The iPad is a great platform for consuming various kinds of media, from books and films, to news and games. But working on the iPad, and for me that mostly means writing, has been something less than a stellar experience.
Part of the reason is that I find the electronic keyboard is a clumsy input device for any serious writer used to a full-sized keyboard; with its readily available punctuation and cursor-movement keys. It can also be a multistep process to get work into and out of the iPad. Uploading and downloading files with iTunes File Sharing works fine, but it’s hardly seamless, and the various ways different apps implement alternative syncing protocols can present its own headaches. Any writing app for the iPad is either saddled with these platform-based limitations, or must find ways to work around them.
The App Store’s Productivity category boasts a large number of writing apps, ranging in complexity from programs like Pages to much simpler plain-text writing and note-taking apps. These apps have different combinations of features, and most writers will find one that suits their particular writing needs. For me, though, I’ve yet to find an iPad writing app that makes me want to use the iPad for sustained writing sessions, and certainly not as an alternative to writing on my MacBook Pro.
It seemed that for the foreseeable future writing on the iPad would remain a chore, because it just wasn’t possible to overcome its platform and system software limitations to create a truly useful writing app. But ever hopeful and with curiosity piqued, I took the writing app plunge again when I learned about the newly-released version of WriteRoom from Hog Bay Software. I am happy to report that writing on the iPad has just gotten a lot better.
Read on to find out how WriteRoom manages to overcome the iPad’s operating quirks in clever and thoughtful ways that make it much more attractive as a serious writer’s tool.
Is WriteRoom Right for You?
WriteRoom is a Plain Text-only, full screen writing app. The recently released version 3.0, requiring iOS 4.0 or higher, is a universal app that can be installed not only on an iPad, but also on more recent models of the iPhone and iPhone Touch. Because WriteRoom is a Plain Text app, Rich Text options you might be used to, such as bold and italics, tables, paragraph formatting, and page layout, are not available.
However, WriteRoom does give you the option of choosing one of over 50 fonts to customize your writing space.
WriteRoom is also multilingual. I tested the app with Japanese, and it works flawlessly, enabling the inputting of both English and Japanese in the same line or sentence.
If you require formatting functionality beyond Plain Text, Hog Bay Software suggests in its own advertising that there are better choices than WriteRoom. I appreciate Hog Bay Software’s efforts to make make sure that people are making the right choice for their software needs when they purchase a Hog Bay app. Such integrity and transparency is refreshing. (Note that a separate Mac version of WriteRoom is also available and includes a choice of Rich Text or Plain Text writing. WriteRoom for iPad, however, won’t open a file with the .rtf file extension.)
For some, the lack of Rich Text might be a deal breaker, but not for me. I’ve never considered the iPad a particularly good platform for creating polished final drafts that require detailed formatting. Hog Bay Software characterizes WriteRoom with the tagline “Distraction free writing.”
Fiddling with formatting is a distraction. WriteRoom is designed for writing in a simplified environment in which one has access to a full screen that promotes concentration on the project at hand. WriteRoom can’t help much with the distractions that come from bad work habits, but if you are someone who wants your writing software to minimize software distractions, WriteRoom gets it right.
Working With WriteRoom
When you start up the app, you are presented with two panels: a Documents panel on the left and a right-side panel for writing in the file currently selected in the Documents panel.
Clicking on the Documents title allows you to either Rename a document or Sync All Now. It is the same setup whether you are working in portrait or landscape mode. Clicking on the right-hand side document title brings up a menu with these options:
- Word Count
- Sync All Now
When selected, Word Count tallies the number of words, paragraphs, and characters used.
There are four icons at the bottom of the Documents panel that provide access to additional functionality. The Settings icon brings up a list of user-configurable items.
It is here that you set up your Dropbox connection, adjust Fonts & Colors to your own aesthetic preferences, and link WriteRoom to TextExpander if you have it installed.
This is already a great deal of functionality, but there’s more: the Advanced selection in the Settings menu allows you to further tweak your WriteRoom experience. Among other options, you can customize document and folder sorting, require a 4-digit passcode in order to start up WriteRoom, and toggle Detect Links on and off. With Detect Links on, a simple tap takes you to the linked URL, calendar event, phone number, or e-mail.
The second Documents panel bottom icon allows you to search for a specific word or string throughout all the files you have created in WriteRoom. The third icon allows you to create Folders in the Documents panel so that you can organize documents by project or job or whatever you want. The fourth icon allows you to add a new file.
You can hide the Documents panel completely by clicking on an arrows icon at the bottom right of the right-side file panel. One less distraction if you so choose.
A really great feature of WriteRoom, and one that goes a long way toward rectifying the limitations of the iPad’s electronic keyboard, is an extended keyboard row that you can toggle on and off from the Advanced section in the Settings menu.
If you choose to use this feature, the extra row appears at the top of the keyboard. The extended keyboard row includes a TAB key and cursor forward and back keys. However, you get to decide what additional characters, up to a maximum of nine, to select for use in this row. This makes it particularly easy to make sure any punctuation you regularly use is just a tap away.
WriteRoom also works directly with the TextExpander utility, another way that WriteRoom makes it easy to input text. For those of you who might like WriteRoom’s functionality but really need a different keyboard option, I tested Apple’s Wireless Keyboard and it worked very well with the app.
The Print and Email commands make it easy to get your documents out of your iPad, but the real bonus is the completely seamless way in which WriteRoom syncs with Dropbox.
If you have a Dropbox account and you set up WriteRoom’s built in Dropbox sync to work with it, WriteRoom autosaves your docs to a Dropbox folder called “WriteRoom.” This is probably the slickest integration with Dropbox that I’ve seen. To test how this worked, I installed the iPhone version of WriteRoom. Files created on the iPad were available immediately in the Document panel on the iPhone version. There was no need open Dropbox itself to find the files and then load them into WriteRoom. It’s nicely done and saves time, one less distraction.
If you don’t use Dropbox, or just like distractions, you can use iTunes File Sharing to add and delete files. Be aware, though, that although WriteRoom folders are listed in iTunes File Sharing, iTunes won’t let you browse WriteRoom folders.
There is much to like about WriteRoom: it is a well-conceived and designed app that overcomes many of the iPad’s physical and system software limitations. There is, however, one aspect of WriteRoom’s user interface that I find rather clumsy.
Recall that the left side Documents panel can include not only individual files but also folders. There appears to be no way to move a pre-existing file into a folder. I wasn’t able to figure out a way to do so, and the Help files don’t mention this as an option. So, for instance, a top-level file can’t be later moved to a newly created folder. You need to create a new document in a pre-existing folder if that is where you want it.
There are a couple of work-arounds, however. You can easily copy the text from one document into a newly created one in the folder of choice. You can also drag and drop files and folders into their desired locations from within Dropbox itself. The changes show up immediately in WriteRoom. Hopefully this issue will be addressed in a WriteRoom update.
WriteRoom claims to provide a distraction free writing environment for the iPad, but does it succeed? In a word, yes. WriteRoom is an excellent iPad writing app, offering up a strong mix of intuitive application design, ease of use, and customizability.
Although there are some slight differences between WriteRoom installed on an iPhone instead of an iPad, the universal version nevertheless allows you to run WriteRoom on both iPhone and iPad for $4.99. This is a great deal for a great app. WriteRoom is available in the iTunes App Store.