Typewriter 2.0: search for the perfect writing experience on iPad

I like to write: blog articles, journals, and even books. However, I struggle writing at home, especially at my desk.

What works best for me is going to a nice café and writing on an iPad with an external keyboard. I’m less distracted by other tasks and somehow the ambient noise helps me to focus on writing (though sometimes I want to know the gossip of that couple at the table nearby or wear headphones when it’s too loud).

We’ll talk about the best environment for writing some other time — this article is about finding the best keyboard and software for writing on an iPad.

#Finding the best keyboard for an iPad

#Apple Magic Keyboard

The first keyboard I tried with an iPad was the Apple Magic Keyboard. It’s a bit better than the built-in keyboard in my MacBook Pro 2019, which is so bad, that it’s hardly an achievement.

Apple Magic Keyboard on iPad

In addition, since I started using a mechanical keyboard on my desk, I wanted a similar experience on iPad too.

The overall experience of working on an iPad with a hardware keyboard is nice though. Many shortcuts work the same way as on the desktop (like Cmd+Tab to switch between apps, Caps lock to switch input language, and so on).

Storytime I’ve used ergonomic keyboards throughout most of my career as a software engineer (probably for about 15 years or so), with the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 being my favorite — a great 50€ keyboard. I never liked the idea of a mechanical keyboard — I thought I wouldn’t like the noise they make and the pressure one needs to apply to type. However, I was disappointed by the poor quality of the newer and significantly more expensive Microsoft Sculpt and Surface keyboards. So when one of them died just one year after I bought it, I decided to try a mechanical keyboard. I ended up buying a split Mistel Barocco, which quickly converted me to a mechanical keyboard fan. The split design turned out to be equally, if not more, comfortable than a traditional ergonomic keyboard.

Verdict: Apple Magic Keyboard is a decent choice for travel — very small and light (240 g). However, the typing experience isn’t great.

YMDK Air40

The next keyboard I’ve tried was 40% YMDK Air40. It’s very cute and tiny and sounds good.

However, there are a few issues:

  • Typing is difficult, especially in Russian — too many of the Russian alphabet’s 33 letters are hidden on other layers (the keyboard has three layers), and you constantly need to remember how to access them.
  • I’m not a fan of a brick ortholinear layout (when rows of letter keys are placed directly under each other, without a half-key shift like on most keyboards).
  • Not great for travel — it’s small but very heavy (495 g without keycaps) thanks to its aluminum case.
  • It’s the only non-wireless keyboard I’ve tried for an iPad.

Mistel Barocco vs YMDK Air40

Tip The orange/black keycaps are from Amazon.

Tip One thing I do on all my keyboards, is placing the space key upside-down: it makes the bottom edge less sharp when you press it with your thumb.

Note All my mechanical keyboards have brown switches, either Cherry or Gateron. I like the subtle resistance (in comparison to linear reds) and relative quietness (in comparison to clicky blues).

Note I haven’t done a lot of mods for my keyboards, except adding layers of foam and coins to my split keyboard, because separate halves are too light and move a lot on a desk. The YMDK keyboard already came with foam.

In the end, it just suddenly died after a few months of infrequent use…

Verdict: YMDK Air40 looks really cool but typing on it is too much work. It’s a bit too esoteric for my taste.

#Anne Pro 2

The next keyboard I tried was a 60% Anne Pro 2.

There’s a lot to like about this keyboard:

  • The layout is very nice, almost no need to relearn anything after a full desktop keyboard since most of the keys are accessible on the main layer and are located at familiar places (almost standard US layout). The only hidden keys are F-keys, Insert/Delete/Home/End/Page up/Page down, and ~ (the only missing Russian letter —ё).
  • Magic arrow keys — a group of modifier keys, at the bottom right corner, that work as arrow keys when you quickly tap them instead of holding them.
  • The sound is almost as good as on YMDK Air40 (the aluminum case helps the latter a lot though).

Tip I also set up the Escape key to be magic: to act as ~ (or ё) when tapped quickly, and as Escape when pressed for a longer time, which gives me a complete Russian layout on the base layer with all the letters on their standard places.

Anne Pro 2 keyboard on iPad

I really like this keyboard except for two things:

  • It’s big and heavy (670 g), and not very portable.
  • It’s a bit tall, so when you try to use it on your lap, it’s not very comfortable, and even on a desk it would benefit from a wrist rest.

Verdict: Anne Pro 2 is a great keyboard for its price ($80) and an awesome choice for using at home on a desk. I think it’s my favorite keyboard of the four overall, but portability and height are too important for my use cases.

#NuPhy Air60

The last keyboard I’ve tried, and so far my favorite, is low-profile NuPhy Air60. It’s also 60%, though it feels more like 65%.

There are a few improvements over the Anne Pro 2:

  • The layout is very similar to Anne Pro 2, with the addition of actual arrow keys.
  • It’s very light for a mechanical keyboard, only 455 g.

Some things could have been better though:

  • The right Shift is very narrow, which makes it hard to target when touch typing but you can get used to it eventually.
  • The right Alt and Control are missing.
  • There aren’t many alternative keycaps for it, so personalization options are a bit limited.
  • The sound isn’t as good as on normal-profile keyboards.
  • The silicon feet are constantly ungluing, and I had to glue them with super glue after I lost one of them (luckily, it comes with some spares).
  • It forgets the RGB lights settings after about a week, no matter how you set them: on the keyboard itself or using the app.
  • Software to customize the keyboard is for Windows only. It’s also very limited, and I wasn’t able to change the behavior of the Escape key (the same way I did for Anne Pro 2), so I need to press the Fn key every time I need to type ~, or ё, which is quite often.

The newer version, Air60 V2, possibly fixes some of the issues.

Tip I always switch Control and Command on my keyboards because I prefer the Windows-like experience of Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V and other shortcuts.

The main difference with Anne Pro 2 is that NuPhy Air60 is a low-profile keyboard, meaning it’s much more compact. It’s still heavier and larger than the Apple Magic Keyboard but I could certainly take it with me when I go to a café to do some writing. I even traveled with it on a plane.

NuPhy Air60

Tip I also got a COAST Twilight keycaps set, and mixed it with the default keycaps to make the keyboard look a bit more interesting.

The leather case, NuFolio V2, is also quite nice and gives the keyboard good protection in a bag.

NuPhy NuFolio V2 leather keyboard case

You could also use the case as a stand for an iPad, and that turned out to be not as good as I thought:

  • The bottom edge of the cover is so sharp, that it gets quite painful after using the keyboard on your lap for some time.
  • The magnets that hold the keyboard in the case aren’t strong enough to keep it from sliding.
  • It makes the screen too close — I like it at 5-10 cm from the keyboard.

Verdict: NuPhy Air60 is my choice of portable keyboard for an iPad. It’s not as good as Anne Pro 2 but it’s significantly lighter and smaller.

#Finding the best an okay case for iPad

I don’t like the traditional triangular design of Apple’s and most third-party cases, because it makes the bottom surface too small, which makes it unstable when use try to put an iPad on your lap.

The case I ended up buying, ESR Folio, has a large bottom surface and two screen angles, which makes it comfortable for working on a desk and on a lap.

I have a couple of issues with this case though:

  • The iPad doesn’t stay well in the grooves and sometimes (especially when you type on your laps) slides.
  • When using on the desk, the keyboard needs to be in a very particular position — somewhere on the edge of the bottom surface of the case — otherwise it’s wobbly. Not a big issue for me, this is where I like it anyway.

However, after two years, it’s falling apart, and looks like they don’t have this design anymore. Maybe I’ll try something else soon.

#Finding the best writing app for iPad

I write mostly in Markdown, and I use it for pretty much everything: notes, journals, articles, books…

I’ve been using iA Writer on a Mac and an iPad for many years, and I think it’s the best app for writing Markdown.

iA Writer

However, recently I had to switch to another Apple ID (Apple makes it close to impossible to change the country), and I had to rebuy all the apps I had on my old Apple ID.

Unfortunately, iA Writer prices are totally insane now: about 60 euros for each platform. I never thought luxury software would be a thing but here we are. iA Writer is undoubtedly a very polished and high-quality app, though clearly not an essential one.

This made me try several significantly cheaper alternatives to iA Writer: iWriter Pro, 1Writer, and Byword. All have the same issue: Markdown syntax highlighting is too bright for my taste. I can recommend iWriter Pro, though, if you could live with bright colors — it’s a decent app and almost ten times cheaper than iA Writer.

iA Writer alternatives

I ended up rebuying iA Writer for Mac and iPad. It’s almost perfect for what I want, except for a few minor(ish) things. I love the monochrome Markdown color scheme, and it has the most beautiful fonts. However, I can’t stand its bright teal cursor and selection color, that you can’t change. However, I can live with that, since other options are worse.

I also use a few other apps for more specialized writing (all support Markdown):

Tip Check out my color schemes for Visual Studio Code and Bear to have a monochrome Markdown highlighting similar to iA Writer.

Also, the last three apps work on iPad, Mac, and iPhone, so I can read and edit my documents on various devices.

#Conclusion

I’m quite happy with my current setup:

  • iPad 11” with ESR Folio case;
  • NuPhy Air60 mechanical keyboard with a leather case;
  • iA Writer as a main writing app.

The overall weight (almost 1.5 kg) is comparable to a MacBook, but I like the comfort and flexibility of the external mechanical keyboard. I also like the single-taskedness of the iPad, which allows me to better focus on writing.

And if I want to go out to do some coding, I’ll take my MacBook instead.