously you can store your files in the Elements folder if you also intend to use Elements. Unlike the other two apps which have automatic syncing, Nebulous Notes requires you to press the UPLOAD button to sync the file to Dropbox. This can be a big problem if you forget and I definitely prefer auto syncing.
Above (left to right): 1) Elements shows two toolbars and all functions are easy to find as a result. 2) PlainText always shows the top titlebar. Settings are available only from the folder list and not from within a file. 3) Nebulous Notes has the cleanest interface with no visible toolbars and no iPhone carrier details. Lightly tapping the bottom right of the screen brings up three opaque buttons for fullscreen, settings and sharing.
All three applications have a very clean interface and allow you to concentrate on writing. Elements doesn't allow a completely blank screen, insisting on always showing the top and bottom toolbar. PlainText retains a top menu bar which contains the file name and a navigation key to take you back to folder level. Nebulous Notes is the only one allow you to hide all toolbars and simply see the text you are working on.
Elements has customisable fonts from a wide range of Apple styles. You can also change text colour and text background. You can, if you wish, mimic the traditional green on black WriteRoom appearance.
PlainText offers a clean text input screen but insists on keeping a top menu bar which simply offers backing up to the previous level (from note text to file list, from file list to folder list). Although it is simple and attractive it is has the fewest features.
Nebulous Notes is highly customisable and offers a more restricted range of fonts than Elements but with a choice of six fixed sizes. You can also select text colour and background colour, again similar to Elements. There are also four fixed themes. Default has a plain white background, Focused Writer has a beige background, Matrix Coder a green on black (Write Room) style while Dream Journaler is rather peculiar and I'm really not sure what it is for. Brightness is turned right down (although you can turn it up again) and I suppose it is best viewed in the dark under the bedsheets. Someone might like it. These themes offer four different ways of achieving a new appearance without having to fiddle with individual settings.
By default, Nebulous notes shows a top menu bar with folder, add, upload and filename displayed. Pressing the full-screen key removes the bar. There is a set of three opaque buttons which appear when you lightly the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. One is for settings, the second for sharing (email attached, email in-line, email as pdf, print) and the third is a simple on/off button for full-screen mode. I find this a very refreshing and intuitive approach which makes maximum use of the tiny iPhone screen.
Incidentally, don't be seduced by the font and background options available in Elements and Nebulous Notes. They are pretty and can aid legibility but they are strictly local and of a transitory nature. You are still saving in plain text (*.txt) and you won't see these colours and fonts in your Mac text applications (or, of course, in the other iOS editors when you open the same file). To this end, PlainText with its lack of frills is the purest text application here.
There should be no difference in the typing experience since all three apps use the standard iPhone keyboard and the rules follow all other iOS text input. If I had to make a choice I would say that typing in Nebulous Notes felt a bit faster and seemed more accurate, but this is a very subjective view. In reality, I don't think there is much to choose between them.
Uniquely, Nebulous Notes has a further aid to quick input. It sports an optional fourth bank of virtual keys which can be turned on and off in settings and which appears above the standing iOS keyboard. This extra bank can be scrolled left and right to reveal as many symbols, controls (such as a tab key) and even macros as you like. All this is customisable and macros include day, date and time. The ability to add frequently used symbols to this bank of keys will appeal to users of Markdown.
There is a downside to using this extra row. It encroaches even further on the already limited writing area, using up just over half the screen as you can see from the screenshot on the left. If you are working in Markdown or HTML and need frequent access to symbols this additional bank of keys is invaluable. For simple, quick text most writers will prefer to turn it off. At least it is there if you need it.
In all three applications text entry is quick and any experienced iOS user will immediately feel at home. TextExpander fans should note that both Elements and Nebulous Notes offer snippet support while PlainText does not.
- Folder organisation
- iPhone, iPod touch, iPad compatible
- Create view and edit Markdown files
- Dropbox sync to specified folder (fixed name "Elements")
- Full text search
- Word count, line counts, character count
- Extended font/size choice, colour/background selection
- Option to turn on/off spelling correction
- Scratchpad to flesh out ideas or store random bits of information
- Email files as an attachment
- Sort file listings by name or modified date
- Printing support
- Customisable appearance
- TextExpander touch support
- Folder organisation
- Dropbox sync to specified folder (but access only to that single folder)
- Paper-like interface, no frills
- Fixed font, fixed black type on white background
- Simple word count (by highlighting selection)
- Folder organisation
- PIN login security
- Dropbox sync, open files from any Dropbox folder
- Multi-tasking support
- Themes for coding, writing, dream journaling, etc
- Supports saving and opening in all file encodings
- VoiceOver hints
- Option to turn off auto correction
- AirPrint support
- Font, size and colour/backround choice
- Character and word count, plus goal settings
- Text Expander support
- Save with CR+LF line endings for compatibility with Notepad.exe and other editors
- Full-screen support for WriteRoom style editing
- Symbol, function and macro keybank option
- Email fies as an attachment
Elements (Second Gear Software), £2.99
PlainText (Hog Bay Software), free with ads (£2.99 to remove ads)
Nebulous Notes ( Nuclear Elements) free with ads (£1.19 to remove ads)
Complementary Mac Apps
This review is concerned exclusively with iPhone and iPod touch plain text editors. But the object of the exercise is usually to view and edit the same files on the Mac desktop. All three apps synchronise via Dropbox and therefore all your files are readily accessible on the Mac. I don't intend to attempt a review of Mac text editors at this stage, but the two I use regularly are the built-in Text Edit and WriteRoom.
Text Edit is a very underrated yet fully featured text editor and it's probably all you need. Hog Bay Software's WriteRoom, which offers an uncluttered, focused view of your text files has been a Mac staple for many years. The latest version offers everything you need in a text editor. Both Text Edit and WriteRoom can open and save files to your chosen folder in Dropbox. You can, of course, view your files in Pages, Word or other word processors but if you want to go back and forth to your iPhone plain-text editors you must make sure not to save in proprietary formats. We're in the plain text world here and don't want the size, complication or restrictions of formatted files.
I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed with any of these apps. I certainly like all of them for different reasons.
PlainText has the fewest frills and does what it sets out to do in a no-nonsense manner. From the same stable as the venerable WriteRoom, PlainText is a simple, effective way of getting your thoughts down without distractions. You don't even have to decide which font or typesize you want - there is no choice. Hog Bay Software, publishers of PlainText, also offer WriteRoom for iPhone which is a more fully featured plain text editor. I haven't featured it here because it doesn't currently sync via Dropbox. Instead, it uses a proprietary syncing method using SimpleText, a small app that must be run in the background on the Mac.
Elements is more customisable and has one very valuable bonus feature, a scratchpad for ideas and notes that occur to you while working on a document. You can use it as an document planner if you wish. There is also a Markdown view which, again, is unique among the three apps. Elements is a clean and effective text editor although it insists on always showing top and bottom menu bars. I have one criticism of Elements, although it's just my personal preference: it always opens in folder view whereas the other two apps take you back to the document you were last working on. I prefer the latter method.
Nebulous Notes is the most fully featured app here. While it lacks the scratchpad of Elements and the admirable simplicity of PlainText, it is the only one of the three applications to allow a full-screen view without intrusive toolbars. The macro capability and the ability to add frequently used symbols is a very powerful enhancement, as is the interesting concept of introducing a forth bank of keys to top of the keyboard. While this reduces the size of the text-entry window it undoubtedly promotes speed and convenience. Anyone working in Markdown will appreciate this facility. While there is no Markdown view in Nebulous (as there is in Elements) the macro facility more than makes up for this.
The good news is that all these applications are as cheap as chips and all use the same plain text files. So you can, if you wish, install all three and try out the features for yourself. The jury is out as far as I am concerned. The geek in me tends to favour Nebulous Notes (such a lot to fiddle with). Yet my head tells me that if I just want quick and easy text input I should go for Plain Text. Elements is somewhere in the middle, but the scratchpad is an important asset that will influence many people. Both PlainText and Nebulous Notes can be downloaded and used free, with a small payment for supressing ads if you want them for keeps. Elements costs £2.99 - not much - and is worth the investment if, like me, you are a fan of text editors and want to experiment.
Because of the small investment, I recommend you treat yourself to all three and move between them freely while using the same data files. You can then choose the app that best suits your mood and the task you have in hand.