Textastic Code Editor for iPad Review

I have written a fair amount of code in my time. When the iPad first came on the scene, one of the first apps I used was a text editor. I didn't use it for long. Years of physical keyboard use made using the on-screen keyboard a pain to type for more than five minutes. Most of all, I missed the lightning navigation of Emacs, Vi or even TextMate. But I haven't given up the search. Did Textastic give me hope in using the iPad for long stretches of code writing, or did it sink my expectations deeper into the abyss of no-can-do? Read on to find out.

So let me answer the big question first. Will Textastic on the iPad replace your favorite laptop-centric text editor? Not quite, although it has made great strides toward having that day happen sooner than later.

When the early batch of text editors hit when the iPad was first released, they offered very limited functionality in terms of file access and syntax highlighting. These two problems have been satisfyingly addressed in Textastic.


Textastic Screenshot 1

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First, syntax highlighting for over 80 different text file types comes built-in, including HTML, Java, JavaScript, Objective-C, Perl, PHP, Python, Ruby on Rails, SQL and many others. And for those TextMate fans who use more obscure or highly customized syntaxes, you can import your TextMate bundles into Textastic and have the syntax from those custom definitions be properly applied. Unfortunately, because Textastic doesn't do snippets and can't execute external scripts, don't expect its TextMate import to do more than what it advertises. Still, for those who have spent time and effort constructing their ideal language syntax highlighter in TextMate will be happy to know that the bundle import performed flawlessly in my tests.

Second, files can be retrieved and posted from a number of sources, including FTP, secure FTP, Dropbox and local network WebDAV access. Surprisingly, given its code-centric design, Textastic lacks Subversion (SVN) access. An extra star would have gone toward Git support as well. Alas, the Textastic version I reviewed lacked any source version control facilities. Hopefully the developer is hard at work adding these helpful enhancements for a future release.


Textastic Screenshot 2

To help get around the lack of a real mouse and keyboard, Textastic assists users with a cursor wheel that can be accessed by tapping two fingers on the screen. This helps with quicker cursor navigation and text selection. It also offers its own keyboard enhancement, hosting the most frequently used keys when coding. These keys include angle and curly brackets, forward and backward slashes, single and double quotes, etc.. And while these do represent keys I consistently use in my own coding projects, it would have been much more appreciated if Textastic had included a set of navigation keys in the style of iAWriter for faster tabbing over words.

When Textastic is combined with Smile on My Mac's TextExpander application, the results can come surprisingly close to matching the coding experience of TextMate on the Mac. Unfortunately, Textastic's custom keyboard keys do not register as type events that TextExpander detects. For example, I created a TextExpander snippet that expands an HTML paragraph when the characters '<p' are typed. Even though a '<' symbol exists on the Textastic keyboard, it won't work with the snippet. This may be a limitation of TextExpander, but it's unfortunate if it is, since accessing the '<' normally requires three key presses to have that character displayed versus Textastic's convenient custom keyboard overlay.

UPDATE - November 3, 2011 - Developer Alexander Blach released an update to Textastic that fixes the custom keyboard problem I mentioned in the last paragraph. As a result, the combination of Textastic and TextExpander just got one step closer to a TextMate-like coding experience on the iPad. Nice job, Alex!


And if you're determined enough to carry along Apple's wireless Bluetooth keyboard with your iPad, Textastic supports all the keyboard accelerators. These include the standard Command-X (cut) and Command-A (select all) as well as iOS Emacs keybindings like Control-A (move the cursor to the beginning of the line) and Control-K (delete text between the cursor and the end of the line). No doubt, these accelerators will make long stretches of writing code on your iPad more tolerable.

In summary, Textastic isn't quite the full desktop text editing replacement I had hoped, but it shows tremendous promise toward getting there. I'm eagerly anticipating future iterations of this application and look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when I can take my iPad on the road and confidently leave my laptop at home.

Product: Textastic Code Editor
Developer: Alexander Blach
Price: $9.99
Rating: 4/5 stars

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Mike Riley is a frequent contributor to several technical publications and specializes in emerging technologies and new development trends. Mike was previously employed by RR Donnelley as the company’s Chief Scientist, responsible for determining innovative technical approaches to improve the company’s internal and external content services. Mike also co-hosted Computer Connection, a technology enthusiast show broadcast on Tribune Media's CLTV.