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.

LibreOffice

LibreOffice 5.2, the free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office gets the job done. Yet there are compromises.

At a glance

For: Free. Open source. Feature rich. Runs on old hardware. Can open most document formats.
Against: Not as polished as paid-for alternatives. Lacks cloud integration. Inconsistent user interface.
Maybe: Comes with graphics app, equation editor and database. No Outlook-like mail client.
Verdict: All the power of Microsoft Office without the price tag or the polish.

What is LibreOffice?

LibreOffice 5.2 is an office suite that rivals Microsoft Office yet costs nothing. There are versions for Windows, OS X and Linux along with a portable edition that works from a USB drive.

If you’re on a tight budget and have a Windows PC, LibreOffice is by far the best alternative to Office. It is more complete than Google Apps and leaves Apache OpenOffice for dead.

OS X users have a good alternative free option. Apple’s iWorks suite is free with new Macs. Even so, you might prefer LibreOffice because it has better Microsoft Office compatibility.

LibreOffice looks and feels more like Microsoft Office than iWorks. If you know Microsoft Office, moving to LibreOffice will be less of a wrench. It also includes a database unlike either the OS X version of Microsoft Office or iWorks. If you need a simple database and have no budget, LibreOffice would be ideal.

Some Linux distributions include LibreOffice either as standard or as an optional download. It’s a more straightforward choice than using a tool like Wine to run Microsoft Office.

Free alternative

Because LibreOffice is open source there is no business model behind the software. You can donate — money and Bitcoin accepted — on the download page, but this is optional.

Other “free” software suites often extract a price from you in subtle ways. You may have to pay to unlock key functionality. With Google Docs, you agree to accept advertising and being a data collection source.

iWorks is free, but only when you spend well over $1000 on an Apple computer. That’s stretching the meaning of free. Some other free apps extract money from you later. There’s none of this with LibreOffice.

A full office suite

LibreOffice is among the most complete office suites, free or not. It includes more apps, functionality and features than every free alternative. LibreOffice almost matches the most popular paid version of Microsoft Office 365.

It doesn’t include a mail client like Outlook and there’s nothing like OneNote. That’s hardly an issue as there are good free alternatives from other sources.

When you download LibreOffice, you get all the apps in one package. There’s no piecemeal adding of components. Installation is straightforward. Office 365 installs components as separate apps. There is only a single LibreOffice entry point.

Writer:

Office suites include plenty of tools, but the word processor is fundamental. It’s the app everyone uses sooner or later.

Most people considering LibreOffice wonder about Writer’s compatibility with other word processors. It’s an understandable concern, but if anything, it’s misplaced. Writer is compatible with almost every popular word processor format. It reads everything. There are more converters than Microsoft Office including obscure and forgotten formats.

The other misunderstanding is that Writer doesn’t have all the features found in Word. Again, a misplaced concern. Few users come close to scratching Word’s surface. If there is a function missing in LibreOffice Writer, it is something almost no-one uses.

Clutter

While there’s nothing missing in Writer, the user interface isn’t as elegant as Word’s. It still looks old-fashioned in comparison.

Or perhaps we should say it looks desktop Linux-like.

Both Windows and OS X have made huge strides in their user interfaces over the past decade or so. The focus is on productivity and getting distractions out-of-the-way. Most Linux apps still have long menus. Sometimes nested menus. At times finding commands is hard until they become familiar.

Writer’s display shows clutter around the edge of the document. There is a top display of icons and a sidebar. There seem to be more menu items than in Word. The interface is busy. Perhaps too busy.

LibreOffice far from minimal

With Word you can hide almost everything to have clean, minimal workspace. That’s not the case with Writer. Not everyone prefers minimal displays. If you feel they help your productivity, you might do better elsewhere.

No doubt Linux fans reading this will wonder what the fuss is about. The technical ones will be more concerned about feature sets, more willing to learn and, well, more engaged with their software. They may think things are fine the way they are.

Yet if LibreOffice is to break out of this niche then it needs to improve in the UI department. Until that happens, everyday users are going to feel more comfortable with Microsoft Office. If LibreOffice doesn’t want to break out of the Linux niche, that’s fine too. There is a demand for its approach.

Calc

Every usability point made about Writer applies to LibreOffice’s spreadsheet. There is the same clutter. And the same functional richness. Excel fans and power users may find favourite features are missing. Yet Calc has all the necessary functions for most people’s needs.

While you can drop any Word document into Writer and know you’ll be able to work, that’s not true with Excel and Calc. There are small incompatibilities. A Word user can be productive in Writer straight away. An Excel user will take time adjusting to Calc and some won’t like the experience.

That said Calc is complete. It handles large, complex spreadsheets with ease.

Impress

Impress follows the pattern of Writer and Calc: plenty of functionality, the same screen clutter. Like Calc and Excel, loading complex Powerpoint files into Impress can disappoint. In testing it struggled with some Microsoft fonts. There are workarounds, but newcomers to LibreOffice may find this frustrating.

Base

Like Microsoft Office for Windows, LibreOffice includes a database. Base compares well with Access. Again, the user interface is not as polished. In performance terms the two are similar, experienced Access users could start working on Base projects immediately.

One reasons a Mac user might want LibreOffice is to run databases. Microsoft does not include Access in the OS X edition of Office 365.

While Microsoft Access has a proprietary feel, it integrates well with other Microsoft products. Base seems closer to open source databases like MySQL. It also appears to be a good, free way of getting into basic database development.

LibreOffice also includes Math an equation editor and Draw a graphics app. There is no Microsoft Outlook-like mail client. That’s not likely to bother most LibreOffice users. If you need a heavy-duty mail client, you should look elsewhere.

User interface

For years the user interface has been LibreOffice’s weak spot. Microsoft ironed out the inconsistencies in Office a decade ago. LibreOffice’s developers say the latest 5.2 version has brought interface improvements. But there are still places where things don’t work as you might expect.

This is clear the moment you open LibreOffice. The first screen you see is something called the StartCenter. Thumbnails of recent documents appear in the main windows and a list of folders and app icons appear in a left-hand column.

Click on Writer, Calc or any of the first five create document icons and a blank new document opens. Click on the sixth, for a Base database, and a wizard opens.

This may make perfect sense, but it’s not a consistent user interface. Close the document you’ve just created and the Startcenter is no longer there, you have to open it again from the main menu.

Missing polish

None of this is terrible. You’ll get by just fine. Yet it illustrates just what you pay for when you subscribe to Microsoft Office 365: you get polish.

That polish may feel cosmetic. Some readers may dismiss it as unimportant, but it’s the polish that makes many everyday users who spend a lot of time with office software more productive. It makes less confident users feel comfortable. Yet, many LibreOffice users will never notice.

There are some other odd or less than perfect behaviours. On a Mac, OS X will add LibreOffice as an option to the Open With menus. So you can right-click on, say, a text file in the Finder and open it in LibreOffice. Except it takes a long, long time to open. This happens regardless of the file format you’re opening. It seems the operating system is opening a new instance of the entire LibreOffice app.

Nothing to lose

Despite a handful of annoyances, LibreOffice has all the features most people are likely to need from an office suite and then some. The few missing features are for specialists.

It may lack surface polish, but under the hood the code seems solid and reliable. Performance is, on the whole, good too. There are annoyances, but not many and given the price, it would be churlish to complain.

If you don’t like Microsoft Office, are strapped for cash or have a philosophical objection to commercial software, LibreOffice won’t disappoint.

screen keyboard

David Sparks writes about writing with iPad screen keyboards after years of touch typing. Much of what he says resonates:

“It started with the iPad Air. On that machine I got quite good at thumb typing in portrait mode. It’s nothing like touch typing but still pretty great to sit on an airplane and thumb my way through an outline or a pile of email.”

Like Sparks, I started with light thumb-typing on my iPad 2. Nothing more than tweets and simple return email one-liners. When the lighter, slightly smaller iPad Air arrived I graduated to thumb-typing for longer stretches.

Using a real keyboard with an iPad

For anything more than a paragraph, I needed a physical keyboard. At least I thought so. Either I’d attach one of the many sample keyboards people had sent me to the iPad Air or I’d use the MacBook keyboard.

Sparks goes on:

“Speaking of airplanes, I recently took a flight where I was seated right between the window and a big guy that made pulling down the tray and using my iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard cover impossible.

“I had four hours on that plane and was determined not to thrown in the towel. So I placed the iPad on my lap and started typing. I then went into one of those hypnotic work-states that I often feel on airplanes and before I knew it the pilot announced we were about to land.”

This echoes my first serious glass typing session. I was on a plane. While crammed in economy I tapped out an entire feature on the iPad Air screen keyboard. Like Sparks I hit the writing zone and tapped into a familiar well of productivity but in an unfamiliar setting.

Phoning it in

Something similar happened with an iPhone 6 Plus. Although it worked at a pinch, the iPad is a far better writing device, even in a cramped space.

Unlike Sparks who found himself writing on screen with the larger iPad Pro, my typing-on-glass-while-flying epiphany was thumb-typing on an iPad Air held in the portrait position.

I’ve used the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in the way Sparks describes. It works for me. At a pinch I can also do the same on the 9.7-inch iPad if I lay it flat in the landscape orientation and use the larger size keyboard.

Trains and boats and planes

Yet, I’ve become so adept at portrait orientation thumb-typing, it’s now my preferred way of working on an iPad. I find it is perfect for planes. I’ve done the same on railway journeys, the Birkenhead-to-Auckland ferry and, less successful, while riding in an airport bus.

It works for me in airport lounges, cafes and even when I’m sitting in an office reception before a meeting or in a quiet room at a conference. Sometimes I’ll write this way sitting at home on the sofa. When I was recently in bed with ’flu, I managed to type a long-form newspaper feature this way.

I wouldn’t say it trumps writing on the MacBook Air using a full typewriter keyboard, but it isn’t far behind. By the way, I’m writing this blog post using the thumb and portrait mode technique on my 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The iPad keyboards are gathering dust.

Natural born killer technique

Writing this way on the iPad or iPad Pro now feels natural. At first thumb-typing was slow. Now I’m almost as fast as on a real keyboard. I’m a long-time touch typist, so my speeds there are good. Achieving something close on a glass keyboard surprised me.

Typing on the iPad screen is more, not less, accurate. The iPad’s built-in spell checker almost never comes into play. I’ve no idea why I mistype less characters on the glass screen, but it’s real.

Another observation. As a touch typist, I don’t look at the typewriter keys when writing. My focus is on the screen. When thumb typing on glass, I do look at the keyboard. The distance from the on-screen keyboard to the text is only a few millimetres, so I can check my output as I go.

Application independent

iPad thumb-typing works well with all writing apps. I wrote this blog post using Byword, now my favourite writing tool. I could equally have chosen Microsoft Word. Pages or iA Writer. They all work just fine.

In his post, Sparks says he still has pain points:

“Text selection is still far easier for me using a keyboard. Also, typing on glass at least once a day my finger accidentally hits the keyboard switch button which brings my work to a screeching halt. On that note if I were in charge, I’d make the keyboard selection button something where you had to press and hold to switch between keyboards.”

From manual typewriter to glass keyboard

I don’t have either of Sparks’ problems. I almost never use text selection during writing. I learnt to type on manual, paper-based typewriters. That means I’m disciplined about not constantly moving blocks of text.

My technique is to write, almost as a stream of consciousness. Years of experience mean I can structure a story in my head before starting. I write, then walk away for a breather before returning to edit the words. This, by the way, is a good technique. Unless you are pressed for time, do something else before self-editing.

I’ve not had Sparks’ problems hitting the wrong keys on the iPad screen keyboard. This surprises me, the individual keys on a 9.7-inch iPad screen in portrait mode are tiny, just a few millimeters square. And yet I rarely mistype.

There are no pain points for me. I’m more than ready to give up attaching a keyboard to the smaller iPad Pro. It’s reached the point where I can now attend a press conference or interview armed with nothing but an iPad and come away with clean copy.

For me, the iPad screen keyboard is a productivity boost. The story you’re reading now is around a thousand words long. I wrote the first draft on my iPad in relative comfort in about 45 minutes. I doubt I could do better on the MacBook with a full keyboard.

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.  ↩

Brydge has a keyboard for anyone who bought an iPad Air or Air 2 but meant to buy a MacBook Air. The BrydgeAir keyboard is a sturdy aluminium frame that clips to the iPad Air. When closed it forms a tough laptop-like shell. When open you can use the hinge at any angle, like a laptop. Folding it flat puts your iPad to sleep.

At around NZ$230, it isn’t cheap. Decent iPad keyboards start at less than half the price.

Tablet or faux laptop?

Yet BrydgeAir isn’t like any other third-party iPad keyboard I’ve seen. While popular iPad keyboards like Logitech’s excellent Ultrathin Keyboard Cover are all about adding the convenience of keyboard typing to the iPad, BrydgeAir is more about turning the iPad into an iOS touch-screen laptop.

If that’s what you want to do.

Brydge’s design and choice of materials reinforces this idea. The case is aluminium, you can choose colours to match your iPad Air. The keyboard is exactly the same dimensions as the iPad Air. When closed, an iPad with the BridgeAir looks a lot like an Apple laptop.

It uses hinges engineered to fit an iPad Air 2. The same unit works with the older iPad Air thanks to rubber shims that you can add to the hinges.

Heavy

The downside of this approach is the BrydgeAir adds more weight than, say, the Logitech Ultrathin keyboard. The keyboard is heavier than the iPad Air 2 and getting on for twice the weight of the Logitech keyboard. That extra weight may be a Brydge too far for some people.

On a positive note, the BrydgeAir keyboard is a lot like a MacBook keyboard. It’s solid and doesn’t flex like some cheaper laptop keyboards. It can take my touch typist hammering, there’s a little more travel than in most attachable keyboards. It has back-lighting, that’s important for us journalists who find ourselves typing in darkened rooms.

I found typing cramped compared with my laptop – that’s unavoidable given the keyboard size matches the 10-inch iPad Air 2.

It’s fine to use, but I’d prefer a little more room. I find I can work with it for a while. It’s good enough for temporary typing on the move. It may even do if I am out-of-town on a reporting assignment.

In the long-term I wouldn’t want to drop my laptop for this arrangement and that’s before discussing the merits of iOS versus OS X.

Beyond keyboard

There’s more than just a keyboard. Bridge has added Bluetooth stereo speakers. You can crank them up higher than the normal iPad Air speaker. While the BrydgeAir speakers are useful for FaceTime conversations, music sounds cheap and tinny.

One other thing to watch for is that the BridgeAir takes a toll on your iPad batteries. I can go all day and then some on my iPad without the BrydgeAir, with it attached I’d lose about a third of that battery life.

I’ve always thought there’s something curious about iPad keyboards. When the iPad first appeared it was a break with personal computing’s recent past. Apple stripped down the laptop to the bare essentials needed for browsing and reading. That meant getting rid of the keyboard. We seem to have spent the last five years putting them back.

This trend reached its apex when Apple added its own keyboard cover to the iPad Pro. I prefer the BrydgeAir to Apple’s keyboard and would love to see what Brydge can do for the iPad Pro. Adding a keyboard of this quality could elevate the Pro.

BrydgeAir – verdict

Brydge has chosen to target a tight niche with a well-engineered, high-quality alternative. The BrydgeAir is an expensive, heavy, well-made  keyboard for a device that was designed as only an occasional typing tool. It changes the nature of that tool. In a sense it’s a good fix for a problem you don’t need to have.

If you are a heavy-duty typist a lot you would be better off with a MacBook, MacBook Air or just about any other laptop. A device made for typing is always better than an iPad and a keyboard.

If you love the iPad, need to type a bit and like the idea of an iOS laptop, this is the answer. If you bust your budget buying an iPad and wished you got a laptop instead, you’ll love this. It’s also a good alternative for people who find plastic type covers too flimsy.