Wednesday, April 6, 2011

iA Writer review

iA Writer is a text editor for the iPad that boasts distraction free writing. After using it for a week, I find that it isn't so much the distraction free writing that makes this program well suited for writers, it's the helpful additions to a plain text editor.

My feelings on writing fiction on the iPad are mixed. While the iPad provides one of the most portable devices with a built in keyboard, it does fall short on one key point. Yes, it's the keyboard. But not for the reason you might think. The virtual keyboard actually works really well. I find my fingers fly just as effortlessly over the virtual keyboard as they do over the keys of my laptop. I do make a lot more mistakes, but the autocorrect fixes most of them as I type. So what _is_ wrong with the keyboard if, not the typing?

Navigation. On the virtual keyboard, you dont have any arrows. You also don't have a home, end, page up or page down keys. Why is this a problem? Well take for instance the word "dont" above. I noticed the typo a sentence after I typed it. To fix it, I would normally have to stop what I was doing, press and hold my finger on the screen at the location I need to insert the apostrophe, slide it around till I find the right location, then hope the position doesn't change when I lift my finger up. All too often it takes several seconds to make a correction that should only take a fraction of that time. Talk about a distraction!

Enter iA Writer. It has arrows so you can navigate around your text. This I believe is the single most important feature iA Writer has to offer. It places the arrows, and a few other common punctuation marks on a bar just above the regular keyboard. It looks like it should have been there the whole time! There are left/right and word left/right arrows (like holding Control-Left/right). This feature alone, makes it worth the purchase if you plan to actually do some heavy writing (and not pull your hair out while typing.)

Strange as it may seem, they also like to promote the font they use. If you are going to be staring at text for long periods of time, it has to be clear, easy to read, and nice to look at. They used a font called Nitti Light, which accomplishes the task wonderfully. It is a beautiful font. It isn’t quite as sharp in portrait mode however, but still is easy on the eyes.

The last feature worth mentioning is called FocusMode. Your mileage may very, but I didn't find it particularly useful. The feature gets rid of the toolbar and grays out all text except for the three lines closest to what you are working on, forcing you to focus and providing a distraction free environment. Yeah right. If you are easily distracted, graying out a few lines of text is not going to get the creative juices flowing again. I do like the concept, but it also turns off auto correction, and the red mis-spelling highlighting. Two features I find I can't live without, especially on a virtual keyboard were my typing error rate is so much higher. For example, normally the iPad will replace a lower case "i" with an uppercase one when you mean to say "I". In focus mode it no longer does that. Maybe that mode would be more useful to someone using an external keyboard. But when I use the iPad, I usually only use the virtual keyboard.

Although there are a lot of features that are missing, I like the app and would recommend it to other writers. A few items I hope get addressed in the near future would include:

1. Toss out the word arrow sound fx. When I turn off the keyboard clicking sound, I don't want to listen to swiping sounds when you use those keys.

2. Up and down arrows would be very helpful. Maybe even home and end.

3. iA Writer saves plain text files, but uses UTF16 encoding. That file encoding is not widely recognized by other text editor apps, either on the iPad, Mac or PC. This makes it difficult when trying to integrate with other programs. In this case, Scrivener 2.0. Note that if the file was created by another program, and you edit it in iA Writer, it will re-save it with the correct encoding.

4. Dropbox integration really needs to support directories. For me to use Scrivener synching I had to use a symlink and point my Writer directory to my Draft folder that Scrivener exports to. It would actually have been helpful for Scrivener not to force the export to the Draft folder as well.

Having Folder support would also allow me to work on more then one story at a time, as well as use it as a general text editor, which I can't really do when I am syncing with Scrivener.


- Additional virtual keys available all the time, allowing you to navigate your text using left/right arrow keys.

- Very good font choice.


-No directory support for drop box, making it hard to use the app for more then one project at a time.

-Files are not sorted alphabetically, so you can't even using a number naming scheme to make chapters appear in the correct order.

-Keyboard sounds when you have turned key clicks off.

-UTF16 encoding isn't very well supported by other programs.