iA Writer Review: iPad and Mac plain-text editors head to head
When I read that Information Architects’ iA Writer¹ for iPad had a desktop companion I felt duty bound to download and try them out. Most plain-text note applications for iOS have no desktop version, although it is an easy matter to use TextEdit, WriteRoom or one of the many other plaint-text editing progams for OS X. But to have both desktop and iPad apps from the same vendor is an interesting proposition. I purchased iA Writer for the iPad some weeks ago but hadn’t got down to evaluation. So this is where I will start.
iA Writer aims to offer a very focused, distraction-free environment for serious writing. To achieve this end there is minimal customisation. There are no options to change background, pen colour or font or, even, text size. They claim it is a sparten setting and they’re not far wrong on that—it’s a true case of one size fits all. Fortunately the chosen font, Nitti Light, is attractive and suits me because it is non-variable in width and makes for easy editing. If you are happy with a white background and Nitti Light type you don’t need to look further. You can’t anyway. What you see is what you get.
iA Writer joins a bunch of similar products in offering a clean, editing environment with the option to go full screen if you wish. In standard mode there is a top toolbar with icons to call up the documents list, add a new document and share by emailing the text or copying the full text. In addition there is a “time-to-read” value (which the authors cite as an improvement on pagination or other forms of index) and a word count. I am not convinced by the rather artificial time-to-read function. There are slow readers and there are fast readers.
To the far right of the toolbar is a lock icon which, strangely, is what you use to change to the second, full-screen “focus” mode.
In focus mode you find the true unique selling point of iA Writer, the focus on the sentence under construction. The rest of the text is greyed out and you can concentrate entirely on the current words.
I really like this approach, although the focus mode does not allow any form of editing other than backspacing and navigation. The ubiquitous iOS copy and paste dialog isn’t called up when you press the screen. So if you need to make any major changes you have to exit focus mode. You can see more about Focus mode here.
The standard iOS keyboard is enhanced by the addition of a top row of keys for frequently-used characters (- ; : ” ‘) and, usefully, buttons to move back and forth word by word. There is also a smart parenthesis key [(…)] which adds opening brackets and then closes the parenthesis using the same button.
Finally, on this additional row of keys, there are buttons to move the cursor back and forth one character at a time. This is an extremely useful addition and avoids the need to stab the text with a finger and, often, end up with the cursor in the wrong place.
In common with all text editors, iA writer works in both landscape and portrait mode. Disappointingly, though, there is no option in landscape to increase the width of the margins to make the text more manageable and easier to read. Notesy, among others, offers this choice and I much prefer working with wider margins and a shorter line length.
iA Writer syncs automatically via Dropbox, in common with most other popular text editors. The alternative, moving documents around via iTunes is far inferior and you will certainly want a free Dropbox account if you adopt iA Writer as your preferred writing tool. Unfortunately, you are restricted to one Dropbox folder (compulsorily called “Writer”) and the application does not permit sub-folders. The result is that all your documents will be at top level in the Writer folder.
For my money, this is a major disappointment after enjoying the flexibility of other plain-text editors. When you are working with several different text applications, it’s essential to have all your documents in one folder. And sub-folders are also necessary for efficient organisation.
Another snag with iA Writer is that there is no iPhone version. Of course, this is an iPad app review. But I constantly swap back and forth between iPhone and iPad and expect to find my current documents available and up to date on both devices. Other applications, such as Notesy, have a universal iPhone/iPad version or, sometimes, separate apps for iPhone and iPad. Either way, you have a much better way of controlling and editing your documents.
Markdown shortcuts can be entered in the iPad version although there is no Markdown preview mode. The desktop version (below) treats Markdown slightly differently by providing a limited faux preview.
Apart from the restrictions on file saving options and the lack of folder support, I really like iA Writer. I could live with the Hobson’s choice of one font in one size and I love the focus mode which allows concentration on the sentence in hand. It’s a pity, though, that editing functions are disabled in focus mode and this entails too much chopping back and forth between modes.
iA Writer costs £2.99 or $4.99 from the App Store.
The availability of a Mac version of iA Writer is a big selling point. It works in exactly the same way as the iPad app and is visually identical, apart from the obvious lack of a virtual keyboard.
Focus mode is still there, with the emphasis on the current few lines and with the rest of the text greyed out. You can view Focus mode in either a window or full-screen and, unlike the iPad application, you have full editing functions while in this mode.
As a true writing tool, iA Writer has a set of keyboard shortcuts for common activities. These include Focus Mode, sentence navigation (Cmd+arrow takes you to the previous or next sentence), Find, Replace, Full Screen and Line in Centre of Screen. You can genuinely work without the mouse and are able to concentrate on composing.
Markdown symbols are immediately registered in the display. In the case of headings, the hash symbols move outside the left margin and the header is shown in bold (the same for all levels since there is only one font and one size in iA Writer). Double enclosing asterisks for bold change the selection to bold face and single asterisks for italic result in the word being underlined. These are devices to show the emphasis, a sort of faux preview rather than an attempt to show a result.
While the Markdown code is simply an instruction for later formatting, it’s a help to see that the commands are accepted by bold or underline emphasis and it’s very easy to see where Markdown has been used.
It is a great pity, however, that the app does not have a Markdown preview mode. Despite the helpful text enhancements, there’s no substitute for checking the effect of the Markdown in real time. As an experiment I opened this file on the iPad using Notesy (which does have a Markdown preview) and was able to see roughly how it would look on the blog. If you intend to use Markdown this is an important aspect to bear in mind.
Included in the initial installation is a reference document showing keyboard shortcuts and the most common Markdown characters (headers, italic and bold, lists and block quotes).
Working with iA Writer for Mac
After my experience with the iPad version of iA Writer I found little difficulty in adapting to the OS X application. There’s a great deal in common between the two programs which makes it very easy to switch from iPad to Mac and back again.
Unlike the iPad version, which offers no choice in where to file your documents (on Dropbox it must be in a folder called Writer), the OS X application can open and save to any location as you would expect. So it is quite feasible, for instance, to use iA Writer as a desktop application in tandem with, say, Notesy on the iPad and iPhone. As a simple alternative to WriteRoom or TextEdit it stacks up well. The snag is that while you can open and save to a sub-folder in Dropbox, you cannot then open the same file in iA Writer on the iPad because the app doesn’t support folders. You must choose an alternative iPad editor, such as Notesy which does allow folder organisation. Or, of course, you could make “Writer” your default location for all text files and opt out of folder organisation.
If you do not intend to use an iPhone for text editing and are content with the iPad and Mac versions of iA Writer, they make a very good combination. If, however, you edit text on the iPhone you are better off with an alternative iOS note application, perhaps working it together with iA Writer for Mac.
iA Writer for the Mac costs £10.99 ($17.99) which is right at the top end of what you would expect for such a simple app. In contrast, WriteRoom, which is a much more fully featured and mature offering, costs only a few dollars more at $25.
I like both the iPad and OS X versions of iA Writer. The iPad version is let down by not having a companion iPhone app, and the restrictions on file saving and folder organisation are major obstacles to workflow. The Mac application, even as a stand-alone text editor, is unique because of the focus mode and offers a true distraction-free environment for serious writing. If you can live with the single font, total lack of customisation and absence (currently) of an iPhone version, iA Writer makes an excellent writers’ tool for short to medium-sized projects.
¹ There is some confusion between the use of iA Writer and Writer. The iPad app is clearly labelled “iA Writer” but the reference texts continually call it Writer. Similarly, the Mac app is officially iA Writer but is referred to by the developers as Writer. I have used iA Writer throughout this review.