The iPad Writing Apps Showdown

October 14, 2010 | 12 Comments

Update: Since this was first published, I’ve now written a second showdown which includes five more apps. After you read this, read The Return of the iPad Writings Apps Showdown

The iPad has settled nicely into my workflow as a device for capturing and shaping ideas for content. Most of my recent writing has been drafted in the focused simplicity of my iPad, then polished and published from my laptop. I’ve had enough conversations to know that I’m not the only one using it this way. (Not to mention all the people who show up here searching for Scrivener for iPad!)

A few months ago, I described my workflow to bring this content into Scrivener, the writing app of champions and starving authors. A number of new options have since appeared. I’ve looked them over, scrutinizing some key features:

  • Effortless sync — I want the text to be waiting on my laptop with no additional effort on my part. (Dropbox is the method of choice.)
  • TextExpander support — I’m not as organized in TextExpander as David, Eddie, or Patrick, but I use enough shortcuts that I can’t imagine not having it available.
  • Clean and simple — I want nice aesthetics and very few bells, whistles, gizmos, or gadgets.
  • Word count — Lower priority than the others, but it’s useful at times, especially for would-be NaNoWriMo‘ers.
  • iPhone-ability — Also a lower priority, but being able to do a quick edit on the iPhone while waiting in line for tacos is a plus.

And with those priorities in mind, here’s a rundown of the apps I’ve tried:

Elements (website | iTunes )
Other than SimpleNote, this was the first app released of those reviewed here. I’m a user of SecondGear’s Today app, so I expected this to be a solid app, and it is.

  • Effortless sync: Yes — Saves to Dropbox as separate text files.
  • TextExpander support: Yes
  • Clean and Simple: Yes, but — It’s not ugly, but it’s the least attractive. It does offer the ability to change your font and text size which none of the others do.
  • Word Count: Yes — and the most reliable count in my sample.
  • iPhone: Yes — it’s a universal app.
  • Extras: Has the ability to search across documents
  • Cost: $4.99

iA Writer (website | iTunes )
I developed a chip on my shoulder when this one was released because everyone went crazy about it. (I guess I’m a contrarian.) I only bought it for this comparison, but you know what? It’s a great app.

  • Effortless sync: Yes — Saves to Dropbox as separate text files.
  • TextExpander support: No (Really?)
  • Clean and Simple: Very. It’s specialized enough that it might be a turn off to some, but I think the focused writing mode looks great.
  • Word Count: No — Offers a character count and estimated reading time, but that’s not as helpful as word count.
  • iPhone: No
  • Extras: If you are typing on screen, an extra row of navigation and punctuation keys are added on top of the keyboard which are well thought out. A great addition.
  • Cost: $4.99

PlainText (website | iTunes )
I’ve been anticipating this one since the developer posted a screenshot a few months ago. It was worth the wait.

  • Effortless sync: Yes — Saves to Dropbox as separate text files and can sort into subfolders. (This is huge, as we’ll see below.)
  • TextExpander support: Yes
  • Clean and Simple: Yes — Beautiful because of it’s simplicity and typography.
  • Word Count: No
  • iPhone: Yes
  • Extras: I’ll say it again — it sorts into subfolders. And that’s still huge, as we’ll see below.
  • Cost: Free (future in-app upgrades to remove ads)

SimpleNote (website | iTunes )
I’ve talked about SimpleNote before, but here’s how it compares:

  • Effortless sync: Yes — Syncs to Notational Velocity (and other apps too)
  • TextExpander support: Yes
  • Clean and Simple: Yes
  • Word Count: Yes — but it seems to inflate the count by 10-20%
  • iPhone: Yes
  • Extras: Includes search and tagging. This app is designed more for storing and finding notes than writing, but it works well for both. But, also see below…
  • Cost: Free (premium upgrade with extra features available)

My Conclusion

All of these are solid apps, and you might have their own favorite depending on what features you care most about. But I have landed on PlainText and SimpleNote, because both will be able to sync with the upcoming release of Scrivener 2.0. Here’s how I plan to use each:

  • SimpleNote: As I’ve written before, I have several hundred notes tucked in here for instant retrieval. It’s a helpful general research and capture tool, especially before a project starts. And this video shows how I capture some of those notes when I start a new project in Scrivener 2.0
  • PlainText: Storing hundreds of notes would be cumbersome for PlainText, so it can’t replace SimpleNote. However, Scrivener 2.0 can sync Drafts and Research folders to Dropbox that can be recognized, sorted, and edited by PlainText. (See this blog post and video to see why I’m giddy.) Syncing a Scrivener project would effectlively make PlainText into an editable Scrivener for iPad. I don’t think I could ask for more.
  • Great article, but no ‘My Writing Nook’ or ‘Notebooks for iPad’ ???
    I have tried most apps but the ones i keep using is ‘My Writing Nook’.
    The extra keyboard row on iA Writer is awesome, i wish other apps had that too

    • John Chandler

      Thanks for the comment and for pointing out those apps. They might be worth a look for others.

      My Writing Nook wasn’t in consideration for me because it can only sync with it’s own online application. Kind of wipes out the primary criteria of effortless sync.

      I considered Notebooks based on some positive reviews of it, and it also has the folder sync like PlainText. But, ultimately it seems bulkier (and less attractive) than the others and is designed to be more than a specialized writing app.

      • I can see that My Writing Nook dont have an effortless sync.
        I have been looking for a perfect writing app for a long time and so far i haven’t found one. The main criteria for me is that my documents are well protected. I dont see dropbox as a good way to keep ‘secret’ docs (mainly my novels).
        Since i use my macbook and ipad in school every day a lot of people are using them and dropbox is just an open folder on my drive. I like to keep my docs secret and therefor i always place them in an encrypted folder.

        PlainText is a good app but again it doesn’t have a password, which is needed for me.

        Copying my text from my writing nooks website into scrivener is not hard and gives me the best protection.

        I am really looking forward to scrivener 2.0, but im sure i wont be using the sync option.

        I also found an annoying thing with Notebooks for ipad today. The word count is not easily accessed which is a problem since i will be doing NaNoWriMo.

        I hope that one day i will find the perfect writing app for ipad =D

        • John Chandler

          I hadn’t even considered document security, but that’s a good point. I can see how that would be a priority for some users.

        • Sven

          Dropbox does SSH/HTTPS and that connection is password protected. There is always the risk that someone ‘overhears’ your password if you’re doing wifi in a cafĂ©, but that goes for the files in Nook as well.

  • Nice analysis. That’s pretty much what I’m planning to do once Scrivener 2.0 comes out. That extra row of punctuation in iA Writer is brilliant, but since I mostly use the bluetooth keyboard anyway, it isn’t worth losing the folder hierarchy of Plaintext.

    What I’m really looking forward to (other than Scrivener 2.0, of course) is the additional features (word count, font change, etc) that Writeroom for iPad will bring to the Plaintext framework.

    • John Chandler

      Word count is the only thing missing from PlainText for me, and that might be a big deal for someone doing NaNoWriMo. If I were to do NaNoWriMo (leaning towards probably not), I think I’d have to estimate how many screens 1700 words is for the daily goal.

      • Toor

        Excellent summary of apps, but I think it needs upgrading since so very much has changed in this arena since October. (For instannce, like Lifehacker does when something significant changes in relation to a post, update it rather than make a new, since the old one then continues to be misleading.)

        For instance, PlainText now h a s word count! Which kind of changes the valuation of it, and it’s relationship to the others.

        Also, a new contender is Writings – like PlainText it offers a clean, beautiful interface, Dropbox sync and word count. One advantage over PlainText is that you can change text area width and type size; good if you need a tweak. But also excellent if you compare with IA Writer that has a far too wide text area in relation to the font size, which makes the text hard to read. (It’s very easy to google typography and get the rule of thumb for that relationship.)

        Textastic and Nebulous should probably be mentioned, too. They can both great text editors, and they can do coding as well as regular writing. Textastic does both Dropbox sync and FTP and syntax coloring, Nebulous works straight from Dropbox, opening and saving to it as if it was your hard drive. Very neat.

        Personally, I don’t think SimpleNotes belong in this category, even if someone might use it for writing text. It’s made for and excells at note taking (and syncing), but it’s not good for longer writings. (Font is too small, for instance, see rule of thumb above!) But why not have a separate post about that category? It would be fun to get tips on note apps. I used SimpleNotes before, but switched to Notespark because of better interface, much better sharing and a web app/interface that is actually useable.

        But there are also Notebooks (brilliant, especially best of them all for customizing your own info architecture. You wan’t to turn it into a GTD app, sure go ahead!) And Noteshelf if you, like me, really like to take notes ‘manually’ – in long hand. Sync with both Dropbox and Evernote – great for the Evernote picture to text thing!

        • John Chandler

          Thanks for your comments. I’ve been considering an update to this post, but wasn’t aware of Writings, so I’ve added it to the list.

      • Grimble

        PlainText does actually do a word count. You just have to tap until the cut, copy and paste bar comes up and then tap the arrow to the right and it has the word count.

  • Pat

    I tried out the Index Cards app for iPad because it’s directly supported in Scrivener 2010 (in addition to supporting DropBox). If you like Scrivener’s index cards on a bulletin board metaphor, Index Cards iPad app is very similar.

    HOWEVER – note that the only text supported is title and summary (front of index card) – there is NO support for the Scrivenings (actual text).

    it’d be fine for outlining and giving yourself writing ideas, but it doesn’t work as the iPad writing app which syncs to Scrivener when you’re done writing.


    I’ve used SimpleNote instead, although Scriv synch leaves a lot of files behind when connections hiccup. I tried PlainText, and it’s definitely more beautiful and easier to write in, but there’s no RTF support, which means no bold/italics/lists, which I find very helpful.

    • Lance

      Yes, Index Cards is great for outlining, and PlainText or Writings are excellent for writing text. And remember, since Scrivnener 2.0 has folder sync, you don’t need to use an iPad app that specifically syncs wi Scrivener. Dropbox sync is enough.

      Notebooks is a very good combo app since you can do outlines, tasks and format font and size so you get the writing environment that you like. And you can get a structure that mimics the binder. (You can get that in PlainText as well with nested folders, but Notebooks goes further in structure options.)

      You can even create Dropbox sync for apps tha don’t have. For instance, if you are writing scripts in Scrivener you can export scenes in .fdx to Dropbox and then open them in Scripts Pro on you iPad. And when done you just export the file with email from Scricpts Pro to a Send To Dropbox address.

      (Yes, with that setup you can even use the iPad mail app to capture ideas and text and sync it with Scrivener…:-)