Choosing between two iOS text editors: PlainText and Elements

Three excellent text editors for iOS have appeared on the iTunes Store in the past few weeks, and it has taken me a while to test them all. I realise I’ve already, rather confusingly, written about my initial impressions on the pre-existing WriteRoom for iPhone, as well as the newly-released DropText and iA Writer, but I have since been able to try—and compare—two other new Dropbox-enabled additions to the competition: Jesse Grosjean’s free, ad-supported (not that I ever saw any ads) PlainText, and Second Gears’s Elements.

Both are universal apps, meaning you can use the same interface on your iPhone and iPad. Both offer background sync (although there are issues with the current version of Plaintext. Both are TextExpander-enabled which, these days, is almost a deal-breaker and is something iA Writer doesn’t offer. And, obviously, both offer the distraction-free, text-only writing that a growing number of people seem to prefer and which is really the only alternative for anyone seriously wishing to write on a mobile device.

Elements on the iPhone
Elements on the iPhone: I've customized the font and screen to white Helvetica on black, but you can set it to anything you like.

The main differences are as follows:

  • PlainText allows you to choose the folder with which you link in your Dropbox account, which means it can be integrated into your existing Dropbox folder structure; Elements forces you to use a new root-level folder, and forces you to call it Elements;
  • Elements allows you to choose your background and font colour; Plaintext does not, forcing you to adopt a combination of a white background and a Times font which, while not particularly distracting, may not be most people’s preference; ironically, this means Elements can be made to resemble Hog Bay’s award-winning Writeroom, my favourite Mac text editor, whereas Hog Bay’s sister product Plaintext may not;
  • Elements allows you to turn spellchecking on or off;
  • Elements incorporates a rather clever innovation, called the scratchpad, which opens up a small window on which you can temporarily store text for future use if required; a useful innovation;
  • Elements is the only Dropbox-enabled application I know of that allows you to delete as well as create text documents on your Dropbox.

You could sum up the pros and cons of the three apps as follows:

Comparative table: iA Writer, Plaintext and Elements
Comparative table: iA Writer, PlainText and Elements. No one app has everything, but each has enough to justify a loyal following. Elements still ticks the largest number of boxes, though.

As things stand at present, I’ve chosen to install Elements on both my iPhone and my iPad. It doesn’t have the nice custom keyboard that iA Writer has, but I have no real need for this as I always have a Bluetooth keyboard with me when I’m planning to do serious writing, and I’ve worked out how to use an AZERTY keyboard, which has better key layout, even when I’m writing in English. It’s also the only one of the three that I can customise to use with a white font on black background that I find most conducive to distraction-free writing, and it’s Textexpander-enabled, which I find it difficult to do without.

Elements on the iPad
Elements on the iPad, showing the scratchpad on which you can store any text you may need to refer to or copy from while writing.

All this may change, of course, if and when Jesse Grosjean brings out an updated iOS version of WriteRoom for iPhone and iPad: he’s promised it would be a Universal, Dropbox-enabled iOS equivalent of the unbeatably excellent WriteRoom app that I’ve been using faithfully on my Mac for the past four years.