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App Throwdown: Writing on the iPad

By Brian Dusablon / May 2011

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Recently, the iPad 2 became my main computer, and I needed a good, simple writing app that duplicated what WriteRoom was for me on my Mac. My requirements were few, but important:

  • Dropbox sync
  • Full screen mode
  • Word count


The obvious choice for me was PlainText by Hog Bay Software, which is made by the same company that makes WriteRoom. Another option was iA Writer, which I had recommended to fellow eLearn writer Aaron Silvers when it was initially released last year.

As you can see in Figure 1, the app has a simple list of documents on the left, and the editor window on the right. As soon as you click on a document title, it appears in the editor and you can instantly begin typing. You can sort the document list by date modified or by title, ascending or descending.

Dropbox sync is easy to setup. Just enter your credentials and set the folder in Dropbox you want to link to. To link to your main Dropbox folder, simply delete the default folder location.

At the bottom of the document menu are three buttons; Settings, Create Folder and Create Document. Those are self-explanatory. If you need to delete a folder or file, simply swipe to the right.

Tap the arrows in the bottom right and the app switches to full screen mode, hiding the document menu and providing a nice clean environment to write in, with wide margins.

To see the word count, simply tap and hold until the menu pops up, showing you the total. If you tap on Word Count in the menu, it will provide additional totals; words, characters and paragraphs.

It's simple, fast and free, and meets all my requirements. What's not to love?

iA Writer

iA Writer is another minimal writing app. It has a list of documents and Dropbox sync, as well as word count.

Features exclusive to this app include:

  • Focus mode
  • Reading time
  • Extended keyboard

Focus Mode
If you click the lock icon in the upper right corner, the app switches to focus mode, as shown in Figure 2. This switches the view to full screen, and fades out everything in the document except for the three lines you are currently working on.

For me, the focus feature is distracting. It also removes touch functionality on the screen, which was another issue for me. I edit while I type, simply tapping the part of the document I want to edit or selecting the word(s) I want to replace. In focus mode, this isn't possible. I have to use the word buttons (part of the extended keyboard) to navigate my paragraphs.

Auto-correct is also turned off in this mode, which prevents simple corrections like adding apostrophes to contractions. I was considerably less efficient in this mode, and after a few trials, I stopped using it altogether.

Reading Time
Reading time is a wonderful feature, though I don't know the science behind their estimates. If you pause long enough in your typing, a blue timer will appear, letting you know how long it will take the average reader to read the document.

Extended Keyboard
iA Writer adds a bar to the top of your normal keyboard for additional buttons and some frequently used punctuations. Over time, having these on one screen can save you some time.

The word buttons and the arrow buttons help you move around within the document, but are really only useful in focus mode.

The parentheses button is a smart button, recognizing when you need an opening or closing parentheses. Unfortunately, it does not wrap a word or phrase you've highlighted in parentheses.

Throwdown Scorecard

Round One: Dropbox Sync
Both apps have Dropbox sync, but PlainText offers more in this area with the ability to customize the Dropbox folder to link to, enabling you to access files that are already in Dropbox.

Winner: PlainText

Round Two: Full Screen Mode
I prefer PlainText's layout options. The default view has two panes, the document list and the editor, where iA Writer has just the document menu which drops down.

Full screen mode is simple and clean. iA Writer looks great in full screen, but requires you to be in focus mode. Since I don't like the way focus mode works, I'm never truly in full screen mode in iA Writer.

Winner: PlainText

Round Three: Word Count
Both apps have word count, but iA Writer's is better because it's minimal and is always on, providing a live count as you type.

Winner: iA Writer

And The Winner, by Decision, Is�
I use the free version of PlainText, with ads. I rarely notice the ads. iA Writer is only $.99 right now, so cost is not much of a differentiator.

iA Writer has the best font I've seen for a writing app. It uses Nitty Lite from Bold Monday.

PlainText has TextExpander integration. I am just starting to use TextExpander, but having this integration is going to be wonderful.

Overall Winner: PlainText

More Food For Thought

Elements is another writing app you might want to consider. I haven't used it, so I can't make a recommendation, but it does have TextExpander support and Dropbox sync. It's $4.99.

Simplenote is another free app that I use, but I've found it's better for short notes, snippets and lists than for writing, and Dropbox sync is only part of the premium version, which is $20 per year.

Do you have a preference when it comes to writing apps? Please share in the comment section below.

About the Author

Brian Dusablon has been in the learning industry since 1998, as a content developer, instructional designer and performance consultant. He currently works within his organization to apply new and existing technologies to improve performance. He also helps administer LMS and LCMS, develops course materials using Flash, Captivate and Articulate, and supports and creates SharePoint sites and other performance support solutions. Dusablon is passionate about accessibility, usability and innovation. He also runs Duce Enterprises, a small, but growing technology consulting and training company that focuses on supporting and improving small businesses and nonprofits. You can find him on Twitter (@briandusablon) and online at


  • Thu, 04 Aug 2011
    Post by Stephen Martin

    It doesn't meet one of your criteria cleanly (DropBox integration), but I really do like Pages. You can add DropBox functionality by setting up DropDav, but that's extra work.

  • Mon, 27 Jun 2011
    Post by Brian Dusablon

    Thanks for the response, Brian. I see this more an issue with the old Windows Notepad (which uses Windows line breaks instead of UNIX-style line breaks) than with PlainText. I switched to Notepad++ a long time ago as my default text editor in Windows. You can also use WordPad.

    I'll definitely check out Daedulus as well. I like the paper stack in that app. However, it is $3.99, while PlainText is free.

  • Wed, 22 Jun 2011
    Post by Brian Sharland

    The only issue I have with Plaintext is that when you look at the text files it creates in Dropbox they do not preserve line breaks added in Plaintext. This means I can't work on files on my PC which downgrades dropbox to merley backup rather than cross platform support which is what I would have hoped to have.

    Take a look at Daedulus - much better