iA Writer 5.2 Macos white screenLeft to my own devices I prefer to use iA Writer over any other writing tool. It’s been my main word processor for the past seven years.

This might sound odd because iA Writer isn’t a word processor. It is a simple text editor app that runs on both iOS and MacOS. I have installed it on my MacBook, iPad and iPhone.

Late last year the software was updated to version 5.2. While iA Writer was already my favourite writing tool, the newest version makes for a better experience.

That’s because the update addresses the one aspect of the software I wasn’t comfortable with.

Stripped down

Unlike word processors and other fancy writing tools, iA Writer has a stripped down interface. I’m using it now to write this post on my Mac.

All I can see on the display is the Mac’s built-in menu bar across the top. A blank screen that I’m filling with my words and a small status bar at the bottom of the display. It’s the nearest digital equivalent to writing with a manual typewriter on a blank sheet of paper.

If that’s too much, you can enter a full screen mode and the menu bar disappears from sight. There’s also a focus mode that can hide everything except the paragraph or sentence you are working on.

No fiddling with iA Writer

This simplicity allows me to focus on writing. There’s a wonderful passage of text written by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams where he describes the creative ways he prevaricates with his work. It involves tinkering with fonts, type sizes, widths and so on.

The mere presence of all those options can be a distraction. iA Writer does away with it. As every long-term Apple user understands, restricting your options can boost productivity.

While, on one level, this iA Writer approach has always worked well for me, it has, at times been a problem. In the earlier versions of the software those choices were too restrictive. The text size was fixed and there was a strict monospace Courier-like typewriter typeface.

Legibility

Good in theory, but in practice we reached a point where I was struggling to read my text on the screen.

I have an eye problem and every so often have restricted vision, to get around it I need larger, clearer typefaces. When that wasn’t an option with iA Writer I found myself using different writing tools. The, now apparently defunct or neglected Byword was a solid alternative with variable fonts and text sizes.

iA Writer addressed these issues with the last two releases of the software. Version 5.2 builds on version 5. There are now three typeface choices: Mono, Duo and Quattro. As the names suggest the first is monospaced, the second uses up to two spaces and the third can use as many as four.

There’s a lot of nerdy material on the iA Writer website about fonts. It all boils down to the newer options making it much easier to read your words on the screen.

Uno, Duo… Quattro

The most recent typeface, Quattro combines the benefits of fixed and proportional spaced fonts. It is particularly easy on my eyes. Better still, it is legible if I need to read or write on a smaller screen, say an iPhone.

iA Writer has always done a good job of exporting to Microsoft Word. The latest version improves this functionality. If you want you can write documents with footnotes, tables or even inline images and convert them to Word .docx format. This is essential for my work as almost every client expects to see a Word document.

The software also integrates with other services. The only one I use all the time is the post to WordPress option. This was sometimes a little tricky with earlier versions of iA Writer but has been good since version four.

Sharing an iA Writer strength

You can also save documents as HTML, which is powerful when fixing web copy. As you might expect with a made-for-Apple app, iA Writer deals brilliantly with the internal Apple sharing functionality. They work well with the iOS Files app and on both operating systems with iCloud. One neat aspect of this is that I can draft a post on my Mac and then edit on an iPad or iPhone later. You can also link them both to Dropbox.

When I first purchased iA Writer for iOS, the price was, from memory, US$3. That was an introductory deal. It later moved to $5. Today it is US$9. The MacOS version has increased more in price, today it is US$29. Get it from the app store. You have to buy the app again when there’s a major upgrade, but the price is low enough for this to not be a deal breaker.

There is a US$20 Windows app and a free one for Android. There are trial versions at the iA Writer web site.

One last thing. iA Writer stores documents as plain text, but it uses Markdown formatting. This is a simple way of adding headers, bold, italics, hyperlinks and so on to you text. These show up in the text editor as punctuation marks. You can then create a preview to show how the document looks after converting it to HTML, Word format or whatever. It might sound off-putting, but in practice it’s easy to use.

iA Writer 5

Is iA Writer a text editor? Or is it a minimal word processor? The software is both and neither at the same time. It’s an elegant stripped down writing tool that’s perfect for 2018.

iA Writer starts from the premise that some writers focus on their words, not how they look on a page.

There are no distractions. The software has almost no moving parts. Words on a screen, that’s it. iA Writer feels the nearest thing to using paper in a typewriter and yet it is as modern as the iPhone X.

If you like your writing software flashy and complex go elsewhere. If you need to do tricky typographic work or lay out pages, this is not for you. It is a writer’s tool, pure and simple.

MacOS and iOS

There are versions of iA Writer for iOS, MacOS and Android. It works best with Apple kit. If you don’t use Apple hardware, the software is a good reason to change. If you have an iPad Pro, this would be a good time to invest in a keyboard, although iA Writer is fine if you write on a glass keyboard.

That’s because cloud is central to the software. You can store documents locally on a Mac, iPhone or iPad, but why would you when you can save them the cloud and have them sync between devices.

This works so well that you can type away on, say, a MacBook, race out the door and pick up from where you left off on an iPhone.

The app-OS-hardware integration has only improved with Apple’s recent move to iOS 11.

A breeze compared to Word, Pages

Of course you can do much the same with, say, Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. Up to a point.

Word is a hefty MacOS app. It rarely starts without checking to see if there is a software update — usually once a week. Often you’ll need to wait 15 minutes or so before working while Microsoft handles the latest updates to all the Office apps.

Even when there are no updates Word is not instant on. iA Writer is ready immediately. Often a Word work session starts with something other than jumping straight into writing. Maybe you need to find the right fonts or styles. There are always things to fuss over.

With iA Writer you are ready to go almost from the moment you click the app’s icon. There is nothing to fuss over. Almost no possible choices to make.

Focus

The idea behind iA Writer isn’t new. A decade ago there were minimalist word processors and writing tools for Macs and PCs. You may recall WriteRoom or Q10.

There were others. And if you didn’t want a special app, there were the basic text editors shipped with operating systems and tools derived from the Linux or Unix text editors. Even the MS-Dos versions of Word Perfect were minimal in this way. So were older programs like WordStar.

All of them attempted to keep out of your way. In place of a fancy user interface and menus full of esoteric commands, they relied on the user learning a few standard codes. These were embedded among the words to handle things like bold text, heads and so on.

Markdown

iA Writer uses Markdown to do this. Markdown is simple and keeps out of the way. Type a single hash # character at the start of the line for a top level head, two hashes means second level head and so on. It takes seconds to learn a days to master.

One key difference between iA Writer and earlier simple writing tools is the beautiful integration with the hardware, software and cloud services.

It’s as if the the software developers digested the entire Apple less-is-more credo and spat it out as a perfect writing application. Perfect is not too strong a word here. Although this style of perfection may not be to your taste.

iA Writer’s rival

Only one other application comes close to iA Writer’s elegance and simplicity. The excellent Byword has its own minimalist aesthetic. It too is lightweight, simple and stays out of the way.

Unlike iA Writer which offers next to zero choices, Byword gives you some options. You can change a few things.

This may sound like a cop-out. It isn’t. I have a medical condition which means my eyes sometimes don’t work well. When I’m having bad eyesight days, I can’t adjust the iA Writer type to a bigger size, I can’t alter the font or screen colour to make reading easier. With Byword you can make these changes.

Subtle difference

The result is the two similar minimal writing tools have distinct personalities. They work for different types of use. iA Writer is all about the writing and precious little else. You can use it for complex writing jobs, but it works best for blog posts, putting down thoughts and things like journalism.

Byword is a touch more sophisticated. You can write a book or a 3000 long-form feature in either app. If you want something more, Byword is the first stop on the road from iA Writer to more complex tools like Apple Pages or Microsoft Word.

Efficient

There’s something else important about iA Writer and Byword. The two apps have an impact on the way you write. I find I can sit at a Mac or iPad and zip through a thousand words or so in quick time. This blog post will take less than an hour to write.

Between the minimal software and the Markdown editing language there is almost no reason to move your hands from the keyboard. That’s when you have one on a Mac or say with your iOS device.

With, say, Word, the composition part of the writing process takes longer. There’s more scrolling up and down the page. More distraction. Sure, you can make the words look pretty as you go, but that’s a barrier to getting the right words written efficiently.

Version 5

In November iA Writer reached version 5. It was a free upgrade to those who had earlier versions. There are changes. First the iOS version now works with the new iOS file system.

There are other changes which added functionality without adding complexity. One is that it is now easier to create tables in text.

iA Writer’s other big change is there is a new duospace font. Since the software first arrived there has been no choice other than a standard monospace, typewriter-style font. Now you can choose monospace or duospace.

This sounds like a big deal. In many ways it is. And yet, you’d hardly notice it. I knew I had set the new font in my preferences after downloading the update, but had to go back a moment ago to check I was using it. That’s how subtle it is.

Indeed, while typing away you hardly notice any of the improvements in the last seven years and five versions of iA Writer. That’s the whole point of a minimalist application.

You can find iA Writer in the app stores or visit the company’s website.

iPad Pro Writing

Apple says the iPad Pro is more powerful than most laptops. It is more portable. That should make it ideal for journalists and others who need to write while on the move.

How does the writing experience compare with PCs and is the software up to the job?

The sensible way to answer those questions is to give the device an extensive road test. Earlier this year I took the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and a Smart Keyboard on an overseas work trip[1].

iPad Pro on the road

On paper the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is everything a traveling journalist wants or needs. It is about the size and weight of a thick magazine. I had the cellular version which is 725 g. Apple’s Smart Keyboard adds little bulk or weight. Together they weight a fraction over a kilo.

Apple’s A9 processor packs a punch. This means software runs smooth, there’s never any waiting. No hiccups. Word processing and writing are never processor-intensive. Yet on cheaper underpowered tablets there can be an annoying, productivity-killing lag. I’ve used Android tablets where the lag means hardware and software can’t keep up with my typing.

Battery

The iPad Pro’s battery lasts all day. It has more than enough juice to get from, say, a ten-hour flight from Auckland to Singapore.

It lasts about ten hours use before the low-power alarm kicks in. Perhaps more. Writing isn’t as demanding as say, watching video. It isn’t something you do for hours at a stretch. The iPad sleeps when you pause. It does a wonderful job of managing the power on your behalf.

Being cautious, I packed the USB-to-lightning connector in my carry-on bag. This was useful later in the journey. When charging the iPad Pro drains a lot of power. Airline seat USB power sockets often don’t deliver much current. I found it was enough keep the device running, not enough to recharge the battery.

Despite the bigger screen, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro fits well on an airline tray table. Best of all, you don’t usually have to get it out of your traveling bag when going through airport security. On my journey I only had to unpack it once.

The screen is a joy

Apple gave the 12.9-inch iPad Pro a glorious big, bright and clear screen. It’s great for viewing video or looking at photographs. It comes into its own when writing. The display has 2732 x 2048 pixels, that makes for 264 pixels per inch.

Which means text is crisp and sharp even when small or if, for some reason, there’s a spindly typeface. If you’re so inclined you can use smaller text and fit more words on a screen. The screen is brighter and clearer than on most MacBooks. It’s also higher resolution.

This makes it easier on the eyes. I need to use reading glasses when typing on a laptop, but not on the iPad Pro. While that’s personal, it underlines the difference between the iPad Pro and alternatives.

Better displays pay off for writers more than you might imagine. Over the years I’ve learnt that it’s much harder to proofread on a display than on paper.

I noticed I do a better job finding errors in text on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro than on my MacBook Air. This is a huge productivity plus.

It’s not just a matter of screen resolution. The iPhone 6S Plus has a Retina display, yet it is the worst of the three for proof-reading.

Minor keyboard shortcomings

In practice the iPad Pro performs well. There are minor shortcomings, most are down to the keyboard. If the MacBook Air writing experience is ten out of ten, the iPad Pro would score a nine. This is still far better than most alternatives.

Apple’s Smart Keyboard is the same size as a normal computer keyboard and works in much the same way. At NZ$320 it’s expensive, but for serious writing work it’s essential.

The Smart Keyboard attaches to the iPad using something Apple calls a Smart Connector. This means, unlike Bluetooth keyboards you get a definite reliable connection. The keyboard draws power from the iPad, it doesn’t need it’s own power supply. There’s nothing extra to charge. And there are no extra cables to worry about. On a plus note, it is easy to detach when you finish writing.

Flowing words

While touch typIng is easy enough on the Smart Keyboard, the words don’t flow as well as on my MacBook Air. The keys are shallow. They’re easier to miss-hit, but that doesn’t happen so often that it becomes a problem. Most of the time, when the words are flowing there’s no need to reach up and touch the screen to scroll or do other things.

I ran in to a problem when for some reason, the keyboard would type a capital at the start of a word. I’m not sure if it happens with every app, but it does happen with more than one. The caps appear almost at random, I couldn’t find any pattern to it.

At times, maybe while editing, there’s a lot of moving the hand from the keyboard to the touch screen. This can stress the wrist more than using the touchpad on laptop. Chances are, like me, you’ll adapt and find ways to stay comfortable.

Touch typing

Touch typists usually don’t need to find keys in the dark. If you do, you’ll miss the MacBook Air’s keyboard backlighting.

You can’t adjust the screen angle which using the Smart Keyboard.  Laptops and the Microsoft Surface have an edge there. This can be a problem with some airline tray tables.

Keyboard aside, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro beats laptops for writing productivity. Unless you are using the split-screen feature, each app appears full-screen.

The other advantage of the iPad Pro is that it is less distracting. You can set up a laptop to keep interruptions and other distractions out of the way. Apple baked this into the iPad Pro by design. The advantages of the iPad Pro offset the disadvantage of the less than perfect keyboard. Of course, if you don’t like the Apple Smart Keyboard there are third-party alternatives.

Writing on glass

If you wish, you can ditch the attached keyboard and use the onscreen keyboard to type. This works well with the 12.9-inch model. Here the virtual keyboard is the same size as an everyday physical keyboard.

Lying the 12.9-inch iPad Pro flat and typing on the screen is easy enough. Because it is glass you get no feedback in your fingers. This makes touch typing tricky. Not impossible, but harder work than on a real keyboard. In practice typing is slower, but not much slower.

I tried this while on a flight. At first I laid the iPad Pro flat on the tray table in the landscape position to type on glass. Soon I found myself picking it up in the portrait position and using my thumbs to type. The bigger iPad is a little heavy to hold in your hands for extended periods. Typing with thumbs on while the screen is in the portrait position is comfortable for a short time. It might get tedious after an hour or so. Thumb typing works a lot better on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

The 9.7-inch version

It shares most of its technology with the larger version. Yet Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro[3] is a distinct writing experience. It is more portable again, which can be an advantage some of the time. On the other hand, the smaller size means the screen isn’t as good for longer writing projects.

You lose some, not all, of the proof-reading advantages you get from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro fine for writing emails and short pieces of text. Anything long gets tiresome. Having said that, I typed 1000-word stories holding in my hands and using my thumbs. It’s less productive than using a separate keyboard. But the added mobility and freedom can sometimes be a bigger benefit.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro can take photos without drawing too much attention. This is useful at, say, a press conference. Trying to take a picture with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro at a press event looks weird.

At the time of writing I haven’t been able to get an Apple Smart Keyboard for the smaller iPad Pro[4]. Instead I’ve been using the 9.7-inch iPad Pro with a Logitech Ultra-thin Keyboard Cover. This is a great keyboard for a smaller iPad, but the keys are cramped compared with the 12.9-inch model.

You can use the smaller iPad with a full-size keyboard, but you lose the portability benefits. One is to use the 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s screen keyboard or a keyboard cover while on the move. Then, plug the device into a bigger keyboard at home or in the office.

Writing on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro: Verdict

Many aspects of writing are software dependent. I haven’t mentioned them because I plan to write a separate post looking at the best iPad Pro writing apps.

Putting that to one side, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro writing experience is solid. The tablet has clear benefits over writing on a laptop like, say, the MacBook Air. The screen is better and there is less distraction.

The keyboard is worse than you’ll find on a decent laptop. This comes close to cancelling out the productivity benefits. Close, but not all the way to cancelling them. If you’re a busy keyboarder, you may feel otherwise. It is a matter of taste.

I rank the writing experience on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro at a nose ahead of working on my MacBook Air. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro comes in as runner-up, a short distance behind the MacBook Air.

Since returning from my trip I’ve taken to using the iPad Pro as my main writing tool. This speaks volumes. I find it faster and more efficient than the laptop. There are a few tasks that need, or that work better on my MacBook Air. Yet for my writing the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a better, more productive option.


  1. The Apple Pencil came for the ride, it didn’t get used for anything serious. I found handwriting recognition software. I’m keen to road test it, but I’m nervous about testing it on an important job without some form of back-up.  ↩
  2. One is coming. Look out for the review.  ↩

iPhone 6

There are times when even the lightest, slimmest laptop is more than you want to carry. And times when there’s not enough room to use a MacBook Air.

Earlier this month I tried to work with my 13-inch MacBook Air while flying in economy class. Although the tray-table had room for the computer, there wasn’t enough space to type.

Break out the iPhone 6 Plus

I’ve been using the iPhone 6 Plus for six months now. It’s a good size for two thumb typing. The text shows large enough to check your work, although that depends on the writing app you use at the time. Best of all, the screen shows enough words for you to understand the context of what you are writing.

The iPhone 6 Plus is the best writing tool that fits in a pocket. I’ve used it to edit, update or finish off news stories while traveling on Auckland buses and ferries or sitting in cafes. This was the first time, other than artificial review-style tests, when I needed to write long-form journalism on the phone.

Normally I find the iPhone 6 Plus is fine for emails, admin and short bursts of text, but prefer something with a physical keyboard for longer writing jobs.

There were deadlines to worry about so I decided to push the technology beyond my comfort zone. I wrote a lengthy feature, two news stories and two detailed article outlines during the flight.

Plenty of good iOS writing apps

There’s no shortage of iOS writing tools to choose from. I had five loaded on the phone. So I took the opportunity to try them all.

All my iOS writing apps have clean user interfaces and all work with OS X as well. That last point is important.

Byword is the cleanest, perhaps that’s why it is my favourite. I find the simplicity is well suited to iPhone two thumb typing. It uses Markdown to embed codes like bold or headline levels in what is otherwise plain text. Best of all Byword documents are easy to read while you are editing.

Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages iOS app performed just as well in the cramped conditions. It’s good to know serious productivity is possible in such circumstances.

Sideways scrolling with Google Docs

Google Docs didn’t do as well. It’s clean and straightforward, but I couldn’t discover how to restrict the page width on the phone, so found myself continually scrolling right to left and back again.

Maybe that’s avoidable. Sitting on a plane isn’t the best place to learn how to use unfamiliar software.

iA Writer is an old favourite that didn’t fare well as expected in my enforced iPhone writing test. Although the software works fine, I found the typewriter-like font it uses is difficult to read on the small screen.

Thumbs up to iPhone 6 Plus writing in an emergency

To my surprise I managed to write more than 1500 words with my thumbs during the journey. There was barely any physical discomfort, despite writing in such cramped conditions.

The onscreen keyboard wasn’t a problem. In practice I found using the keyboard in the portrait position, that’s holding the phone upright, worked far better. When you tip the iPhone 6 Plus on its side there’s a bigger onscreen keyboard with more keys, It was harder to use and took up too much of the display to be practical.

The biggest annoyance was constantly switching between the working document and reference notes.

When I got to my hotel thanks to the magic of Bluetooth, Continuity, WiFi and iCloud my iPhone output was available on my MacBook almost immediately. Microsoft’s OneDrive was the laggard at synching. It took minutes while iCloud and Google Docs took seconds.

Error prone after MacBook Air

Some of the work looked just fine. However, I noticed a couple of plane-written documents were riddled with typos and other errors. This has always been my experience with iPhones, they cope well with simple writing, but the small screen makes them imperfect tools for proofreading. I make a lot more errors than when I type on my MacBook Air keyboard.

The Google Docs document was in worst shape. I put that down to the horizontal scrolling problem. That made checking my work on the go next to impossible.

Lesson: iPhone writing works, not ideal

Overall I was happy with the experience. Battery life wasn’t an issue, there were no ergonomic headaches, the device worked well in the circumstances. About an hour into the experiment I wondered if an external Bluetooth keyboard would help my productivity. An hour later I was convinced that wouldn’t solve anything and would undermine the usefulness of a writing device that fits in a pocket.

I didn’t get as much done as I might have done with the MacBook Air. But I got far more done that if I read a magazine or watched in-flight movies.

Better still, I managed to hit the deadlines. That wouldn’t have been possible without the iPhone 6 Plus. I estimate I worked at about three-quarters my normal speed, allow a bit more for the extra corrections needed and that’s still a productive flight.

Writing on Apple computers has evolved since I looked at Mac writing apps in September 2013.

One change is Continuity: part of iOS 8 and OS X 10.10. In Apple’s words “Continuity seamlessly links documents” on different Apple devices. It means you can move between devices while writing or editing a document without losing a beat. You could start writing on a Mac, continue on an iPad and polish on an iPhone.

Not every writing app handles Continuity at the time of writing. Some app developers say they promise to include it in future upgrades. I guess the others will follow.

As you’d expect Continuity already works well with Apple’s Pages word processor.

Apple Pages 5.5

Pages has been through a major update since last year’s Mac writing tools round-up. Although Pages 5 shares a name with the earlier Pages ’09 and key elements are familiar, the code is all new. It has been rewritten from the ground up.

Apple Pages 5.5
Apple Pages 5.5

When it first appeared, Pages was as much about page layout as writing. There’s still a whiff of that. You can design great looking documents if that’s what you want from your writing tools. However, the move to Pages 5.0 means the application now works better as a more conventional word processor.

Compared to Microsoft Word:mac 2011, Pages 5 is stripped back.

That’s good for writers like me who prefer minimal word processing apps. Not everyone was happy when Apple first redesigned Pages because the company took out many of the more complex features, although some of these came back in a later refresh.

Mac, iPad, iPhone integration

Apple changes to Pages 5.0 — some critics call it ‘dumbing down’ — brought the desktop version more in-line with the iOS version.

That means if you have an iPad or an iPhone and a Mac, you can start writing something on your iPhone and polish it off later on the Mac. Or you can make last-minute edits to a document that started life on your Mac with your iPad.

You can do this with iCloud. Save documents in iCloud from one device, then open them from another. However, Continuity takes this a step further with  handoff between devices. You’ll need to set things up in advance, but once it is working it feels almost like magic.

Although I’ve only been using Continuity with Pages 5.5 for a little over a week, I’ve already noticed a huge productivity gain. If, say, I’m away from home and have an idea, I can jot down notes on the phone, then polish them into a story on my Mac. A client rang and asked for some changes to a document when I was at a press conference. Thanks to Continuity I could make the changes on the fly and resend within minutes.

Apple also added real-time collaboration in Pages 5.0. I’ve not used this other than to test it as I work alone, it brings Pages collaboration up to date with tools like Google Docs.

Since moving to Pages 5.0, Apple has moved fast, the 5.5 version arrived in less than a year. On a Mac it now looks a lot more like the new OS X 10.10 Yosemite. Apple added support for the iCloud Drive and made it easier to use Pages with Gmail and DropBox.

Before the 5.5 upgrade I found myself moving away from Pages to other writing apps. The new version has brought me back. That may change as the other apps catch up with Continuity.

Pages 5.5 is free to anyone who purchased an Apple computer after September 2013. Upgrading from an older version of Pages is free. For everyone else it costs US$25.

iCloud Pages

In May 2014 Apple updated the iCloud version of Pages as part of Apple’s iWork for iCloud suite. There’s still a beta label on the online word processor but it works fine.

Apple iCloud Pages 2014
Apple iCloud Pages 2014

iWorks competes head on with Google Apps and Microsoft’s Office for the Web. Unlike its rivals, Apple built iWorks from the ground up as an online suite. This means you get a more polished and streamlined experience, although perhaps not as many features as the more established suites. I’m comfortable with that, you might not be.

The extra polish is everywhere. iCloud Pages is more elegant than online rivals like Google Docs and Word for the web. By that, I don’t just mean pretty — although it does look good. iCloud Pages integrates more smoothly with the other cloud apps in the iWork suite. It’s also easier to use. I doubt anyone moving to iCloud Pages from another word processor will struggle to be instantly productive.

In practice the software is similar to the desktop version, with the same stripped-back minimalist feel.

Like the Pages 5.5 app, Apple has boosted iCloud Pages collaboration. Apple says more than 100 people can work on the same document at the same time. I doubt many projects will see 100 people sharing a document in this way. Nevertheless the update matches Google Drive’s collaboration.

Apple goes beyond Google or Microsoft by allowing cross device collaboration. You can have the same document open in desktop Pages, iCloud Pages and iOS Pages — a change made in any one of these will turn up immediately in the others.

Apple’s iWorks for Cloud is free.

While iCloud Pages is an excellent minimal word processor, it suffers from being, well, there’s no nice way of saying this, pointless.

Anyone thinking of using iCloud Pages will already have Pages installed on their computers and, possibly, also on their iPad and iPhone. Adding a cloud version to these versions doesn’t make much sense. I bookmarked iCloud Pages on my Mac when I first tested the app and found I never naturally returned between first testing the software and taking another look to write this round-up. On the other hand, it could be useful in an emergency, especially if I had to use a non-Apple device.

Microsoft Word:mac 2011

It has been four years since the last Apple version of Microsoft Office. Four years is a long time between software releases. This is now a fast-moving market, Apple Pages has been through two versions in the past year. Apple’s OS X and iOS operating systems get an annual overhaul. In recent years Microsoft has updated Windows at the same pace. Windows versions of Microsoft Office arrive about every three years.

Microsoft Word Mac OS X screen shot
Microsoft Word Mac OS X

Apart from a few tweaks Microsoft’s Word:mac 2011 hasn’t changed in the past four years. So the new version is overdue. Microsoft told me to expect an update in early 2014. Then I was told the second half of 2014. Now there are suggestions the next Mac Office upgrade will be in 2015.

The good news, is the late update means Microsoft should be able to have Continuity working when the next version of Word arrives. I suspect Microsoft is preparing a similar technology to use on Windows as well.

The most recent Windows version of Word has a cleaner user interface. Compared with earlier Mac versions of Word it does a better job of staying out of the way, letting writers focus more on words and less on word processor mechanics.

Even so, Word:mac 2011 now looks out of date compared to the Windows version and Apple’s Pages 5.5. For this reason Word is rarely my first choice. If I have a writing job that needs a heavy-duty Word session, I reboot the Macbook in Windows 8 and use Word 2013. It is worth the effort. Word 2013 sings and dances where Word:max 2011 plods.

It’s hard to avoid Microsoft Word, it is the standard. Clients expect to get documents in Word format.

Almost everyone buys Word as part of Office. These days that generally means a NZ$165 annual Office 365 Home subscription, although there is also a NZ$119 Office 365 Personal edition. I recommend the Home subscription, it means you can use Office on up to five PCs — useful if you have a family with school or university students. The subscription also includes phone and tablet versions of the software.

Word is the world’s most popular application after web browsers. Everyone knows it, everyone has come across it. I Some people love it. It is powerful and full-featured. Every imaginable formatting option is in there somewhere. It can be clumsy and confusing at times — just try to wrap text around an image on a page without cursing.

iA Writer

For a year or so Information Architect’s iA Writer was my favourite writing app. iA Writer is a text editor, not a word processor. It has few features. You can’t change fonts or text size. In use it doesn’t show bold text or italics. There is nothing there except your words. Even the title bar disappears when you start typing.

iA Writer Mac OS X
iA Writer Mac OS X

As I have written elsewhere, it’s the nearest thing to using an old-fashioned mechanical typewriter. It’s fast, it’s productive and it never gets in the way.

These are all reasons why I loved it. I used iA Writer for all my short form writing jobs. The lack of navigation cues make it impractical for long form writing.

Although I love minimalist writing tools, iA Writer’s brand of minimalism became a problem for me earlier this year when I started having eye problems. The app uses a thin, typewriter-style serif font. It has a fixed size and runs across a fixed width. These are to minimise the options and stop writers from being distracted: admirable goals.

However, in my case I found as my eyes got worse I struggled to read the text. Not being able to make adjustments went from being a plus to a minus overnight.

iA Writer allows minimal levels of mark-up using Markdown, you can transfer this text directly to other Markdown-supporting tools, like, say, WordPress or save your documents as .rtf, .html or .docx format. I often do the latter when writing for clients who prefer getting stories in Word format.

At the time of writing, iA Writer is on sale in the OS X app store for US$10. There’s also a iOS version. When I last checked iA Writer hasn’t been upgraded to use Continuity. This isn’t that big a deal — iA Writer mainly stores documents in the cloud either at iCloud or DropBox. So picking up where you left off isn’t difficult.

The last iA Writer upgrade was to version 1.5 in August 2013, so a new version is due. This may not happen as Information Architects, the company behind iA Writer released the US$20 iA Writer Pro late in 2013. This app now seems to be the company’s main focus. I haven’t tested the pro version yet.

Byword

There’s no such thing as a perfect writing app. And anyway, those of us who write for a living can’t get away with using just one tool. But if there was a perfect app and if I could use just one, Byword would be my choice.

Byword Markdown preview
Byword Markdown preview

I wrote a more comprehensive review of Byword earlier. It isn’t for everyone, but the writing app ticks all my boxes.

Byword has all the simplicity and minimalism of iA Writer. There are few distractions, almost nothing to tinker with And yet you can set up comfortable typefaces, type sizes and screen widths.

Like iA Writer, Byword lets you focus on your words, not how they look. That’s great for productivity. It also does Markdown. That’s useful, Markdown is a simple way of marking up text documents with information like heads, subheads, bold text and so on. Byword’s Markdown comes into its own when you use the Publish add-on to file stories directly to WordPress, Blogger or Tumblr.

No-one begrudges software developers making money from their apps. I’m happy to pay. I’m less sure about Byword’s price structure. You pay US$13 for the OS X app and another US$5 for the iOS app — there’s no discount for buying both. You need to stump up another US$5 so that each app can publish. That’s a total of US$33.

Byword is good value. I can see it makes sense to break out the publishing capability so those who don’t need it can get going for less. On the other hand, I’d have liked a buy everything for US$25 option. The pricing structure feels like a drip feed.

If you run Apple devices alongside your Mac investing in the iOS version is worthwhile. For now you’ll have to be content with moving between devices using iCloud, the software hasn’t been updated for Continuity yet. On the other hand, Byword works as well on a phone or a tablet as it does on a PC.

I now use Byword for almost all my writing. There are no obvious flaws and after two months of intensive use, I’ve not run into problems. Of all the writing apps I’ve looked at here, this is now my favourite, but it isn’t for everyone. You don’t get much handholding from the app and there’s little scope to pretty-up words before sending them off.

Google Docs

Google Docs is a sleek cloud-based word processor. It is the best tool for live collaboration. For years I used it as part of a remote team putting together a daily news report.

Google Docs
Google Docs

Although there are professional writers who swear by Google Docs — some are my friends — it always strikes me more as a tool for casual writers. Google seems to have put more effort into collaboration and functionality than into the user experience. So you’ll find there are fewer keyboard short cuts which means a lot more mouse work.

You’ll also find it harder to read or proofread documents. There’s less control over the way things appear on screen, so you can end up dealing with long lines of text stretching across the screen. It’s years since I first noticed a problem with zooming and it still hasn’t been fixed. I’m also nervous about privacy with Google Docs. None of that is good.

Some users don’t like the lack of features in Google Docs. This is a problem for a lot of writing tasks, but it’s never bothered me. A lot of the baggage in, say, Microsoft Word, gets in the way of my work.

Finding Google Docs is not as easy as it once was. The web writing app is now part of Google Drive — that’s where you’ll find it. Just to confuse things there are standalone Google Docs apps for iOS and Android.

However you get it, Google Docs is free. I barely use it except when I need to collaborate on a writing project. For any other task it is the least productive writing tool on the Mac. When it comes to the Chromebook, it rules supreme.

Writing apps missing in action:

Scrivener: A number of friends and readers swear by Scrivener. It looks like a specialist writing tool for people who like to work in a different way to me. I’m put off by the opening line in the iTunes description “powerful content-generation tool” which is both poncey and scary. Anyone who describes writing as ‘content’ misses the point.

Another negative is the Scrivener image on iTunes shows precisely the kind of clutter I need to get away from when writing. The asking price is a barrier too. Although NZ$56 is not expensive if Scrivener does what you need. I’ve not tried Scrivener yet. Hopefully that will change by the time I wrote my next update.

Marsedit also falls into the specialist category. The app is for desktop blogging. As with Scrivener, plenty of readers contacted me after my last wrap of Mac writing tools to sing Maredit’s praises.

I downloaded the trial and found although it works just fine, Marsedit does nothing for me. Apart from anything else, most of my writing isn’t for this blog. It would be a clumsy app for writing a case study or a white paper. When it comes to blogging, I’m comfortable typing directly into WordPress. If I had difficulties connecting to the internet it would be a useful tool for composing offline.

Marsedit is another cluttered app — they work better on big screen iMacs than on my MacBook Air.

ComWriter is another alternative that popped up after my earlier look at OS X writing apps. The app is aimed at academic writers. It has academic references baked in to the main software. Like the iCloud version of Pages and Google Docs, ComWriter is web-based. The basic package is free, you pay more to manage research libraries.