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iA Writer For iPad: Another Review

The latest in my unending attempt to find the perfect iPad text editor is iA Writer — it’s been just over a month since I last wrote about this. iA Writer’s “hook”, as it were, is an entire manifesto about usability for writers. Writer’s goal is to let the writer focus as much as possible on your text. Toward that end, Writer has two features that are unique compared to the other iPad editors that I have reviewed, mostly Elements and Droptext.

To my mind, Writer’s best UI innovation is a real attempt to make the built-in iPad typewriter more usable. Above the regular qwerty keys is a new top row that includes common punctuation marks, smart parenthesis, and typewriter keys to move the cursor one character or one word back and forth. Just that simple bit makes the built-in keyboard a lot quicker for basic typing.

The other innovation is a “focus mode”, which fades out the interface elements and grays text that is not near the line being entered. I find this to be more of a gimmick. It’s not like there is much UI to fade. I’m also seeing a bug where the “focused” section does not follow the typing when you move to a new line. I’m actually seeing a general bug that Writer can’t keep the current line in the view. As I type it doesn’t seem to automatically scroll to keep the insertion point in view, which is an annoying bug.

As to other features, Writer syncs with Dropbox, which is nice. Like Elements, it creates its own flat folder within your Dropbox account and finds text files within it and ignores folders or non-text files that you may have placed in that folder. Unlike Elements, Writer doesn’t force you to use Dropbox. It does allow you to email or copy your text easily. Also unlike Elements, Writer doesn’t automatically sync, you have to manually force the sync. Like Elements, but unlike Droptext, Writer registers itself as an open target for text files in other programs.

Writer has a couple of other things going for it. It uses a very nice custom monospaced sans-serif font, one that I would love to have on my text editors in general. On the other hand, if you don’t like the font, tough noodles, because you can’t change it. Happily for me, I like both the font and the relatively large default size.

Writer provides an always-visible character count, and in lieu of a word count, gives an estimate of how long it would take a reader to read the file. No idea how that is calculated, but it’s certainly unique.

Overall, I like this app, I really like the idea of making the soft keyboard more featured. The scrolling issue is annoying, though to be fair, it’s entirely possible that it’s just an issue in the 4.2 beta.

Looming on the horizon, at least for the kind of writing I’d like to be able to do on an iPad, is Scrivener 2, which will allow for synch with a series of files via Dropbox. I suspect, though, that will require more flexible Dropbox support than Writer or Elements have — such as folders.

Meanwhile, Merlin Mann took the opportunity of this apps release materials to go off on a rant about writing and distraction.

Including:

If you feel “distracted” while writing, buy a new iPad app. Also? Conquer your alcoholism by trying a new gin. — Merlin Mann

Listen, gang. Use what works to do what you need. But, don’t pretend new training wheels make the bike go faster. — Merlin Mann

I get it – the materials for this app are a little precious, and I also don’t find much value in hiding most of the text. That said, it’s a very usable and minimal app that has very little fiddly stuff to mess with. And that said, my ratio of thinking about writing on the iPad to actual writing on the iPad is frighteningly high. So I understand the point that buying running shoes doesn’t make you a runner, and buying this app doesn’t make me a writer. It does, though, make writing on the train a little more fun.

Bottom line on Writer: the extended keyboard makes this far and away the best text app I’ve if you aren’t using an external keyboard. I think some of the other features are gimmicky, but I think the basic focus is good, and I’m excited to see where this one goes with a little more polish. I’ve written this post using Writer with the touch keyboard (though I’ll do some editing on the Mac before I post, especially HTML links, which are a real pain on the iPad), and it’s the best experience I’ve had with the touch keys by far — I’d use this to compose emails, for example.

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