The iPad: Not the Writing Tool I'd Hoped For

I had high hopes. Something as portable and powerful as an iPad could be an amazing writing device, a tool you'd carry around with you all the time anyway, lightning quick to boot, and (almost) always connected to the Internet for instant back-up. Plus, the iPad's lack of multitasking is practically a feature for writers—no more constant alt-tabbing to the web browser to procrastinate. Brilliant. When I found out there were writing programs for it that synchronized directly with Dropbox, the service I use to back up and synchronize my files anyway, I went out and bought one, along with the Apple keyboard dock.

Now the iPad is amazing at a lot of things. For web browsing, watching videos (non-flash of course) and reading comic books it's perfect. There's an app called "Reeder" which has completely changed the way I interact with RSS feeds, allowing me to effectively take Google Reader on the subway. But alas, after trying out the major word processing options, all were missing key features that I'd come to take for granted, making them annoying to use at best.

I tried three programs, Documents to Go Premium ($15), QuickOffice ($10) and Pages ($10). At least price-wise, these are all pretty easy on the wallet, especially compared to computer standard Microsoft Word ($150). (Though is still free.)

Writing with Documents to Go (hereafter Docs2Go) or QuickOffice with the iPad keyboard dock, one huge problem became immediately apparent: The arrow keys do not work. Completely non-functioning. Think about this for a moment: imagine you're writing and you want to go back a few words or up to a previous line, and to do so you have to stop and poke at your document with your finger, which isn't always accurate. I can't tell you how aggravating this becomes, and it's especially worrisome since the Docs2Go people don't even think it's a bug.

Of course, in Apple's Pages, the arrow keys work just fine, but it's missing another standard convention of computer word processors. I was typing along, and I wanted to italicize a word. So I hit "Command-I". Nothing. Once again I had to stop and poke at the screen. To be fair, some command-key combinations do work in all the programs, specifically the ones for copy, paste and undo. But the ability to italicize, bold and underline from the keyboard is something I take for granted, not to mention the critical command-S for save. (Moot in Pages, though, which saves as you type, a great feature.)

Other problems are more niggling and specific, but no less damning. I had a word document that I couldn't open in Docs2Go for some reason, so I saved it as "docx", Microsoft's "open" XML format. Docs2Go read it fine, but after I edited it, OpenOffice couldn't read it anymore. I downloaded Microsoft's docx converter, and it told me the file was invalid. This wouldn't have been such a huge problem if Docs2Go had a simple "export" or "save as" feature where I could have changed the document's format. (Only Pages has this feature, another word processing standard, though Pages is limited to doc, PDF and Pages formats.)

Docs2Go doesn't synchronize with DropBox with every save, as my computer does, forcing you to back out to the containing folder to do so. QuickOffice does, but has a very small font set, is sluggish and doesn't save DropBox files locally so you can work on them when you're not connected to to the Internet. And Pages, of course, doesn't synchronize with any backup services at all, forcing you to copy files out with iTunes or email them to yourself, which is absurd. Part of the Dropbox problem has to do with the lack of multi-tasking and weird decisions Apple made about how to handle the file system; on regular computers, Dropbox creates a folder and background software makes sure anything in the folder is automatically synced as long as you're connected to the Internet—word processors don't have to worry about any of it. On the iPad, the Dropbox app cannot work in the background nor can it access local files created by other apps (though it can "export" to them). It would be fine, however, any of the word-processors could handle reading and writing Dropbox files in a seamless and unobtrusive way.

Pages would still seem like the clear winner here, but it doesn't have a feature as simple as a word count, nor does it have fonts in point sizes, using instead "styles" which may or may not be the size or bolding you want. It also has the annoying habit of not allowing paragraphs to be broken up between pages, meaning that when your writing reaches the bottom of the page, the whole screen judders as the paragraph is moved to the next page in an extremely distracting way.

All of the programs display a 12-point font (or "body" style in the case of Page) in a size I found too small to read comfortably while sitting back in a chair, and none of them have the ability to zoom the type larger (as a computer word processor does), forcing me to instead increase the font size of the whole document and then decrease it when I moved it back to my computer.

None of these are problems I have on my underpowered, cheaply made Linux netbook with free OpenOffice. And none of the problems have to do with the hardware. This is software that is missing so many features that on any other platform they would be laughed out of the market. And so, sadly, until the iPad is actually a better writing tool than the netbook which cost half the price, I'm sticking with the netbook.


Docs to go

I just bought an iPad and I have to admit that I'm pretty disappointed with the poor state of the basic productivity tools too. I recently bought "docstogo" and the app still doesn't read Word docs saved by OpenOffice... I was hopeful that this would change.

However, after reading the "support" forum link you posted I think that I'll just delete "docs to go" as well.
I mean, really, paying customers bother to sign in and give you feedback to make your product better and they get treated like that? That forum thread is the worst advertising a company could have. Buy our product and our support people will be complete douche bags to you. Nice.

You know I wasn't going to even consider jail breaking this thing when I bought it, but it seems so crippled it might be the only thing I can do to get some real use out of it. I wish I had read your post earlier.