Miss typewriters? Tom Hanks does, too, and made an app for you

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Tikkatikkatikka thunk tik-tik tikka-tik thunk tikka-tik-tik-tikka thunk DING! SHHHK-THNK! Tik tikka tik tik thunk tik thunk tik tik…

And there you have the delight and the spectacle of a new iPad word processor by the name of Hanx Writer. Hanx Writer is currently the only iPad app designed by someone who got his start performing in drag on television, voiced the lead in a Pixar movie and also portrayed a real-life Apollo astronaut. It will likely retain that distinction until Dave Foley joins Apple’s app developer program.

Yes, that’s my oh-so-clever way of indicating that the “Hanx” in “Hanx Writer” refers to Tom Hanks, who’s an aficionado of manual typewriters. He worked with the crew at Hitcents to make this app happen.

I didn’t write all of that to be clever, actually. I just wrote all of that distracting text because I want to keep on typing. Hanx Writer makes these real cool noises as you write. I think I gave you that impression with the lead paragraph of this?

The basic idea is nothing new. People have been making apps and system extensions that add typewriter effects to the keyboard ever since computers were powerful enough to waste CPU cycles. But I’m impressed and entertained by just how well Hanx Writer does it. There’s a sense of velocity and impact. It’s not just the THWACK of letterstrikes and the DINNG of the end of a line. There’s also the CHNK CHNK CHNK when you use the backspace key, which is a mechanical typewriter’s way of curtly saying “OK, look: I’ll move the carriage backward. I’ll do it, if you really, really want me to. But don’t make a habit of it. Left-to-right isn’t what I’m good at.”

There’s the ratchety rolling sound when you advance to a new line.

There’s the smooth animation of typebars flipping out of their rest positions and then swatting the paper and then flitting back down into their rest spots. The typeface is a convincing replica of the typebar-ribbon-paper interaction. The paper is nicely simulated; the editing cursor (what’s a cursor? This is the late ’50s and I’m William S. Burroughs and I’m high on opiates and the chair next to this table is turning into a tentacled dog-motorcycle it wants to kiss me oh I shouldn’t but how can I not and booze booze booze)

Tom Hanks with Peter Scolari

Sorry. I got a little too deeply into the spirit of this manual typewriter.

The cursor: It stays dead-center in the screen as the carriage and the “paper” moves backward and forward.

(It’s actually kind of cool to be writing something without having to flit your eyes back and forth to “read” the screen as I go. I’d like to see this as an option in mainstream word processors.)

My initial observation about Hanx Writer’s unique position in the App Store is spot-on. Go on and check: Tom Hanks, Dave Foley; “Bosom Buddies,” “Kids in the Hall”; “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life”; James Lovell, CDR Apollo 13, “Apollo 13” and Alan Bean, LMP, Apollo 12, “From the Earth to the Moon.”

But there’s another thing that makes Hanx Writer unique in the App Store, and it’s actually relevant to the app: Hanx Writer is the only word processor that becomes a more effective productivity tool if you have your headphones on while you use it.

There’s a steady rhythm to the typewriter noises. It’s kind of soothing, even, like a reassuring rain that helps to close out the world. It delivers constant, audible, reassuring feedback that you’re actually getting work done. If you hook up a good set of Bluetooth speakers to your iPad, the noise will help to convince your employer, spouse, or housemates that you’re doing something more productive with your iPad than making your way up to B-list celebrity status on that Kim Kardashian game.

Hanx Writer is a lovely novelty. You might as well try it because it’s free. Additional models of “typewriters” are available as in-app purchases, as are fun extra features such as “colored ribbons.”

(Suggestion, Mr. Hanks: I’d pay money to be able to paste in a photo and have it land on the paper as typewriter art. You can charge an extra dollar for it if I can watch the letterbars actually typing the image.)

But Hanx Writer no mere toy! I insist that Hanx Writer is also a credible tool for writing.

I’ve been writing this whole review in the app. I was relieved to find that Hanx Writer isn’t so precious about being a “manual typewriter simulation” that it’s as big a pain in the butt as a real typewriter often is.

The app is keeping up with my 80-100 WPM typing flawlessly.

I was afraid that Tom might have thought part of the “fun” would be controlling one’s typing rhythm to avoid making the “type bars” tangle up and jam together. Editing works as easily as it does with any other iPad app: the backspace key destructively deletes, you can insert text wherever you like, and all of the usual keyboard navigation shortcuts are fully armed and operational.

Though this inspires an idea, Tom: Add an “expert level” for typists who are keen for a greater challenge. Like in a driving game, where you opt for the manual gearbox and the accurate track physics that corkscrew your F1 car into and over an embankment if you even think of tapping the brakes.

Let’s have an “expert” typewriter that replicates the low end of the price range. It jams easily and you have to type an uppercase “O” or a lowercase “L” to get a zero or a one. And every X pages, it forces the user to “change the ribbon.” The typewriter stops working for about 10 minutes while the user “changes” it. In effect, it forces the user to step away from the keys for five or 10 minutes. It’s a refreshing and rejuvenating break from work, and indubitably good for one’s sangfroid.

(But if you make the “new ribbon” into a required in-app purchase, Tom, I swear, I will stop recommending “Larry Crowne” as a charming and sadly overlooked ensemble piece.)

You can really write with Hanx Writer. Nothing will stand in your way.

More than that! It’s also so much fun to use, and so different from the usual text editors, that it actually helps with your writing. I haven’t written an app review this quickly in ages. Hanx Writer is engaging and entertaining my brain in fresh ways. As I write with Hanx Writer, the part of my brain that often sabotages progress by wondering if I can come up with a stronger lead or a better sentence is off chasing a butterfly.

That sort of thinking is important in the editing phase. But when you’re trying to complete your first draft, “brilliant writing” isn’t half as valuable as “relentless forward momentum.”

Tom Hanks with Hooch

I’m reminded of how I kickstarted my fiction-writing a few years back. I had been nursing an idea for a short story, but it only existed in the form of several battered and bloody false starts in my Documents folder. I finally finished it during an unbroken, confident two weeks of writing. I practically wrote the whole thing in one breath.

How? Through determination and focus? Oh, I wish.

See, a Krispy Kreme opened a few miles from the house, and it was open until midnight. And I bought a fountain pen, and a plain, spiral-bound college notebook. The Krispy Kreme served a specific venue that my brain solely associated with the writing of this short story. If I’m at the Krispy Kreme, it was time to be writing this one piece of fiction. When I sat down and started to work, making black marks on the paper with the pen was different and fun. Also, the analog writing gear denied me the ability to throw my writing into reverse gear. I write a sentence, it’s on the paper in black ink. Changing anything is so hard that I’d rather just leave it and then fix it later, after I’ve finished the whole thing and begin transcribing the handwritten pages into my word processor.

The only thing that matters in writing is the end result. If you only managed to finish your novel or screenplay by tricking your brain into enjoying the process (instead of being an insufferable pill, as usual), who cares? You can tell the press that you spent a year huddling over Microsoft Word in a freezing garret, like a proper novelist. You’ll get away with it too. They almost never check your license.

I have one final recommendation for Hanx Writer, Mr. Hanks: one of the things I most appreciate about writing longhand, or with a real typewriter, is that satisfying stack of dead tree bisections that accumulates on the

Oh! Mister Hanks!


What a lucky escape you just had!

Your app died on me just then. One moment, I was writing, and the next, I was left contemplating the icons on my iPad’s springboard, like it was a Zen rock garden without a finished draft of an app review anywhere in it.

I wondered “Did Tom Hanks just steal about fifteen hundred words of my work? Have I just had a lollipop ripped from my hands, by the 21st century’s Jimmy Stewart, no less?”

Luckily, your app behaved as such apps should. I relaunched Hanx Writer and I was able to pick up exactly where I had left off.

I am relieved.

I would have been forced to start all over again. I would likely have opened this review in a darker frame of mind. I might have began with my thoughts about “Dragnet.” Yes, I am a small and petty man when riled. I might have allowed cheap pettiness and spite to subvert my loftier instincts as a technology journalist.

Now that I think of it, I imagine that you’ve probably heard enough about “Dragnet” by now. Water off of a duck’s back, and all that. If I’m honest, you were pretty good in that one. I didn’t instinctively reach for “Turner and Hooch” because that one seemed too obvious.

Tom Hanks in 2014 | AP

In fact, Tom, I’m not entirely sure you’ve ever made a terrible movie. “Bachelor Party”? No, that was a perfectly reasonable comedy for its time and for that phase of your career.

… Give me a moment. I’m thinking it over. …

Yeah, see, the best zinger I can come up with (without consulting the IMDB, which would be cheating) is “You should have cut the first 10 or 15 minutes of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.’ I wasn’t buying the Toula character at all until after her makeover. And I think it’s an objective observation that the story doesn’t even get started until the scene in the travel agency where she meets Ian, anyway.” I can defend these opinions but even so, was that really your responsibility, as producer?

Well, this is all unnecessary. As I said, your word processor didn’t eat my work. It behaved very well. The crash was probably iOS 7’s fault to begin with.

I really only went into that extended riff because I’m still having a lot of fun typing and listening to the noises and watching the paper go from right to left and occasionally up a bit. I’m not eager to stop writing.

What was I even talking about?

Oh, right: I’d love to see a “stack of typewritten pages” on the edge of the screen that gets progressively thicker and messier as I go. It’d just give me that added sense of achievement, that’s all. The “page carousel” view isn’t quite the same.

I will also say that the app’s export features need a lot of work. Hanx Writer spits out a PDF that accurately represents the typeface and formatting of the document. That’s well in keeping with the spirit of a “simulated typewriter.” High marks for using the standard iOS export sheet. I was able to save a PDF in my Google Drive directory without any trouble.

But now, Tom, it’s time for me to move this review from Hanx Writer into Google Docs, so that my editor can work her magic upon it. I had to download the PDF onto my Mac (which, to Hanx Writer’s credit, remained ignored and idle throughout the entire writing of the first draft). Then I had to export the raw text. Finally, I opened it in BBEdit and applied a little regex kung-fu to remove the hard formatting.

Mr. Hanks, I now know exactly how the men and women who fled the Dust Bowl felt. I am keenly aware of the absence of God. How will I feed my three children, Tom? It’s not the lack of food that will kill them; I fear that a lack of hope has already left them dead and dry, like the land that has forsaken us and laughed at our faith. I hear tell that there are jobs in California. Do I dare put my threadbare family through such a journey? Should we feast on this one last hope, as a dying man gorges the night before he knows he’s to be fetched for the noose?

Pardon the false drama, Tom. I’m still just enjoying hitting the keys and making words and listening to the typewriter sounds.

But yes, getting text out of Hanx Writer and into any other place for editing or sharing is a pain. If there’s an easy way to get it to spit out text, I haven’t found it. Which would, in itself, also represent a problem.

Well, that about does it, Mr. Hanks. Hanx Writer is a very nice app and I’m glad that you made it.

PS — I’m guessing that a bunch of people in the Apple/iOS community have poked fun at your app for its “skeuomorphic design,” a visual user interface style that’s famously fallen out of fashion at Apple in the past year or so. Pay it no mind. I don’t know why they get so worked up about it. I’m not even 100 percent sure what the word means. They keep changing their explanations about why it ticks them off.

Don’t change a thing about Hanx Writer’s design, Tom. It is exactly what it is, which is why I like it so much.

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