Saturday 9 November 2013

The best smartphone for writers

"I'm a writer. Which smartphone should I buy?"

This is a question I hear all the time. I'm not only an author: I also work for a major phone retailer on a part time basis, and I spend my working days advising customers on which smartphone is the right choice for them. The industry moves at a phenomenal pace and a lot of my work involves keeping up to date with recent advances.

I've already covered tablet computers for the writer, and even hacked ereaders, but what about smartphones? Surely it's impossible to get any meaningful work done on such a small screen? Think again...

Android won the war

The Web is full of fanboys, jealously defending their chosen operating system, but as a technology enthusiast I'm platform agnostic. I use whatever gets the job done.

As 2013 draws to a close it has become clear that, for the moment at least, Android has won the platform war. Google's operating system has beaten its competitors on multiple fronts: power, flexibility, choice of device, productivity tools. Apple's iOS isn't far behind these days, but it remains relatively simplistic and the iPhone has a tiny screen (great for a phone, not so great for a pocket computer). As for Windows Phone, it showed much initial promise but has failed to deliver, and remains a primitive operating system which doesn't even support the use of an external keyboard! I used a Windows Phone last year and eagerly awaited the promised improvements, but they simply didn't appear and Microsoft is now at least two years behind Google.

So, for the purposes of this article I will be looking at Android devices. These machines are just as capable as tablet computers, only in a smaller package.

The appropriate task for the appropriate screen

With a little care and preparation, a modern Android machine is capable of doing almost every single task a writer requires of a computer. Who would have thought the day would come when you could write an entire novel on a phone?

You'll need to decide which specific tasks you want your phone to achieve. Some writers will simply be looking for a social media tool to help them maintain their author platform when away from their desk; others may want to actually write on their phone as well. A smartphone is a computing Swiss army knife that can turn its talents to almost any task - but unlike a PC, a smartphone has a small screen running only a single task at once, so it retains an admirable degree of focus.

There are, of course, some tasks you simply can't do on a smartphone. I can't do intensive editing (although lightweight editing is practical to an extent), I can't run page layout software, I can't comfortably code HTML, and I can't compile eBooks.

Here is a list of "writer tasks" I use my smartphone for:
  1. Email
  2. Task management
  3. Social media (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest etc)
  4. Access to my library of research, document clippings, and stored photos
  5. Taking photos
  6. Writing first draft material (I'll come back to this!)
  7. Lightweight editing
Any Android smartphone will be able to cope with tasks 1-5. When conducting field work in the initial stages of planning and prewriting a novel, having a pocket computer with built-in camera and mobile broadband really is an incredible benefit: it allows you to capture and record every discovery straight away, write notes, and send all this data back to your PC for further analysis. It beats the traditional combination of paper notebook and camera hands down.

If you need no more from a smartphone than this, read no further: go to your latest phone shop and get an Android handset that suits your budget and personal preference. You'll need to spend at least £200 (SIM free) or £17/month (contract) to get a good quality device.

If, however, you want a little bit more from a smartphone - something that can be used for producing content as well as standard phone tasks - then read on!

The challenge of writing on a smartphone

Smartphones have small screens compared to any computer you've used, but they are increasing in size. The average high-end smartphone in 2013 has a 5" display, and you can now get 6.3" behemoths. Devices with screens more than 5" in diagonal are halfway between phones and tablets, and have been dubbed "phablets."

Many people believe phablets are too big and unwieldy, but the big screen can be a tremendous advantage and they tend to have slim profiles. The large screen of a phablet makes writing first draft material more comfortable. Using the onscreen touch keyboard is surprisingly practical for short writing sessions, but for more serious writing you will want a Bluetooth keyboard.

I recently purchased a Think Outside Bluetooth folding keyboard. Manufactured in 2004, this great piece of hardware was one of the first portable Bluetooth keyboards ever produced. It runs on AAA batteries, is compatible with modern devices, folds to a pocketable size, and is clad in a robust aluminium shell. Better yet, I picked it up on eBay for less than £20. 

You will also want a folding stand of some sort. They can be bought very cheaply on eBay.

The resulting setup provides you with a small (but usable) display area and a very comfortable keyboard for touch typing.

Apps are, of course, also important. I currently use Dropbox, Draft (a truly excellent text editor), Google Drive, and Quickoffice. Together these cover all the bases and I can open any document on my setup, including Excel spreadsheets and complex Word documents. 

My device of choice

I'm sure you're curious to hear which device currently gets my recommendation. As pictured above, it's the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

The Note 3 running Nova Launcher instead of the
abominable launcher Samsung installs on
their devices by default...
This is the Rolls Royce of the smartphone world: expensive, fully-featured, and packed with every productivity feature you could wish for. At over £600 unlocked, this is the "money no object" option, but in my opinion it's the best smartphone for writers currently available.

(Quick note: I would normally pick something less expensive, but let's just say there are certain benefits to my job!)

Aside from the 5.7" HD screen, the best feature of this machine is the "S Pen". This is a detachable stylus which makes use of the display's pressure-sensitive digitizer. In plain English this means you can use it to write or draw directly onto the screen. It's accurate, too - it feels like a real pen, rather than the thick and clumsy rubber-tipped stylus I used to use with my old iPad.

Another important feature for the writer who conducts field work is battery life. I can easily get two days of use between charges with the Note 3, and it's almost impossible to drain the battery in a day.

Samsung includes a bewildering array of extra software on their devices. Most of it is junk, installed as a strategic move in case they ever fall out with Google. The first thing I did when I got my Note 3 was to disable all the useless Samsung apps I will never use; the second thing I did was to install Nova Launcher, which provides a better and more customisable desktop experience. The end result is something that looks a lot like stock Android 4.3 but can still take advantage of the more useful Samsung additions.

Final words

Smartphone choice is very personal and not everyone will like the Note 3. It's undeniably huge, comes with a hefty price tag, and has a thin plastic shell. However, the extra screen real estate and superior battery life are qualities that any writer will find useful if they want more than just the standard phone features from their smartphone.

Some other good choices in the high end:
  • Google Nexus 5. This is Google's newest "pure Android" offering, and offers a high quality machine with a great display at an affordable price point. However, battery life is a concern. This was also my experience with the Nexus 4 (otherwise a brilliant device).
  • Samsung Galaxy S4. This can be a considered a stripped-down version of the Note 3, with a smaller screen, smaller battery, and no S Pen.
  • HTC One. Good battery life and sturdy aluminium construction.
  • Sony Xperia Z1. This one is water and dust resistant.
And some more affordable options (which tend to have smaller screens, smaller batteries, and slower processors):
Of course there is one more choice ... the dependable old Palm m500! I still have mine and it's still going strong, providing sterling service when I go to the mountains and need something indestructible for writing and nothing else.

Writers: what smartphone do you have, and what tasks do you use it for?

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