TextExpander vs. Snippets in iOS 5

Twitter amigo Chris asked me a question on Twitter that I thought I’d answer here, since some of you fine people may be interested in my answer:

what is the use of [TextExpander] for iOS now that there is built-in snippets?

So, before I answer, here’s a quick glossary so we’re all on the same page.

TextExpander is an app for OS X and iOS that can be used quickly insert pieces of text when a trigger is typed. For example, when I type ;;bko, TextExpander will immediately delete those five characters and insert my email address. If I type ;;addr, it will insert my home address, formatted correctly.

iOS 5 Snippets is a similar feature; when I type “bko” anywhere in iOS, my email address is offered as an option using the autocorrect behavior:

At a glance, the two may appear to be functionally interchangable, but they really aren’t at all.

As for which one I personally use, technically I use both — but I only use iOS 5 snippets because TextExpander isn’t ubiquitous across all of iOS. In other words, while several of my favorite apps support TextExpander as a built-in feature, many of them don’t, including Apple’s stock applications like Mail and Safari. For a handful of snippets that I use very frequently, I use both iOS 5 snippets and TextExpander (but the former is mostly just a safety net in case the latter isn’t available).

But maybe we just take a closer at what makes TextExpander so good (and it really is awesome).


Probably my favorite feature of TextExpander for iOS is that it syncs with my Macs and other iOS devices via Dropbox. This means that I can carefully craft a buttload of snippets on my Mac and the next time I launch TextExpander on my iOS device, they’re all there and ready for action.


TextExpander let’s me place “tokens” (quoted because I don’t know the official name) within snippets that represent things like the current date or time, formatted however I need them. It can also popup an interestitial fill-in form when I expand a snippet. For instance, when somebody emails me asking for their unique download URL for Evernote Essentials (which happens somewhat regularly), I have a TextExpander snippet that I invoke after copying the URL to my clipboard. It prompts me for the person’s name, which I enter, then click OK and the whole thing is dumped wherever I invoked the snippet (Mail.app, in this case). It’s freaking sweet.


Serious TextExpander users will often have hundreds or even thousands of snippets they’ve created over the years. Having all of them in one massive, flat list make for a gigantic pain to navigate and search, but in TextExpander you can create named folders for snippets. This obviously has its limitations, but it’s a damn sight more workable than what iOS currently offers.


Internet pal Brett Terpstra is a gigantic TextExpander nerd and, as such, has released a number of TextExpander groups that can be subscribed to via a unique URL (here’s one for a bunch of Markdown snippets). This is a bit of a nerdy feature, but if you get really plowed on the TextExpander kool-aid, it’s awesome.

Syncing, tokens and groups are all available in the iOS app (though, tokens are a little harder because you don’t get the extra little shortcuts provided by the desktop app).

As I alluded to earlier, iOS snippets have their place. Because system-wide functionality like TextExpander’s isn’t possible for third-party applications, iOS snippets are your only option if you want this type of functionality absolutely everywher in iOS. For me, I maintain a very short list of commonly-typed strings as iOS snippets:

  • Personal email address
  • Blog URL
  • Phone number

That’s pretty much it, folks. Some other candidates would be any string of characters that contains one or more non-alphanumeric characters. Since iOS snippets don’t even support hard linebreaks, they’re utility is really pretty limited. But, they’re better than nothing. Whenever possible, I’m always partial to iOS apps that support TextExpander integration because, well, it’s awesome.

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