Review: iA Writer 3 for iPad

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iA Writer 3

iA Writer Pro is gone and iA Writer 3.0 has taken its place. Here, I’ll explain why I’m really, really happy about that.

I loved the original iA Writer from 2010 for its Focus Mode: one tap of a button blurred all other paragraphs, leaving just the current sentence centered on the screen. The app was very simple, but I felt it did real credit to the idea of a distraction-free writing environment. No extra menus, no fiddling with fonts or spacing — just sit down and write.

Writer Pro came out as a paid upgrade in 2013 and brought a wealth of new features with it. Hardware keyboard shortcuts were a welcome upgrade and Syntax Control — which could actively isolate nouns, verbs and adverbs, conjunctions, and adjectives — was intriguing because it provided a very different way of examining your own writing. At its coolest, Syntax Control felt like “bullet time” for writing, providing a sense of self-awareness that was hard to gain in more crowded writing applications. However, on the whole, I really just stuck to Focus Mode.

The negative change in Writer Pro was its awful file system, which always felt a little too clever for its users. The idea, as I understood it, was that each text file would go through a series of states: Note, Write, Edit, Read. Each file state was actually a different file extension (ex. .Note, .Write), and Writer Pro would display a file differently depending on its state. It was hard to ignore this way of thinking because it was baked right into the UI, forcing users to view their files within Note, Write, Edit, and Read tabs. This idea was not fully fleshed out on the Mac, which still featured the standard OS X Open dialog box, so moving from the iPad to the Mac to continue writing was jarring.

Thankfully, Writer 3.0 has washed all of those file states away and stuck with a consistent three-column interface that works similarly across iOS and OS X.

iA Writer - library

The left-most column is the library, which houses files and folders. Writer 3.0 is organized right out the door, providing options to sort files by date modified, title, or file extension. Moving files into a folder still requires four taps, though, and could be made a little faster. I believe a previous version of Writer supported drag and drop folders, and I think that was the fastest implementation.

Tapping on a file within the library will take you to the Editor, which is where Writer has always shined. All of the best things about the app are present here: the Nitti typeface, Focus Mode with typewriter scrolling, and in-line Markdown support. New touches include a customizable shortcut bar that can trigger features (like link generation) in addition to providing easier access to special characters. The curious change to the Editor view involves the decidedly Mac-like menu bar that lives at the top of the screen. There’s no question that this bar works and is easy to navigate, but the presence of a menu bar doesn’t feel right on the iPad in 2015. Floating radial menus or sliding toolbars are in, but the menu bar feels like the UX equivalent of a shrug: as if the team at iA was saying “hmm, that’ll do”.

iA Writer - preview

What does feel modern is the inclusion of the preview pane to the right of the Editor, accessible with a quick swipe to the left (near the edge of the screen). However, there’s also a preview option within the View menu, in case you’re not a fan of gesture activation. Preview shows your raw text in its final formatting with narrow margins for easier reading. Surprisingly, iA included a choice of three preview styles (including monospace) and a handy Export button for sending the finished text to other apps or storage locations.

All told, I think Writer 3 has made a very significant step forward, and the platform is playing to its strengths by offering a similar experience across iOS and OS X. Over the past year I’ve been hopping back and forth between Ulysses and Writer for my drafts, but as of version 3.0, I now feel very much at home using Writer as my sole writing machine.

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