I’ve long been a proponent of natural language parsing in calendar apps. In 2013, it’s a genuine surprise to me when a modern calendar application doesn’t allow you to type your schedule in naturally. If I’m going to a play on Friday (which I am), I want to be able to type “Tim’s play on Friday from 7:30–9:30” in the event creation field and have the event ready to go. Calendar.app has this all wrong, and Fantastical wiped its clock clean when it debuted with natural language parsing last year.
But now there’s Fantastical 2. More than just a re-skin, it brings some great new features and enhancements to the table. At this point, though, Fantastical isn’t alone. It’s also dealing with contenders like Horizon and Calendars 5 by Readdle, both of which bring their own unique tricks to the table. Despite that, though, Fantastical isn’t just king of the calendar throne, it’s also my most-used app every day. It’s the one that manages everything for me now, and it’s an automatic must for me for anybody I know with an iPhone. Read on to find out what makes this not just a great update, but one of the best iPhone apps available and my pick for the best utility app of the year.
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The Day Ticker and Natural Language Parsing
Fantastical’s interface comes from the Day Ticker, which most of us are probably familiar with. It’s a custom UI, which means it’s not using any of Apple’s stock elements, and it sits on the top of your list and is always ready to go. With Fantastical 2, that hasn’t changed. What has changed, however, is that the current day is no longer the middle day on the Day Ticker. It’s now on the far left. If you think about it, that makes much more sense — Fantastical was a little too focused on the events that already passed before. This is smarter.
You’ll also notice two other changes with Fantastical 2. The first is that the interface has been given some slight adjustments. I do mean slight. This still looks very similar to the original; unlike Tweetbot, it didn’t need to change its entire personality. That being said, it does look fresher and it certainly fits in more with iOS 7. The textures are largely gone and the colours are a bit bolder, all of which is great. There’s also a new row above the stock keyboard with numbers on it, a colon, and a slash. I haven’t gotten used to this yet and still hit the 123 key on the stock keyboard for special characters when I’m adding a date and time, but it’s a handy feature.
The other change you’re going to notice is the addition of a new Light Theme. Personally, I think this is just a little too white for my tastes. I like the contrast between the Day Ticker and the list of upcoming events with the standard colours, but on a very bright day, I can see the Light Theme becoming useful. It’s certainly beautiful.
The Natural Language Parsing is becoming better in all the right ways too. NLP now works over multiple days and can handle requests like “Burger night every Monday from 6–9pm at Symposium until December 1st.” I’d call that pretty spectacular. What works great about this system is that Fantastical reveals what it’s adding to your calendar with some visual cues while you type. This is exactly what the first Fantastical does as well — it’s unchanged — but it’s still gorgeous and really handy. This is an instructional user interface, and easily the best NLP in the business.
It’s worth mentioning, of course, that Horizon and Calendars 5 both use NLP as well. Calendars 5 needs work — it’s very obviously the Readdle team’s first go at NLP — and Horizon finds it difficult to handle events that end at midnight. If you’re a night owl like me, you’ll find that Horizon isn’t as functional as Fantastical. Neither of these apps support visual cues.
Like Calendars 5, Fantastical 2 supports Reminders integration. This is the big new feature of the app. I have to admit, it’s nice to see a paid iOS 7 update that’s not just a re-skinning of an iOS 6 app. I’m happy to pay the cost no matter what, but I’m considering the Reminders integration a huge perk. And trust me, it is a huge perk.
Reminders hasn’t just been integrated in Calendars 5 and Fantastical 2, but also in Agenda 4. I don’t think Calendars 5 and Agenda 4 handle it properly. Both of them display reminder alerts for an event, even if you’ve already completed it. It’s an inconvenience. There’s a ton of other little things they get wrong, but for the user, what it amounts to are a series of minor frustrations: “why isn’t this reminder getting added properly? Why am I being reminded to to this again? Why can’t I manage my other reminders from this app?”
It’s frustrating. That’s why I’m really happy to say that Fantastical alleviates this issue. Adding a reminder is quick and easy, and it supports Natural Language Processing as well. When adding an event, it takes one tap to create a reminder instead of an event. As another bonus, you can simply start creating a reminder by typing “todo” into the event creation field. When you type “todo,” Fantastical automatically changes your event to a reminder. Other words, like “due,” also trigger the same thing. It’s great.
Similarly, Fantastical uses the same visual cues for reminder creation as it does for events, so you always know when you’re scheduling your todos. I don’t think this system is perfect, though. I wanted to remind myself to work on an assignment tomorrow night, but when I said “Tomorrow night” in the reminder creation field, that information was ignored and my event was created for 9am that day. It’s not quite as flawless as the event creation mode. Of course, you can manually edit it, but that’s not as easy.
That being said, Fantastical’s Reminders integration is so complete that I don’t think there’s many reasons to keep the stock Reminders.app on my home screen anymore. Organizing the Reminders by list (turned off by default) allows you to, with the tap of a button, see your Reminders lists the same as you would in the stock app. You can easily peruse each list and add to it, without problems. You can set default Reminders lists and add an event to any of your lists right within that part of the app.
Adding a reminder within one your lists doesn’t pop up the same Reminder Creation field with NLP, though. Instead, you’ll add reminders just like you would in the stock app. Type in your todo, and then tap it for the Detailed View. In the Detailed View, you can select when you’d like the event to be due by. You’ll also notice that the extended keyboard isn’t available in this part of the app either. I feel like this is a small oversight, and I’d like to see it improved in future versions of the app.
That being said, Reminders integration is done right here. As Federico Viticci notes in his review of Fantastical 2, the only thing you can’t do in Fantastical than you can do with Reminders is change the colour of lists. Like Federico, iCloud has been changing my custom colours on me constantly, so I’m not sure if it even matters. Whenever If Apple pulls themselves together with iCloud, though, I’m sure some people will miss the ability to change list colours in Reminders. I’m not sure that I care.
If you use TextExpander, you’ll be happy to know that Fantastical 2 supports you. If you’re like me and you don’t use TextExpander, Fantastical 2 is another app that will make you strongly consider it.
The app also supports x-callback-url and is baked into apps like Drafts and Launch Center Pro, which is a handy feature. In-app, that means that Fantastical 2 can open links in Google Chrome or send your mapping information straight to Google Maps instead of Apple Maps if you have it installed. That brings me to a problem, though: you need to know the address you’re going to.
As it stands, Fantastical 2 has the best NLP parser available to consumers right now in an iPhone app. It also (quite easily) has the best Reminders integration in a calendar app, despite its small shortcomings. So what’s it missing?
Two things: weather and mapping. Horizon supports both these features, which is great. When I add an event, I naturally want to add an address. Most of the time, I don’t know the address. In Horizon, I can quickly punch in where I want to be and Horizon will query Google to find a specific address it can add to my calendar. It’s an insanely useful feature that Fantastical doesn’t have.
Horizon, like the stock Calendar app for Mac, will also tell me what the weather is going to be like at an event. It doesn’t just look up weather for the day, but weather for the event’s specific location. If I had to catch a plane to Mumbai for the day, Horizon could let me know what clothing I should pack. I really wish Fantastical did this too.
Combined, what this information should be able to generate is travel time information. Apple has tried this with the stock Calendar app, but since it doesn’t use your current location to tell you where to go, it’s largely useless. Fantastical could implement something similar if it were willing to add Maps integration to its feature set, and I suspect it would knock Apple’s implementation out of the park.
I’m really picky about my calendar app, and I don’t think any of them are close to perfect yet. Horizon is, I think, the smartest one out there right now. It provides me a ton of information, and with the exception of travel time, really helps me know where I need to be next. Fantastical has the best natural language parsing abilities, and lets me kick Reminders off my home screen.
Fantastical also has a ton of minor features I haven’t been able to discuss. It does some interesting things with animations and a beautiful landscape view. It imports your Fantastical 1 settings without problems. It has a really nice Birthdays view that I won’t show a screenshot of here because it’s just too lovely to ruin. But at the end of the day, what it’s missing is as important as what it includes.
Every calendar app is a compromise. Fantastical is very fast. It gets me in and out quickly, but its beautiful interface encourages me to stay. Its Reminders integration is absolutely top-notch. For most people, that would be more than enough to satisfy. I love it, and it’s taking a spot on my home screen, but I’m dying to see them integrate some mapping and weather features. Right now, I can highly recommend Fantastical 2 as the best calendar app for 99% of people’s needs. I just wish it had more.