Review: Drafts for iPhone and iPad

If you’ve got an iOS device, you probably compose text in a slew of different apps: email in an email client, tweets in a Twitter client, tasks in a to-do-list manager, ideas for articles in a text editor...and on and on. But sometimes I want to write something—or at least the idea for something—before I even know where it’s going, and I want to keep those notes and ideas handy for when I’m ready to do something with them. (Other times I start writing in one app and later decide to finish in another.)

It’s easy enough to cut and paste text between apps, but these days, much of my iOS-composed text starts out in the aptly named Drafts, a stellar app from Agile Tortoise. Available for both the iPad ($4) and the iPhone ($3), Drafts is a catch-all bucket for typing messages, jotting down ideas, storing templates, and—just as useful—doing things with that text when it’s ready.

Launch Drafts, and you can start typing right away—there’s no need to create a new document, think of a title, or leap any other hurdles to getting your thoughts out of your head and into the app. The iPhone version of Drafts offers a clean document view with just a few buttons and the onscreen keyboard; the iPad version adds an additional row of keys above the onscreen keyboard that are useful for formatting links and typing frequently used symbols (including common Markdown and MultiMarkdown notation characters). Unlike the special keys found in many other iOS text editors, Drafts's remain on the screen when you use an external Bluetooth keyboard.

To start a new draft while in the app, tap the the plus-sign (+) button; whatever draft you were previously working on is automatically saved. Tap the documents button (an icon of a piece of paper) to view a list of all your saved drafts. The first few words of each draft are displayed in the list to make it easier to find a particular one; you can also use the search feature by tapping the magnifying-glass button and typing a search query.

A nifty Link mode, accessed by tapping the link button in the toolbar, displays the current draft with all addresses, email addresses, URLs, and phone numbers formatted as tappable links that open the appropriate app—Maps, Mail, Safari, Phone, and so on. (The link button is always visible on the iPad version; on the iPhone version, you must swipe down on the toolbar, hiding the keyboard, to see the button.) Drafts also displays view live-updated word and character counts, and Drafts supports TextExpander for iOS for inserting frequently typed text snippets. If you have Agile Tortoise’s Terminology dictionary app installed, you can look up—and insert—words right from within Drafts.

You can act on a draft in any of countless ways with a tap.

Your drafts sync between iOS devices using the Simperium service. I wish the app offered the alternative of storing drafts in Dropbox as plain-text files, so I could view and edit the drafts on my Mac, but Agile Tortoise says that Simperium is faster and more reliable than other sync methods. (If you really want to get your text into Dropbox, Drafts offers a couple Dropbox actions—see below.)

But what really makes Drafts useful, and much more than a simple text-notes app, are all the actions you can quickly and easily perform on your text. Just tap the familiar Share button, and the resulting popover offers a staggering list of options—over 50 in all—for using the current draft’s text.

Those options include: posting the text to Twitter (using any iOS-configured Twitter account), App.net, or Facebook; sending the text as an email or Messages message (either of which brings up a screen, within Drafts, for addressing and sending the message); copying the text to the clipboard for use elsewhere; creating a new Calendar event or Reminder based on the text; or printing the text. For Markdown-formatted text, you can preview the rendered text, print it, email it as HTML, or copy the equivalent HTML to the Clipboard. (You can disable any action you don’t use regularly so it doesn’t appear in the Share popover.)

Other handy actions let you save your draft’s text to an Evernote note or to a new text document in Dropbox—you can even append the text to an existing Dropbox-hosted text document.

Drafts also provides actions for sending your text to other iOS apps. These include an ever-expanding list of third-party text editors, task-management apps, email clients, calendar apps, web-search apps, and Twitter and App.net clients. There’s also an Open In action for opening your text in apps that aren’t explicitly supported by Drafts.

Finally, you can configure email actions, which are custom “email-to” tasks. For each email action, you define the recipients (To and CC), the subject (predefined or the first line of your draft text), and whether or not Drafts should convert Markdown text to HTML when sending. This feature is useful for quickly sending email to particular people (or to yourself), but it’s also great for getting around iOS’s lack of a group-address feature—as long as your group has only two people: You put one address in the To field and one in the Cc field. (Agile Tortoise says it will be adding a true group-email feature in an update to Drafts.) When I want to send a message to my two bosses, I just type the text in Drafts and then use my Send To Bosses email action, which sends the message to both of them. (You can also use email actions with services that support email commands, such as IFTTT.)

Speaking of email, Drafts is also useful for storing templates for frequently sent messages, as well as for new text documents. You just type or paste each template into a new draft. When you need to create a new document, you just open the draft and then send it to your favorite text editor; to send a stock message or reply, you open the draft, tap the Email action or one of your configured email actions, add whatever additional text you need, and send. (Just be sure you don’t have your email action configured to delete your draft after sending.)

You can rearrange the order in which actions appear in the Share popover, and for each action, you get a few configuration options. For example, most actions include an option to confirm the action before performing it—I use this option for things like sending an email or tweeting, but not for “safe” actions such viewing a Markdown preview. Every action also lets you choose what happens after you perform the action: Drafts can return you to the draft, save the draft and create a new draft, or delete the draft and create a new draft. Some actions, such as those for creating text files or events, can be configured to use the first line of your draft as the title.

Drafts also offers a number of appearance options, including three color themes, 17 fonts, and adjustable font size.

I do have a couple complaints about the app. For one, Drafts’s settings are hidden at the bottom of the Share popover, which isn’t where you’d expect settings to be found. And you have to configure each action individually—I’d like to be able to configure common options globally, and then tweak a particular action’s settings when necessary. Related to this, I also wish Drafts would sync my action settings, mail actions, and other settings among devices so I wouldn’t have to go through the (sometimes laborious) setup process multiple times.

But these complaints are minor compared to the overwhelming utility of Drafts. As someone who does a lot of text-oriented work on my iPad and iPhone, Drafts has found a permanent place on my first Home screen. It takes much of the pain out of iOS’s textual limitations, and it lets me focus on my text, rather than what I’ll eventually do with it.

Updated 12/27/2012, 3:20pm, to update price. Updated 12/28/2012, 1:30pm, to clarify link mode on the iPhone and to correct error about group emailing: The review originally stated that you could add groups of email addresses to custom email actions, but you can currently add only two addresses: one in the To field and one in the CC field. The developer of Drafts is planning to add a true group-email feature in an update.

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