The Dropbox Syncing Text Editor iPad App Smackdown

It appears that TUAW.com is running a similar story – great minds I guess.

It seems like all the rage right now is to make a ‘writing app’ for iPad users (you know the device that is for content consumption only) – the requirement though seems to be that said writing app must sync in some way with Dropbox. This of course is a win for consumers and the Dropbox team, but the problem that I am running into is which app to buy – most cost money in some form (either up front or to remove ads later).

The three main contenders as I see it are: Writer ($4.99), Plaintext (free, $4.99 to remove ads), and Elements ($4.99). 1 All three are very good apps, so which one to choose – well I couldn’t decide so I bought all three.

Let’s see what I found.

Writer.

To say that Writer had a subdued launch would be an understatement – it was all over Twitter and blogs that I read when it was launched. Writer was designed from the ground up with the idea of creating the best possible writing experience one could have on the iPad and doing it all while minimizing distractions. This gives Writer the most unique look of all the apps – Nitti Light was custom made for the font in Writer and designed with the iPad in mind.

The result is a very unique full screen experience that forces you to write one way – the apps way. The font choice is exquisite, the sharpest font I have seen to date on the iPad screen.

Writer’s ‘focus mode’ offers a very unique take on what fullscreen writing should look like – you don’t get just a menu-less environment, you also only get three lines of text in focus, the rest faded out. This is something that has lead some to criticize the app, while others praise it for the ‘feature’. I am in the latter’s camp, I think this is a great way to think about focus, but I am glad the mode is optional.

The last attribute that sets Writer apart from all other writing apps is the keyboard – iA has added what they are calling an ‘extended keyboard’ where you get an extra row at the top of the keyboard. This adds extra functionality that allows you to move word by word and character by character through your text, additionally brining to the foreground some common writing characters (parentheses, colons, hyphens, quotes) that are usually buried a couple of button presses away.

The one thing I have found odd about Writer is instead of giving you a word count the app just tells you the expected amount of time it would take to read your text (along with a character count). This is really interesting to me – I have never before thought about text in this way and trying to figure out just how long that is (in word count) seems awkward at best.

In then end then Writer is a gorgeous app with some odd choices made to its functionality. Writer is perhaps the most ‘Apple like’ of all three apps I will be looking at, in that meticulous attention was paid to the design and features were unapologetically left out of the app.

PlainText

From the makers of WriteRoom, Hog Bay Software launched PlainText – the newest of the three apps being reviewed. PlainText offers a very straightforward, plain app for writing. You can sync with any folder in your DropBox and add sub-folders for better organization in the app (two very nice features).

PlainText presents itself much like Simplenote – you have your files along the left side and the writing screen along the right – hit a button and you can write in ‘fullscreen’ mode. However unlike Simplenote, PlainText ditches Helvetica in favor of what looks to be Georgia for the apps font choice. The font looks much more legible on the iPad screen and makes the overall experience that much better.

PlainText also excels in my testing for the best speed of syncing, where Writer forces you to manually sync, PlainText offers a plethora of options for when it should automatically sync with DropBox. The coloring appears to be slightly off-white making the writing experience that much more classical feeling – by that I mean that you don’t feel like you are being blasted by white when you look at the screen. 2

My biggest complaint though with PlainText is that the font size does not change when switching form portrait to landscape or vice versa (al á Writer). This means that when you are typing in portrait the font choice looks ideal, however when you switch to landscape the font looks a bit small to me. Much like with Writer, PlainText forces their way or the highway, the options are few 3 but the app overall is an excellent choice given the freemium price tag.

[Updated: 9/30/10 at 7:14 AM] PlainText does include TextExpander support in the option – I just forgot to mention. Sorry about that.

Elements

Elements is the oldest of the three apps and before I review please notice that thus far I have not mentioned any of the app icons – allow me to correct that mistake now: all three apps have ugly icons, Elements though wins the prize of ugliest of the uglies. That said if Writer and PlainText are Apple in the way they force you to do things, then Elements is more like ‘choose your own adventure’ in that it offers a plethora of options to customize the look and feel of your writing environment.

You can set your font (the font list is huge), set your font size (from 8pt to 24pt), set the font color (eight options including purple – wtf?) and set the background color (Nine options here, thankfully no purple, but what the hell there is red – who wants a red background?). You get word, character and line counts and the ability to have an always ready scratchpad at hand for errant thoughts.

Elements is fighting off the competitors on the feature front, supporting TextExpander and the odd option of being able to turn off spell checking. The one thing that really bugs me in Elements though is the margins used for text display in the portrait orientation – the margins are just too close to the edges, making the text feel very cramped. For the record I think you can really make the text look great on this app by setting the font to Georgia, the font color to Black, the background color to Silver and the size to 22pt (only in landscape though, in portrait you need to take the font size down a bit).

The last thing that Elements does not offer, that the other two do offer, is a fullscreen mode. This means that you must stare at the title and most importantly the menubar that shows the time, the entire time you type. I don’t know why but I find clocks incredible distracting – so much so that you won’t find one in my menubar.

The Best a Writer Can Get™

That leaves the ultimate question then: which app is the best? For my money it will be Writer every time, for one reason: the font looks amazing and properly scaled in each orientation. PlainText is a nice second, and given the ad supported free version it makes for a great option for people just wanting to test if they would use this type of an app. Elements though feels much too complex and un-iPad like for me to really get into.

Writer I think will be the app to stand the test of time, even if you don’t agree with the ‘focus’ mode that the app has introduced. For me writing is about getting the words down and the more clearly I can see those words the better off I am – Writer gives you the hands down clearest view of the text you write.

  1. note I am omitting Simplenote here as it is a note app, not a writing app and it also does not give the option for Dropbox syncing in the app
  2. It is possible that the text is not pure black as well, a known web trick – but I am not able to verify this.
  3. In fact you can only set syncing options right now
Originally posted for members on: September 29, 2010
Follow along on RSS, App.net, or Twitter.
~I would appreciate it if you considered becoming a member.~