My favorite iPad apps for writing

iPad 3

I use my iPad quite frequently for writing (for example: right now). I am a highly dedicated user of the Logitech keyboard (as discussed in a previous article). I create text files in all different forms: plain text, HTML, CSS, LaTeX, and word processing. I also program in Python, PHP, and JavaScript (and lots of others, but that’s another story entirely), but I’ll mostly be writing in this post about text file creation outside of pure programming.


What I absolutely require out of a writing app that I am going to use most of the time is an ability to easily store, access, and work with files that are not stored on the iPad. It is much too easy to have an iPad stolen (which I have had happen, though it was returned — that’s another story again) or to lose it (which is much more likely with me), so I don’t like having anything of any value (and, really, what file that you create isn’t of some value?) locked up on the iPad. My favorite way of providing this off-machine (cloud) storage is with Dropbox. The University of Michigan recently came to an agreement with Box, a company that provides a service similar to this. (Here is a comparison of Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, and others as of April 2012.) For now, since I recently made a commitment to putting files on Dropbox, I’m mostly looking for Dropbox integration, but you might have a different such requirement. I simply emphasize here that you should store your files in the same way — off of the iPad and into the cloud.

Another requirement that I’m looking for is the ability to work on or offline with files. I am almost always online so it’s really the main focus but I recently took 4 cross-country flights and it definitely was something of a necessity to be able to create files while not connected to the Internet. After re-connecting, I also want the ability to change the file from storage on the iPad to storage in the cloud.

As a piece of context, I have been a loyal user of BBEdit for at least 15 years. I use it for all of the same things, and in all of the same ways, that I am requiring of my iPad writing app.I expect it to be less feature-laden but equally adept and creating text in different languages and for different purposes.


textastic iPad app

The Textastic app has definitely become my favorite general text creation app. Look at all of the features it has:

  • Save files remotely to Dropbox, (s)ftp, and WebDAV.
  • Work directly with files stored locally on the iPad.
  • Code syntax highlighting for just about every language that I have ever heard of. Further, it is compatible with TextMate so that you can add your own syntax definition file if you so desire.
  • Has settings for font, font size, screen and text colors, line number display, tab width (and visibility), word wrap, auto correction, auto capitalization, code completion.
  • Integration with TextExpander.
  • Preview HTML as it would look in a browser.
  • Find and replace within the file.
  • File properties shows the number of lines, characters, and words.
  • Send file as an email attachment.

This app does all that I need and more. It starts up quickly, makes it easy to write, and saves files to all the places that I want them saved. I use it often and heavily.


PlainText iPad app

Until about 3 months ago, I would have heartily endorsed the PlainText app. It is a very stripped-down app that simply works. If you are looking for a text-editing app that integrates with Dropbox, then this app deserves serious consideration. I used it for over a year and was very happy with it. However, I have recently discovered Textastic and it just fits my needs a little better. I have not uninstalled PlainText because I am so comfortable with it. If you find that Textastic just seems like too much for you, then I definitely recommend that you give PlainText a try.


Pages iPad app

When I’m in the mood to create a more common word processing file (like that produced by Microsoft Word or Apple Pages on the Macintosh), then I head over to the Pages app. It provides a perfectly usable facsimile of the Mac Pages application on the more limited computing environment of the iPad. If I were so inclined to create such files more often, I would feel very comfortable working in this environment. Now that it provides near seamless integration with iCloud (Apple’s file storage service), it is much improved.


Notability iPad app

Notability is an extremely competent multimedia file creation application. Its primary distinguishing feature is that it enables synchronized audio recordings while you are typing into the file (as you might while taking notes during a class). Later, when you are reviewing your file, you can then click on any part of the file and hear what was being said while that part of the file was being created. This is very useful for any student.

It has many features above-and-beyond an application such as Pages or Word:

  • Create formatted text such as in Pages (different fonts, font colors, bullet lists, etc.).
  • Allows the user to freehand draw — with all the associated editing capabilities — within the document.
  • Insert photos with captions and text that automatically flows around the photo.
  • Full annotation ability with any PDF file.
  • Import RTF and PDF files.
  • Save/export files to RTF or PDF.
  • Save files in Dropbox, Box, iCloud, or WebDAV.
  • Email files as attachments.

When I am in a lecture, this is the file that I use and that I recommend anyone to use. Having the ability to listen to the words spoken in the lecture with little fuss is a feature that is easy to get used to.

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