The Future Of Writing: An iPad Review
Exclusively for ChuckPalahniuk.net
by Xander Davis
Imagine the freedom to easily type anytime, anywhere, without any hassle. The iPad just might grant you this wish, but you're not sure yet what to make of it, if it's worth the expense.
If you have a laptop, wherever you go, you've got your cumbersome bag, charger brick, and cable to lug along, like a nomad gypsy with only an hour or two of battery, or you're anchored entirely with a traditional desktop computer at home.
This was me, and now after taking a chance, I can say that the writer's dream machine has finally arrived.
I've been using an iPad to write for weeks now. I'm not talking about little e-mails and status updates. I'm talking about tapping out entire chapters on glass.
And I haven't looked back. Sure, it's not without its problems, but it certainly works so well, you'll want to bash up your laptop, Office-Space-Printer style, for making you suffer carrying its weight like Atlas this whole freaking time.
In fact, I'm writing this iPad review on the device right now. So let's get right down to it.
1. Typing on the Keyboard
How it felt to type and the accuracy were the biggest concerns I had about the iPad before pulling out the wallet to find out. It was a risk, but it paid off. Luckily, Apple has somehow done what seems improbable: the keyboard works like a charm.
There will be a few days of adjusting to it, where you can't help but stare at the keys themselves, but soon after that, you'll find yourself flying, watching your words appear in your document like magic. Without tactile sense, your brain starts remembering exactly where the keys are on the glass, exactly how to switch between character sets, and it's soon as effortless as a traditional keyboard. You'll realize you can take advantage of the auto-correct for things with apostrophes or even capitalization, making you faster, and the lack of a tab key on the actual keyboard isn't that big of a deal, since there's a tab button in each of your writing apps.
Don't bother getting the keyboard accessories; they defeat the whole point of the elegance and freedom of the iPad. Just take a few days to adapt and soon the only thing between you and the cursor will simply be ideas.
2. The Last Book Cover
You actually can easily set the iPad flat on its back, lean over it and type with few hiccups. But getting the official Apple iPad Cover ($40, but worth it) and folding it back into itself will prop it up at an angle and really improve your typing accuracy and comfort. The cover also makes handling the iPad itself more practical. It feels better in your hand, less likely to slip out and crack on the pavement.
Equally important, the cover hides the iPad, disguising it as simply a daily planner. Believe me, this is a very good trait. In public, nearly everyone will walk up to you and ask about your new, "magical" Apple gadget. Also, you might feel overly protective of it from theft. The cover helps it go incognito when it's just lying around on a desk, in your car, or even in your hand.
3. Battery Life is Amazing!
Leave that charger at home. You won't need it when you're out. I've regularly used my iPad for the entire day, off and on, writing here and there, watching movies, surfing the Internet, downloading apps, and never once did I run out of battery life.
Sure, by the time I'd get home into the late evening, I'd be down to about 25%, but I probably wouldn't have to charge it until bed if I really wanted to go crazy. Compared to the short-span battery life of traditional laptops, using a computer like this all day was impossible. This is a dream come true, especially if the words are really flowing and you don't want any interruptions.
Let's talk about the first critical app you will immediately buy after unboxing your shiny slate. Pages is the app to get if you're writing anything, especially if you need particular formatting.
In about ten minutes, I had created two important first documents: my novel template and my short story template, both adjusted to meet exact standard manuscript formatting. In under fifteen minutes, I had transferred my current novel text from my laptop (e-mail RTF to myself, copy and paste) to iPad Pages, and I was ready to rock.
From the iPad, you can e-mail your manuscript in Pages format, PDF, or as a Word Doc. You can also share your docs with iWork.com for free (though currently there's a lame 50 page limit). However, the exporting process is where Pages raises a major red flag right now, especially if your manuscript uses either Courier or Courier New (which it probably should, to meet certain manuscript standards).
Currently, an exported PDF will show up as completely blank when opened with Gmail's PDF viewer. Try downloading the PDF on Windows and opening it, and with Courier, you'll get a document full of dots; with Courier New, it reverts to an alternative system font, which looks horribly ugly (and non-standard, making you look unprofessional, should an agent or editor receive this from you).
It seems the iPad doesn't embed fonts into the PDF on export, and I've never ran into this problem anywhere else. I can't fathom how Apple missed this, because the entire point of a PDF is that it's portable. It should work anywhere.
It's completely unacceptable, but the day I discovered this problem, Pages was issued an update patch that fixed other exporting issues I hadn't even run into. So it seems Apple is likely going to get around to fixing these exporting issues eventually.
Judging from the shortage of supply and the staggered release dates of the iPad domestically and around the world, I'm guessing they've rolled out their new device and its software as fast as humanly possible, with some flaws like these. Luckily, updates to Pages will be free.
My current work-around is to simply e-mail it back to myself as a Word document, which I can open on my laptop, re-import into Final Draft into my novel template there, and re-export to PDF. Cumbersome, but really about a five or ten minute task. Luckily, this is not something I plan on doing often, but I still can't wait for Apple to get their act together on this one and issue the fix.
To get a draft to a friend on Windows for feedback, I had to convert all the text to Arial. So, apparently, the document only works on Windows if Windows has the font, despite it being a PDF.
Of course, iPad to Mac or iPhone, exporting and font viewing works just fine.
Day to day, all of this doesn't hinder the freedom of writing with the iPad, and that freedom alone makes it all worth it.
And no Word Count feature? Really, Apple? Really?! I added a web-page to my home screen to a copy-and-paste word-counter website (just Google 'cut and paste word count'). While again, not perfect, Final Draft also doesn't have a word count (again, ridiculous), so this isn't anything I'm not already used to doing. It all works like a virtual little Word Count app and requires 3G or WiFi to utilize.
Other than that, I have no other complaints with Pages.
5. Scripts Pro
While there will soon be Final Draft on iPad for screenwriting, there is a very enticing and low-cost alternative available right now: Scripts Pro. The same app works on both the iPad and iPhone. While I can imagine writing a screenplay with this on the iPhone, I can't imagine wanting to. It'd feel way too claustrophobic. However, on the iPad, it's a perfect experience that unlocks your ability to pen your next screenplay wherever the heck you want.
Probably the most amazing feature about it is the price. It's $5.99, compared to PC/Mac Final Draft's $250 price tag!
Scripts Pro also features a handy Tab key supplement to the iPad's OS keyboard. This is a very nice feature I wish Pages would implement.
I noticed a bug with the way the title page displayed my e-mail address. I was also annoyed that, while it can detect INT./EXT. or character dialogue headings, it doesn't currently auto-capitalize. That's about it for my gripes with the app.
I quickly sent my suggestions for improvements to the creator, Stephen M. Levinson, and he replied within minutes, informing me about a coming update (that I've since already happily installed) and that more updates were on the way. He added my requests to his development list and I’m excited to see them in soon.
When you create a script, you can pick between .TXT, .CELTX, and .FDX formats to save in, and the script writing experience in Scripts Pro is nicely the same regardless. That, in combination with the fact that you will forever get free updates, makes Scripts Pro a no-brainer purchase of amazing value.
While it isn't yet perfect, it's showing incredible promise that it will easily end up being a Final Draft killer.
A writer should be reading, and, luckily getting books on the iPad is an effortless joy.
While iBooks is visually striking with its bookshelf metaphor, where Kindle lacks in user interface design, it more than makes up for in Amazon's astounding content availability. The iBookstore barely ever has anything I'm looking for, yet.
The Barnes and Noble app is hailed by many as the best, but I find it annoying I can’t delete the sample books it shoves in your face, namely Laura Bush’s memoir, and while it offers a lot of customization features, the content availability is also lacking.
Nobody is beating Kindle right now.
I've already been using Kindle for iPhone anyway, and Amazon thankfully allows you to keep all your purchases saved in your account, re-downloadable as many times as you want, to as many devices as you want. I've got all my past purchases, like Fight Club, Neuromancer, Apathy and Other Small Victories, Layer Cake, Casino Royale, and so on, with other new purchases like The Great Gatsby and a pre-ordered auto-delivering Imperial Bedrooms.
There's also a handy Kindle Store feature that allows you to send an alert off to the publisher of books not currently available; you can't do that with the iBookstore or Barnes and Noble. I wanted all of Bret Easton Ellis’s books (only Lunar Park was available) and clicked this notification link. Within a week, they were all made available by June 9th. They downloaded immediately to my iPad at that date exactly at midnight!
Amazon’s customer service is amazing. I had trouble getting a past purchase to download on my iPad, even though it would download on my iPhone. I clicked a link from their website to have Amazon call me, and within minutes I was talking to an American who pressed a few buttons and remotely solved the problem. The book downloaded as we were on the phone.
With iBooks, I'm not sure if you can re-download books you've already purchased if you somehow lose or delete them, as you can with Amazon's Kindle.
Kindle's reading experience is also less metaphorical than the iBooks. While you can activate page flipping, I prefer the straight up slightly yellow tinted page of text with no graphical border, which I can flip through quickly. It’s less distracting and makes the content more the center of attention.
To me, when I can carry my entire library around in a pad-thick device, the future of the literary world is clearly on screen. With all three platforms (iBooks, Kindle, and Barnes and Noble) offering direct eBook self-publishing, the future of publishing itself is already changed and will continue to change fast.
7. Other Apps to Get for Writing
Here are a few other handy apps I use while writing: Dictionary (free; includes Thesaurus), Wikipanion (free), Maps (included), Jumbo Calculator, and Convertbot. I also recommend adding home screen icon links from Safari for Cut and Paste Word Count, Urban Dictionary, and RhymeZone. With these, it's never been easier to research things and locations. Once the multi-tasking ability comes in the update for iPad's OS this fall, it will be even more a breeze.
8. Definitely Go 3G
Don't skimp and cheat yourself out of more anytime-anywhere ability for researching details for your writing. Don't just get the Wi-Fi iPad. You definitely want one with 3G.
The data plan is pre-paid monthly and ordered on demand. You don't have to keep ordering it every month if you don't want to, but I certainly am doing that. To me, having the Internet in hand, all the time, is just invaluable.
AT&T did really screw this up though. They sent us back to the ages of dial-up billing, where you paid for bandwidth. Before June 7th, customers got to pay just $30 bucks for unlimited. After June 7th, this option is gone to any newcomers, while only existing customers can keep it. Now, there are only two options: $15 for 250 MB or $25 for 2GB. LAME. If you got in early, you’re lucky. Everyone else has to now manage their use of the iPad, which is horrible. It was such a joy to freely use the Internet and apps like Netflix on the iPhone and iPad, but this is going out the window. The demand is either too great on AT&T’s networks, or they’re just being greedy jerks.
2GB probably won’t be consumed on general web-surfing in a month, but you might need to be more careful for anything else. The new plans shouldn’t choke your ability to research Google Maps, Wikipedia and send PDFs around for your writing. If you’ve got a wifi hotspot at home, definitely use it over 3G. And if there are wifi hotspots out in the world that you think would make comfy writing nooks away from your home, now you can easily go right ahead and enjoy them with the ease the iPad provides.
9. Do More
Unlike buying a Kindle or a Nook, you're not buying an iPad just to read eBooks, and you can do much more than just write with it. The iPad is fast becoming a total replacement for the laptop. The magic of the screen is that it can become anything. Whatever you want to do, there's an app for that.
It's great for anything, especially killing time. My girlfriend and I were standing a half an hour in line to eat at Phil's BBQ in Point Loma, San Diego this past Sunday, but the wait flew by as we split a pair of earbuds to watch an episode of The Office on Netflix (streaming over 3G) and later played a fun game of Checkers. Every time we go out to eat, we sit side by side in a booth and play an awesome game called Angry Birds (seriously, check that out). Everyone looks at us with envy. Be that couple! Which leads me to the final reason.
10. You Look Good
I can't tell you how many times people have come up to me with eyes lit up, like kids in a candy store. People are entranced by the elegance and beauty of this device and you look damn cool penning the next great American novel or Hollywood hit on it. But it's not just how you look; it's how you act with an iPad. You're not fumbling around with your load of tangled, heavy gear. You're on the go, agile and ready for anything, anywhere, in any situation.
Conclusion: Get One Now
As a writer, the iPad is everything I hoped it would be and then some. I had truly high hopes for how it could change my writing habits and it has completely surpassed them. I’ve also never read so much; I must have bought three dozen eBooks in the last three weeks. I definitely recommend getting the 32 GB or 65 GB version and not the 16 GB (you don't want to run out of space with what will quickly become your primary computer).
It truly is a revolution that's going to usher in a new era of mobile computing. I can't imagine going back. Go get one and enjoy your new, amazing writing experience!
Xander Davis is writing a novel, producing electronic music as Force Effect on iTunes, and designing in the video game industry for Activision as a User Interface Artist at High Moon Studios on Transformers: War for Cybertron (out June 22nd). He was born in 1984, raised in Ohio, is a graduate of Wright State University and lives in San Diego, California.