Byword, developed by Portuguese studio Metaclassy, is the best Markdown text editor for iPhone. Byword provides the best mix of editing tools, preview features, and exporting options in the most user-friendly environment that, in my opinion, makes it the best app for anyone interested in editing text with (or without) Markdown on an iPhone.
Initially released by Daring Fireball’s John Gruber 9 years ago in March 2004, Markdown is a plain text-based markup language for HTML. Using a simple and easy-to-learn syntax based on plain text, Markdown lets you produce valid HTML without having to manually type any of the language’s complex system of tags. Markdown is a “text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers”, and, in recent years, has spurred the creation of enhanced variants (such as the popular MultiMarkdown) as well as native apps that integrate with it.
There are hundreds of iOS text editors that use plain text and Markdown to simplify web writing on the iPhone. Competition is fierce and new apps that rely on Markdown to convert plain text to HTML are announced on a weekly basis.
There are several factors that have contributed to Markdown’s rise to the de facto standard for web writers who don’t want to learn HTML: plain text is a portable format, which allows users to move their files around and try multiple apps without losing their data; portable files work well with syncing systems like Dropbox and iCloud; plain text files are lightweight, which make them ideal for mobile syncing on cellular data and note-taking apps that are meant for quick annotations and short bits of text. Markdown is completely open-source, which has enabled thousands of programmers and developers to use Gruber’s syntax (or an alternate version) in their apps.
I have tried so many iOS text editors over the years, I wouldn’t know where to begin counting. Some of them have been abandoned by their developers, while others have been acquired by other companies and then discontinued. Fortunately, many of them are still being sold on the App Store and actively developed with new features, design updates, and bug fixes. Having done this kind of research for MacStories in the past, I knew where to look for modern Markdown text editors: I am deeply interested in this particular niche of iOS apps as the articles I publish on my website every day are typically created entirely on iOS with a Markdown editor.
When Shawn asked me to work on this article, I knew what I needed to find in the best Markdown text editor for iPhone: it had to be an app that was fast, reliable, and enhanced for iOS 7. It had to integrate with a syncing service (or more) to keep plain text files up to date across multiple devices. It needed to come with powerful Markdown-oriented editing tools as well as the most accurate preview to see how plain text would look like as formatted text; and, last but not least, it had to be pleasant to use for both Markdown nerds and novice users who are just getting started with plain text and Markdown (and even for people who don’t use Markdown at all).
I have tested several apps that include notable names like Notesy, Writing Kit, Write, and Nebulous Notes. All of them were tested on my iPhone 5 running the latest stable version of iOS 7 (iOS 7.0.3). Each app was tested on WiFi, 3G, and with no Internet connection to work with offline features. And, being a search for the best text editor, I focused on apps aimed at editing longer text files rather than quick notes.
Byword comes with three types of document storage: it can sync files with iCloud, it can sync using Dropbox, or it can let you choose to avoid sync and use local storage instead. Each storage type can contain its own set of documents. I prefer Dropbox as, unlike Apple’s iCloud, the free online web app grants you access to revisions of your documents.
Byword’s interface is clean and looks great on iOS 8. The app uses a light theme with yellow accents to indicate interactive elements, and it can be pointed to any Dropbox folder that has plain text files in it.
Byword can navigate across sub-folders, and it can sort your document list by modified date or file name. The app will always sync upon launch to fetch the latest versions of your files, and changes are also synced to the cloud while you’re editing a document. Byword labels files that haven’t been synchronized and, if you’ve edited text while offline, it will automatically sync changes once an Internet connection is available. Unlike other iPhone apps, Byword has a built-in conflict resolution tool to pick a version of a file among multiple ones if a conflict between a local and online copy is detected. Byword’s sync is fast, reliable, it clearly communicates its status to the user, and it puts you in control if something goes wrong.
Due to screen constraints, a Markdown text editor for iPhone should have a clean, legible writing experience backed by strong editing tools and shortcuts that simplify the already simple syntax invented by John Gruber. iOS doesn’t have the world’s most advanced or intelligent text editing system, therefore the more keystrokes and taps that can be saved, the better. This is what you see when you create a new text file in Byword: a light background, a yellow blinking cursor, and an iOS 7 keyboard with an extra row for “accessories.”
There are two key aspects of Byword’s writing experience: the use of iOS 7 text layouts for syntax highlighting and the smaller touches aimed at speeding up your Markdown editing workflow.
Byword has four font options for the editor: a dark theme, settings for auto-capitalization, auto-correction, spell-checking, and integration with TextExpander touch for snippet expansion (fill-in snippets aren’t supported). The built-in fonts aren’t too many, but they’re solid options. The dark theme is welcome for users who prefer a darker UI. More importantly, though, Metaclassy built Byword for iOS 7 in a way that lets the app highlight Markdown-specific characters (such as asterisks or square brackets) and your text with different colors: this has long been one of Byword’s most popular features on the Mac, and it’s been tastefully brought to the iPhone thanks to the new iOS.
Syntax highlighting may not seem like a major addition initially, but its purpose becomes apparent as you keep writing and editing in Byword: syntax characters that you don’t need to look at get out of the way, letting you focus on what matters: your words.
The app’s keyboard is smart. It has arrow keys you can tap to move the cursor and shortcuts to enter various Markdown-related characters without having to switch between keyboard layouts. You can, for instance, insert tabs, undo, or create inline links with the tap of a button; swipe to the right, and you get a word count. However, you don’t have to use the extra row for Markdown editing. Byword is smart, and it comes with features like list continuation, parenthesis pairing, and intelligent word wrapping that are automatically detected by the app and integrated with the iOS keyboard. As you scroll a document up, the keyboard is hidden, putting your content front and center.
Byword has the best and most flexible Markdown preview tool for iPhone: it supports regular Markdown, MultiMarkdown, and HTML code. It renders footnotes (which are also tappable), it centers and resizes inline images, and it has gorgeous, bold typography for headers and sections. In my tests, just one other iPhone app came close to Byword’s versatility for Markdown previews.
Byword is the only Markdown text editor for iPhone that combines a beautiful interface with powerful sharing options and publishing services. Once you’re done editing, you can share a document as an HTML or PDF file (both can be saved to local iTunes documents or uploaded to Dropbox), files can be emailed as plain text, rich text, PDFs, or HTML attachments, you can copy the resulting HTML code of a Markdown document, and you can access a standard iOS share sheet for Messages, AirDrop, and Open In sharing. While other iPhone apps offer similar exporting tools, Byword is the one that packages them up in a straight-forward UI clearly organized under an “Export” menu.
Publishing from Byword
If you write and edit text on an iPhone, you likely want to publish that text somewhere online, and Byword offers publishing to Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger, Evernote, and Scriptogram as a separate $4.99 In-App Purchase for users interested in publishing HTML rather than just exporting it.
To test the app, I added my self-hosted WordPress website and Evernote account. For Evernote, Byword can send HTML content that will be displayed as formatted text in Evernote, preserving text styles and hyperlinks; you can choose a destination notebook, and apply tags to a document that you’re saving to Evernote. WordPress integration is impressive – you can add tags and custom fields, set categories and published status, and tweak the final permalink of a post.
Byword has got something for power users as well: the app has a URL scheme to add text to files from other apps like Drafts and Launch Center Pro with commands to append, prepend, replace text, and create new files (alas, x-callback-url isn’t supported). There are move and duplicate features for files, there is a search box at the top of the app, and landscape typing is supported. Byword recently added support for custom shortcuts for external Bluetooth keyboards on iOS 7. This is a great addition to the app, and allows you to change heading levels, insert links and images, and open/close documents (and much more) – all without leaving the keyboard.
Byword for notes, too.
I wouldn’t hesitate to also recommend Byword to users who are looking for a quick and/or basic note-taking app and not a powerful markdown text editor. While apps primarily meant specifically for notes offer different feature sets (see Drafts or Simplenote), Byword is fast, elegant, it can save notes to Evernote, and it’s got fantastic search functionality. If you’re interested in having a note-taking app that shows a synchronized file list for iCloud or Dropbox, Byword is a great choice.
In my testing process, I was impressed by a relatively new Markdown text editor, 1Writer. Developed by Ngoc Luu, 1Writer comes close to matching several Byword features such as the preview, which is just like Byword’s except for inferior MultiMarkdown footnote support.
1Writer actually does some things better than Byword – it can generate shareable Dropbox links for any file as well as uploaded PDFs, and it lets power users set up their own custom sharing actions for any app that has a URL scheme (x-callback-url is supported). If you want to insert images in your Markdown document, 1Writer can upload pictures from any iOS album to Dropbox and insert a Markdown link with one tap.
1Writer has a better built-in browser than Byword, and, like Metaclassy’s app, it supports iCloud, Dropbox, and local storage, it can publish to Evernote, and has offline support.
However, in choosing the best Markdown text editor for iPhone, I regarded Byword’s syntax highlighting and direct WordPress/Tumblr integration as essential additions for writers and, generally, users who want a clearer editing experience on the iPhone’s screen. 1Writer is heavily skewed towards power users, sometimes even a bit too much with features that can add confusion to the writing experience like hashtags or Reminders integration. It may not be my final choice, but 1Writer is the app I would recommend if you’re not happy with Byword’s feature set.
Nebulous Notes: A solid Markdown editor with basic automation tools to speed up writing through macros. Both syncing and preview need improvements.
Notesy: An old favorite of mine, Notesy has lacked notable updates in the past year, but it’s still fast and comes with nice search options. Many parts of the app feel outdated, even after an iOS 7-themed “redesign.”
Write: A relatively new entry in the Markdown editor scene, Write packs impressive sharing features. The UI needs to be slimmed down and simplified.
Byword looks great, is fast and reliable, and it combines a delightful writing and editing experience built for iOS 7 with an efficient HTML preview tool and powerful exporting options and sharing services for writers. If you’re looking for the best Markdown text editor for iPhone, go download Byword on the App Store.