Note October 17, 2016: a new and updated guide on iOS text editors is now available here.
iPhone and iPad users have a bewildering abundance of plain text editors from which to choose. For projects not requiring complex formatting, there's really no need to bother with a word processor. Devotees of minimalism will revel in the files these editors churn out: text, just plain old text. The documents resulting from the manipulation by an iOS text editor may be good enough as they are, but if doctoring is required, they can be formatted to an extent using Markdown, a simple alternative to HTML, which many editors support. If Markdown cannot deliver the desired results, the documents can be loaded into word processors and toyed with until results reach the very summit of desk-top publishing.
The possibilities for using a text editor are virtually limitless: composing reminder notes, random thoughts, diary entries, calendar items, blog posts, shopping lists, book or software reviews, poems, short stories--this is only a partial list. Documents can be stored on the user's iPhone or iPad and, if desired, auto-synced to the cloud. All of the editors reviewed in this guide feature auto-syncing which completes a mere seconds after a file has been closed. If an Internet connection is not present, files can be edited and saved offline for syncing when a connection is re-established.
The five text editors reviewed here are Droptext, PlainText 2, Notesy for Dropbox, Nebulous Notes, and Simplenote. Each can be used on either the iPhone or iPad, and each works well with VoiceOver. Text can be entered from the iDevice's on-screen keyboard or an external device such as a Bluetooth keyboard. Each offers some kind of auto-syncing option (all sync to Dropbox, some to iCloud as well, and one to its own servers), and each integrates with TextExpander, an iOS utility that automatically transforms text abbreviations into their unabbreviated forms. While preparing this guide, I had occasions to email the editors' developers, and most of them answered my questions in a timely manner, sometimes within hours of my having emailed them.
This guide does not lay claim to thoroughness and definitiveness for two reasons. First, I am a relative newcomer to the iOS platform and up until two weeks ago had never used an iOS text editor; so any pretension at completeness and expertise would be illegitimate. Second, I know of additional text editors that I could have included, but I felt the guide was quite long enough with five. I chose the products I evaluated after first reading about them and others on the VIPhone Google group email list and the AppleVis.com website, then reading reviews in the Apple App Store, and finally taking them for test drives. I have not assigned an absolute numerical rank to each editor; nevertheless, I hope my comments have not erred on the side of unrestrained opinion. I hope you find the information in this guide useful. If any of it is misleading or just plain wrong, please feel free to tell me by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course, I would also like to hear if you have found the guide helpful or if you have suggestions for its improvement.
Two notable editors are missing from this guide. I wanted to write about Elements 2 by Second Gear. This product once received high marks from the iOS online community, but when I went to buy it from the Apple App Store, I discovered it was no longer available in the U.S. An inquiry emailed to the developer resulted in a note telling me the product had to be at least temporarily withdrawn from the market because of serious bugs. Also missing from this guide is AccessNote from the American Foundation for the Blind, the only text editor designed specifically for VoiceOver users. This app has already garnered a great deal of coverage on the AppleVis website and the VIPhone email list, so I have chosen not to cover it.
Developer: Invisions Technical Arts LLC
Developer Website: unavailable
Version as of Feb. 10, 2013: v2.0.3, released May 13, 2013
Droptext holds a place of honor in the App Store since it was the first text editor to appear there. It offers auto-syncing with a Dropbox account and an uncluttered interface. All buttons are clearly and correctly labeled for VoiceOver access.
Droptext creates a folder in the user's Dropbox root directory called Droptext, which offers a convenient storage area for saved files. When editing a file, the user has virtually the whole screen on which to work, unencumbered by buttons that might otherwise get in the way. Upon closing the file, the user is given the chance to save it with changes or exit without changes. The user is not limited to files in the default Droptext folder; any text file can be viewed, edited, and deleted regardless of its Dropbox location. Unfortunately, every time Droptext is opened, the entire folder structure of the user's Dropbox account is displayed; that is, Droptext does not remember the last file edited, nor does it even return to the Droptext folder that it created, putting the burden on the user of navigating to the desired file.
The "Settings" screen offers some helpful options, including changing how ends of lines are managed (there are settings for Windows and Mac/Linux line break conventions), choosing among twelve editing fonts and changing the size of each, setting an optional passcode to protect the app against unauthorized access, and disabling any of no fewer than twenty-eight file extensions for saving files. However, if the user disallows a particular file extension, it drops out from the list of potentially available formats, forcing the user to add it manually. There is no documentation of the app's features and operation provided in the Settings area and no way to contact the developer. When the user attempts to reach Invisions Technical Arts's website via the App Store, a message is displayed that the site is parked with DreamHost, leading one to believe that development of Droptext has been suspended or perhaps even stopped.
The possibility that Dropbox will not be further developed together with its lack of features when compared to the more versatile editors in this guide suggest that for some users, it may not be robust enough. The App Store's description of the software does not mention Markdown support, and there is no way of enabling the kind of extended keyboard features that other editors offer. There are no document sorting options; the user is stuck with alphabetical order by file name. No word or character counts can be displayed for the currently opened file. I couldn't find a way to rename a file once it had been saved. Nevertheless, Droptext is a good entry-level text editor and deserves a place in this review since it might be perfect for users who don't need a feature-rich text editor. Moreover, its price of $.99 is almost as good as free.
Developer: 433 Labs
Developer Website: http://plaintextapp.com
Version as of Feb. 10, 2013: 2.0.1, released Jan. 19, 2014
In-app Purchase: $2.99 to remove ads
PlainText 2 was recently acquired from Hog Bay Software by 433 Labs, and its new developer promises advances such as Markdown support and more editor fonts. It is a well-designed text editor with an extended keyboard feature as well as a host of other options. Most buttons but one are clearly and correctly labeled for VoiceOver access; however, one button is unlabeled, and the "Share" button, besides displaying some sharing options, also is the gateway to information about a file, such as its time stamp and size.
During the setup process, the user must decide whether to link files to a default folder and sub-folder that PlainText creates or allow access to all of the text files in the user's Dropbox account (the default folders are called "Apps" and "PlainText 2, respectively). If limited access is chosen and the user subsequently wishes broader access, an unlink from Dropbox operation must be performed followed by a linking to all folders. It would be better if the Dropbox file path could be changed on the fly in the "Settings" section, thus speeding up expanded access.
When PlainText is opened, it displays an introductory screen most of whose options are grayed out. One can search for a file by entering part of its name into an edit box, start creating a file, click on a link to view an ad, or activate the sole button not labeled for VoiceOver. This button should probably be labeled "File Actions." Activating this button opens a screen which allows the user to choose files saved only on the iDevice, on iCloud, or on Dropbox. Once the user has chosen one of these locations, pressing the "Edit" button and selecting a file will allow that file to be moved from any one of these locations to another. Thus, a file can be moved from the iDevice to Dropbox, and from then on, any changes made to it via the iDevice or via the Dropbox account will be auto-synced to both locations. There are also "Settings" and "Help" options accessible from this screen.
When PlainText is opened after an editing session, it remembers the last file the user has edited. Revising using PlainText is a relatively uncluttered experience. The ads that can be removed by an in-app purchase never get in the way of the text being worked on. True, the extended keyboard takes up space, but the trade-off is that it allows access to special characters without having to switch the on-screen keyboard display to numbers or symbols. A somewhat cryptic but very helpful feature is the character and word count, visible during the editing session. For example, a notation of "W9 C55 means that there are nine words in the file, which contains fifty-five characters. Other editors display word and character counts, but these statistics are often not available on their editing screens. After the file has been tweaked to the user's satisfaction, it can be shared via email or via a sharing service.
The "Help" screen explains working with locations (the iPhone/iPad, Dropbox, and iCloud destinations), working with documents and folders, and working with text. Much of the language is intensely visual since it refers to the way the icons look on screen, but it is still helpful to the VoiceOver user. The "Settings" screen allows for the extended keyboard feature to be enabled and disabled, fonts to be changed by type and size, and a passcode to be set to protect files from unauthorized access.
It appears from evidence on its website that PlainText 2 will move forward at a fast pace. Its developer told me there are no plans to discontinue any features, which means VoiceOver implementation should remain intact. A number of in-app purchased features in previous versions of PlainText have been incorporated into the free PlainText 2. Who knows how long this app will be available at no charge. When Markdown support is enabled, this editor should become even more attractive.
Notesy for Dropbox
Notesy for Dropbox is a highly-regarded text editor that features Markdown support and a clean and easily understandable interface. It is one of the two editors discussed in this guide whose developers mention VoiceOver support in their descriptions in the App Store. Notesy's developer specifically requests that users email him in case of VoiceOver problems. All buttons are clearly and correctly labeled for VoiceOver access.
Notesy creates in the user's Dropbox account a root folder called "Notesy" in which files can be saved by default. However, by changing the Dropbox path in "Settings," all text files in a Dropbox account can be easily viewed.
Notesy's opening screen is a model of conciseness and utility. The first thing the VoiceOver user hears upon opening Notesy is the time at which the program has updated by syncing with Dropbox. In fact, whenever a file is updated, Notesy announces the time of the update, a feature present in no other editor I have come across. Notesy' remembers the last file edited, making it unnecessary for the user to navigate up and down in the Dropbox folder and file structure to find it. Notes can be searched for globally by typing a string in the file name or even in the body of a note, making it easy to find a note if the user cannot recall its title. When a note is being displayed, "next note" and "previous note" buttons are conveniently available without the need to back up a menu level, a thoughtful feature and one not present in other editors evaluated in this review. Also present is a button to delete the file and share it. The "Share" button also gives access to the word and character count. There is also an "Append" button if one needs to get to the end of the file quickly. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent a file resident in the Notesy directory from being synced to Dropbox. Then again, one could make a sound argument for not sending unencrypted notes of a sensitive nature to the cloud, so this perceived shortcoming on Notesy's part is not a serious liability.
The developer has done a fine job of VoiceOver implementation. The buttons whose activations need explanation are equipped with explanatory hints, and everything works as expected except that the time stamp of a note and its preview, a snippet of text that appears in the file list, are not available to VoiceOver users. The developer assures me that these omissions will be investigated.
The "Settings" screen is easy to navigate and contains buttons to set a passcode, adjust font type and size, change the Dropbox folder path Notesy uses to display notes, sort the file list in several ways, and enable or disable the comprehensive extended keyboard. The "Help" button does not provide extensive documentation, but the release notes for recent versions as well as explanations of Notesy's many features can be found at the giantyak.com/notesy website noted earlier.
For beginning and advanced users alike, Notesy is a good match. Its screens simply feel right and make good sense. Its VoiceOver implementation is excellent. It incorporates Markdown support and the ability to write Chinese and Japanese characters. The developer is sensitive to users' needs and suggestions. Notesy appears to be on a fast development track and is a product worthy of serious consideration.
Nebulous Notes Lite and Nebulous Notes
Developer: Nuclear Elements, Inc.
Developer Website: http://nebulousnotesapps.com
Version as of Feb. 10, 2013: 6.9.1, released Sept. 17, 2013
Price: free for Nebulous Notes Lite, $7.99 for Nebulous Notes
The only differenced between Nebulous Notes Lite and Nebulous Notes is that the former is ad-sponsored. However, the ads don't interfere in any way with the functions of Nebulous Notes; in fact, I can't tell they are there. However, I purchased the non-sponsored version so I could support the developer and ask support questions with a clear conscience.
Nebulous Notes currently carries a maximum approval rating of five stars in the App Store, the only text editor in this guide that can claim this distinction. Like Notesy, VoiceOver is fully supported, with all buttons clearly and correctly labeled, and like Notesy, VoiceOver compatibility is noted in the app's description posted on the App Store website.
Nebulous Notes creates in the Dropbox root folder a folder called "My Notes" to which files can be saved. However, if the user goes to Nebulous Notes's top file menu, all of Dropbox's text files can be accessed without altering a path (Notesy's way of changing the scope of access) or un-linking and then re-linking with Dropbox and asking for access to all folders (PlainText 2's way). At the bottom of the screen is a tab for searching globally for a string in a file name or the body of a file, a tab to show only files present on the iDevice, and a tab to show files on Dropbox. One of the editor's strongest assets is that the user can turn off auto-syncing via an option in the "Settings" menu and then decide which files to sync to Dropbox and which not to send there. Files can be easily deleted from Dropbox while still being retained on the iDevice and vice versa, a very useful feature.
Like Notesy's initial screen, Nebulous Notes's opening screen is thoughtfully designed. There is a "Files" button and a "File Actions" button not labeled somewhat misleadingly as "Share" as is the case with some editors. The "Files" button displays the contents of the "My Notes" default folder, but as indicated earlier, pressing the "Back" button allows access to all of the text files present on the user's Dropbox account. A "Settings" and a "Help" button are also present as well as a grayed-out "Full Screen" button, letting the user know that editing using the full screen is possible when text is displayed.
Perhaps the most powerful editing module of Nebulous Notes is the macro bar. When enabled, the bar allows access to built-in macros, such as a "redo" feature or insertion of the date and time. There is even a "find" command to make locating text possible without an external keyboard, and cursor tracking with VoiceOver works properly. The ability to use the "Find" command from the iDevice's on-screen keyboard is a feature present in no other editor in this review. The power of the macro bar and other helpful functions are documented in what is unquestionably the most thorough manual accompanying any text editor I have tried. Markdown support is enabled, as well as tabbing and other advanced editing features. Pressing the "Share" button allows, among other options, for the file to be shared with online services or to be emailed to specific users.
The "Settings" menu is more feature-rich than any menu of its kind in the other text editors discussed here. Like the "Settings" sections of its competing editors, it provides the options of setting a passcode, sorting documents in several ways, and changing font type and size. However, it also allows the macro bar to be toggled, editor line spacing to be changed, word wrap to be toggled, and the screen brightness to be adjusted.
It is understandable that advanced users will gravitate towards this sophisticated text editor. However, its logical interface makes it appealing to beginning users as well. There seems no question that development of Nebulous Notes will continue given the international praise this app has garnered and given its abundant set of features.
Developer: Codality, Inc.
Developer Website: http://simplenote.com
Version as of Feb. 10, 2013: 4.0.5, released Feb. 6, 2014
For two reasons, Simplenote is markedly different in function and design from the other products treated in this guide. First, it does not rely on Dropbox syncing. An in-app purchase used to allow Dropbox interaction, but this package has been at least temporarily withdrawn. Instead, Simplenote is powered by Simperium, a robust and fast cross-platform engine. Second, Simplenote is not based on a folder and file hierarchical structure but rather on separate notes, or bits of text, that take their titles from their first lines. The story of how Simplenote was acquired by Automattic (sic), the parent company of WordPress.com, is fascinating but clearly beyond the purview of this guide. Let's just say that the newly-packaged Simplenote app is a remarkable approach to note-taking. Its developer promises enhancements, including Markdown support.
In order to use the Simplenote app, a user must have a Simplenote account, which can be quickly created via a Windows or Mac computer or via an iOS device after opening the app. Notes are auto-synced to this account and can be edited online or offline by the app or even by a Windows or Mac browser. Syncing happens differently from the way Dropbox syncs. Dropbox waits for a file to be closed before syncing, whereas Simplenote is syncing all the time. The user can type a couple of characters and close the app, and the next time Simplenote is opened, there is the two-character note. No matter that the title is not a conventional file name with a "txt" extension but is rather the first line of the note. Any text contained in that note can be searched for from Simplenote's search pane. For users not interested in organizing material by subject, Simplenote is a forgiving friend since all the user needs to know is a word contained in the file in order to pull it up. A "pin-to-top" feature allows any note to be almost instantly popped to the top of the list of notes.
When Simplenote is opened, a "new note" button is displayed, and a list of notes appears arranged in reverse date order. The list can be organized in alphabetical order via an option in the "Settings" menu. The goal of Simplenote is not to dazzle with a variety of beautiful fonts but rather to get material saved as quickly as possible and available to as many user-controlled devices as desired. As a file is being created, most of the screen is available for editing. A sidebar can be toggled allowing the user to tag a note with a short text description, and, of course, this tag can be searched on just as quickly as the text in the body of the note. The sidebar also allows the user to switch to a "Trash" area or access a screen allowing collaboration with people in the Contacts list or, for that matter, anyone with a valid email address.
To compare Simplenote with the other editors reviewed is unfair since this app is so different from them. It represents a creative approach to text editing. For some, it may be just what is needed; for others with more stringent text editing requirements, it may be nothing more than a curiosity.
For all its length, this guide could have been expanded. Users wishing to learn more about the chosen text editors' URL schemes or their sharing capabilities may be disappointed at the lack of material on these subjects. Perhaps this guide will lead to questions which will push my frontiers of exploration further. For now, let me end that I have enjoyed writing this guide, and if it helps you cut through the text editor jungle, so much the better.