Byword vs iA Writer: Minimalist Writing on the iPhone

The iPhone can be a professional writing platform. Yeah, I get these looks a lot when I say that, but it’s true! Granted, the larger iPad screen and keyboard are more comfortable, but if you don’t have a tablet or for some reason, you can make do with the iPhone quite nicely (and if you do have a tablet, check out this same comparison on our sister site, iPad.AppStorm).

Today we’ll take a look at two writing apps who stand for a very minimalistic approach in both their design and feature set, but are still powerful enough to serve the needs of even professionals. Byword and iA Writer have both long been popular Markdown editors on the Mac and have become available for the iPhone only recently. Let’s compare the two and see which one fits your requirements best.

The Premise: Minimal & Markdown

Neither one of these editors is stuffed with functions as you might expect them from Pages or any other word processor. In fact, that’s one of their appealing features — to leave out everything that you don’t absolutely need to allow you to focus on your writing instead of the writing tool. Of course, conversely, this also means that if you’re looking for something to lay out your text, arrange it in tables and insert images, these two apps are not necessarily made for you.

But, and it’s a huge but, you’re not left without any options; both Byword and iA Writer use the Markdown method to format text. It’s an easy to learn method to use symbols to create headings, lists or even more advanced styling. So, let’s see how they let you do that.

The Interface

Both apps get completely out of your way when writing. Each of them allows you to use both landscape and portrait orientation while entering information, with the keyboard displayed on the bottom and an additional set of keys arranged on top of the normal keyboard.

LEFT: Byword // RIGHT: iA Writer

LEFT: Byword // RIGHT: iA Writer

As you can see, Byword leaves some more room for the actual writing area by narrowing the row of additional keys. iA Writer, on the other hand, removes the chrome completely; meaning that the app fills out the entire iPhone screen, removing even the top bar with the clock.

Both apps allow you to name the current document you’re working on right from within the file itself by tapping the upper info bar. This bar, which also allows you to navigate to the document overview or to export a file, is hidden while writing. To access it in iA Writer, you grab the three horizontal lines in the middle of the additional row of buttons and pull it down.

In Byword, you have to hit the “Hide keyboard” button, which is not always visible and that can lead to confusion at times or become annoying if you’re not in the right view.

Additional Keys

Now that I’ve already mentioned those additional rows of keys, let’s take a closer look at them.

In iA Writer, all the available keys are visible at once. The arrow keys at the far left and right allow you to navigate one letter at a time; the other keys are punctuation signs which are most often used when writing text.By arranging them in an extra row of keys, you are spared from changing the normal keyboard back and forth all the time. It’s quite convenient, once you get used to it.

Extra keys in iA Writer

Extra keys in iA Writer

Byword, on the other hand, offers several sets of information and additional keys which you can access by swiping across the additional row on top of the keyboard. There are three different views:

  • word count (which iA Writer doesn’t have at all)
  • often used keys
  • formatting keys
Extra key-sets in Byword

Extra key-sets in Byword

The first key-set includes a tab key (which is still lacking from Apple’s standard keyboard), two types of brackets and also the star, which in Markdown is used to create lists. On the right side of the row you find an undo key, the same arrow keys as in iA Writer and the option to hide the keyboard.

The second key-set allows you to quickly format text even without any knowledge of Markdown whatsoever! The “H” key creates headings by inserting hash keys. The chain symbol inserts a link, followed by a key to insert images an finally the option to create lists.

Options – Adjust To Your Needs

Both apps being stripped of all unnecessary features, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Byword actually had a preferences option. iA Writer doesn’t, it comes as it is.

Customize away in Byword

Customize away in Byword

Byword allows you to specify a font, various correcting options and TextExpander integration. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but I found it very handy to be able to change the font face to something that appealed more to my eyes. I wish though, that Byword would also offer to invert the screen colors as it does in its Mac counterpart. To write on a dark screen is especially comfortable when it’s dark outside.

Another option exclusive to Byword is Preview Markdown. While writing, you only see the markdown in its raw state: hash keys, underscores, asterisks and so on. The preview option allows you to see your text as it would look like in a fully formatted state.

Exporting and Synchronization

Both iA Writer and Byword support three types of file storage:

  • locally (on the iPhone)
  • iCloud
  • Dropbox

In Byword, you have to choose between iCloud and Dropbox. If you want to switch, you have to log out of one service to use the other. But, and that’s something that I didn’t see in iA Writer, you can actually search your files in Byword, while in iA Writer you have to scroll through the entire list.

LEFT: Byword // RIGHT: iA Writer

LEFT: Byword // RIGHT: iA Writer

iA Writer, on the other hand, allows you use both services at the same time, even though you have to decide where to create the document — either in iCloud or in Dropbox — but you don’t have to log out of one service to use the other. iA Writer also only saves .txt files and allows export to email as an attachement, text or you can copy or print the text.

Byword goes one step further. While you can also print directly from the app, the other export options are more numerous: you can export to HTML, you have the same export options to email as iA Writer but with an additional Rich Text option and you can copy the HTML to the clipboard for quick re-use in other apps.

Many export options in Byword

Many export options in Byword


With both apps being excellent, there is no actual right or wrong, no bad or good app. Both are tailored to writers who don’t want or need a full word processor and both do a wonderful job. I myself prefer Byword because of the additional export options (especially HTML), the included word count while writing and the ability to change the font types. But until Byword came along, I used iA Writer on the iPad and for one week on the iPhone and I was completely happy and satisfied.

It all depends on what is important for you. And, don’t forget, both apps are Universal so they are available on the iPad as well (read our comparison here) and of course both are originally Mac applications. So, if you try decide which one to use, don’t forget to check out how they work on other devices. One might fit your workflow better than the other.

Byword in the App Store ($2.99)

iA Writer in the App Store ($0.99)

Do you use any of these two apps or another markdown editor? How did you choose the app? Let us know in the comments.