FOLLOW-UP: Did iCal Solve All My Problems?

Recently I posted about iCal and Address Book, and my suspicion that they were a couple of unsung heroes amongst the OS X-included apps. As a follow-up, I’ll start with iCal and my findings after using it daily for a few weeks.

My general conclusion is that iCal is a good calendar program as far as calendar programs go. I mean, what do you really do to make a calendar really stand out from another? On its own, I don’t think it shines the way I suspected it would. It’s helped me keep better track of my life and all the stuff that goes on around me. (My wife is especially appreciative of this aspect of my new iCal use.) At the end of the day, that’s what it’s really about, isn’t it?

There were a couple things in iCal that I found to my liking, which means they served in making my life easier without a lot of effort on my behalf. (You see, I like simple. I’ll work my tail off to find the simplest way to deal with repetitive and mundane tasks…) I like the information you can store for each event or calendar item. It’s a decent set of metadata for each event, and it’s pretty intuitive to fill-out.
I appreciate the ‘repeat’ functionality – regular meetings and rec-league sporting events are begging for this.
But what really stands out to me is the alarm options. You can have anything from a simple pop-up message on your screen (without having to have iCal running – there’s a daemon in the background) to an email sent (but you have to be using mail.app) to remind you of your root-canal appointment. You can even have a file from your hard drive launched as the reminder. Very nice. Playing around with this and being a little creative could yield some powerful results (think AppleScripts…).
You can put a URL in each item which is nice, but you could just put it in the comments/notes section of the event, so it may be overkill.

You may have noticed above that I said, “On it’s own…” That’s because the little things that you can add-in really do a lot to enhance the user experience with iCal.
I’ve been using Menu Calendar Clock just for the calendar drop down feature for some time. But the iCal integration of MCC makes it totally worth the licensing fee. MCC will display your calendar events and to-dos without even needing to open iCal, and stows-away cleanly into the clock in your menubar. Very slick.
iCal Birthday Shifter is another cool program – it imports all your Address Book birthdays to iCal to make you the hero of the family when you never miss a birthday. It’s extremely simple and no-frills…that’s all it does. But if you’ve got your Address Book filled-out with the vital info for family and friends, this is a huge help.
I’m still waiting for Quicksilver integration with iCal… That’ll usher-in a whole new workflow for me. Until then I’m doing fine with the traditional means of interaction with iCal.

There are other services that kick it up a notch (sorry, too much Emeril…) too. Apple provides tons of pre-configured calendars for just about anything you can imagine: DVD releases, NASCAR schedules, Apple Store Events, Holidays, and so on. It’s as simple as clicking the calendar link. The download automatically opens iCal and asks you how to import it. Very simple and automatic.
If Apple doesn’t provide enough calendars for you, then check out iCalShare. iCalShare is a community where anyone can upload their own dates for whatever activity they can think of. So now anyone with internet access can use your calendar to keep track of your fish-feeding routine.

There were a few things I was left wanting from iCal.

  • For one, There’s no year view. That bugs me. Sometimes I wanna get an overall look at things. I’m surprised this wasn’t made available by Apple.
  • The views of the calendar don’t seem to scale too well. By that, I mean that things get squished really quickly when you’ve got your to-do’s, event info, and listing of calendars all open at once. I’ve got a 17″ powerbook, so the screen isn’t small… Yet things still don’t look as bold and brilliant as I would like.
  • I put a lot of items in my to-do section. They aren’t events on the calendar, just date-aware items. Usually they’re tentative items that remind me to schedule or complete some task in lieu of another. Upon completion of a to-do – say to schedule dinner with my sister for her birthday – I can’t convert that to-do to an event (dinner for my sister’s birthday…) on my calendar. I need to create a new event, and have the completed to-do sitting there useless.

So iCal is a good calendar. It doesn’t blow my socks off, but it’s helped me organize myself better, and be more aware of what’s going on without too much effort. If you’re not using a calendar app (iCal or others) and need a little help with your social/work/what-have-you calendar, then give iCal a try.

It’s probably important to note that I’m not a mail.app user, nor do I have many friends who use iCal (or OS X for that matter) to trade or monitor .ics iCal files with. Additionally, I don’t have a .Mac account to publish my calendars. Oh well. Maybe those features are the hidden gold that I’m missing.

What fantasmagorical things are you using iCal for? What have I missed? Other great alternatives you know of are great to hear too. Enlighten us!
Check out Merlin’s 43Folders for Mike Harris’ guest post on the unix app, Remind, for some real *nix geekery that’s fun for the whole family!

My next steps?
Well I’ve gotta complete my other commitment and review my use of Address Book, so look for that shortly.
Also, look for a review of Econ’s DayChaser. Now that I’ve got a handle on iCal, I’ll let you know how DayChaser compares, and which to make your personal scheduling assistant.

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