Spoiler alert! If you’re looking for a plain text editor you can’t go wrong with My Writing Nook or PlainText. Neither is perfect, but both offer synchronization features to back up your files, and allow you to focus on writing. And PlainText is free.
Last week was fish week. This week is text week.
Why, you might ask, would I spend more time on word processors when I’ve already reviewed so damn many of them?
All I can say is, there’s a reason there are so many of them floating around. It’s like fish apps. I didn’t scratch the surface of fish apps last week. For some reason people love digital fish.
They don’t like birds. You would think that with all the bird watchers out there you could find a dozen bird apps, but you can’t. The apps for birds are mostly reference apps and books. The only thing that resembles iQuarium, Koi Pond, Pocket Pond HD, iFishies or iFish Pond is something called Larry, the Talking Bird (or Talking Larry, the Talking Bird for iPad, which is about as redundant and circuitous as an app name can get).
Talking Larry, the Talking Bird for iPad, is not only redundant, is one of the few digital birds to compete with the fish apps.
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But Larry has a piano and mimics you. The app is about the talking, not the bird. And it turns out it’s not even a bird app, it’s actually a talking animal app. You can also get a cat, a hedgehog, a robot and T-Rex.
So texters have apps, fish lovers have apps, bird lovers are forgotten and forlorn. They can get Tap Birds, the airborne version of Tap Fish (reviewed Friday), but only for the iPhone. So until someone releases iAviary HD for the iPad, aviarians and amateur ornithologists will have to write developers on a plain text editor to request an app targeted to them.
In spite of what I said about bare bones editors on Tuesday, there is a difference between drafting and word processing. The idea behind drafting is to get words onto paper (or into bytes). Word processing is more concerned about how those words are formatted and presented. The principle behind drafting is to write something down because you can’t fix what isn’t there.
Some people outline, some people pour their hearts from their sleeves to the keyboard, some people start at the beginning, some people start at the point where they know they have something to say and add the beginning and ending later.
You can still use word processors for drafting, but if you find that you write the same thing over and over again in your drafts (product blurbs, HTML code, company information, standard disclaimers) it’s nice to use an app that stores that information elsewhere and let’s you insert it with a few keystrokes.
A few weeks ago I reviewed Text Expander the app that stores the information, and Tuesday I hedged on iA Writer because it didn’t use Text Expander. Today I want to look at two plain text editors that do.
Remember, these aren’t word processors. They create text and that’s all they do. The files are text files (.txt). If your editor displays in Times Roman, there’s no guarantee they will display in Times Roman when you open the file in Word or Pages. In fact, you probably won’t. And you will have to format manually when you do open them.
Both apps allow you to synchronize with an online server to back up your files and both support Apple’s external keyboards. The one thing they don’t do that iA Writer does, is offer a customized virtual keyboard to improve typing directly into your iPad.
My Writing Nook
My Writing Nook sounds almost too cozy to be an app writers would take seriously, but it does provide an excellent drafting tool. The interface is basic, one screen for your current file. In landscape mode, you can also see your available documents. In portrait mode, you have to open the documents window.
My Writing Nook is actually an extension of the web-based text editor with the same name. Once you create your My Writing Nook account, you can synchronize your files with your web account. You can also open them directly on the web from your home computer and make additional changes.
I should also stress that you should create your account immediately and synch always. I have had My Writing Nook crash irretrievably and when I reinstalled, all of the files I hadn’t synched were gone. In my case, this wasn’t a great tragedy because I copy and paste finished drafts into Pages or BlogPress. But a couple were partial files I was working on that day and that I forgot to synch.
Using My Writing Nook is straightforward. Click on the plus button to open the document and start typing. The first few words will become the default document title once you close the app (in case you forget to change the name yourself).
Unlike PlainText, My Writing Nook allows you to display your files in any font and size you want. It also has something called Dark and Stormy night mode which allows you to invert the screen and type in white on black. I don’t know why you would want dark and stormy night mode. It’s not like reading in the dark with a reverse screen, you’re typing in the dark as well, and the virtual keyboard doesn’t change.
You can also type in dark and stormy night mode, which may be the most superfluous feature I can think of.
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If you need to keep track of your word count, the total is always on display at the bottom of the screen, and the app provides an online dictionary and thesaurus. You can also email your text directly from My Writing Nook.
My former writing students will have read the word “thesaurus” and know what’s coming. If you think you need a thesaurus, you are precisely the writer who should avoid it. For one thing, teachers who still insist that writers can’t repeat words should have been forced to retire in the fifties. Hemingway proved them wrong.
More importantly, thesauri don’t discriminate between the appropriateness of synonyms. A porch and esplanade are pretty much the same. This is how I would get papers from students with sentences like, “Every morning my pappy would fish directly from the back esplanade of his cabin.”
The interface isn’t gorgeous. For some reason, it reminds me of those Big Chief tablets we used in grade school. I don’t know if they’re still around, but people my age will remember writing on paper with wood pulp still visible around some of the blue lines. But My Writing Nook seems to be going for a cozy look and feel, so the interface isn’t out of line. It simply makes the app feel like something your grandmother would use more than a professional.
One frustrating aspect of My Writing Nook is that you have to edit document titles in the document window. You can’t access them from the file window. This means you have to have the window open, click on the edit button, and then select the default title (“new”) to replace it.
Naming files is a clumsy process. You have to open an editing field, tap on text and only then can you change the name. With PlainText Editor, you simply add the new title.
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Readers should also be aware that the developer plans to release an update on Monday, including a name change. So many elements of this review may be addressed. If the changes are significant enough I may revisit the new version in the next year.
PlainText feels a lot like My Writing Nook except it looks sleeker and more professional. In many ways, it’s even more minimalist than My Writing Nook because you can’t change the font. You have the option of typing in full screen mode or with your files visible, no matter which orientation the iPad is in.
PlainText uses Dropbox to synch files, which means you can access them directly on your home computer and edit in your text editor or word processing software. The synch options allow you to see everything in your Dropbox folder, unlike some apps. The catch is you have to set your synch settings up before you synch. Otherwise you will lose everything not on your iPad when you try to reset.
If you want full folder access, configure PlainText before you synch the first time.
PlainText also allows you to view both the current files and your documents folder in both portrait and landscape mode. I’m ambivalent about this feature, but in order to hide the files they added a full screen mode. This allows you to block all other options out and focus on drafting.
You can also create nested folders to organize your files. This is probably the most appealing feature to me. When you write a lot of files, it’s nice to be able to organize them instead of poring through a long list. On the other hand, you have to look harder to find the files you want to delete, but I’m willing to live with that.
Nor do you have to edit file names in the file window. You can name and change the name of your documents right in the file window. You can also edit file and folder names simply by clicking on them. You don’t have to go through the gyrations required with My Writing Nook.
PlainText claims to have a word count feature on its app store page, but its not easy to find. After a couple of weeks I finally discovered it in the edit bar that pops up when you select and click on text (copy/paste/replace and now “words” with the word count). I’m sure they’ll make it easier to find in future releases after enough people complain.
Here’s what recommends PlainText over other text editors: It’s free. This doesn’t make it the better app, but it certainly weighs in it’s favor.
Poor undo features
The biggest weakness of both apps, a weakness shared with iA Writer, is the lack of an undo feature. If you’re working with the virtual keyboard there is none, but this may be better than typing Command + Z when the keyboard is attached.
The apps all recognize the undo command. But the undo can erase an arbitrary amount of text and you may lose several paragraphs. Since there is no standard “redo” command, you need to remember “Command + Shift + Z” to recover text deleted with the undo command (It’s “Command or Control + Y” in many apps). Since there’s no redo button, you’re stuck if you forgot how to recover.
Which to buy?
I asked the same question Tuesday, before I had seriously looked at PlainText for this review.2 It had been on my burner but I, like I suspect many readers, felt like the market was more than saturated and I didn’t want to crack open yet another editor (and trust me, there are several I’ve looked at that I haven’t reviewed yet).
But PlainText clearly deserves a review. I can’t recommend any of the three text editors (iA Writer, My Writing Nook and PlainText) we looked at this week above the others. That’s why I took the week to examine them together.
I have spent time with other text editing apps, including some that were far more expensive, and I’m going to recommend that you will be happy with one of these three. You just need to decide which features are most important for you. My Writing Nook is probably slightly easier to use, and iA Writer has a wonderful custom virtual keyboard. PlainText is free.
If you don’t want to spend money trying different text editors to find which is perfect for you, I guess that pushes PlainText to the front. But even if you pony up the money, you’ll be happy with the one you buy.
Jenny Manytoes rates My Writing Nook and PlainText
Jenny Manytoes would make biscuits all over both apps. Oh, wait, she’s making biscuits on me so I’ll stop typing and pay attention to her. I suspect you will make biscuits with either one.