20 Feb Six calendar apps and a recommendation.
Recently someone asked me to help them go digital with their calendar. I’m sure they’re not the only person still using the good old fashioned pen and paper method of diary keeping – buying a year calendar and writing your appointments and reminders into that. This is how I managed my calendar until I got a smartphone, but it has its draw backs:
- If you make plans and then change them, you just have to scribble it out, which quickly becomes annoying, or write everything in pencil, which means you always have to have a pencil
- If you use a paper calendar you have to carry it around with you everywhere, because you know that the one time you go shopping without it is the time you’ll run into someone you’ve been trying to schedule a meeting with. This one in particular was the thing that made me make the move to a digital calendar, I am one of those people that has things in their handbag for every eventuality – including perfume, phone chargers, lip balm (lots of lip balm!), antacid tablets, umbrella (I live in Britain, pretty much all the time it could rain at any minute), hairspray, a canvas bag, pens, hair grips, and a tape measure (came across this the other day, even I thought this one was a bit weird). With all of that already in my bag, I really don’t need to add a bulky calendar too!
- No one else can see your calendar, and while a lot of the time that might be just fine since people don’t need to know when your next trip to the dentist is, there are some times, like project meetings, that it might be helpful for other people to see.
- And because you can’t share your calendar in that way, you can’t invite people to an event – you have to contact them separately to arrange something, which takes longer and can be much more tedious
I’m not saying these obstacles are insurmountable, they’re not. And I’m sure many people still use paper calendars and are perfectly happy. But the point is, the person that this blog is about was not happy with the old way anymore, and I felt their pain because moving to a digital calendar was one of the best things about getting a smartphone for me!
I did some research to think about which of the many digital calendars on offer would best suits their needs, and while I was doing I thought that actually other people may find this of use too, so I decided to share it with all of you :)!
Some background on what I was looking for.
First of all, to set out what we were looking for: the person who asked me to help them with this was looking for a few things in particular
- to be able to have multiple calendars in one place (work and personal calendars), pulled from different accounts (Gmail and Microsoft Exchange accounts)
- they were most concerned about being able to look at their calendar when they’re out and about, so on their phone. They weren’t bothered about looking at their calendar on their computer, so we were looking for an app for their smartphone
- specifically, an app for an iPhone
- and it needed to be free!
To start, I had a look online to find which calendar apps were most popular. Consensus seems to be that Fantastical 2 and Calendars 5 are very good calendar apps, possibly the best. But they’re both paid for, so they’re out! I thought I’d just mention them here though, in case the cost isn’t a barrier for you.
My recommendation: Google Calendar.
The other app that was often cited as one of the best calendar apps is free – it’s Google Calendar. And it is this app that I recommended in this case, here’s why:
To put it simply, Google Calendar has everything we were looking for
- It’s free
- It has an iPhone app (it’s also available on Android)
- You can have multiple calendars on there (although, more on this later)
It also has these other benefits:
It looks good.
When you look at the calendar in ‘Schedule’ view (when your events come up as a list), each month has an image as a background, which really helps it stand out so you know when you’ve from one month to another. And the images reflect the seasons, which is cute!
As with most calendar apps you can assign different colours to different calendars, so you can easily see what’s what. In the Google Calendar app specifically, they show up as big blocks of colour – the whole space the event takes up (i.e. to show you when it starts and ends), is the colour you’ve assigned for that calendar. It makes it really easy to see what’s coming up, even if you’ve got two or more calendars on there (e.g. work and personal) it’s really easy to just pick out the key events for one calendar over another. And, as an added extra, for some events it puts in a picture background, which livens up your calendar a bit!
As well as schedule view, the app has four other view options: day, three day, week, month. As in the picture below (I’ve blocked out the text on this image but there would be your event title showing on all of these).
There is also a search option, so you can find specific events. All of which gives you lots of options for how you want to look at your calendar, which really helps you stay on top of everything, no matter what you’re doing.
It’s easy to use.
It’s very simple and intuitive – especially if you already use other Google apps (e.g. Search, Maps, etc.).
You can use ‘natural language’ to add events, meaning you can type ‘Meet Michaela at Birmingham New Street station at 7’ and it will add in an event called ‘Meet Michaela’ with the time set as 7 and the location set at ‘Birmingham New Street station’. It adds in all the information itself, so you can add events really quickly, but still have all the detail you need.
Even if you do type everything out yourself, adding events is very simple, you can easily change which calendar it’s for, the date and time, add a location and notes, set a notification (and decide how long before to be notified), invite other people, set privacy, decide how it shows in your calendar (busy or available), and set events to repeat (every day, week, month, year, etc.).
You can also add individual events in a different time zone to the default, I use this all the time for things like Twitter chats and webinars that I’m taking part in but that are organised by someone outside of the GMT time zone. I can add an event, for example, at 5pm EST, which means I don’t have to a) convert it into GMT, or b) remember to change it to BST when the clocks go forward! It shows up in your calendar at the time of your default time zone, so using the example of an event I’m adding that’s happening at 5pm EST, the event will show up in my calendar at 10pm, because that’s what it is in GMT. This function might not be that useful for other people, but if you do want this function it’s really annoying having to work without it, so it’s great that Google Calendar does allow you to do this.
It integrates well with other Google products.
Naturally, since it is made by Google! For example, you can attached a file from Google Drive to your events, which might be useful, for example if you’re arranging a meeting to discuss a report, you could attach a copy of the report to the event so everyone can easily access it.
You can also easily add events from emails in Gmail to your calendar (you can have it do it automatically in fact), directions are automatically opened with Google Maps rather than Apple Maps, you can link it with your Reminders, and if you have the Chrome browser app you can have it automatically open links with that rather than Safari.
It has a very exciting additional feature.
Since Google acquired Timeful, they’ve introduced the time-management features that made Timeful so popular. Which means that now you can use Google Calendar to help you form habits for things you want to do. In the same way that you add an event you can also add a ‘Goal’, you set what you want to do, e.g. exercise, what activity, e.g. go for a run, how often, e.g. 3 times a week, for how long, e.g. 30 minutes, and what the best time for you to do this is, e.g. afternoon. Then it looks at your calendar, finds when you have time, and schedules the sessions for you. When you come to a session you can tell it that you’ve done it, or tell it to reschedule it for later. Over time, based on when you complete goals or reschedule them, the app learns when are the best times for you to do whatever it is you have set as your goal. By helping you find the time to achieve your goals, it helps you to form habits, which ultimately will help you to do whatever it is you’re trying to do.
And the great thing about it is, you can set anything as a goal. Not only are there loads of options already listed – including learn a language, call mum, meditate, plan your day, etc. etc. – but you can set custom goals, meaning you can input whatever you want. If you have a goal to eat pancakes twice a month or learn how to be passive aggressive three times a week, Google Calendar can help you achieve those aims!
Drawbacks of Google Calendar.
But, no app is perfect, so here are the things that aren’t so great about the Google Calendar app:
Something stupid first.
This is going to sound like a silly thing to say but you do have to have a Gmail account to use it. When you’re setting up your calendar you have to have at least one Gmail account added, that will act as your main calendar (when you add events it will assume you want them in this calendar, etc.). I only say this because with all the apps I’ll talk about this isn’t a consideration.
And it is more of a faff to add other types of calendars than it is on other apps. With a lot of other calendar apps you can just add an account within the app, and you can do this on the Google Calendar for additional Gmail accounts. But if you want to add an Exchange/Outlook/Yahoo/AOL/etc. account (i.e. anything other than Gmail), you have to add the account to your phone itself (make sure calendars are turned on), and then allow Google Calendar access to the calendars on your phone. So, you can do it, and it’s not really difficult, it just means that it takes a bit more time to set up than other calendars might.
Only connects with Google.
I said above that one of the advantages of this app is that it integrates with other Google products, which is useful, but it does integrate only with Google apps. So, if you use Dropbox, for example, rather than Google Drive, then you won’t be able to add files to events easily, unless you make the move over. This isn’t surprising and it’s not necessarily a huge problem (depending on how much you want to make use of the integration functions), but it is worth thinking about if you do decide to make the move over to Google Calendar from something else.
In a similar vein, you can’t add other subscription calendars. For example, I have a ‘UN Observances’ calendar, so that I can see all the UN days right there in my calendar, without having to find them all and add them in. In other apps you can also add in calendars that will tell you when all the matches of the Six Nations rugby are, or when your favourite TV show(s) are. Not everyone has these other online calendars display in theirs, so for a lot of people this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but it really depends on your needs.
Doesn’t have travel time or ‘time to leave’ alerts.
By this I mean being able to set how long it will take to travel to an event, so that this time also appears in your calendar alongside the event (which means the time blocked out for the event is actually more reflective of your free/busy times), and then be alerted before you need to leave, not just before the event itself. Most calendar apps don’t have this, but it is a really useful function! It seems a shame that such a good app, with brilliant extra things like the habit-forming stuff, doesn’t have this too. Of course, you can do a work around by setting different alerts times for events or adding in ‘Travel to…’ info as separate events. But, I’m hoping that Google will introduce this soon.
No iOS 10 widget.
If you’re into that. If you don’t know what this is – when you drag down from the top of your screen, and swipe right you should see some key info displayed, like the date, possibly the weather or news etc. These are ‘widgets’ of the apps on your phone. A lot of calendar apps (including of course, Apple’s own calendar – more on this below), have widgets you can display so you can quickly go to this screen and see what is coming up next in your calendar. Personally I don’t really find this a problem, because I never really do this. But if you’re all about the widgets you might miss this if you get Google Calendar.
Google Calendar is not the perfect app, but it has a lot of things that the competition don’t. I recommended this app to the person I was helping with digital calendars because it does everything they needed it to, and a little more. It’s really easy to use (especially for anyone already embedded in the Google ‘ecosystem’, i.e. people who use a lot of Google stuff), and looks great!
Others I thought about.
In my search for the perfect calendar, I considered a number of others. So if Google Calendar doesn’t sound quite right for you, here are my thoughts on other apps I considered (in order of my preference)…
1. Tiny Calendar.
Tiny Calendar is free, and available on iOS and Android.
- It looks nice – clean and simple, easy to use
- It has eight different views – day, week, month, agenda, week agenda, mini month, year, and custom view (set automatically at 4 days, but can be changed to anything from 2 days to 4 weeks), which gives you a lot of choice for how you want to view your calendar
- Of those eight views, you’ve got quick access to four of them (they are displayed at the bottom of the app, so you just press which one you want, the others you have to click a ‘more’ arrow and then select), and you can choose which of the views you want quick access to. For example, I might want access to day, week agenda, mini month, and month, but you might want agenda, week, month, and a custom view. This level of customisation is really nice, and not something you see in most of the others
- The agenda view shows you your events in a list (as the Google Calendar ‘Schedule’ view does), but as well as showing you when the event is and the name it also shows you the notes for those events. As with being able to choose which views you want quick access to, it helps reduce the number of steps you have to take to get access to the information you want – in most apps to see your notes is an extra click away as you have to go on to the event itself. This is useful if you’ve got important details in your notes, for example I often add in info about places where I can park in the notes of my events, so it’s helpful to be able to see that easily
- Events are simple to add, and it’s easy to add notes to an event or set an event to repeat
- As with the Google Calendar, you use natural language to add events
- You can sync the calendar with your Apple Calendar (the default calendar app on the iPhone), meaning you can get any subscribed calendars to also display in Tiny Calendar
- It has an iOS 10 widget
- The app does look good, except when you’re adding an event the display for changing the time of the event is unattractive and is a bit confusing
- Although there are many views available, you can’t search for events
- The free version of the app has adverts displaying at the bottom of the screen. It doesn’t really interfere with your use of the app, but it’s annoying
- You can’t set up events in different time zones
- As mentioned above, when you set it up you can sync it with your Apple calendar, or with Google Calendar. This is good because it means you can have subscribed calendars. But, as I said in the drawbacks of Google Calendar above, it does mean you have to add the calendars to your phone first, rather than right to the app, which is a bit of an extra faff
- You can’t connect with third-party apps, like a file sharing tool like Dropbox or Google Drive, or a list-making app like Reminders or Wunderlist
- It doesn’t have travel time or time to leave alerts
Tiny Calendar is a really good calendar if you just want really simple functionality – you just want to be able to look at your upcoming events, and you don’t need the third-party integrations like file sharing. It looks good, although the ads on the free version do hamper that.
The Apple Calendar is on all iPhones by default, it is an iOS only app.
- It has two views – month and list, months, 5 day view (by turning your phone on its side)
- It is very simple, and easy to use (if you’re used to how apple devices work)
- It’s easy to add events, and to add notes to an event or to set them to repeat
- When adding an event you can set a time and add notes and so on, as with the other apps, but there is also a ‘URL’ section, so you can add in a relevant link, which is helpful
- It’s easy to search for events
- It is possible to add events in different time zones
- You can get subscribed calendars
- Even if you’re not using an iCloud account (which is the Apple email/calendar account you can get when you have an iPhone) you can add other accounts (i.e. unlike the Google Calendar, which requires you to use at least one Gmail account)
- You can add different types of accounts really easily, including Exchange, Google, Yahoo, Aol, Outlook, and ‘Other’ in case you have an awkward option – which I do, and I added it in this way with no problems
- You can get the calendar to pull events from email and other apps (e.g. sign up to an event on Meetup and it can automatically add it to your calendar)
- The Apple Calendar does have travel time and time to leave alerts!
- It has an iOS 10 widget
- As noted above, you can add events in different time zones, but you have to do it by location (e.g. if I want to add in an event in PST I’d have to put in something like ‘San Fransico, U.S.A’ rather than just being able to specify the PST time zone), which is annoying!
- Again, as noted above the app is very simple. But, possibly too simple, for example, the lack of a schedule/agenda view is disappointing. At times the design is so clean that it’s actually a little hard to really see your events, for example, when you look at a month the app displays a dot below days that you have an event in your calendar, but it just displays one black dot if you have any sort of event, so it doesn’t help you to see how many things you have on that day, or what calendar it refers to. By comparison, the Google Calendar app displays multiple dots if you have more than one event on a day, and the dot is the colour of the calendar to which the event is assigned. This means you can easily see which days you have work things planned, or personal things planned. This could just be a minor inconvenience, depending on how you use the app, but if you have a calendar like ‘Holidays’ turned on (which most do automatically), then a dot will appear on those days, because something is in your calendar, making you think you have something planned for that day, but then you look and it turns out it’s just a bank holiday or something. In this case looking at the month overview kind of becomes pointless
- The app integrates with Apple tools, which is unsurprising, but not necessarily desirable. For example, straight from the app you can open a maps app to get directions to an event, which is great, but it will only do so with the Apple Maps app, and you can’t change this, so if you use Google Maps normally, this is an inconvenience
The Apple Calendar is fine, it does all of the basic stuff you want from a calendar app, but nothing else really. If you just want a really simple calendar and you are already an Apple user, this could be a good choice, as you’ll be able to pick up how to use it very easily and most likely it will do the things you need. However, if you have a quite complicated calendar, or multiple calendars you need to display in one place, you may find that the app is not really sophisticated enough to be best able to help you manage your calendars.
Outlook is free, and available on iOS and Android.
- There are three viewing options – agenda, day, and three day
- On the agenda view of the app events appear with icons next to them, for example, if you put coffee in the title of an event it shows up as a little coffee cup, these are supposed to help you quickly glance at your day and see what’s coming up
- You can use the app with any email account, you don’t have to have an Outlook account
- And it’s very easy to add your accounts to the app – unlike the others talked about so far, you can add accounts straight to the app (rather than to your phone and then give the app access to them), which makes it an easier process with slightly less faff
- You can add other ‘interesting calendars’. This is a bit limited at the moment though, you can add sports related events (for example, the Six Nations rugby schedule, which I may have mentioned earlier… I like rugby, ok?), and TV show dates
- It links to third-party apps like Evernote (the note keeping app), Wunderlist (the list making app), and Facebook
- You can get directions to an event straight from the calendar, and choose which maps app you want them opened with, Apple or Google
- It has an iOS 10 widget
- I can understand the premise of why the icons (discussed above) would be useful, but personally I think it’s distracting and kind of annoying. If you only have one calendar displayed (i.e. if you just use it for personal stuff and you look at your work calendar somewhere else, for example) then you might find it useful, but if you have more than one then you’ve already got different colours, so with the icons too it just makes it all look more confusing
- There is no week view option (even when turning the phone on its side), which most of the others do have
- As noted above, you can add subscribed ‘interesting calendars’, but to do that you have to be using an Exchange account
- You can’t change the time zone for individual events
- You either can’t set events to repeat, or you can but it’s difficult (I couldn’t work out how to do it!)
- You can’t search for events
- The biggest drawback of the Outlook app is that it’s not just a calendar, it’s also got email. You may want this, but if you don’t there is no way to not have the email function as well, so to look at the calendar you have to go on to the app, and then click to look at the calendar (it automatically opens on email)
- It doesn’t have travel time or time to leave alerts
Microsoft acquired the team behind the very popular Sunrise calendar app, and since then has started integrating a lot of Sunrise’s features into the Outlook Calendar (see the event icons discussed above), so a lot of people are giving Outlook more consideration than they have previously, and it’s possible the calendar could keep getting better as they adopt more of Sunrise’s features.
Cal is free, and available on iOS and Android.
- It looks nice, this is much more of a main feature of Cal than it is of the others
- The background of the app is a selection of beautiful images, and you can change the themes for these background images, which is nice because it allows you to make it a bit more to your own taste
- The calendar has three views – month and agenda, week and agenda, and week view if you turn your phone on its side
- The events look really good too, and the options to add a location, people, files, or set an event to repeat are shown as tabs on the event all the time, so it’s really easy to add those details
- When you’re adding attendees to an event you can text them the invitation as well as/instead of emailing them, because the app connects with your contacts
- One really cool feature that Cal has, which none of the others do, is that it shows free time between events. Rather than just having a bit of whitespace, a faded box shows with something like ‘Free time 6 hours’ (depending on how much free time you have, obviously). This is really useful, particularly when you’re trying to schedule other events or meetings, this helps you see really quickly when you’ve got time, in a way that the other calendars don’t
- You can have subscribed calendars show up, you’re not actually subscribed to them through the app, but you can subscribe in your Apple Calendar, and then Cal pulls the information from there
- You can choose which maps app directions are given in – Apple, Google, or Waze
- The calendar is made by the creators of Any.Do (the list making app), which means it integrates really well with it, which can be handy if you do also use Any.Do
- As noted above, this app is pretty and very minimalist in design, but it is very much a case of style over substance. All the design elements do kind of get in the way of being able to look at your events, meaning it is difficult to actually use the app to see what you’ve got going on. For example, there are some nice animations when you add an event or you’re flipping through days, but this does mean that the app is slower, so you’re spending more time waiting for it to load while your just wanting to look at events
- How you add an event is a bit annoying, because you add an event with some basic information first, and then you have to save it, and then add more information about where it is and if it repeats and so on
- The app is not very sophisticated, for example, as well as having more than one calendar (work and personal), I also have more than one calendar attached to my work account (I save details of Twitter chats in a separate calendar because there are so many, and it would be distracting for it to be mixed in with my meetings and events). In the other calendar apps I can chose to display my meetings calendar, but not my Twitter chats calendar, but in Cal I can’t, because it just sees them as one calendar
- It’s more restricted on what kinds of accounts you can use it with, for example I couldn’t add an Exchange account
- Because it’s made by Any.Do, you do have to create an Any.do account to use it, you can’t just use the calendar without
- It doesn’t have an iOS 10 widget
- It doesn’t have travel time or time to leave alerts
This calendar looks pretty, but it’s at the cost of functionality. I wouldn’t recommend this app, because it’s just too frustrating when you just want to look at the details of an event and you’re waiting for animations, that you could have lived without. The fact that it shows you how much free time you have is great (and I do hope other apps adopt this), but for me this is not useful enough to want to put up with the other problems.
Informant is free, and available on iOS and Android.
- It has six views – agenda, day, week, column week, month, and year
- And, you can set the app to show empty days in the agenda view – this may not sound very good, but (in a similar vein to the free time display in Cal), this can be really useful when you’re scheduling events as you can more easily see when you are available as well as when you’re not
- It has some great customisation for how you view your calendar too, for example, you can add tags to your events, and then set up custom filters to only see events with certain tags, so you might add a tag to some events to label them ‘need to do some preparation beforehand’, and then look only for those events you need to prepare for so you can decide what to work on
- It’s easy to add events – and as well as adding text notes, you can also attach images
- You can use natural language to add events
- You can add events in different time zones
- You can search for events
- When you add an event the app tells you about conflicting events, this is really useful and pretty cool as it’s not something any of the others do
- Informant boasts that it is more than a calendar app, as you can add tasks and checklists to events, these then appear in your agenda view
- It has an iOS 10 widget
- The app is not very attractive, it looks quite dated (especially compared to the others in this list) and because of this using it is much less intuitive than other apps
- As noted above, there is a lot of customisation, which is great in many ways, but also a bit overwhelming! There are a lot of options and info to take in
- In order to get extra features, like integrations with third-party apps, you have to pay for an upgrade and subscription
- It doesn’t have travel time or time to leave alerts
Informant does a lot more than just show you what events you have coming up and allow you to arrange new ones, it’s also supposed to help you plan – in the short term and long term – using additional features like tasks. It also has more customisation options than most other calendar apps. This is great, if that’s what you want, but it does make for a more complicated app, so if you do choose to use it, be prepared for a considerable set up time. I really did not like how this app looked though, which is why it’s the last in the list. It may sound superficial, but when I’m looking at my calendar I want to be able to see really easily what I’ve got planned for the day, and with this app you can’t. It has so many extra features and detail that it gets in the way of what I want to use it for.
There are a lot of perfectly good calendar apps out there, and all of the apps discussed above would be fine. Each of them has slightly different features, ways you can view your schedule, and some cool additional functions (like goals on Google Calendar, travel time on the Apple app, free time on Cal, and tasks on Informant), so it is worth thinking about which one will best suit your needs.
Going back to the person who asked me to help them move to a digital calendar, I recommended Google Calendar because it best met their needs. And it is a very good calendar, if you are just making the move over yourself if could be a good app to start with, because it is very easy to use, looks good, and has a lot of useful features. If you can bear it though, it might be worth downloading a couple of apps and having a play around with them to see which you like best.
If you do try out any of these apps, let me know what you think of them in the comments below, or if you already have a calendar app that you love that I’ve not mentioned, let me know about that too!