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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Byword Review

I’ve been a big fan of Byword for OS X for quite some time. I like how it strives to be simple but still allows you to make your own choices about a few things. When Byword came out for iOS a few weeks ago with iCloud support I thought it would be great. Below are some of the things I’ve found.

Occasional Crashes

In my limited use of Byword for iOS I’ve noticed a few crashes. Nowhere near an Instacast[1] level of crashy-ness, but crashes nonetheless. Crashes aren’t the end of the world, but for an app that feels[2] as simple as Byword it makes me wonder.

Limited Document Management

Overall I’ve found the document management options in Byword for iOS to be lacking. You get to chose up front whether you want to use iCloud or Dropbox syncing. But you can’t have it both ways and simply storing documents on the device is a no go. You can’t swap documents between iCloud and Dropbox on the fly.

On the positive side, conflict resolution is done quite elegantly. Instead of saving both copies to Dropbox and having you sort out the differences a little icon appears next to the file in the list. When you open the file you’re asked if you want to use the local or remote copy. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not magic. But it doesn’t leave a mess for the user to clean up, and it doesn’t force you to make a decision until you need to.

Cumbersome Interface

The developers behind Byword have spent a great deal of time stylizing the UI of the application. For the most part it looks really good, but I have a few issues with it. For starters, all of the buttons are custom to suit the color theme of the application. In what I believe is an attempt to make the UI chrome blend away the contrast has been turned way down making the buttons difficult to see and read. Don’t get me wrong, it looks great, but maybe the contrast could get turned up a bit for the next release.

Another issue I have is when attempting to use the application on the iPad with an external keyboard. Opening and selecting a document are pretty easy, but once a document has been selected and you begin editing all of the chrome disappears. There is no visually discernable way of getting to the document selector or showing the title bar to rename the document or preview what you’ve written.

As pointed out by Shawn Blanc in his review, the way around this is to swipe the document from left to right which will bring up the document selector. From there you can either select another document or tap on the title bar which will hide the document selector bringing the document back into focus, but with the title bar visible – until you tap on the text area that is.

Lastly, I tend to do a lot of writing either early in the morning or late at night. In both cases I find that editors with light color schemes to be distracting. Byword for the Mac has both a light and a dark color them which allows me to switch between as needed. The iOS version of Byword only has the light scheme.


Byword is definitely a 1.0 release. There’s certainly room for improvement, but the bones are solid. Despite the problems I’ve noted I keep coming back to Byword over both iA Writer and Writing Kit. In the case of the former I prefer the font selection under Byword even though iA Writer’s document management runs circles around Byword’s. In the case of the latter, I really like how Byword doesn’t spew conflict files all over Dropbox and leave a mess for me to clean up.

Going forward, I’m hoping to see improvements in the areas I’ve noted. Specifically I’d like to see the following issues addressed (in order of importance):

  • Add a dark mode color theme.
  • Fix the UI so that the app can be used efficiently with a bluetooth keyboard.
  • Improve file management to the point where it’s at least on par with iA Writer.
  • Reduce/eliminate crashes.[reduce-crashes-why]

  1. I don’t know if it’s just me, but Instacast crashes on me all the time when downloading new podcasts. It might have something to do with the crappy WiFi that I’m on during the days, or maybe its just an inherent problem with the app. Either way, it shouldn’t crash as much as it does.  ↩

  2. In my mind one of the hallmarks of good design is making something really complicated feel really simple. Hiding complexity means that users don’t have to worry about things. But this only works as long as the abstraction doesn’t leak.  ↩