It often feels like word processors aren’t keeping pace with the advances in user interface design. While cell phone operating systems are tripping over themselves to embrace flat, minimalistic design, Microsoft Word looks like the control panel for a space shuttle.
And yet writing is something we all use our computers for. Be it a school paper or a blog post, all of us at some point find ourselves in the position of having to dump a bunch of characters into a text file. This makes the lack of innovation in the word processing field so frustrating.
Thankfully, iA Writer bucks that trend, and is perhaps the most joyously simplistic text editor that you can find on the market today. Created by two Swiss designers with a well known pedigree for creating beautiful, elegant tools, it runs on Mac OS X ($9.99) and iOS (universal, $0.99), and it’s the OS X version that will be discussed in this review.
Focus Mode, Cloud Support & Versioning
It’s undeniable that iA Writer lacks the bells and whistles of Office, Google Docs and iWork. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Not all of us require ever single feature in Microsoft Word, and sometimes even the scant features offered by lightweight word processor Bean feel excessive. However, iA Writer embraces a number of features that make the writing process significantly more enjoyable and help increase productivity.
The first feature that is unique to iA Writer is something called ‘Focus mode’. This feature does two things. Firstly, it puts the cursor in the middle of your screen and keeps it there. As a result, your eyes are always in the same place and never have to move. Combined with fullscreen mode, this is a guaranteed recipe for distraction-free productivity.
In addition, Focus mode tries to hold your attention by dimming every sentence with the exception of the one you’re working on. An unintended consequence of this is that it is significantly easier to get an idea of how long each sentence is, in relation to the rest of your document. Personally, I have found that this feature has resulted in me writing more concise, less rambling sentences.
Adding to the powerful feature set of iA Writer are its cloud capabilities. It comes baked in with support for Apple’s iCloud offering, as well as the online storage stalwart Dropbox. Saving a document to iCloud is as simple as clicking the title bar at top of the page and selecting ‘Move to iCloud’. If you have Dropbox installed on your Mac, it works in the same way.
Another helpful feature of iA Writer is version control. For the uninitiated, version control is something that is extensively used by software developers in order to keep track of the development of an application. If you make a mistake, you can revert to an earlier version of your code. No harm, no foul.
The version control found in iA Writer is very similar to that of Apple’s Time Machine. Versions are presented as a stack of cards and you can scroll back until you find a card that you want to revert to. Once selected, you are sent back into your text editor and the version of your document that you selected is the one you are working on.
Metrics & Markdown
If you’re a writer, it helps to get an idea for how long it’ll take your reader to digest your article. Just by dragging your mouse to the bottom corner of your screen, you will see some important metrics about your document. These include an estimated reading time, a character count and a word count.
It’s important to note that I didn’t have to go through any menu dialogs to get these metrics. I just had to make a single mouse movement, and my workflow wasn’t seriously interrupted.
One area in which iA Writer sadly falls short in is the filetypes which you can save to. Saving to .DOCX is simply out of the question. The default output format is Markdown, which is touted as a simple, easy to read alternative to HTML. Despite an incompatibility with other word processors, there are advantages to this, as certain websites such as Github and Wikipedia use Markdown as default. This means that you can take your document that you’ve edited in iA Writer and shove it into your Github repository with a minimum of fuss.
However, it’s not all bad news. Markdown also makes it really easy to add formatting to your document. Surround your text with asterisks, and you’ve underlined it. Surround it with two and you’ve emphasized it. It’s that simple. The use of Markdown also means that iA Writer can do away with the toolbars we have became so accustomed to in the likes of Microsoft Office.
Unfortunately, despite its minimalistic exterior, iA Writer doesn’t exactly feel all that polished. Scrolling through your document breaks Focus mode and results in a random array of sentences being dimmed, whilst others are emphasized.
Furthermore, Focus mode makes it incredibly difficult to copy a large amount of text. If you have to move paragraphs around, you’ll have to exit focus mode and re-enter it once you’re finished. This is unacceptable for a word processor that is sold on its ability to keep the author focused, so hopefully an update will rectify these problems.
Despite these minor flaws, I absolutely adore iA Writer. In recent months, I have started using it exclusively as my word processor of choice. It promises a distraction free working environment, and for the most part it delivers. The integration with Dropbox and iCloud and the powerful versioning system makes iA Writer a very compelling tool indeed, and it is for these reasons why I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Have you tried iA Writer for Mac or iOS? What do you think? Are there better word processors out there? Add your thoughts in the comments below this post.