Note: This guide is an updated version of my article “An Overview of Five Text Editors”, submitted to the AppleVis community in February, 2014.
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 two of the editors evaluated here support. If Markdown cannot deliver the desired results, the documents can be loaded into a full-fledged word processor 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, memorable 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, synced to the cloud. All of the editors reviewed in this guide feature 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 four text editors reviewed here are the Notes app built into the iPhone and iPad, Notesy for Dropbox, Permanote (formerly Nebulous Notes), and AccessNote. All can be used on either the iPhone or iPad, and all work well with VoiceOver. Text can be entered from the iDevice's on-screen keyboard or an external device such as a Bluetooth keyboard. All offer some kind of syncing option (three to Dropbox and one to iCloud), and two integrate with TextExpander, an iOS utility that automatically transforms text abbreviations into their unabbreviated forms. Each offers some kind of spell checker (I suspect they all use the built-in iOS checker). While preparing this guide, I had occasions to email the editors' developers, and comments on their responsiveness are included with my evaluations. This guide does not lay claim to thoroughness and definitiveness. The field of iOS text editors has become much more diversified and technically complex since I wrote my article “An Overview of Five Text Editors” in February, 2014, and to do this burgeoning field justice would make for a too hefty article. In addition, I am far from an expert on iOS text editors. All testing was done on an iPhone 5 running iOS 9.3.4, and since the iPhone 5 doesn’t support ID Touch, I was unable to evaluate how well Permanote, the only editor whose description says it supports Touch ID, works with this feature. Finally, in an effort to limit the scope of this offering, I have omitted some more specialized and powerful packages, notably Ulysses, Scrivener, and Voice Dream Writer. I felt the present article was long enough with its discussion of four editors. Readers of my first offering will note that two editors covered in the original piece are missing from this version, and two have been added. The rearrangement was done in the interests of eliminating editors which I feel offer no clear advantages over more functional and/or better supported ones. I hope the revised article reflects a representative cross-section of current easy-to-use choices. I chose the products evaluated here after first reading about them and others on the VIPhone Google group email list and the AppleVis.com website, reading reviews in the Apple App Store, reviewing comments from the AppleVis community about my 2014 article, and finally taking the apps for test drives. I have not assigned an absolute numerical rank to each editor, and 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. Remember that the article is an overview, not an exhaustive review. If you would like more information on a particular editor, search for its name in the iOS App Store, or enter the words “App Store” and the name of the editor into the Google search box, and you should easily find the entry for it in the App Store.
Factory-installed Notes App
Sometimes, simplest is best. If you only want to use a writing app to jot down a phone number, book title, recipe, reminder,, clever thought, or inspiring quotation, look no further than the Notes app built into the iPhone and iPad. Before iOS 9, the Notes app was about as uncomplicated as one could imagine. However, with the advent of iOS 9 ,, this basic app took on a richer life. Before iOS 9, the user could do little more than create an unformatted note with the option of sharing its contents with other users. All of the notes were in a single folder and their contents could not be synced with other Apple devices. The updated version allows for the creation of multiple folders and gives the user a choice between storing notes only on a single device or backing them up to iCloud for cross-device availability. iOS 9 offers the user the ability to upgrade Notes, and since the improved version is so easy to navigate and results in an uncluttered screen, there seems no reason to stay with the older iteration unless you are prevented from upgrading by a dependence on an earlier iOS version.
The top level screen of the upgraded Notes app is simple. It offers the user the chance to create a new folder or to enter the list of notes. The notes list contains the date of each note’s last revision and quite a bit or all of the text, unless, of course, the note is long. Each note can be deleted or moved to another folder with a single-finger swipe up or down or via the “Edit” screen. Deleted notes are sent to a “Recently Deleted Items” folder, from which they are auto-deleted in thirty days if not moved into an active folder.
The “New note” button is always convenient to access. Once a note has been created, the user is presented with a toolbar which can be hidden or shown, and which contains options for hand-drawing a sketch, inserting a photo, creating a checklist, or using a variety of style formats, such as a numbered or bulleted list. By default, a note opens in its body although this can be changed in the “Notes” section of the device’s “Settings” menu. In this default mode, if you want to create a title, simply write a description of the note at its top and tap “Return.” This action will cause the first line of the note to be spoken first in the message list. A handy feature of the Notes app is its cross-document search option, which allows the user to find all occurrences of a string in all of the notes. Recent searches are saved, and an option is provided for clearing this list.
The “Share” menu looks quite Apple-standard with options to send the note as a text message or email or to open an Airdrop session. In addition, it contains a useful option to password-protect a note. All notes share the same password, and any note can be protected or unprotected. The limit to the length of a password is not readily apparent.
Understandably, the Notes app has its limitations. It does not furnish word or character counts for a note. It does not support Markdown syntax or special character enhancements, such as bold or underline type, and there is no way from inside the app of sorting the list of notes in any order except reverse modification date although sort options are available in the “Notes” section of the iDevice’s “Settings” menu. These drawbacks aside, if speed and compactness are required, Notes is reliable and convenient, and the user doesn’t have to pay for it or even install it.
Notesy for Dropbox
Developer: Goat Beard Software LLC
Version: 2.5.5 (March 30, 2015)
Notesy for Dropbox App Store link
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 are saved by default. However, by changing the Dropbox path in "Settings," all text files in a Dropbox account can be viewed. When Notesy is linked to a Dropbox account, a helpful file appears in the “Notesy” folder explaining how to get started with using the editor. 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 notes have just synced 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 if the file is open when the app is closed, 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 globally from the opening screen 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. Other opening screen options allow the user to add a file, sync all files to Dropbox, add a folder, or enter the “Settings” menu. A list of the files in the default folder is also conveniently displayed on this top level screen.
When a note is opened, double-tapping on the title allows the user to rename the note. ”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 guide. Also present is a button to delete the file and share it via email. The "Share" button also gives access to the paragraph, word, and character counts as well as other helpful data about the file. 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 an individual file from being synced to Dropbox unless the app is unlinked to the Dropbox account in which case, of course, no files can be modified without re-linking the app..
The developer has done a fine job of VoiceOver implementation. The buttons whose names need clarification are equipped with explanatory hints, and everything works as expected except that the date and time stamp of a note and its preview, a snippet of text that appears in the file list, are not available to VoiceOver users. When I wrote to the developer while preparing the first version of this guide in2014, he assured me that these omissions would be investigated, but so far, this little shortcoming has not been remedied. The "Settings" screen is easy to navigate and contains buttons to set a passcode to unlock the app, adjust font type and size, view the Markdown preview of a note, make the format of a note friendlier for viewing in the Microsoft Windows environment, toggle auto-correct spelling, change the Dropbox folder path Notesy uses to store notes, sort the file list in several ways, and enable or disable the extra keyboard row, which contains “Bullets” and “Tabs” buttons as well as frequently used punctuation marks that make it unnecessary for the user to switch the on-screen keyboard to “numbers” to enter them. 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, listed in the app’s description on its App Store page. 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 accented, Chinese, and Japanese characters. The developer is sensitive to users' needs and suggestions. Notesy appears to be on a reliable development track and is a product worthy of serious consideration.
Permanote (formerly Nebulous Notes)
Developer: Nuclear Elements, Inc.
Version: 10.0 (Oct. 8, 2016)
Permanote App Store link
Although the deservedly popular Nebulous Notes is still available, its updates are now confined to squashing critical bugs, and its developer now recommends and has shifted focus to the enhanced Permanote editor. VoiceOver is fully supported, with all buttons clearly and correctly labeled, and VoiceOver compatibility is noted in the app's description posted on the App Store website. Also in the description is a notation that the app requires iOS 9.3 or later, showing the developer is keeping current with iOS releases. I don’t know how well the app performs with previous iOS versions.
Users should be aware that recently, Permanote's developer has announced plans for the phasing out of Permanote in 2017. However, recent funding has raised the possibility that this will not happen. Users who would like to take advantage of Permanote may wish to purchase it soon in order to avoid missing out on this editor if it is withdrawn.
Permanote creates in the Dropbox root folder a folder called “Notes" for saved notes. However, Permanote can edit and save any text file in any Dropbox folder if the user presses the “Dropbox back” button to access the Dropbox account’s root directory. The app will work without being linked to a Dropbox account, but no note back-ups will be saved anywhere.
Permanote’s opening screen is very sparse, giving the user a choice between accessing the “Notes” folder (which will be empty unless content has been previously saved there) or creating a new note. Once another screen has been opened, the user can start writing and manipulating notes.
The screen listing the notes contains a function to sort notes in different ways as well as options to sync individual notes or all notes.
At the bottom of most of the application’s screens are tabs labeled “Notes,” “History,” “Search,” and “Settings.” The “History” selection provides a log of the notes created by the app, a feature that sets Permanote apart from the other text editors I have tested. The across-file “Search” function allows the user to locate all notes containing the entered string in either the title or the body. If the string is found and a note is opened, the cursor is positioned after the string, a handy feature for VoiceOver users. The “Settings” area provides for the toggling and tweaking of a remarkable array of functions, including font selections, screen brightness, word-wrap cut-off position, line spacing, TextExpander support, encoding options, Microsoft Windows file compatibility, and many more. Permanote’s variety of settings makes it by far the most versatile editor I have tested in terms of configurability. One of the editor's strongest features is that the user can turn off auto-syncing via yet another option in the "Settings" menu and then decide which files to sync manually to Dropbox and which not to send there. Files can be easily deleted from Dropbox while still being retained on the iOS device and vice versa, a very useful asset.
When a note is opened, several options are presented, including Markdown previewing, sharing, adding tags, renaming, and closing the note. Once the user is editing a note, the enhanced keyboard comes to life. There is an “Undo” option as well as an “insert time and date” button, to say nothing of special characters accessible without the user’s having to switch the on-screen keyboard to “numbers.” A string can be found by searching within the note, and the cursor will be placed after it. Cursor tracking within a note seems to work well, a feature VoiceOver users will appreciate. Only Permanote and AccessNote support this feature. The operation and features of Permanote are documented in what is unquestionably the most detailed manual accompanying any text editor I have tried. The manual is accessible in the “Settings” menu after pressing a button labeled “questionBTN,” an uncharacteristically cryptic designation when compared to Permanote’s otherwise clear VoiceOver labels.
It is understandable that advanced users will gravitate towards this multi-featured text editor, which is on a fast and progressive development track. Its logical interface makes it appealing to beginning users as well. There seems no question that development of Permanote will continue given the developer’s obvious motivation, customer support (he responded to my emails within hours), the professional praise this app has garnered and the abundant set of features it supports.
Developer: American Foundation for the Blind, Inc.
Version: 1.3.1 (May 26, 2016)
AccessNote App Store link
AccessNote is in a class by itself because it is the only text editor in the App Store specifically designed for VoiceOver users. It allows for text entry not only from the on-screen keyboard but also from a wireless or refreshable Braille keyboard, and it implements cursor tracking, very helpful in situations where the user must jump from one point of the text to another. It saves files in conventional “txt” format but can also import “brf” Braille files. It features an uncomplicated user interface which makes learning the app quite straightforward. Notes can be saved locally or synced to the user’s Dropbox account.
These advantages aside, I find this app package disappointing in that its documentation and implementation are sadly out of step. The current version, 1,3,1, ships with the user guide for Version 1.2, two versions back. A new user reading this guide, released in November, 2013, would have no way of knowing that the “Option” key, which used to be the modifier key for many useful QWERTY keyboard commands, was replaced in Version 1.2 by the “Command” key. There are other inconsistencies between the way the software actually operates as compared to expectations arising from reading the Version 1.2 guide. I first noticed this documentation lag with release of Version1.3, and I emailed the AccessNote developers but received no response. I was surprised to see this mis-step replicated in Version 1.3.1 especially because the app’s documentation claims the software is supposed to check for an updated guide when it is first opened after installation. I emailed the developer again and, at the time of this writing, have received no reply. It is possible to obtain the guide for Version 1.3 via the Internet. The URL is http://www.afb.org/info/living-with-vision-loss/using-technology/download-afbs-apps/accessnote/accessnote-quick-start-guide/12345. There does not seem to be a guide for Version 1.3.1, which, to be fair, differs from 1.3 only in that a search bar bug was fixed. I admit I have not used this app extensively, but I am concerned with credible reports from users more experienced than I who have noted bugs and sluggish behavior from this app.
The opening screen is uncomplicated. The user starts in the “All Notes” area and is given choices of syncing all notes to Dropbox, adding a new note, or searching across all notes. The list of saved notes is also conveniently available on this opening screen. Along the bottom are the “All Notes,” “Favorites,” “Settings,” and “Help” tabs. Although AccessNote does not allow notes to be stored in multiple folders, it allows the user to save a note in “Favorites” a special compartment in the app but not actually a Dropbox sub-folder, which can be quickly accessed via the second tab. By default, AccessNote creates a folder called “Apps” and a sub-folder under it called “AFB_Accessnote” for note storage. AccessNote remembers the last note edited and, if the app is closed and re-opened, AccessNote should remember the point at which the last edit occurred and place the insertion point there.
Once a note is opened for editing, the user can either edit the text or switch to “Review Mode,” which locks the text from being changed, a useful scenario if one simply wants to read the text without running the risk of making unwanted alterations. A “Note Actions” button allows for the deletion of a note as well as searching its text, emailing it as text or attachment, or toggling it into or out of the “Favorites” area. There is no “Cancel” button despite the guide’s claim, making it necessary to perform the VoiceOver “scrub” action to back out of the menu. The user guide claims there are also “rename” and “print” options, but this is not the case. Fortunately, there is a command the user can issue from a wireless keyboard allowing for renaming, but there is no way to perform this function from the on-screen keyboard. When a note is saved, it is not automatically synced to Dropbox, making it necessary for the user to perform this function manually via the “Sync all notes to Dropbox” command.
The “Settings” menu, although not rich in choices, offers very sensible options such as changing or disabling tilt sensitivity affecting which note is focused in “Review Mode,” toggling spell check, sorting notes, and disabling Dropbox linking. Users who want Markdown support or a special characters row on the screen will not find these options in AccessNote.
The most useful feature of AccessNote for some users may be the letter commands executed in conjunction with the “Command” key when a wireless keyboard is used. Commands can be typed at any point, between notes or in the middle of a note. Using these two-key combinations, the user can create a new note, fined text, rename a note, go to the previous or next note, read selected text, and read the title of the note as well as perform other functions. The set of iOS Bluetooth keyboard commands is also supported as well as “Chord” commands if a refreshable Braille keyboard is being used.
AccessNote offers a simple note-taking app that fills a gap in software for VoiceOver users, and AFB is to be commended for its pioneering efforts. However, for this writer, the app is on a slow, sporadic, and unpromising development track. Too many loose ends, questionable customer support, unreliable documentation, and the absence of features such as Markdown support, implementation of special characters, and a lack of auto-syncing to Dropbox are but a few examples of areas that need work.
I reiterate that this guide could have been expanded. When I wrote its first version, I had no idea that iOS text editors would become as advanced as they are now. If you are the type of person who wallows in searching through the underbrush of the App Store software, you will enjoy your romp into the text editor jungle. This article is meant as a safe and, I hope, helpful alternative to your undertaking this daunting endeavor.