iA Writer & Byword: iPad Writing for Minimalists

Since the release of the first iPad in 2010, writers of all sorts – bloggers, journalists and journal-keepers alike – have been using Apple’s tablet to take their writing even further.

To that end, developers have been looking to create apps with the post-PC era writer specifically in mind; apps that put the emphasis on simplicity, productivity, and focus rather than seeing who has the longest feature list. Byword and iA Writer are among the best of these apps for the 21st-century writer; jump past the break to see how these two apps compare to one another!

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When the iPad was first released, developers seemed to be in a race to see who could stuff the most features into a word processing app for the glass tablet. Now in year 3 of the iPad age, the opposite seems to be true: it’s a challenge to see who can be the most simple, most elegant, and most specialized. To that end, Byword is a wonderful addition to the burgeoning category of minimalist writing apps.

The Look

When it comes to the ins and outs of the Byword interface, there is not much to be said. I could probably write a longer article on the Byword icon than I could the byword interface. But when it comes to a minimalist writing app, less is always more.

Nothing but your writing.

The bulk of the Byword interface is dedicated to your writing space. In fact, aside from your keyboard and a blank typing space, the only interface elements are your list of documents accessible via the top-left, and a small list of preferences and export options in the top-right.

Your documents. And nothing else.

The Options

If you’re the type of user who expects their software to be as endlessly customizable as possible, then you are reading the wrong review.

Upon launch, Byword gives you the option of using Dropbox or iCloud to sync your documents across devices. You can come back and change sync preferences at any time, but my guess is that most people are pretty committed to their preferred sync solution.

How can we sync for you today?

Byword also gives you 4 great font options. While I was happy with the default font, I did feel at ease knowing I could switch to Helvetica at any time. Byword also gives you the option of enabling or disabling some of the default iOS keyboard features like auto-correction, auto-capitalization, and spell check.

Being able to disable these features without having to visit the iPad settings app was a nice touch. Byword even supports the popular TextExpander service, for those of us needing to quickly paste in common text macros.

Turn this stuff off. Or don't.

The Icing

As nothing more than a minimalistic writing app, Byword is great. But Byword also comes “out of the box” with robust support for Markdown, the quick-and-easy HTML markup language that has been gaining more and more traction among web writers. Byword supports a wide set of standard Markdown tags, and can even give you a live preview of your Markdown work.

Being able to see how my Markdown was going to come out was a very nice touch. Byword will even let you copy the full text of your document as fully-qualified HTML, letting you paste a properly formatted HTML document into any other iPad app that accepts raw HTML.

Send this where you need it.

The Overall Impressions

Byword was a great writing experience with some fantastic features for web-focused writers. It wasn’t without its troubles, however. I found the iCloud syncing to be shaky and unreliable during my testing, with some documents reverting back to older versions or refusing to sync properly and becoming inaccessible on my iPhone.

I also had a couple of instances where a document reverted to an older version or worse, disappeared altogether. The shaky sync made me a little nervous to try and work for long periods of time in the app, but the customer support I received from the developer more than made up for the issues I was having. They were responsive and understanding enough to make this app worth buying for the support alone.

Byword is available in the app store for $2.99. With its brilliant handling of Markdown, this app is to me the clear winner for web-focused writers. The level of customer support I received from the developers made me feel glad I spent the money.

iA Writer

The Look

I’m a huge fan of both Byword and iA Writer’s interfaces. There are lots of similarities in the two apps, but I found myself drawn more to the bright, white-space style of ia Writer than I was to the dark, sepia-themed look of Byword.

Both apps have beautiful interfaces, but I just found myself more drawn to the bright look of iA Writer. Again, the UI elements are kept to an absolute minimum in iA Writer, letting you spend the bulk of your time and energy writing instead of navigating through menus and windows.

It's very bright and beautiful in here.

Like Byword, accessing your files is as simple as clicking the icon in the top-left corner of the screen, as are options for exporting and creating new documents. The top right holds the word and character counter, as well as a button to activate the incredible Focus mode, which I’ll talk more about later.

The Options

Once again, the care and attention is on your writing itself, not the features you use to carry out that writing. iA Writer gives you the option of emailing out your work as a text file attachment, or just sending your text as the body of an email. I liked both options for being able to bounce drafts off fellow writers, as well as emailing attachments for safekeeping. You can also print your work via AirPrint, or just copy your text to the iPad clipboard.

These are the options. Choose well.

A very nice touch to iA Writer for iPad is the ability to switch the counter in the top-right corner from Word and Character count to Cursor and Reading time counters. This tells you how long it would take to read to where your cursor is currently, as well as how long to read your entire document. As a writer who is so used to thinking in terms of word counts, knowing about how long it would take an actual person to read my work was a huge eye-opener. I loved the focus put not just on the writer, but on the reader as well.

I loved so many things about the iA Writer interface, but the true cake-taker was the additional buttons found above the keyboard.

This is my new favorite keyboard.

Instead of having to continuously switch to the character menu using my iPad’s “123” button, iA Writer gives special shortcut buttons right above the regular keyboard for hyphen, apostrophe, colon and semicolon. There are also buttons to open and close quotations and parentheses and skip backward and forward one word at a time through your document. This made navigating back to typos and poorly-worded sentences a breeze, especially compared to the standard iOS “magnifying lens.” There are even buttons to skip forward or backward one character at a time, giving back to iPad users some of the functionality we gave up when we ditched the physical keyboard and arrow keys.

The Icing

The keyboard in iA Writer is the best I’ve ever used in an iPad app, with an obvious amount of care and effort put in to developing something useful, practical, and easy. But my favorite feature of iA Writer by far was Focus mode. By tapping the focus icon in the top-right of the screen, iA Writer blurs out everything in your document except the sentence you’re working on. As you type, space, and return, the focus constantly shifts to keep your attention on what you’re writing now, not what you wrote a minute ago. It made writing an absolute joy, even on a software keyboard on a glass screen.

With headphones in (and a little help from our friends Radiohead), I found myself feeling more concentrated than ever on what I was writing.

Focus. Focus. Focus.

The Overall Impressions

With a brilliantly restrained interface, fantastic features like Focus mode and the extra keyboard buttons, writing in iA Writer was plain and simply more fun and efficient writing than I’ve ever experienced. Add to the mix flawless iCloud sync that kept me perfectly up-to-date across my devices, and iA Writer is easily the best money I’ve spent in the App Store in years. I can’t wait to write even more using iA Writer.

iA Writer is available in the App Store as a universal app for only $1.99, and to me is a solid 9/10.

The Comparison

Both Byword and iA Writer have beautiful, minimalist interfaces, while Byword used a darker theme and iA Writer was bright as day.

iCloud sync worked flawlessly in iA Writer across the iPad, iPhone, and Mac versions of the application, while I had some pretty serious sync issues in Byword that even resulted in some lost work. If you plan on writing more than 500 words at one go, I found iA Writer to be more stable and reliable.

Byword’s Markdown support and utilization were just an absolute pleasure to use, especially the Copy to HTML function. If your focus is writing for the web, then Byword seems the better alternative; for me, I love blogging with Byword, but am without a doubt going to be using iA Writer for all of the drafts of a book project I’m working on.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on iA Writer and Byword in the comments, as well as your own suggestions for minimalistic, writing-focused apps. Thanks for reading!

  • Phillip

    Why no love for the extra keyboard keys in Byword?

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  • http://sbx.me Iestyn Lloyd

    Yeah, how come you didn’t mention the swipe feature for the strip above the keyboard on Byword? You didn’t miss that feature did you?

    • Sean Brage

      As embarrassing as it is to admit, yes I did! I’m so glad you brought it to my attention though! I was preoccupied playing with Markdown I suppose. So glad to see that feature!

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  • Pedro Lobo

    Personally I prefer the extended keyboard features on Byword because it takes up less screen real-estate. iAwriter takes up way to much in my opinion.

    • Sean Brage

      I like the smaller footprint as well, but I really miss the iAWriter punctuation shortcuts when I’m in Byword. Digging for apostrophes is what gets me!

  • Alex Satrapa

    Thank you for this review, and thank you especially to the commentators for pointing out that I have to swipe the strip where the word count is, in order to get to the supplemental keyboard :)

    I’ll have to let the Byword author know that I have a couple of issues, my main one at present is the lack of smart-quotes (or rather, the iAWriter style start-and-end quotes) and the way the split keyboard covers up what I’m writing when there’s less than two screens full of text (so I can’t scroll).

    • Sean Brage

      The smart quotes and smart parentheses were among my favorite features of iAWriter. I’m finding myself using Byword more now because of its more robust handling of Markdown, but for any kind of in-depth creative writing I’m still finding myself drawn back to iAWriter.

  • Ulf

    I am totally undecided. I love both apps for their individual strengths and always miss the feature the one has with the other.

    Byword is the gentle, warm, unobtrusive app, that always want’s me to write more beautiful – according to layout words and so on. I can better think with it and write in the sense of paragraphs and chapters.

    iA Writer on the other hand gives me the impression of getting things done. I write faster with it, not more elegant, but better structured, less prosaic. more lists and so on.

    I never thought that this would really be the point, but that is how I use them. And usually I want to write down my raw thoughts with iA Writer and then head on to Byword. So they have both their place on my devices.

    But – that is exactly not the way Apple want’s thinks to happen with iCloud. I want to use my .md-files with both apps, switching between them and so on. So I usually cannot decide which to use for writing.

    iA Writer feels an inch closer to a code editor, byword closer to a WYSIWYG-Word or Pages alike. I think this is why such a comparison like this and the one for the iPhone won’t help me further to decide which I should give the first place, but it helped me to reflect on how I use and why I use them as I do. So thanks for the reviews and I hope these reflections of mine help all those who have more than one place in their heart to share for a brilliant md-editor.

  • Sridhar Krishnan

    Thanks for the informative reviews. Can you suggest a good stylus that I can use with iA writer? I am looking for a simple alternative to my notebook for note taking. I want to be able to write nearly as smoothly as I wd in a notebook with little need for too many bells and whistles.


  • goran

    Hi, great review.
    I want recommend you “Essay Starter” (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/essay-starter/id593023126?mt=8).
    This is great iPad writing tool.