Noel Rappin Writes Here

I Feel Textastic

Posted on January 19, 2011

So, back in the summer when I started my bizarre quest to edit my book on the iPad, I had three requirements.

  • Be able to read the book files from Dropbox

  • Support for editing HTML/XML files, syntax coloring, extra keys, something like that.

  • TextExpander integration to make it easier to type the markup tags.

It quickly became clear that I was the only person in the world looking for this exact set of features.
There wasn’t any editor that met all those requirements, so I bought a bunch of other editors and obsessively reviewed them on this very site. Naturally, because sometimes the universe loves irony, a new version of editor meeting these features was released a mere week after I turned in the final draft. It’s called Textastic, and I’m typing on it right now, though I’ll probably edit this in MarsEdit later.

Summary: Textastic is nice. It’s got some features that I really like and an overall feeling of being polished. I think it would work fine to do some basic editing on a code file, though it’s obviously not TextMate or Vim. As a writing/blogging tool, it’s close, but I think it’s a point releases or two away from being fully baked – it’s about 80% baked at the moment.

Now here’s the part where I give enough details to let you know whether to spend your money. Textastic is $9.99, which isn’t a lot in the absolute sense, but is more than some of the other tools that I’d be comparing it to.

I’m noticing kind of a conceptual split among the cloud/dropbox text editors. Some, like PlainText, try to make it feel like you are actually editing the file on the remote server, primarily by automatically saving the file to the cloud. Others, like iaWriter, clearly want you to feel like you are editing on the iPad, and only backing up to Dropbox when you want. Textastic is clearly in the latter group.

Pressing a globe-shaped icon from the main display flips the text edit pane over to reveal a dual-pane file browser. Local files on the left, remote files on the right. Remote files can come from Dropbox, FTP, or WebDAV, and you can download them individually or folder-by-folder. The file structure on the iPad does not need to match the file structure remotely, which is nice. Even better, Textastic keeps track of the remote source of each file. When you are editing the file, the standard-looking export icon allows you to easily upload or update the file being worked on, making simple what might otherwise be a pain. It’s easy to download, say, an entire Rails project at once, but you are going to want to delete a lot of directories – Textastic will even grab the Git subdirectory.

Actual file editing is largely what you’d expect. Easily reachable and usable settings allow you to choose from five monospaced fonts, set the font size, plus turn on or off auto-correct and TextExpander. You can also pinch in the text edit field to zoom in, effectively increasing or decreasing the font size. This is more effective than I would have thought, although it does have what seems to be an unpredictable relationship with the actual font size as you set in a dialog.

Textastic has syntax coloring for just about anything you’ll want, and even better, allows you to specify the syntax for each file. There’s a find and find-and-replace dialog, and line and column position is discreetly displayed in the upper right. The soft keyboard has an extra set of keys containing programmer specialty punctuation, including parens, brackets, braces, and greater-than less-than, making HTML typing possible. HTML and Markdown can be previewed in the app.

There’s a lot of features here and they are nicely tied together. I’m finding Textastic to be decent at tweaking existing code files, and I think I would have been happy to edit or write Prag book files (which are essentially XML) on it, especially with a little TextExpander love.

Using it as a blogging tool, though, exposes some weaknesses that will hopefully be addressed in point releases – there are a couple of bugs around auto-correct, and some typographic things about spacing when it’s wrapping long lines. Both of those are kind of minor. One thing that is weird is that the text field is noticeably sluggish. Typing on the bluetooth keyboard, I can easily get a word or two ahead of the display, and I can even get a little ahead of it on the soft keyboard – I assume that the calculations for syntax coloring are slowing it down. This can be frustrating combined with the autocorrect bugs.

Still, those are minor quibbles in what is overall a useful app. As an iPad code editor, it’s the best I’ve seen, and it’s very close to PlainText or iaWriter as a quick typing app. I’m looking forward to see where this one goes.


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