Wednesday 30 January 2013

A tablet computer as writer's companion

Google Nexus 7 for writers

"They're unsuitable for real work. You need a laptop."
"Just a passing fad."
"Tablets are for content consumption, not creation."
"How are you supposed to type on a touchscreen keyboard?"

UPDATED JULY 2013 — scroll to the bottom to read my latest thoughts

UPDATED MAY 2015 — check out this article for other uses for tablet computers

I've lost count of the number of times I have heard similar criticisms of tablet computers, but nowadays such complaints are out of date. In this article I will outline my experiences of writing with tablet computers, and also provide some guidance for authors considering making the jump from a laptop or desktop.

Tablets and me

When the original iPad launched in 2010, I was intrigued. Apple had created a cheap, lightweight, and extremely portable computer with an intuitive user interface anyone could master. As an iPod Touch user since 2008 it was a natural step for me and in late 2010 I purchased an iPad, together with an easel stand and a wireless keyboard. The opinion of the time was that iPads were strictly entertainment devices suitable for watching films and playing games, not for writing, but I had read about intrepid authors starting to dip their toes into content creation on their iPads, and I was determined to try it for myself.

Writing on an iPad
The first draft of OGJ on my original iPad
As I soon discovered, a tablet is simply perfect for writing on the move.

Firstly, there's the portability. An iPad--even the thickset, heavy design of 2010--is far lighter and more compact than almost any laptop computer. Even if you carry a wireless keyboard with you, I hear you cry? Well, not quite ... but as I came to appreciate, you don't always need an external keyboard.

It turns out that typing on the glass touchscreen is actually very comfortable and I managed to churn out words almost as quickly as using a real keyboard. Of course, for longer typing sessions physical keys are preferable, but the virtual keyboard is quite serviceable 70% of the time.

Secondly: battery life. An iPad battery with a full charge will last for ten hours. The vast majority of laptops (even brand new ones) will struggle to achieve anything like that kind of longevity.

Thirdly (and this may not sound much, but it's actually massive): it's a single-tasking operating system. You can switch apps, but the task you are working on fills the entire screen. There are no multiple windows vying for your attention, just a screen of text and a blinking cursor. It turns out the simple word processors of the '80s actually had a big advantage after all: they aided focus and did not distract you while writing.

Finally, there's cost. For £400 you can get a top of the range tablet computer, or you can get a rubbish laptop. For writing purposes I know which I would choose.

I eventually sold my iPad as my working habits changed and I stopped writing on the go, but a few months ago I found myself in a similar situation again, frequently writing in cafes or at work. My trusty old Palm m500 was getting long in the tooth and my netbook was monstrously slow, so I decided to get a Google Nexus 7 tablet.

This is an Android device so quite different to the iPad. The screen is only 7" diagonally and has a longer, thinner aspect ratio. It runs Google's Android 4.2 operating system, which is far more versatile than Apple's iOS (with a proper file system and genuine USB support) but is more prone to crashes and has fewer dedicated writing apps. iPads have taken off as creative tools for writers in the three years since the device was first launched, but Android tablets remain relatively obscure. On the other hand, they are far cheaper; I got a 32GB model for only £200.


To use a tablet as a portable writing machine, you are going to need a few accessories.


A big glass screen (even if it is made from Gorilla Glass) can get scratched, so you will need some form of case. iPads have the rather nifty smart cover, but it only protects the front. I find that some kind of simple fabric pouch is the most practical solution.


Broadly speaking, you have three options. Wireless keyboards either work via Bluetooth (widely supported, but connection can be flaky) or via USB dongle (only works on Android tablets with a USB OTG host cable). Wired keyboards are often device-specific although Android tablets can use a regular USB desktop keyboard if you have the OTG host cable. I currently use the Logitech K400 keyboard with built-in trackpad--it happens to be my regular desktop workstation keyboard--but I have used the Apple wireless keyboard in the past and that is also excellent.


If using your device with a keyboard, you need some way of propping the tablet up at a comfortable angle. It's possible to spend obscene amounts on a tablet stand if you have the money to splash around, but something like this works just as well and is much lighter than sculpted aluminium...

USB On-The-Go host cable

This is for Android machines only, but is an indispensable little gadget that enables you to connect your computer to any device that runs on USB. That means keyboards, mice, flash drives, hard disks, you name it!


iPad at work in my shed
The iPad at work in my shed in 2011
A tablet is generally useless for writing without some third-party software. Everyone has different preferences but here I will talk a little about some of the apps I have used. All of these apps connect to some form of cloud storage (often Dropbox) for convenience. Most writers using a tablet will be dealing with files in plain text (.TXT) format for portability; although it's possible to work with formatted text, usually Markdown, for some reason this is something tablets can't do very well just yet. However, I'm of the firm belief that if you do your writing on more than one machine, plain text is the way to go.

For the iPad

When I first started using the iPad, I used Apple's Pages app. It's serviceable but very much style over substance (or at least it was in 2010). It can be useful for page layout but generally speaking there are better options for text processing.

Writings is the best writing app I used when I had an iPad. Like many similar apps, it synchronises with a Dropbox folder and provides a focused, distraction-free writing environment. The font and background colour can be customised to your preference, and best of all it features a bespoke virtual keyboard with useful punctuation shortcuts, and a tab key, on the top row. I wrote about half the first draft of The Only Genuine Jones with the Writings app.

Most of the other iPad writing apps work along the same basic lines, for example Elements. It's worth trying out several until you find one that best suits you.

For Android machines

Android tablets are still a rather new, geeky corner of the market, inhabited more by tech fans than writers. However, I'm finding my Nexus 7 to be just as good for writing than my old iPad--if not more so. The addition of USB and a genuine file system compensate for the lack of writing apps.

At the moment I use the most excellent Jota+ text editor. It's fast, fully featured, customisable, can open multiple files in different tabs, and can connect to almost any cloud storage system (or the internal file system of the device itself). It's perfect for my writing needs and can even be used as a programmer's editor for web design. Where it falls down compared to iPad solutions is elegance and focus: because it can do more, the screen is more cluttered.

Jota+ on Nexus 7
Jota+ running on my Nexus 7
Evernote is one of those pieces of software that seems to be everywhere: it runs on practically every digital device created in recent years, and as such is the perfect digital notepad for authors. Until recently I used Onenote because it integrated better with my PC and my Windows Phone, but Onenote for Android is awful and crippled, so I migrated my stuff to Evernote. How does it work? Essentially, it's a categorised and organised notebook for storing anything you might need. You can even use it for writing first draft material if you want, but I still think a general text editor is better for that.

Evernote Nexus 7
Spoilers pixelated out...
Lastly, Drive is Google's native answer to cloud systems like Dropbox and Skydrive. I happen to use all three, but Drive is particularly useful for keeping spreadsheets synchronised with your tablet. I use it for logging my sales on Amazon.

Google Drive Nexus 7
It's really no secret that I never sell any books on Smashwords!
Final thoughts

Hopefully this article has proven instructive for authors considering getting a tablet computer. I've really only scratched the surface, but as tablets continue to replace netbooks, laptops, and even pads of paper for an increasing number of writers, their usefulness will only improve over time. New apps and ways of working will emerge. I for one welcome the fast, small and light revolution in computing. We need no longer be tethered to our desk, or even to a heavy rucksack of laptop gear and a battery that dies in two or three hours.

Writers: do you have anything to add? What are your favourite tablet writing apps and peripherals?

Addendum July 2013

Since writing this article it has become my post popular post, and has seen heavy traffic from users Googling terms like "what is the best tablet to use for writing?" I thought I would add a few points I've learned over the past six months.

I'm still using the Nexus 7, which has proven to be an extremely versatile writing tool. Since writing this article I have purchased a Bluetooth keyboard specifically designed for the Nexus 7. It's only a little over £20 from Amazon, but I'm impressed with the quality. Yes the keys are small, but I've always favoured small keyboards and I'm able to achieve a decent typing speed with perfect comfort. It also clips onto the front of the tablet to protect the screen. The only downside is that the letters have worn off the keys after about four months of moderate use ... even so, it's by far the best keyboard solution for the Nexus 7 and I would recommend it to all writers.

I have recently discovered a great text and Markdown processor for Android called Draft. It integrates with Dropbox, has full folder support, is a modern Holo-themed app, and is actually a lot more fluid and easier to use than Jota+ mentioned in this article (itself a very decent piece of software). It has all the usual gubbins like word count, spellcheck etc. but also has easy support for colour themes and font customisation. Check it out - it's one of the best pure writing apps for Android tablets currently available.


Unknown said...

Most of my work involves writing manuscripts for journals, using Microsoft World (2003, of course!). Normally, my working documents are saved to google drive, allowing me to access and edit them from where I find a computer. Are there software packages for google tablets which would allow my to edit the native Word file without having to convert it if I decided to work on a tablet?

I have been thinking about buying a tablet for work, but every time I think about it, I simply cannot justify it: There is nothing as productive as working on 2 22" monitors ran by a desktop computer, which is able to run the necessary software for creating the accompanying graphics for the manuscript. Although the price of the machine (and one monitor) was approximately £200 more then a tablet, the machine is exponentially more capable of carrying out more tasks then a tablet. The only thing the desktop falls down on is mobility!

I suppose for the price of £200, a tablet would probably be more powerful and faster then the netbook which I bought for field work, but only as long as I can edit microsoft Office files on it.

Alex Roddie said...

To be honest Steve, for native Office document editing you still need Windows and Office. I think the Surface Pro tablet will make a good compromise, but it's super expensive at the moment (maybe in three or four years it will be closer in price to the Android variants). It's possible to edit Word documents on iPads and Android machines but it's very hit and miss if you want to retain formatting.

My article is really focused on fiction authors who deal with plain text and are looking for a mobile computer--for which purpose I think a tablet can really beat a laptop at the moment, but clearly not as your main computer...

I'm with you regarding the workstation setup. I still use a desktop for the heavy lifting work at home and suspect I always will!