Apps That Improve the iPad Typing Experience

A number of comments on my recent blog post indicated that many teachers and students find the experience of text entry on the iPad to be one of it’s biggest drawbacks. I read those comments and found myself nodding.

iPad Typing Woes

As a touch-typist, I am more productive on a physical keyboard when writing more than a few sentences. It isn’t just the speed of typing. There are some things that you simply can’t type! For example, chemical formulae generally contain subscript numbers to indicate the number of atoms of each element in a molecule (eg H₂O). There is no way to type a subscript number using the Apple onscreen keyboard. The same goes for typing many mathematical symbols. Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 3.18.42 PM

Many teachers don’t realise that pressing and holding certain keys on the iPad keyboard will bring up alternate characters (often the ones you would get by pressing the Option key on a Mac keyboard). For example pressing and holding on the 0 will pop up the option for a degree symbol. These are useful but there are many characters that you can’t access this way. There is no way to type the Greek symbol for Pi π, nor is there a way to type the copyright symbol ©.

Solutions

There are three apps that I’ve found though, which make the process of text creation much more efficient. The purpose of this post is simply to share those. No doubt there are other options which some of you have found. If so, I would love you to please share them in the comments.

I’d be lying if I said that these apps make typing on an iPad as efficient as typing on a computer. But they do make it much more efficient than without them. Whereas before I would rarely type much on my iPad at all (unless I had no choice), I’ve found since using these apps, if I’m comfortably seated on the couch, the bother of typing on my iPad is less than the bother of walking all the way into the other room where my computer is.

Textexpander

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 5.04.24 PM

Textexpander ($5.49) is an iOS version of an old, incredibly useful Mac program which runs system-wide to enable one to create snippets of text that will expand when a predefined shortcut is typed. This neat little application on my Mac has saved me 17 hours of typing in the past 6 months (according to the built-in statistics it keeps). There is also a Textexpander app for the iPad. Unfortunately because of Apple’s sandboxing policies, Textexpander can’t run system-wide, although it can operate in other apps, if they have taken advantage of the Textexpander SDK but only a minority of apps have this (Byword is one example, see below). Despite the sandboxing limitation, you can open the Textexpander app, expand the shortcut you want, and then copy and paste the result it into another application. If you are a science teacher, for example, you can save a shortcut such as “ggglucose” which will expand to C₆H₁₂O₆ complete with the subscripted numbers. This solution does require you to have already created snippets and shortcuts for all the things you might need, ahead of time. You can do that on a Mac though, as your Textexpander database can be synced through Dropbox.

Byword

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 12.10.36 PM

Byword ($2.99) is an iPad app for writers. It uses markdown syntax for headings, italics, bolding, lists and for inserting links. For me, it took half an hour of learning the markdown syntax, but then, it’s like a breath of fresh air to type on the iPad. Markdown syntax was new to me, but not at all difficult. For example, to *italicise* text you enclose it in a pair of asterisks. To make a first level heading you preface the text with a #.

The text in Byword is large, clear and full-screen (apart from the on-screen keyboard). Compared to typing in most apps it just feels really ‘open’ and clean. When typing on the iPad, half the screen is taken up by the keyboard, so the last thing you want is a row of formatting buttons across the top like you have in Pages, or for the app to only use 2/3 of the screen’s width (which is the case in most apps!). The image below compares Byword to three other commonly used text apps, in each case the text entry area is indicated by a dotted red line. A little bit of extra screen real estate makes a big difference.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 3.47.58 PM

It is also worth mentioning that Byword has built-in Textexpander support. So if I type one of my snippet shortcuts in Byword, it will expand to the full snippet. What a great time-saver if you have a large database of snippets saved in Textexpander!

The screenshots below show how the text I enter looks as it is being typed in markdown (and with Textexpander shortcuts), and how the text will look when exported to another app.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 2.40.32 PMScreen Shot 2013-01-07 at 2.41.37 PM Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 2.42.41 PM

Cymbol

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 12.09.27 PMAnother app that I think is very helpful if you ever find yourself needing to type characters that aren’t available on the standard iPad keyboard, is Cymbol ($1.99). This one is really simple. It’s really just an extra keyboard of characters that you can type. See screenshot below. There is nothing much to learn in this app. What you see is more or less what you get. There are many more symbols that could be included in Cymbol but aren’t. Nevertheless, it’s a great start.

Once you have typed the text you want, you can select parts of it, or simply hit the button that says “Copy All”. Then you can open any other app, such as Pages, Byword or WordPress and paste the text in. The superscript, subscript and other formatting is maintained when pasted.

There are a few “features” of Cymbol that I don’t like. But considering I haven’t found any other apps that do what Cymbol does – I have it on my highly recommended list.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 2.39.29 PM

Better Together

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 4.29.10 PM

Each of these apps is useful in itself, and each worth the asking price. But when you combine all three, they together become very useful. For example, just this afternoon, I found myself wanting to write the chemical formula for Hydrogen peroxide. So I went to Cymbol, and used the features there to create the formula with subscripts. Then I copied that and pasted it into Textexpander (screenshot right) to create a new snippet for which i created the shortcut pperoxide. Then over to Byword, I can simply type and each time I type pperoxide, it expands to H₂O₂. Pretty neat.

11 thoughts on “Apps That Improve the iPad Typing Experience

      • Thanks for another useful posting Andrew! I agree on all counts with Lynne; my typing is terrible too and the iPad certainly didn’t help in that regard . Further to our correspondence on your posting of December 21st (How an iPad is a More Powerful Content-Creation Device Than a Laptop), I followed your advice and purchased Byword. I have to say, it has gone a long way to making my iPad more usable for me (especially the fact that there is an ‘undo’ function – Eureka!) . While it is still a little clunky to have to compose my emails in Byword, and then export it to Mail, at least I will not lose hours of work by accidentally deleting text from an email and not being able to recover through a simple undo function! Thanks again for your advice Andrew.

      • Hey Eddie,
        I didn’t know about the undo command! I’m glad you mentioned it! Yes! I just typed something then deleted it and pressed the undo button and there it was back again! Thanks for sharing that!

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  4. Cymbol with Pages or iAWriter are really pretty effective.

    Since Cymbol has a fast copy all button, one key tap delivers footnotes or in your case the chemical formula for hydrogen peroxide or even combustion.

    CH₄ + 2O₂ → CO₂ + 2H₂O

    Voila so very easy to do!

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  7. Hi Andrew.
    Isn’t it crazy that all the apps of the App Store offer some awesome features but none offers them all.
    I use PLAINTEXT because it automatically saves text to Dropbox in a narrow timeframe.
    But there is no Search and no formatting at all. Does anybody understand why developers don’t look at the needs of iPad users?
    Another disadvantage for example is that Apple’s iWork offers WebDAV access but Dropbox does not.
    Sometimes I think about the iPad apps as an image of the Maldives i(s)Land. Every app is like one if the 1,192 islands and the Dhoni is the ‘Open in’ command of iOS. So the whole day you are travelling around and look for a suitable i(s)Land where you can do the job best.
    Thanks for your interesting article.

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