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.

 iA Writer 5: When you want words without fuss was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

This year’s premium phones are better equipped and more powerful than most PCs. They also tend to be more expensive.

Phones have been pocketable personal computers for four or five years now. For most of that time their productive capacity has been on a par with desktops and laptops.

While there was no dramatic gear shift in 2017, the performance gap widened. It’s now at the point where there is no longer any doubt about the epicentre of personal computer power.

For most people, in most walks of life, the phone is by far the dominant device.

Smart than your average

Some still call them smartphones. Yet smart seems redundant when few people in rich countries carry non-smart phones.

Even the low-cost not-so-smart phones on sale in supermarkets, dairies and petrol stations meet everyday needs.

You still need a personal computer for heavy lifting. It’s one thing to provide a quick email answer on a phone. Creating a marketing report or writing a thesis needs a bigger screen and a keyboard.

That’s where desktop and laptop computers still rule. Although devices like Apple’s iPad Pro nip at the margins of those applications.

More personal

People often overlook something else about phones. Phones are far more personal than personal computers. You can share a PC with others — tools like desktop virtualisation mean some computers are less personal than others.

Most of us are far less inclined to share our phones and other people are less likely to ask or expect it.

Gung-ho technology enthusiasts get starry-eyed about the idea of wearable computers. They may yet be a serious alternative. But for now, phones perform the same role. They are close to us most of the time. Attaching them to our wrists wouldn’t change things much.

And they are intimate devices. Few of us are far from our phones for long. They go with us everywhere. Chances are, that you’re reading this on a phone and not a PC screen.

This means buying a phone is an important decision; the most important personal technology decision you make.

I’ll leave it to you whether you choose an Android or an iPhone. In general I’ve no sage advice recommending one over the other. If you use Apple computers or an iPod, then an iPhone makes sense. If you’ve invested in iTunes music or apps, then an iPhone makes more sense than an Android.

Likewise if you’ve invested in Android software or in Google, you might do better with Android. Windows fans can go either way.

Which to buy?

People often ask me which specific phones they should buy. Here I can help with more direct, practical advice, even if I don’t name names.

Buy a phone that you can afford. Don’t stress your budget to have the latest or greatest model. Don’t feel you need to update every year or even every two years. Many three or four-year old phones are often good enough for most purposes.

Look after your device; it should go on doing whatever it did when you first bought it for its entire physical life. You may have to forego software or operating system updates towards the end of its lifespan.

If you are upgrading, get the most powerful processor and the most storage you can afford. If money is tight, compromise elsewhere before skimping on these features. Android users can often buy phones with a nominal amount storage and add a memory card.

While Apple and Samsung phones are, in general, a cut about their rivals, all the well-known brands are good. Sony is often overlooked, but the phones are great. The new Nokia models seem fine, although it’s too soon to say for certain. Huawei is solid. Oppo phones are cheaper, but are not second-rate.

Most technology writers assume readers have unlimited budgets. I’ve always been aware than paying the thick end of $2000 for a phone is beyond many people. You can find many bargains for half that amount.

Even phones costing a third of that price tend to be worthwhile. Apple fans can pick up an iPhone SE for NZ$600. There are many solid Android options at around this price.

There are no bad premium phones at the moment. And life in the second rung isn’t too shabby.

Also on:

Phone buyers tend to stick with their choices for the long-haul.
More than nine-out-of-ten iPhone owners pick another Apple phone.

Android owners move between brands. Even so, they are more likely to buy another Android than switch to Apple.

Staying put makes sense. We have a lot of money, time and energy tied-up in our apps, music, other media and services. Moving from one phone to another can be a wrench.

It can also mean more expense than the cost of buying new phone hardware.

Apple users tend to spend more on everything phone-related than Android owners. They buy more apps, services and music. That is a form of lock-in.

apple iphone 7 plus

Learning

Even if you didn’t spend much money on extras, you spent time learning to use your phone. Switch brands and the learning starts all over again. Some people enjoy that. Many do not. Yet this learning amounts to another investment. It is also a different kind of lock-in.

Don’t discount lock-in. It can be significant. Lock-in is a form of inertia which adds friction to moving between phones.

It means you need to be unhappy or desperate to consider a switch. Moving phones is not something you should do lightly.

One reason Apple owners move to Android is money. On the surface it looks like you can save money by switching.

Take care with that line of thinking. The money you save buying a cheaper Android phone may be less than your investment in everything iOS. Don’t discount the time cost it takes to adjust to a new phone, or the cost of lower productivity.

In the real world, we should talk about perceived savings when switching phones.

Let’s assume you’ve decided you can’t live with Apple any longer. You’ve thought through the financial and productivity implications.

You’ve decided to move to Android. What should you look for? Which brands will give you the best Android experience and what traps can you avoid?

Bewildering choice

The first big difference between Apple and Android is choice. Most Android phone models come in a bewildering array of variations. Phones often have cheaper lite version. Some are small versions of large screen premium models. Others have less processing power or built-in storage.

Another difference is that the main Android phone brands have more than one range. Vodafone New Zealand lists 10 distinct Samsung phone models from the Galaxy S8 to the Galaxy J1. 2degrees has 12 Samsung choices. There are five Huawei models and three Sony phones at Vodafone. 2degrees has five Huawei and one Sony phone.

In New Zealand, iPhone 7 prices run from NZ$1200 to $1829 for the 7 Plus. That top iPhone costs 20 percent more than the most expensive Android phone on sale here at the moment. That’s Samsung’s $1500 Galaxy S8 Plus.

Samsung Galaxy S8 Midnight Black

As a rule iPhone users will be more interested in the premium Android phones. Prices are not that far behind Apple. If you need to save money, head further downmarket.

That doesn’t mean rock bottom. You can save a lot more than 20 percent on the price and still get a decent Android phone. At $700 the Oppo R9s is less than 40 percent of the price of an iPhone 7 Plus.

Direct comparisons with Apple’s phone are not fair. They don’t compared on features or functionality. Yet, if you choose an R9s you’ll get a lot of change from the price of a basic iPhone 7. That’s a lot of money to spend on apps, music or elsewhere.

Oppo is an Android phone brand where Apple users will feel more at home than, say, Samsung.

While the R9s is not an iPhone knock-off, its design borrows much from Apple. In low light you might mistake it for an iPhone. Make that in low light and after a few drinks.

Skin deep

Many Android phone brands load a software skin on top of the Android operating system. Oppo’s software skin has a distinct iOS look. It seems familiar. That’s about where the comparisons end. You won’t mistake the R9s for an iPhone in use.

There are compromises moving to a low-cost Android. Cheaper phones don’t do as much. For many people the most noticeable difference is in the camera. Although the Oppo R9s has a great camera for a $700 phone, it doesn’t hold a candle to iPhone. Nor is Oppo’s camera software as easy to use as Apple’s.

If you don’t care for photography, this won’t matter. If you do, then you could save a decent amount of money towards paying for your next digital SLR.

You will find the R9s doesn’t feel as nice in the hand and it takes longer to perform some tasks than the iPhone. The screen isn’t as good either. While this is often harder to notice on a conscious level, it will register with your brain at some level.

If you use phones for social media more than anything else, these deficiencies may not matter. If your phone is where you get most of your work done, you may want to invest in a more powerful alternative to Apple.

Samsung, the obvious choice

For years pundits have written about Samsung’s iPhone killers. That’s a ridiculous cliche. And a crass, clickbait-driven line of thinking. Samsung is the one Android phone maker you could describe as Apple’s rival1.

Like Apple, Samsung makes beautiful hardware. Like Apple, the company innovates. While Samsung fans argue the brand innovates more than Apple, comparisons are meaningless. The two brands exist in parallel universes.

Still, the Galaxy S8 has to be at the top of any iPhone alternative list.

Huawei, Sony

Huawei is number three in market share. The company plays leap-frog with Samsung when it comes to who has the best premium Android phone. For a while earlier this year, the Huawei Mate 9 Pro was top dog.

Sony also makes great Android phones. The company doesn’t have the market share or the presence it deserves in New Zealand. That makes it a less obvious choice.

Departing from iPhone expectations

Once a year Apple announces new iPhone models and updates the iOS operating system. As a rule of thumb you can upgrade every Apple phone from the last couple of years to the new software without a hitch. It gets trickier with older iPhones. One more than four years old might not make the transition.

In practice, almost every iPhone owner will make the update soon the software release. The only exceptions are where key apps don’t work with the new iOS. Users may decide they’d rather have that app than new operating system features.

Google updates Android software on a similar schedule. Android phone users often don’t get to upgrade their software. Some phone makers are slack about Android updates. Huawei is notorious for this, but others can be as guilty. Even the ones who make update can be slow and they may not update all models at the same time.

The upshot is that many Android phone owners are on older versions of the phone operating system. This can be confusing.

Distribution of Android operating systems used by Android phone owners in May 2017, by platform version
Distribution of Android operating systems used by Android phone owners in May 2017, by platform version

Take a look at this graph from Statista. It shows the distribution of operating system versions in use in May 2017. Only seven percent are on the latest, Nougat, version of Android.

Around a third are on the previous version. About a third are on the last-but-one version. That’s a more than two-year old operating system. The remaining users are on even earlier versions.

Fragmented Android

Apart from anything else, this fragmentation spills over in to the app world. It can be a source of friction with long-time Android users although some swear it doesn’t bother them. It’s something that will confuse many people moving from Apple.

If this bothers you, but you’re committed to Android, consider buying a Google Pixel phone. Google manages the Pixel brand itself. It means you’re guaranteed to get the purest Android experience. You’ll also get timely software updates soon after Google releases the new code.

Pixel phones can be hard to find in New Zealand, although some stores stock them. They’re not cheap, expect to pay around NZ$1300.

Like it says at the top of this post, you need a good reason to move from one phone operating system to another. The transition can be painless, it may even be trouble free. Only you can decide if the cost and effort makes the move worthwhile.

Similar issues confront an Android user switching to Apple. Some people make the move without a single glance back. Others pine for a feature that Apple doesn’t offer or doesn’t do as well as on the Android phone. It’s something of a lottery.


  1. Samsung may sell more phones that Apple. But Apple makes the real money. This is not a volume game. ↩︎
Also on:

10.5-inch iPad ProThere’s something about the screen of the new 10.5-inch iPad Pro that feels immediately novel but quickly becomes normal, and something that seems obvious at first but reveals itself as a deeper change after a few days. As a heavy user of the 12.9” iPad Pro, I’ve been pleasantly deceived by this new iPad, and […]

Source: The 10.5” iPad Pro: Future-Proof – MacStories

At MacStories Federico Viticci writes an early review of the new 10.5-inch iPad Pro. I hope to get my hands on Apple’s new tablet soon.

This feels like the computer I’ve been waiting for.

Since Christmas the older 9.7-inch iPad Pro has played an ever increasing role in my day-to-day work. I’ve switched to travelling with the iPad Pro instead of the MacBook on short trips. One added bonus is you don’t need to get it out of your bag for airport security inspections.

The iPad Pro is a more frequent companion when I’m working in town at client offices or in cafes.

10.5-inch iPad Pro more computer-like

MacOs is still essential when I’m away for more than a night or two. But that may not be the case when the new version of iOS arrives. Apple has included improvements which make the iPad more computer-like. Almost all the software I need to work is available on iOS.

My only gripe is that I make a lot more typos when using the WordPress iOS app than with my normal blog workflow. Entering text isn’t a problem, proof-reading is. If my eyes are not working properly I can’t always read the tiny text. Enlarging the text in the app is not an option.

Moving from a 9.7-inch to a 10.5-inch display means there’s about 17 percent more screen. That may or may not be enough to make a  difference when reading, but it will make a difference with other tasks. The higher 120Hz screen refresh rate should also help.

I do a lot of typing on the iPad’s glass screen. The bigger screen will help this. Early reports say the performance is great too.

Viticci’s review only tells part of the story. We won’t really know how good the new iPad Pro is until the iOS update. But on what I’ve seen so far, the combination looks enticing.

iPad Pro 10

“You like the iPad because it’s simple. But if you’re using the iPad as your primary computer, you may just like it because it’s a challenge.”

Watts Martin hits a nerve writing iPad-only is the new desktop Linux.

Martin says people who use only iPads for their computing do it because it’s a challenge. He says: “Figuring things out is part of the allure”. This, he says, is just like things were — maybe they still are — with desktop Linux.

When desktop Linux roared

Remember desktop Linux? Kids ask your parents. It was huge in the late 1990s and peaked around the year 2000.

At the time many thought Linux would replace Microsoft Windows for day-to-day desktop computing. Although a handful of organizations imposed it on their workers, It never got beyond being a fringe freak show. Yet it shook Microsoft and had a widespread effect on commercial PC software.

Desktop Linux was hard work. There were practical reasons to use it. Linux needed fewer computing resources, it would work well on older, cheaper computers. Eventually Microsoft responded by trimming the fat on its software.

Free and open

Linux fans would find political or philosophical justifications for choosing a more difficult personal computing path. They’d talk about it being free, about how it was open source and so on.

One common idea at the time was that Linux forced users to get down and dirty with how computers worked at a basic level. This,  the theory says, increases people’s understanding of computing. The knowledge would, in turn, make them safer and more productive.

This idea sounds great until you realise it takes a day to recompile an obscure but necessary piece of code that everything depends on.

Freedom has a price

While the freedom to tinker aspect of Linux could be useful. More often it was a terrible time sink. You could spend hours or days down software rabbit holes.

Desktop Linux was more difficult than Windows or Apple’s operating system. Maybe it didn’t challenge developers so much. They spend all day using esoteric commands and compiling code. But for those of us with little coding experience, desktop Linux was challenging. At times it was an ordeal.

Martin writes:

Don’t deny it, folks who prefer the iPad to the Mac or PC: you like the challenge. It was awesome to check out and edit files in my company’s Github repo and make a pull request, all from the iPad.

Myke Hurley made an observation on his Analog(ue) podcast that even if you could prove that a given task was easier on the Mac, he’d still rather do it on his iPad because it’s just more fun. I absolutely get that.

Pioneering

Now, this is fine. There’s nothing wrong with people choosing difficult paths. They are pioneers, they find ways through the thickets for the rest of us to follow.

One of the reason that OS X is so good today is Apple built it on FreeBSD. OS X stands on the shoulders of open source giants.

FreeBSD isn’t Linux, but the two have a lot in common. Both are Unix-based and both are open source. Many commands are similar. Hacking around in the OS X terminal is a piece of cake for anyone who mastered Linux.

Tweakers of the world unite

Moreover, open source pioneers wrote and tweaked a lot of code powering modern desktops.

Some of today’s iPad-only pioneers may be developers who fix code. It’s unlikely they’ll fix or improve iOS because it is a proprietary operating system.

Even so, they will be helping to find ways through technical thickets for the rest of us to follow later. They’ll figure out how to cope with, say, the iPad’s lack of a formal file system. They’re more likely to be writing useful new apps than parts of the underlying system.

What’s more, they’ll won’t all be passive consumers of technology. Many will submit bug reports and feature requests to Apple’s developers. We’ll get better tablets and tablet software thanks to them.

So while Martin is right about iPad-only pioneers doing it for the challenge, their curiosity and exploration isn’t a waste of time. iPads and other tablets are the future of personal computing, it may take years until they are the mainstream, but the pioneers will help us get there sooner.