NaNoWriMo: Are Tablets Good For Writers?

A few weeks ago author N. K. Jemisin (The Broken Kingdoms) asked me to help her find an office app for iPad or Android tablets that would allow her to accept and reject Word’s track changes and view comments. We found a partial solution in SoftMaker Office, but it still has drawbacks and isn’t available for the public yet. Otherwise, there’s not much else out there.

“I don’t understand,” N. K. said, frustrated. “I know all of these writers with iPads and they say it’s so useful for them. But it can’t do this one thing I really need.”

Unfortunately that’s the sad truth about tablets: they’re not as useful as they could or should be when you need something beyond basic emailing or web surfing. This state of affairs isn’t completely the fault of the tablets themselves, but the apps that run on them.

That leads to today’s NaNoWriMo tech topic: are tablets useful for writers?

My favorite writing setup by jkleske on Flickr

Writers ask me this a lot and I usually say that it depends on what you want to do. The ultimate bottom line is that a tablet can’t do anything more or better than a netbook, and those tend to cost less. However, tablets can be useful little machines for novel writers if you also want or need them for other features.

As far as a basic writing tool, I have used tablets to get in wordcount. Just as with smartphones, there are apps that can help. Here buying a mobile office suite is useful because you have more screen space and can see at least a full page at a time.

Advertisement

Documents To Go is my preferred app since it will give you a word count, unlike QuickOffice. Springpad is also available for tablets. If you’re the type who likes to make handwritten notes as you write, check out the Writepad Stylus app for Android and Notes Plus for iPad. You’ll need a stylus, though. I’ll talk more about that in a bit.

However, if you attempt to go beyond basic writing with a tablet you’ll run into trouble.

Say you want to start editing your manuscript. Simple things like selecting text or copy/pasting take way more effort and involve more clicks than a normal laptop. This isn’t such a big deal if you do it once or twice a day, but grows frustrating very fast if you have to do it often.

Large files with thousands of words can choke a tablet or app just enough to slow you up and interrupt your flow. And if you switch between working on a document on the tablet and a computer, be prepared for some formatting issues.

When I’m not just writing, I often switch between my document and the web when I’m doing quick research or looking up words. Going back and forth on the iPad isn’t a quick process. On Android it’s done with a couple of taps, but websites don’t always finish loading if you put them in the background. Some apps just shut down if you don’t return to them fast enough, which might cause you to lose work.

And then there’s the small matter of needing to buy a keyboard for your tablet. The on-screen one is fine for writing a few lines, but you’re not going to pump out 1700 words a day on it comfortably (or quickly). That’s an extra cost on top of the $500 you’ve probably already spent.

Plus, by the time you’ve packed the tablet and the keyboard, you’ve probably gotten up to a netbook’s weight while having spent hundreds more for less functionality. That’s not winning.

I don’t want you to think that tablets are terrible in general. They aren’t. And if they fulfill other needs in your life, go ahead and get one. Just don’t get one specifically for writing. Your money is better spent elsewhere.

If you are in the market for a tablet, here are the ones I suggest for maximum writerly usefulness as well as some good accessories:

ASUS Eee Pad Transformer

Eee Pad Transformer

There’s a new version of this tablet coming out soon called the Transformer Prime, so you will probably be able to find the first generation for less than the $399 asking price soon. I suggest this one to writers because there’s a $150 keyboard dock that’s made specifically to go with it. The tablet fits into a notch on the dock and transforms the tablet into a netbook-like device, complete with a hinge that opens and closes like a laptop.

The dock provides some extra ports as well, which is always useful for transferring files and such. Because you get a hardware connection between the tablet and keyboard, very fast typists won’t experience the lag that sometimes comes with a Bluetooth keyboard connection.

Read Why Kevin Loves The Eee Pad Transformer

Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet

ThinkPad Tablet Keyboard Folio Case

This $499 tablet also has an optional keyboard designed for it, plus you can buy a stylus specially designed to work with the screen. These accessories cost extra, of course, so in the end you’re looking at a package that will run you close to $700.

Aside from the price, I’m a big fan of the ThinkPad because it includes the paid version of Documents To Go and a note-taking app called MyScript Notes Mobile. It will not only allow you to create pages and pages of handwritten notes, but it can also do handwriting recognition. Check out my review for details.

Since this tablet is made for business types it has lots of ports and includes useful apps and not just crapware. Plus, the keyboard is classic ThinkPad, so it’s very comfortable to type on (and hardware connected).

Read My Review of the ThinkPad Tablet

Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 or 10.1

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 on the left, 8.9 on the right

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 on the left, 8.9 on the right

Samsung’s tablets are probably among the most popular Android slates on the market, which means there are a lot of accessories made for it, including keyboard docks. Samsung makes a hardware dock that’s meant to live on your desk at home, though it is portable (just not conveniently so). There’s also a combo Bluetooth keyboard and case that’s pretty sweet.

The Galaxy Tab is very slim and light, and the 8.9-inch version splits the difference between being portable and still having a big enough screen for both writing and media viewing.

Read My Review of the Galaxy Tab 8.9

Logitech Tablet Keyboard for Android or iPad

Logitech Tablet Keyboard Outdoor Shot

Logitech makes a Bluetooth keyboard with a combo carrying case/tablet stand that I like a lot. The keyboard itself has normal-sized keys, so you won’t have to adjust your typing style. The keys themselves are flat, nit dipped in the middle, and have decent tactile feedback and travel.

Be sure to get the version made for your device, as there are some differences in the keys along the top.

Read My Review of the Tablet Keyboard

ZaggKeys Solo

zaggkeys solo bluetooth keyboard for tablets

ZaggMate makes several good Bluetooth keyboards for iPad and the Galaxy Tab, but the ZaggKeys Solo is my favorite because it works with any tablet and also with smartphones. It’s also pretty small and light, so it won’t add too much weight to your bag, and the keys have a nice feel to them.

Capacitive Stylus

samsung capacitive stylus

A stylus isn’t required to use most tablets worth your time, but they can be useful, especially if you have fingernails. As I said above, you like to switch between hand writing notes and typing, all you need is a stylus and the right app and you’re good to go.

Almost all of these are made in the same way with a round, rubber tip at one end. So just find an inexpensive one online or at your local electronics store. The one above is sold by Samsung.

Those of you writers out there who have tablets and use them, tell us how that works out for you. What tablet do you have? What apps and accessories do you use?

  

Comments

  1. Dale Strauss says

    Sorry, but I’m going to go on one of my rants again, so cover your ears world! Using tablets for anything beyond pure plain text input is a waste of time. The best metaphor I ever saw was that you “could” cut down a redwood with a hatchet, but a chain saw is infinitely better. That is what you are asking Docs to Go or any of the other half-dozen editors to do, when you really, reallly, realllly, reallllly need Word, a keybaord, and a mouse. Sure, you can force an iPad to do much of that, at an unbelievable cost for accessories and the time necessary to pull it off…or you could buy a $299 netbook that will do a better job with Win7 and Word than you will ever pull off on that tablet.

    Don’t get me wrong, tablet’s are great devices with an unreal number of specific functions they can perform- but they are not good at content creation, and even less so with content editing. If you have a willing assistant preparing the drafts and edits back at the office, and you can live with marking up PDF drafts on your tablet screen, go for it. But no one will ever succeed in persuading the real text and number crunching public that it can be done on any tablet with any level of fidelity, precision, and speed.

  2. Anonymous says

    I agree with Dale’s points but only for tablets with phone operating systems. As one who has used Windows tablets since my m1300 with Windows XP Tablet Edition, I find that the tablet form factor, when combined with full versions of Word and Acrobat, enhances writing. For drafts, I can even use the stylus and Windows built in handwriting recognition to input mass quantities of text more accurately than voice recognition (which is also available natively and with targeted applications like Dragon).

    Of course, I’m old enough to have grown up handwriting everything. People who learned keyboarding in elementary school (like my sons) might feel more comfortable with a keyboard. When I use one it’s a USB keyboard from Lenovo with a TrackStick so my fingers never have to leave the home keys. Even with a keyboard, though, where a Windows tablet really excels is in markup. I can dump my text in Word and ink over it as I work. I can then go back and apply whatever edits make sense.

  3. Anonymous says

    Most of my NaNoWriMo novel is written with my Sony Tablet S. It’s pretty awesome because you can basically write anywhere. So yeah, they are useful

  4. Jonathan Cohen says

    For me it’s the iPad 1 + Pages…I could not find a decent Android word processor that would do a good round-trip job between Android and PC, and I tried them all. 

    As well, Android’s UI is terrible when it comes to keyboard support. With Pages, you can use CTRL+cursor keys to select text as you would on a desktop.

    As for Dale Strauss’ points, the biggest benefit of a tablet over laptop is battery life – I can easily get 8-10 hours out of the iPad while writing (with music playing), where I would be hard-pressed to get half that on a current laptop…

    • Fred M. Wiggins Sr. says

      There is a brand spanking new word processor that I loaded to my ausus transformer. It does “word” with cut and paste (even from outside sources), does footnotes, and comments. It comes in a thirty day trial version with a price of 7.99 USD. There is a Presenter as well as a Planner, which is the spreadsheet. Have a look. Great stuff. Maybe one day even Scrivener. Don’t under-rate engineers and God programmers with this transformer 101.

      • Fred M. Wiggins Sr says

        Should have typed ‘good programmers. The name of the thing is ‘Textmaker’, I still like it after using it since I originally wrote about it. Although I keep hoping for a port of Scrivener, it is possible. Maybe someday.

  5. Synergi says

    I don’t use Word (even though I have it) to write my stories on my desktop, there for I don’t need it on my iPad. What I normally use is Scrivener as a lot of Mac users use it for writing, plot, character creation and keeping all of your notes, links, webpages, pictures in one spot. Up until a month or so ago you couldn’t get an App to do most of this until Storyist( very similar to Scrivener) hit the iPad. I’ve since switched to the Mac version and I have 2 ways syncing through dropbox between my desktop and my iPad. I don’t have to save it as some funky PDF or RTF.. storyist desktop and ipad read the same files and its awesome. 

    It cost 10 dollars but totally worth it. I’m sure with updates it can only get better.

  6. Adam Troy says

    If you want the ultimate in mobile writing, think retro.  My writing kit includes an Asus Transformer for internet and email, but not for writing.

    For writing I turn to the other tool in my mobile writing kit, an Alphasmart Neo, $149 or so new, or a lot less on eBay.  It might have an odd appearance, but the keyboard is spectacular. It’s light, the display could be called primitive but it’s great in direct sunlight.  Just the thing for working at a picnic table at lunch, or at a weekend campsite.

    They say you can get 700 hours (about 30 days of continuous, 24×7 operation) from the Neo’s three AA batteries, but I’ve heard it’s more like 1000 hours.  I don’t know.  I plan to change my batteries every November to eliminate the chance of leakage.  I used mine a bunch over the last year and had about 80% battery capacity remaining after a year of often daily use.

    It doesn’t open in typical laptop clamshell fashion, but it’s great on an airline tray table.  It really promotes focus on writing, not distractions, but if you don’t ‘get’ the Neo, you probably won’t see the advantages.

    The Neo is like a Moleskine notebook with a keyboard, and you can move text to and from Windows or Mac systems.  Any system that supports a USB keyboard will accept a document from the Neo.  In fact, forum posts done from my Transformer are usually typed on the Neo and dumped to a forum post via the Transformer’s web browser.

    I have no connection with Alphasmart, I’d just hate to seem them stop building the Neo.  It’s a great tool, if you understand the niche it fills.

  7. Cat says

    I have an Asus Eee Pad Slider. It comes with Polaris Office, which is the best office program I’ve ever seen for Android. It comes with an integrated physical keyboard, which slides under the screen when you’re not using it. It makes the tablet heavier because you can’t detach it, but I can’t think of any time when I want to take my tablet, but not the keyboard, so this isn’t a problem to me since I know I’d never leave it at home even if I could. And, it’s lighter than the Transformer with the keyboard dock. It also has a full-size USB port, and it will work with a mouse.

    It got it as a replacement for my netbook, and you know what? I’m glad I did. I can write on it perfectly well. I take all my notes for school on it, write my articles on it, and it works seamlessly with Google Docs, Dropbox, etc. I wish Google Docs for Android had a few more features, but over-all I’m very happy with it.

    On top of that, I don’t have to boot it up all the time, it has a touch screen which is easier for me than a mouse or touchpad in most cases (I have a repetitive stress injury), and it’s very light – just over 2lbs. If I wanted to get a netbook with all those features, I’d be paying around $1000 (and I have – my old netbook was a Fujitsu P1610 that cost about $1400 when I got it in 2007 – the price hasn’t really dropped for feature-full netbooks in the last few years). But the Slider cost about $450. It was genuinely a better deal.

    The main problem isn’t what it WON’T do. The main problem is figuring out HOW to make it do what you want. Finding the apps that did exactly what I need was a time-consuming process, because it just isn’t common knowledge. Everyone knows about Microsoft Office, or Open Office. Everyone knows about Firefox. But mobile apps, especially for tablet-size screens, aren’t yet “settled” enough to have a handful of apps everyone knows about and can vouch for. So you have to go find them yourself. But they do exist, and if you have the right apps, you can actually make use of a tablet.

Leave a Reply