Wonderful! System-wide iPad text expansion

“Frankly, I don’t know how I managed to overlook the power of this for so long!”

The Problem: Some characters cannot be typed on the iPad Keyboard!

I love the iPad for many reasons, but typing on it is like trying to pick up watermelon seeds. The biggest (not the only) issue I have with the iPad keyboard, is that there are some characters that you simply cannot type! It’s crazy! Try typing a © symbol, or a greek character like µ, and you simply can’t do it. Nor can you type subscripts. That’s right – NO SUBSCRIPTS! (can you sense my eyelid twitching?). As a biology teacher, I need to type subscripts!  (Apple, do you realise how hard it is to write about biochemistry when you can’t even type “H₂O”?!)  In my previous post, I discussed one work-around, using the Cymbol app, and that’s handy for one-off instances when you need to type something unusual.  But this is a MUCH better tip – especially for characters you need to type often.

The Solution: System-wide text expansion using Shortcuts

In my previous post, I mentioned TextExpander, which works well in the handful of apps that have incorporated it’s SDK.  In all others one needs to copy, switch apps and paste – a pretty clumsy workflow.  A much more elegant solution as I have discovered is using Shortcuts. Frankly, I don’t know how I managed to overlook the power of this for so long!

This doesn’t even require you to download an app!  iOS comes with a built-in customisable Shortcuts option in the Settings app (look in Settings > General > Keyboard > Shortcuts > Add New Shortcut). The most obvious use for this (and what it was intended for) is setting short abbreviations for longer messages.  If you are the sort who is often running late you can create a shortcut “omw” that when typed into a text message will expand to “I’m on my way” (So that you don’t make yourself even later, typing out the full message on the virtual keyboard, then editing it because it was changed to something ridiculous by autocorrect).   BUT, and here is what I’m excited about,  that expanded Phrase in Shortcuts can be anything you’d like it to be.  It can be a whole essay or just a single Greek character!

Simply go to the Shortcuts section in Preferences, and type (or paste) the character or expanded text you want to appear into the “Phrase” field.  Then type your desired abbreviation into the Shortcut field.  Tap ‘Save’. That’s it.Untitled-14.jpg

For example, if I want to be able to type C₆H₁₂O₆, I paste that chemical formula into the “Phrase” field, and then type the shortcut “gglucose” into the Shortcut field. (see image). Strangely, even though you can’t type these things on an iPad, if you copy and paste them, subscripts, superscripts and special characters are maintained and work just fine. The trick here, is to create all the “Phrases” on your computer, then email them to yourself, open the email on your iPad and copy and paste them into the “Phrase” field of each Shortcut.

I make my Shortcuts a description of the result I want, with a double letter to begin with: “gglucose”, “ccarbondioxide”, “ccopyright”, “mmicroL”. Then when I want “5 µL”, I simply type “5 mmicroL”. This text expansion works system-wide, and is synced accross all my iOS devices automatically via iCloud.

If you are a science teacher, this is cause for rejoicing!  But for everyone else, it’s also useful for common replies you make to emails or other oft-typed tidbits of information. If, for example, I get an invitation to a school for a date on which I already have a booking, I type “ddateclash” and it expands to:

Thank you for the invitation.  I would have loved to present at your college.  Unfortunately I do not have that date available due to a prior booking. I do hope that your Professional Learning day is a great success, regardless.
Sincerely, Andrew

If someone emails to ask me for a photo of myself, I can reply with “pphotoofme” and it expands to http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4495191/PhotoOfAndrewDouch.jpg – the download link for a head and shoulders photo of me in my dropbox public folder.

What a time saver!  The half hour I invested in creating my shortcuts, will be paid back to me with interest before the month’s end.

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 ©.


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.


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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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Better Together

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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.