Category Archives: Apps

Writing on the iPad – Top Dropbox Text Editors

If you have been following along in this series, you know that I’m on a quest to see how the iPad can be best used as a tool for the knowledge professional. Aspiring professionals such as students should consider themselves included. I want to focus on writing in the next few posts. This post includes my detailed comparison chart for the top 4 dropbox text editors for iPad.

Why Would You Use a Dropbox Text Editor on iPad?

Dropbox. As any iPad owner knows or learns quickly, Dropbox is an essential tool in getting files on and off one’s iPad. There are alternatives to Dropbox, but it’s become the gold standard for allowing you to access the same files from both your computer(s) and your mobile devices like the iPad and iPhone. The Dropbox part of Dropbox Text Editors refers to this common trait of my top contenders here.

Plain Text vs. Rich Text. If plain text is not your thing, don’t worry, a future post will look at rich text options which unfortunately are few. The reason we have all these plain text apps on iPhone and iPad is that iOS doesn’t have a rich text feature baked in for third party developers. Apple rolled its own rich text when making Pages and has now added some minimal rich text in its latest version of Mail for iPad. We’ve grown up using rich text and many of us like and prefer rich text. I myself prefer rich text and would use it on the iPad if all apps on iPad and Mac also used rich text. But that’s not the case. Plain text is spartan but has its virtues.

Text Editors. The iPad apps I’ve chosen to look at today share a limitation that can be viewed as a strength: they all work with plain text only. In this multi-device world we find ourselves in, plain text is the lingua franca that allows you to copy and paste and use your written words in multiple apps on multiple devices without worrying about file formats and conversions. Loss of formatting is repaid in hassle-reduction and focus. The group of iPad apps I look at today all have distraction-free modes that let you focus on the words and sentences and delay formatting considerations for later.

Writing App Evaluation Criteria

I may do a blog post about the criteria themselves but for now, I’m just going to tell you what I think are important and what I’ve used here.

  • Key Features for the task: Searching, Sorting and Saving
  • Workspace Customization Options: Text and background color, Font choices and other tweaking possible to get your writing environment the way you want it.
  • Export Options: Some apps can only email the document as part of the email, others can create PDFs for you on the fly, create attachments and more. These extra options can save you time and trouble.
  • Design. How simple and beautiful are the controls and workspace?
  • Documentation. Most iPad apps have little to no documentation. None of my favorites have as much documentation built in as I would like but there are differences.
  • Checkbox features. There are many features that all of these apps have and I’ve listed those as √. If an app adds something special, I’ve given them a √+.
  • Reliability. This is a tough one to evaluate and probably changes over time. Something you should consider and be concerned about. Luckily, dropbox has its own snapshot backups so, you should be able to save yourself if one of these writing apps erases or copies over your document in its attempt to keep your documents in sync.
  • Wonderful Extras. At the top of this list is an optional extra keyboard row for the on-screen keyboard. Two of the 4 apps here have really strong implementations. Elements has a great Scratchpad feature. Link detection can be a nice touch so that phone numbers, addresses and URLs are hot and thus allow you to navigate or dial with them.
  • Markdown Support. Markdown is a simplified way to add HTML features to plain text without making your writing look like HTML code. It allows you to create headings, subheads, bold and italics and other formatting. You don’t see the formatting live, but these apps let you preview your work to see what it will look like in HTML. If you never blog (I hope you do if you are a knowledge professional), you won’t care about this.
  • iTunes Stats. We just as well see what has occurred on iTunes in terms of ratings and numbers of reviews. These stats can be gamed, so reading the actual reviews is often more useful. I’ve done some of this in addition to reading reviews elsewhere on the web.

Top 4 Contenders Rated in Detail

Right this minute, I would say the top four contenders in the dropbox text editor category are Nebulous Notes, Writeroom, Elements and Notesy. There are probably 30 apps in this category but these stand out. Keep your eye on Writing Kit and Notely as dark horse candidates. They are newer entrants that might compete with any of my favorites. I’ve illustrated my detailed comparison below. Pay particular attention to high ratings and missing features. I’ve made some high, low or missing features red to draw your attention. After this chart I summarize strengths and weaknesses in writing.

Strengths and Weaknesses Summary

Nebulous Notes. The Dropbox Text Editor crown goes to Nebulous Notes in this round. But your mileage may vary. The app store likes this app best. It’s customizability and feature breadth are unparalleled. When you make an app really powerful, your problem is going to be making it all look nice. As a minimalist, Steve Jobs would not have preferred this app. The UI is not as sleek or stylish but has moved from really geeky to adequate. I give the Nebulous team credit for delivering so much functionality and finding ways to make it manageable and quickly accessible. Best feature besides the incredible and optional scrolling, customizable extra keyboard row is file management in dropbox. You can do things in dropbox that can’t be done in the dropbox iPad app itself. View in iTunes

Writeroom. Finally in August, Hog Bay Software (Jesse Grosjean) released Writeroom for iPad. And it is a killer app! Writeroom for iPad is a universal app and does some great things to deliver a ton of customizability and features while maintaining a simple interface. There’s a really full-featured Advanced settings page that hides all the options away so they can be set and forgotten. The reason Writeroom is not my top pick is that it completely lacks Markdown support (which you may not care about) and doesn’t have as powerful file management as Nebulous Notes. View in iTunes

Elements. This is the first of the two more stylish plain text writing apps. If style trumps function, one of these may be your favorite. However, in the case of Elements it has one killer feature that you may decide trumps the more comprehensive functionality of Nebulous Notes and Writeroom: the Scratchpad! You can keep extras or reference material here. Elements is one of the underdogs that we want to stick around so if you like it, use it! Elements has a great icon, a clean look and a dedicated developer who keeps the upgrades coming. View in iTunes

Notesy. The other stylish text editor in our review today. Notesy has minimal documentation which is a sore point for me that I’m sure will eventually be corrected. It looks great and is a really nice writing app. You get lots of options to customize your workspace to your liking. Excellent search of files and inside files including support of regular expressions which is a technical way to search that is like what you can do in Google searches matching patterns. Notesy also gives you a lot of flexibility in how Markdown is handled and can automatically convert Markdown to HTML. View in iTunes

Dark Horse Contenders to Watch

Writing Kit. My favorite alternative has a built-in web browser to facilitate research. If you often do research when writing on your iPad, you may especially appreciate this app. It has a fantastic extra keyboard row for Markdown formatting. The author has written a browser app so kindly just built it into Writing Kit. It also supports outline navigation to some degree. If you aren’t a Markdown fan, though, you probably don’t want to go here. And, this is a pretty new app so some caution is advised – there may be a kink here and there that could affect reliability as the app refinements and additions are rolled out. Update: Writing Kit has moved up to #1 in my estimation as of April 2012 – see my post on Writing Kit for details. View in iTunes

Notely. This is another stylish app which hits all the checkboxes. So, a little more feature coverage than Elements and Notesy with just as much or more style. This again is a newer app so a little caution is advised but also watch this dark horse. It is on the rise. View in iTunes

Next time out we’ll look at the rich text writing apps.

If you haven’t seen my Writing on Mac, iPad, iPhone – Best Apps post dated May 14 2012, you will find some additional write app recommendations and thoughts there.

Knowledge vs. Productivity Apps

I fall into the ardent minority who is pursuing using the iPad as a vehicle for productivity and knowledge. Rightly, the iPad has been described as a tool for consumption first and foremost. It’s fantastic for consumption activities like reading of all kinds, viewing video and playing games. It’s great for your leisure time, no doubt.

I’m a computer enthusiast and professional so I see the iPad as a new kind of computer. We’ve known for a very long time that a lot more is possible with a computer beyond typing on a keyboard and staring into a screen for hours sitting still. We’ve known that handwriting recognition, voice recognition and control are possible and being worked on. We’ve seen Minority Report with all the handwaving and now the Kinect. And Apple has had two blockbuster products that allow you to throw things around on a tiny or book-sized screen with your fingers. So, to me, what’s happening with the iPhone and iPad and their competitors is exciting and great to see.

The computer is the possibility machine. And something I do with it is work. I work for myself so work and play do kind of blend together. I work for clients but I also do things like this blog that are a bit more aspirational. Maybe there’s some work related to my most passionate interests out there that will find me blogging about this stuff.

I love computers so the first thing the iPad represents to me is a really tiny computer that packs a punch and is incredibly portable. It happens to run iOS and iOS is still discovering what it’s going to be when it grows up. So, I am not willing to think of it as a mere entertainment device even if it is extraordinary and surprising in that area already. I see it as a device that should be able to do anything any other computer has done one way or another. We’ve already seen keyboards that are created by shining a light on the table your are sitting at and typing on it. We’ve seen glasses that can display a huge screen relative to its distance from the eye. Why would I not be able to work with one of these things — with or without a keyboard?

Enough preamble, now let’s look at work from a knowledge professional’s perspective. I think of independent knowledge professionals as the new experts, consultants, advisers and publishers. The new part of it is that experts now kind of blend in with normal people who are passionate amateurs. I’m not an expert at the subject of independent knowledge professionals if a degree in IKP is required. But I am an IKP and have been for 25 years. And I’m the curious type. I do have a couple Masters degrees – one in Sociology and one in Business. Academia and other official institutions grant credibility but now we are realizing that amateurs and people who make this stuff up can be interesting and do valuable thinking too.

There’s this big knowledge component. It doesn’t hurt to be productive either. I like the knowledge piece more than the productivity piece so that’s mostly what I will talk about on this blog. I won’t talk much about traditional business disciplines like accounting, finance and marketing (maybe some marketing since it is intertwined with the web and internet which continues to change our world in dramatic ways). I’m interested in knowledge apps. They help you understand your world and figure out where you fit. They help you think, write, learn and articulate.

For a minute I’ll talk about productivity and productivity apps to make this distinction. Productivity has to do with efficiency. At its higher levels it has to do with effectiveness. Knowledge helps figure out these two kinds of virtues and how to get more of them, but it is more about the discovery and insight than the practice. Productivity is the getting things done. The work flow. Utility Apps may have productivity and knowledge aspects. The To Do apps exemplify productivity apps in the extreme. Pert charts and project management. List-makers. These can be awesome, but I like the less practical apps that lean towards knowledge, insight, analysis, creativity, expressiveness. Maybe a bit less about quantity and more about quality.

Apple aspires to blend Science with Art. The computer is the bicycle for the mind, Steve Jobs used to say. I think like that. I want to be delighted and enlightened.

Knowledge apps that excite me: Thinkbook, Index Card, Zite, Notesy, Bento, Day One, Scrivener and Circus Ponies Notebook. Those of you who are list-makers and masters of efficiency will probably be aficionados of productivity apps. This is where you shine. If that productivity app promises to help me be more efficient and get my work flow going with less time and effort, I’ll be there too. I just have my true loves and then my acquired tastes.

Organizing your Thoughts and Information on the iPad – Best Apps

The iPad didn’t fare so well in our last episode. Gathering thoughts and information is hard to do when you don’t have a way to search your entire device and have to jump through hoops to move data and docs from one app to another. The gathering function on iPad is a work in progress for sure so your best to go back to the Mac (or PC) as needed to fill any gaps. These limitations of the iPad should gradually diminish as the apps mature and the platform adds innovative file management into iOS5. I expect iCloud to be part of this fix.

Let’s assume you’ve gotten the gathering step together on your iPad with a little judicious help from your Mac or PC. First, we explore the nature of organizing as it applies to creative projects. Then on to the best apps available to take on this challenge.

The Nature of Organizing

We aren’t organizing our car, office or desk. We are organizing all that we know, have thought, are thinking and have gathered so that it will serve our creation process. Here are the pieces of this process:

  1. Grouping. Time to group up what you’ve gathered as best you can. Maybe you will find different kinds of things — you could put them into groups by kind. Maybe you have things that apply to your introduction, issues, examples. Try grouping them and you might get some more ideas with the added advantage that you’ll be able to find things more easily as you create your project.
  2. Arranging. Arranging goes beyond grouping and includes consideration of proximity and positioning. For example, you could put something in the center and other related items grouped around it. If all these things are on a table, a white board or a tool that allows this sort of layout, you’ll be able to see them. Items put front and center are central or more important than those put on the outside edges. What you are looking for here is a birds eye view of your problem/project. You want to see everything at once – grok it in its entirety in a glance or detailed perusal.
  3. Rearranging. This is the same as arranging but the extra point to consider is, how quickly and easily can you rearrange when you want to look at things differently?
  4. Identifying Relationships Between Things. This is another place where visual tools help. For example, you can draw a solid or dotted line between Idea A and Idea B. You could put an arrow head on both ends or one end of that line.
  5. Characterizing Items/Ideas. Here’s where size matters. Something really important might be larger than a less important detail. Colors could be used in color-coding or for the added feelings they bring. Photos and icons can be added to the mix to wake up the right brain.
  6. Ordering. This is the linear part of organizing and is most efficient if the app you are using can do outlines. A good outliner gives you a quick and easy way to sequence items and organize them under subheads. You can also hide or show elements of the outline to focus on certain pieces of the puzzle.
  7. Mind-mapping. Mind-mapping is a visual version of outlining with more emphasis on positioning and visualizing. The better mind-mapping tools will let you have more than one node, comments, icons or flags on items, colors and other capabilities more often found in a pure drawing or diagramming tool.

The Best Apps for Organizing

If you were relying on the physical world alone, you might do what detectives do and create a murder room for your project. You then can put all the books, files, charts, drawings, photos and what not together in this room and hang out there for inspiration. Breakthroughs can come from dwelling in, on, around, and amongst the problem/topic and its data. Scientists hangout in their labs. Let’s see how the iPad and its best app-makers handle this challenge.

Notebooks and Outliners

My three favorite notebook apps are Circus Ponies Notebook, Thinkbook and Noteshelf. I’m going to throw Omnioutliner in here as a fourth option since it is a pure outliner with some special qualities you may find useful.

Circus Ponies Notebook ($30). Best App. This ambitious full-featured app is still having some growing pains and will benefit from further refinement and dropbox or iCloud support to help you get things into it (gathering). As mentioned in my last post, there is a Mac version that is mature and amazingly feature rich that can be used in conjunction with the iPad version. That’s a big plus. Here’s the concept. You have a single portable container in which to create a set of pages in an outline and you can put images, attachments, stickers, text and outlines on pages. There’s a drawing layer and voice annotation. Text is styled and colored. You can do all the organizing I describe above, you can rearrange easily and it has awesome search capabilities. You want it all integrated and as of this writing, it doesn’t get any better than this. There is no complimentary iPhone app at this time and none is promised (implication: don’t leave home without your iPad!).

Thinkbook ($5). If you can live with text alone in a powerful outlining environment with some juicy and innovative features, this may be your app. Thinkbook offers slick touch manipulation, tabs, to do items, smart search widgets and an amazing controller called the slider. The slider, lets you quickly rearrange items and move them between notebooks. You can define pages, notebooks within pages or notebooks. Flexibility reigns supreme here. This is such a good app that it’s worth buying just so you can evaluate it for yourself. The price is right and the developer promises that images and full dropbox support are coming. Simplicity has its own pleasures and utility.

Noteshelf ($5). If visualizing is what you are after and handwriting with your finger or stylus is your idea of a good time, this could be your tool of choice. Excellent ink smoothing. Great free and cheap backgrounds for your pages. You can insert different backgrounds for different pages. I recommend something minimal like Penultimate for a handwriting tool in the brainstorming phase. But in the organizing step, you can take more time and the extra features like more pens, separate pages and highlighters are helpful. If you use Noteshelf regularly, use it for brainstorming too. The extra features won’t get in your way when brainstorming if you have mastered the app.

Freeform is the operative word. More like paper. If you can’t type well or you are in a setting where typing would be awkward, handwriting is your only option. If you are a fast typist on-screen, carry a small bluetooth keyboard, and/or prefer digitI like getting digital text and can type so using this kind of app when typing on the screen seems a bit much such when meeting with other people. But if you want to sketch out the big picture, you could do it here.

Three other Notes Apps with Visual Aspects: These other apps have other strengths listed in parentheses: Notes Plus (type text blocks, optional shape recognition), Note-taker HD  (type text blocks, insert wide variety of shapes, arrows and form items) and Notability (typing text is the main event, drawing and images added in dedicated popovers). I’ll do a Notes post soon. I promise!

OmniOutliner ($20). Rich and creamy iOS UI with excellent generic outlining. That’s about all for now. You can insert images via copy and paste but cannot resize them.


There are a few other mind-mapping tools on iPad, but there is one that seems to be in first place by a mile so I will simply recommend it here:

iThoughts HD ($10). Circus Ponies Notebook doesn’t do mind maps. So, if you are serious about your iPad and creative projects, you might want to toss this excellent full-featured mind-mapper into your toolbox (your iPad). It will let you spread out your ideas in a visual set of hierarchies. You can add color, icons, notes, separate items off to the side. Great exporting. You could always attach a PNG or PDF of your Mindmap to your Circus Ponies Notebook.


Omnigraffle for iPad ($30). I own it and occasionally try using it. Glad I have it to whip up a pretty diagram. But I like the other tools that include outlining logic or are a bit simpler like what comes in Noteshelf most of the time.

Index Cards

Index Card ($5). The preeminent index card app on the iPad is called Index Card. It is a great app for smaller, quicker organizing projects. You can’t put in images, but you can assign individual cards to any of 14 attractive colors. You can color-code and assign labels to the colors if you wish. You can stack cards into named stacks. You can rearrange those cards but not group them. The ultimate cards app is on Mac in Scrivener with its new (as of version 2) free-form card arranging mode. Either way, this can be just enough visualizing to help you get that birds eye view on small-scale organizing projects. Major extras: (1) exports to RTF and (2) Syncs card title and front text to Scrivener via Dropbox.

Update April 9 2012

Upon further reflection and further progress in the field of iPad, I have a few more places to point you. One conclusion is that, as Steve Jobs has said all along, simple has a lot going for it and often trumps fancier, more functional and grandiose efforts.

CarbonFin Outliner.  Consider using Outliner as an inexpensive and get-the-job done tool and save OmniOutliner, if you can pop for the price, for when you are in a slower mode or like the synchrony with its Mac counterpart. Has an iPhone counterpart and a website counterpart. [$5]

Lovely Charts. With not nearly the feature list of Omnigraffle, Lovely Charts replaces Omnigraffle on my home page for diagramming because it is more simple, agile and easy to use. [$5]

Paper. Designed to support creative thought more than anything. Still in very early days but with an Ink engine to kill for. An immense pleasure to use for those cocktail napkin diagrams that make all the difference. [free with 4 $2 tools as in app upgrades]

Corkulous Pro. I can’t stand the smiley face icon, but Corkulous has some advantages over and compliments Index Card. First, Corkulous has an iPhone version. Even if you don’t create on iPhone (which you can if a little on the cramped side), you can see your previously created or in progress cork boards. Its strength relative to Index Card, which I still love, is that the boards are huge but you can zoom in and you can have cork boards within cork boards ad infinitum. [$5]

Writing Kit. Not so much going on the visual side although you can insert photo links and view them in preview. But ambitious with built-in web search and web browsing with a queue and outlining via Markdown. Create a text document for your latest budding idea.  Well thought-out, ambitious app. [$5 ]

Brainstorming on the iPad – Best Apps

This is my second post about iPhone and iPad apps as viewed through the prism of essential knowledge functions. My first post provides some background so if you haven’t read it, you may want to start here: Information Capture on the iPhone – Best Apps. Brainstorming is an essential knowledge function and often the first step when undertaking a knowledge project.

There are many brainstorming techniques. The four that I spend the most time using are all done fast: diagramming, mindmapping, outlining and putting ideas onto index cards and stacking/rearranging them. Plain freewriting is a fifth that is a mainstay but is something that can be done in any writing or notes app. More on that in another post.

Diagramming is often the first thing I try when in the definition phase of a creative project. I want to see the subject so I can figure out how to deal with it. I’ll start trying to diagram it and usually accompany those initial drawings with words that come to mind. Which app helps you do something like this on an iPad? I got started early with Penultimate and have kept coming back to it.  I favor the simplest, quickest app that acts like paper and gets out of my way. Right now Penultimate is the 19th paid app in the app store. That’s saying a lot!

Penultimate is all you need for brainstorming and doesn’t have extras that will lure you down sidetracks to make your brainstorming look prettier. Pretty is almost a drawback in this phase of creativity. We are looking for speed of output to capture things without the critical faculty censoring and limiting your outside-the box-thinking.

Mindmapping is my favorite technique when in the getting started phase of a creative project. I can type fast and get a bunch of nodes branching off of my project name or subject. Right now there is one clear winner in the iPad Mindmapping category: iThoughts HD. This app came out when the iPad was released and has been upgraded extensively.

Why iThoughts HD is at the top mind mapping tool on iPad:

  1. A full range of import and export options that will help tremendously as you move back and forth between knowledge functions and apps.
  2. Great integration with the cloud via Dropbox, MobileMe, WebDav and
  3. A little sister app for the iPhone that will allow you to create new and see your existing mind maps and tweak them when you are without the iPad.
  4. A powerful tool that reminds me of the premium quality swiss army knife of mind mapping tools on my Mac: Mindjet Mindmanager. The extras aren’t really important in brainstorming, but they come in handy for the presentation-quality versions you’ll want when putting the finishing touches on your masterpiece.

Outlining is another key brainstorming tool. Dash off lists of things that come to mind. With the aid of the outliner you can list items under items and group them as you go or later. I’ve been using Carbonfin Outliner for over a year with few complaints. It does the job for $5 and there’s an iPhone version for $5 as well. There’s also web access with additional functionality. Excellent value. But now, there’s a new luxury outliner that cannot be denied.

OmniOutliner. There are many outliners for the Mac, but OmniOutliner 3 has ruled the roost for years. Every upgrade was free – this is years we are talking! Now we’ve got the junior version for iPad which is actually better than the Mac version. Yes, better. Omnigroup spent a long time learning how to take advantage of the iPhone and the iPad and released some other apps: Omnifocus, OmniGraffle, and OmniGraphSketcher. Now they’ve released OmniOutliner and it is splendid. It is like a Rolls Royce compared to a Honda Civic. Both will get you there. You’ll need to pay $20 to get this one. But, then if you are a smart knowledge professional, you’ll want to avoid being pennywise and pound foolish. There’s already a Mac app. There’s sure to be an iPhone app. And we know Omnigroup keeps tweaking their apps.

You need an outliner for not only brainstorming but also for gathering and organizing – two other important knowledge functions. Don’t skimp here unless you have to. For the time being, you won’t get Dropbox support and the file management is pretty basic. Omnigroup has promised file management upgrades and looking at dropbox support. They are loving iCloud and I expect iCloud to soon trump Dropbox for Omnigroup and for the rest of us. iCloud is much more powerful than a simple service like Dropbox. On the plus side, you can import OPML files (like the ones you can export from iThoughts HD), interchange files with OmniOutliner 3 on Mac, export to MobileMe, use rich text styling and add extra columns to your outlines. This is the power outliner of choice. One last thing, you can insert graphics into outlines.

Index Cards. Another way to brainstorm is to write your snippets of ideas onto index cards. Paper index cards are the favorites of researchers and writers and have been for many, many years. They are small. They are interchangeable and stackable.

Index Card. This is my index card app of choice. Its big brother – a full scale writing app – is Scrivener for Mac ($45). Index Card may be the only pure index card app on the iPad. Drag cards around. Color them. Write on the back sides of cards. And, if that isn’t enough, put them into stacks. Stack cards one level deep. This is a lovely app. Also view cards as a list. $5. It’s an inviting way to get a handle on what you need to do or what the main pieces are in a creative project. Stacking and coloring let’s you organize these things as you progress beyond brainstorming. Limited syncing to Scrivener which has unlimited levels and images attached.