As is my tendency, let me start out with the bad: the new iPhone 6 Plus is big and awkward and confusing to get around with. Living with this thing is weird and requires me to walk around in shame with a dreaded man purse. Even so, I am keeping this damn thing. It is the best mobile device I’ve ever used for writing.
Before I get into the details, let me steal an online friend’s great metaphor. I love Gabe Weatherhead’s take on the iPhone 6 Plus:
When I was eleven, I had a ‘beach cruiser.’ It was a steel and chrome behemoth of a bicycle. It was two times too big for me and I’m pretty sure it weighed more than my mom’s Datsun. But, I rode that behemoth five miles every day to a great fishing pond. That bike held two fishing poles, a tackle box, a lunch pail and a boombox. The ride up the hill was torture but the ride back home was like a two-wheel limo. That’s the best way I can explain the iPhone 6 Plus.
I’m growing accustomed to my beach cruiser, though, and it doesn’t feel so crazy anymore…
Now the thing is obviously great as a digital consumption machine – Netflix, Kindle, iBooks, YouTube are a joy. The device is just beautiful for that purpose, but most interesting to me: it is also amazing as a writing device. And that has made all the difference .
Of course I wrote this piece on it. But a blog post is amateur hour for what this thing can do. I’ve also been working on my 10,000-word short story on it. And my 75,000-word novel. (Sadly, no, the device didn’t fix my glaring plot holes and character issues.)
I should clarify that I still have a need for the laptop. The organizing aspect of big projects still feels best on a Mac. I lean on Scrivener heavily for organizing and plotting the book. But for basic writing and editing, this iPhone is better for me than any other phone, tablet, or laptop. It’s a device that is big enough to show the right amount of context. A beautiful display so that the words are a pleasure to look at. But still with the smallness (and the one window environment) to keep me focused on where I’m at. Keeps the blinders on just right. And!… it’s always with me – (practically) in my pocket.
The whole experience does have some quirks, so let me talk this through in more detail, from a (failed) writer’s lens.
I originally thought the iPad would be a perfect writing device but I never found the right keyboard solution. The iPad keyboard is too big for me to happily thumb type on, and I also never enjoyed 10-finger typing on it (doable but uncomfortable). And carrying around an external keyboard started to make me want to just go with the laptop.
The portrait keyboard on the iPhone 6 Plus is just right for me. It works great for fast, two-handed thumb typing, which suits my creative writing pace.
I was very excited about the extra buttons on the landscape keyboard of the 6+, but this turned out to be a disappointment. The inarticulate way to say it: the keyboard layout kinda sucks.
Want a laundry list of complaints?
- The main keys (i.e. the actual letters) are the hardest to reach.
- It’s too easy to trip over the extra keys.
- The location of keys (globe, microphone, 123) is different than portrait and it is disorienting.
- I only care about a few of the many additional keys anyway. I like the punctuation and arrow keys but the clipboard functions aren’t so useful since you still have to struggle to select the right text anyhow.
But there is another keyboard-related problem I didn’t consider. My favorite writing apps come with an extra bar above the keyboard with additional keys. But since iOS8 now contains an additional bar with suggested words, the app’s second additional bar takes up precious real estate, especially in landscape mode, and leaves too little room for the text itself.
You can actually hide that bar with suggested words, which gives you more room for the text, but I find those suggestions handy. I suspect app designs will change over time to minimize this issue. Maybe the best writing apps will come with their own custom keyboards (another new iOS8 feature) that take advantage of space more effectively than what is offered today.
Apps that are not updated for the iPhone 6+ are a bit of a problem when it comes to writing a lot of words. An app that is not updated is a zoomed-in version of the smaller phone user interface. This is far more of an issue than I expected because the keyboard becomes oversized for non-updated apps, which not only covers up more real estate, but also makes it hard to type quickly when you’re used to the regular-sized keyboard layout.
I have temporarily abandoned my favorite writing app (Editorial) until the developer updates it (he is working on it, and I’m sure it will be well thought out knowing his track record) because the oversized goofy keyboard is disorienting when trying to do writing-intensive stuff. So I’m currently using Byword, which has been updated and is also a great writing app. (Drafts is another amazing writing app for getting words down, but I think it fits into a slightly different category since it seems most suited for capturing text and then sending it to other places.)
organizing a big project for iPhone writing
So let me step back for a second… For those writers who only write using one big long Microsoft Word document (I know many of you!), some things will likely have to change before writing heavily on an iPhone.
- Although it is definitely possible to write on your iPhone using a fancy pants word processor (e.g. Apple Pages, Microsoft Word), I feel there are more effective writing options if you switch to a plain text format. Word processors are getting better and better on mobile devices, but I still find myself spending too much time futzing with the formatting and getting the right set of words visible on the smaller display. With plain text, it is far easier to just worry about the words. I tend to write in Markdown (a plain text format with an easy-to-read syntax for **bold** , *italics* , # headers, etc.) and only convert my writing to Microsoft Word or PDF at the point that I’m preparing a document for submission, which I prefer to do on my laptop.
- I also find that it is easier to manage a document on a small device if you either break your long piece into shorter documents (like into chapters or scenes), or use an app that knows how to jump around between headers like a table of contents (Editorial does this). If I’m working on a relatively short essay or piece of fiction, I’ll keep it in one document. But I break writing projects into separate documents for each scene or section once they start creeping past 5000 words. (If you sync a Scrivener project, it will automatically break it into multiple documents, which can easily be synced using Dropbox to your mobile device.)
- Syncing across your devices is critical. If you have to keep emailing documents back and forth to your various systems, you’re making it too hard on yourself, and too likely to get stuff out of sync. Cloud-based storage solutions seem relatively reliable these days: Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, OneDrive, whatever. And any decent writing app should tackle syncing with one of these cloud storage solutions.
OK. Hope that wasn’t too annoying of a detour. Now let me talk about a mish mash of other iPhone 6+ features…
The battery life on this big phone is way better than any previous iPhone. So much more valuable a feature than I expected. If I tried to write a few hours on another iPhone, the phone battery would definitely croak before the end of the day. This oversized new thing has never needed a mid-day charge, even when I use it as a computer for hours.
This thing is a phenomenal two-handed device. But not a great one-hander. Though I do find it reasonably usable with one hand. Like, say, if I’m in the bathroom and I just want to scan Twitter using the lovely Tweetbot app. (Am I allowed to admit that I sit on the potty while using this phone? Everybody does that, right?) So far I don’t usually remember to use that reachability feature where you double tap on the home button to bring the top half of the screen down. But I do use apps that allow me to perform various swiping gestures that work pretty easily from the position I hold the phone. And a leather case makes it easier to be sloppy while holding the phone because you don’t need to put too much of your hand behind the phone to grip it safely.
So, yeah, this thing is big. I hear proponents argue that it fits in your pants. And it technically does. But it doesn’t feel great in there, at least not for me. There is probably a penis size joke that should go here somewhere, but however that joke goes, I just don’t like this phone in my front pocket for more than a short walk. Not bad if I just have it in my pocket to walk across the street, but not a comfortable place to leave the phone – as I’d done with all previous phones. This can be a serious issue for some people, and it’s a testament to how much I like this thing that I’m willing to adjust my lifestyle a bit. I now often carry a… small bag thingy (that I try really hard not to call a purse). And I occasionally find myself putting it in my back pocket while walking and then pulling it out before sitting (!). A minor nuisance, but on the other hand, I no longer carry an iPad anywhere, and I carry my laptop less often too – so there’s that.
As for the phone part of the iPhone, it is a little weird at first to use such a big device as an actual phone. But using my phone as a phone is one of the least interesting things I do with it. And I’m usually using earbuds for phone calls anyhow.
I love this thing. I find it so worth the size and the price. But I don’t think it is for everyone. There are 5.5 inches of tradeoffs to consider. For many people, it is just too big. But I want a mobile writing machine – badly. I always want to be carrying around my crappy writing projects. And to be able to write more crap whenever I want. And for that purpose, hot damn this thing is amazing.
My biggest issues are mostly software-related (keyboard-related especially) and I’m hopeful that my favorite writing apps (or possibly new ones) will completely eliminate these complaints over the coming months. (Custom writing keyboards and markdown keyboards!) And hopefully Apple will clean up their landscape keyboard mess as well.
Two thumbs up.
Though, oy vey, does the iPhone have trouble when suggesting alternatives to Yiddish words! ↩
I apologize for the slightly offensive photograph of a simulated bathroom visit. Also, my wife is a very patient woman when it comes to the peculiar things I ask her to do in the name of my ‘creative life’. ↩