Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Comparing iPhone Text Editors

I’ve long been frustrated with the iPhone’s built-in Notes app. At first, it used Marker Felt and synced only via USB. Now it syncs via IMAP but sometimes duplicates or deletes my notes. On the Mac, the notes are stored as .emlx files with numeric names that change with each edit; this is not very backup-friendly. Apple Mail’s editor is slow and has an annoying yellow background. It wants you to write in rich text, which means that I have to remember to “Paste and Match Style.” Even so, somehow my notes inevitably switch into rich text mode, which means that the skeuomorphic lines on the iPhone no longer match the text height.

Reading Dr. Drang’s iPhone notes app comparison got me interested in looking for alternatives. I definitely wanted a plain text editor that worked with Dropbox. This gives me full control over the backups, and it lets me edit and search the files using BBEdit, EagleFiler, and LaunchBar. An iPhone app is essential; an iPad version would be a nice extra. It was very important to me to be able to search across multiple files on the iPhone, pick a matching file, and then jump between the results within that file. Simplenote was the only app I found that could do this, so that’s what I’m using now.

Other apps have some nice feature as well, however no one app comes close to offering all the features I’d like to have. I’ve summarized my investigation in this table:

Droptext 1.2.1 Elements 1.5.1 Locayta Notes 2.0.1 Nebulous Notes 4.3.1 PlainText 1.3 Simplenote 3.1.3 (Premium)
Choose Folder on Dropbox Yes No No Yes1 Yes Yes
Nested Folders Yes Yes No Yes1 Yes No
Works Offline No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Choose Font No (Helvetica) Yes Yes2 Yes No (Georgia) No (Helvetica)
Font Size No Yes Yes2 Yes No Yes
Font Color No Yes Yes2 Yes No No
Background Color No Yes No Yes No No
Multi-File Search No Yes Yes3 No No Yes
Search Results List No No Yes No No No
Jump Within File No No No No No Yes
LF Line Breaks Yes No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Sort by Name Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Sort by Modified No Yes No No Yes No4
Rearrange Lines No No No No No Yes
Versions No No No No No Yes5
Price $1 $5 free $2 ads or $5 $20/year

1. Rather than syncing everything, it makes you choose individual files as “auto-saves,” which is a drag.

2. This is the only app I saw that lets you set font and color options per-file.

3. It does some sort of indexed/prefix search, coupled with auto-correct, which didn’t work well for me. Some words it didn’t find at all. When searching for “cat” it would find lots of useless matches of “at” but totally miss “wildcat”.

4. The option is there, but in my experience the modification dates shown, if I’m using Dropbox, have little relation to when I actually edited the files. The tech support person said this is not the normal behavior and is looking into the matter but has not yet found a solution for me. Even going by the displayed dates, the sorting is sometimes out of order. Also, the first few days, I experienced problems where the iPhone app would not pick up changes from Dropbox for hours or days; this seems to be fixed now.

5. This is like the feature in Lion and works within the app—very cool.

17 Comments RSS · Twitter

Have you noticed major performance differences between the apps? I'm currently using PlainText but I notice that the UI hangs significantly (for seconds at a time) while it's synchronizing with Dropbox.

@Nicholas Riley: Droptext definitely feels slower, since it works live rather than syncing. Other than that I did not notice major differences, and PlainText seemed fine in my limited use.

[...] that file. Simplenote was the only app I found that could do this, so that’s what I’m using now.Comparing iPhone Text Editors [Michael [...]

I've used Elements, Nebulous Notes, Simplenote (non-premium), and PlainText. I like the look of PlainText the best but I've settle on Elements personally. Nebulous Notes is needlessly complicated with its auto-saves as weird onLoad UI. Elements has worked well for me, I just don't like their icon. As for Simplenote, I can't justify a monthly fee (maybe I'd get addicted if I tried it?).

It's hard to imagine that you haven't heard of Notational Velocity (or NValt) but in case you haven't they are also nice to use on the Mac to manage notes (synced in a Dropbox folder).

And of course, thanks for the summary of info!

+1 for Nathan's recommendation of Notational Velocity on the Mac. On the iPhone, I'm also using SimpleNote. On the iPad, I'm using Writer, which has a very nice UI.

How come Notesy is missing from this comparison, I replaced Simplenote with it. Worth a look at least.

Christian Bogen

Beware that at least the iPad version of Elements defaults to Windows line endings with no option to change that and even touches exisiting files' line endings which IMHO is quite frankly unacceptable. From what I've read the developer is well well aware of this has no intention to change the behavior or even make it configurable.

@Nathan Nutter and Matt Henderson: I’m aware of Notational Velocity but found that I prefer other applications on the Mac.

@Fedorov I simply wasn’t aware of Notesy. It does not appear to offer the search features I was looking for. In what ways did you find it better than Simplenote?

@Christian Bogen: I agree. That’s what I added the line about supporting LF (Unix-style) line breaks.

Might be worth pointing out that on the iPad Locayta Notes allows you to "Jump Within File". That feature hasn't made it into the iPhone UI yet.

[...] Dropbox API seems to use https, so it looks as though third-party clients, such as the iPhone text editors I compared, are not [...]

A few days late to this party, but I've recently switched to Notesy (from Elements), mainly because it allows different fonts for different files. It's not complete font freedom; you choose one proportional font and one monospaced font and can assign one or the other to each file. That works out just right for me.

I suspect that Simplenote's ability to jump inside a file when searching stems from it storing all the notes in a single database. Apps that are file based (all the others) may never be able to match Simplenote's smoothness in that regard.

Interestingly, my comparison post (thanks for the link!) was going to be a table like this one, but I couldn't figure out a way to be as succinct as you are. This is a really useful resource for people looking for a note-taking app.

Here's how Notesy would fit in your table. I hope the line breaks come through.

Notesy 1.6
Choose Folder on Dropbox: Yes
Nested Folders: No
Works Offline: Yes
Choose Font: Yes
Font Size: Yes
Font Color: Yes
Background Color: Yes
Multi-File Search: Yes
Search Results List: Yes
Jump Within File: No
LF Line Breaks: Yes
Sort by Name: Yes
Sort by Modified: Yes
Rearrange Lines: No
Versions: No
Price: $3

@Dr. Drang I’ve been having some problems with Simplenote, so seeing your post earlier today I decided to give Notesy a try. I like it a lot except for the search limitations. It gets “No” for both “Search Results List” (which refers to a list of matching lines in the file, like in BBEdit/Xcode) and “Jump Within File.”

I suspect that Simplenote's ability to jump inside a file when searching stems from it storing all the notes in a single database. Apps that are file based (all the others) may never be able to match Simplenote's smoothness in that regard.

This theory makes no sense to me. We’re just talking about searching within a single view, like in TextEdit and Safari on the Mac.

I see that I misunderstood your definition of Search Results List. I thought you meant providing a list of notes that contain the search string, which Notesy does. Apparently you're looking for something with more detail.

When I talk about Simplenote's ability to jump inside a note, I don't mean simply jumping from occurrence to occurrence within a note. I'm talking about how you start searching from the *list* of notes and then—once you select one of them—jump from occurrence to occurrence within the note. That's like having Text Edit's search ability start in its File Open dialog box—nothing like the behavior TexEdit has.

@Dr. Drang I understand the process you’re describing, and I can think of no reason why this would require a database, or even how having one would help.

[...] my previous comparison, I’ve experienced more problems with Simplenote and started using Notesy (prompted by Dr. [...]

Where are you on this quest, Michael? I've settled on Ulysses.

@Anonymous I’m using Working Copy.

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