Upgrade your iOS apps – Mail, Messages, Notes, Reminders

Macworld Staff
10 September, 2013
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Apple’s stock apps for the iPhoneiPad and iPod touch are great – mostly. But what if one of them doesn’t quite fit your needs? With many thousands of third-party apps to choose from in the App Store, finding replacements for Reminders, Calendar and Notes can be an overwhelming task. Luckily, we have some suggestions. The excellent apps that follow will help you make the most of your iPhone or iPad.

For the best calculator, calendar and contact replacement apps, click here.

 

Mail

By Lex Friedman

Mailbox is a free iPhone app from Dropbox that makes managing your email a delight. Right now, Mailbox works exclusively with Gmail accounts, though the developers say that support for other IMAP accounts will come. Once you’ve connected one or more Gmail accounts to the app, you can start managing your email in a new and enjoyable way.

Like Mail, Mailbox offers an optional unified view of your inboxes, though you can choose to dive into individual accounts instead, if that’s your preference. What sets Mailbox apart is its approach to managing the contents of your inbox.

As you navigate your inbox, you can tap a message to view it. But if, even before you open a message, you determine it’s one you no longer need, you can file it away without ever leaving your list of messages: Swipe right on a message, and it turns green to show you’re archiving it. Pull a little further, and it turns red to show you’re deleting the message instead.

A Snooze Button

You can, of course, perform those same actions from the message screen: Simply tap the checkmark to archive a message or the X to delete it. The process is intuitive, easy to master and kind of fun.

But easy archiving and deleting just scratch the surface of what Mailbox offers. Swipe left on a message – or tap the clock icon in message view – and you can essentially press the snooze button on it. You get a grid of options for choosing when you’d like that message to reappear atop your inbox: later today, this evening, tomorrow, this weekend, next week, in a month or ‘someday.’ You define that last option in the app’s settings in terms of months; the default is to remind you in one month. A date selector lets you choose the exact date and time the message should pop back up.

The app’s collection of settings gives you fairly fine-grained control over all the preset snooze durations, too: You specify what qualifies as mornings on weekdays and weekends, and you define the ‘later today’ interval, too.

An Elegant Solution

Email Made Easy. Mailbox’s icons help you manage your email easily – and that’s just scratching the surface.

In practice, snoozing works beautifully, especially for those users who usually rely on the workaround of leaving unread messages in their inbox. Mailbox offers a more elegant solution. Snoozed messages pop back up – sending notifications on your iPhone, but also moving up in your other email clients, too.

In addition, you can tap and hold on messages in a list to reorder them by dragging. And Mailbox includes push notifications, as well.

The whole app feels beautifully polished, with impressive, discoverable depth: You can mark a message as unread again by tapping its time stamp. Conversations thread with earlier messages collapsed, but you can quickly expand them by tapping them. You can choose whether to receive push notifications for just new messages, just snoozed messages, or both. You can decide whether the app gets a numeric badge icon and what the icon represents – the existence of new messages, indicated by a 1, or the number of conversations in your inbox. Composing messages is simple, and here Mailbox bests Apple’s Mail app again. You tap the camera icon as you write your email to choose an existing photo or snap a new one. Apple’s app requires that you first tap an empty spot in your message, then tap the Insert button, and finally select an existing photo. Mailbox offers more features and more efficient access.

So what’s missing? Not much. Adding per-account signatures, instead of the current one-signature-fits-all approach, would be nice. And we can’t find a way to get Gmail’s Send As feature to work with the app. Mostly, though, our primary complaint about Mailbox is that we want to use it on all our devices, including the Mac and the iPad, not just the iPhone.

 

Messages

By Leah Yamshon

Text messaging is an integral part of using a mobile device, and Messages for iOS – specifically its integration with iMessage – makes it a joy to use. But the way Messages works is a little archaic, especially when compared with some newer options in text messaging.

Though alternatives exist, they all have a fatal flaw: They let you communicate only with people who are using the same app. That said, our favourite third-party chatting app is WhatsApp Messenger. WhatsApp sends messages over Wi-Fi, much as iMessage does when messaging from one Apple device to another. That allows you to send textlike mobile messages to your friends with any device or on any carrier without eating up your carrier’s text message limit. In addition, you can exchange messages with friends who live outside Australia.

When you first install WhatsApp, the app searches your Contacts (if you allow it to do so) to find other WhatsApp users. This step is important, as you can send messages only to other people who are using WhatsApp – the app is available for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 8.

Messaging itself is pleasant. You can enable Push Notifications to get a ping whenever you have an incoming WhatsApp message. The messages have a similar layout to iMessages, showing a staggered back-and-forth exchange with your messages on the right and those of your chat partner on the left. When you successfully send a message, you see a small checkmark next to its chat bubble; a second checkmark indicates that your friend on the other side has received and read it.

WhatsApp smoothly handles multimedia messages. You can capture a new photo or video to send (or pull one from your Camera Roll), send an audio note, share a contact or share a location (the last option is really handy for organizing a get-together with friends).

A close second is Kik Interactive’s Kik Messenger, a messaging platform that allows you to send notes to other Kik users. It’s not as full-featured as WhatsApp, but it is available on the same platforms: iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 8.

Kik requires you to enter your name, email address and phone number (kept private by default), along with a username and password to get started. When the app is installed, Kik searches through your iPhone’s contacts for other Kik users you can message with.

It’s a Kick. A free alternative is Kik Messenger.

Chatting is pretty smooth. The app stores your entire conversation thread, with your messages on the right and your partner’s responses on the left. As in WhatsApp, when you send a message successfully, a small checkmark appears next to your speech bubble; when your friend reads it, a small letter R appears next to the checkmark.

Sending multimedia messages is quick and painless as well. Tap the plus button (+) next to the text box to access your Camera Roll or to take a new photo. But unique to Kik is its interactive extra features: Slide to the left from your main inbox and tap More, and you can access attachments such as YouTube videos.

 

 

Notes

By Tom Negrino

Apple’s Notes app is great if you need to quickly jot something down and have the item sync with your Mac and your iCloud account on the web. But it runs into challenges when you attempt to sync anything more substantial.

Evernote, the note- and snippet-management service, offers both basic note-taking and advanced organisation. The iPhone client sports an all-new interface that simplifies the process of capturing new notes and improves Evernote’s organisational tools.

To begin creating a note, you use one of the three new – and prominent – Quick Notes buttons. All versions of Evernote permit you to type text notes and to take photo notes with your device’s camera. A new mode for iOS clients, Page Camera, masks images to take pictures of pages with handwritten notes from special Moleskine paper notebooks, dubbed Evernote Smart Notebooks.

After you capture a note, Evernote automatically uploads everything that you put into it to the company’s servers, where your notes are indexed for easy search and retrieval, and become available for syncing to all your devices. If your new item is a picture containing words (even handwriting), Evernote runs optical character recognition on its servers to make the picture’s text searchable.

Where Was It? Flags show the locations tied to specific notes.


New Interface

The previous versions of Evernote for iOS employed a standard iOS interface. For example, on the iPad, Evernote presented a scrollable list of notes on the left side, flanked by a large area to the right for displaying the selected note, and toolbars at the top and bottom. Evernote 5 has completely refreshed the interface – successfully, for the most part. Notes now appear in four different views: All Notes, Notebooks, Tags and Places. Tapping a tab header expands the tab to take up most of the screen and to display its contents. Tapping or swiping down on the tab’s header closes it.

Four Views. Evernote 5’s tabs give different views of your notes.

The All Notes tab shows all of your notes, without further organisation. If you would prefer to use Evernote’s organisation tools, you can find them under the Notebooks or Tags tabs. The new Places tab, which is the same as the desktop version’s Atlas view, shows notes (most often photographs) with geolocation tags
on a zoomable map; as shown in the screenshot above, flags on the map indicate locations that are associated with the notes. You simply tap a flag to bring up the notes from that place.

The new interface does have a few annoyances. If you make the common gesture of swiping rather than tapping to close an expanded tab, you can easily invoke Notification Manager by accident. And on the iPad, the Card view of your notes isn’t as information-dense as the simple list view that was found in older versions of Evernote.

No Marker Felt

All the same, whether you are totally new to Evernote or are just getting around to upgrading to the latest version, you’ll find that the new iOS version of Evernote makes the experience of capturing and retrieving your notes faster and smoother. It syncs with Evernote clients on the Mac and on the web, and it offers greater note-taking options than Notes does.

And best of all, you don’t have to type your notes using the Marker Felt font.

 

Reminders

By Lex Friedman & Dan Moren

Apple’s stock Reminders app is pretty bare-bones, but it integrates tightly with Siri, offers location-based reminders, and gets the job done for some people. The App Store is rife with more-complex task-management offerings that add filters, priority-based sorting, tags, contexts and plenty more. Two provide nice variations on Reminders.Controlled With GesturesClear($0.99) sports a simple, no-frills interface that’s about as basic as you can imagine: no reminders, no location-aware alerts – not even due dates or notifications.Upon first launch, Clear steps you through the process of using the app – you control it almost entirely with gestures, but the gestures are ones that iPhoneusers are well-acquainted with: swiping, pulling, pinching, tapping and so on.

Colour Scheme. Clear implicitly prioritises list items by putting them in a descending order of colours.

The app has three levels of hierarchy. At the top is a menu, which contains My Lists, a variety of themes to choose from, a set of tips and tricks to refer to, and the program’s meager settings.

Tap My Lists in the menu to drill down to the second level, where your lists live. Next to each list is a number showing how many items it contains (excluding completed tasks). You can create a new list in one of three ways, depending on where you want it to appear. To create a new list at the top, swipe downward on the screen and release; you’ll see the top of the screen flip over in faux-3D fashion, just as iOS banner notifications do. To create an item at the bottom of the list, tap anywhere below the last list.

Type in your list’s name, and you’re all set. When you want, swipe left on it to delete it. (If the list has uncompleted items, you’ll be asked to confirm deletion.) Or swipe right on a list to complete all its items. To view the items, tap the list. You create a new to-do item the same way you do a new list – by pulling down on the list and releasing, tapping in the spot below the last item, or pinching two items apart. As with lists, you’ll be asked to enter the name of the item.

To mark a list item as complete, swipe it right; it’ll flash green and slide to the end of the list, where the text will appear struck through and grayed out. If you cross an item off prematurely, swipe it to the right again to reinstate it. To delete an item entirely, swipe it to the left, and it’ll vanish. (But you can’t undelete an item.)

Clear’s lists can sync via iCloud to your other devices, or to Clear ($10.49) on the Mac. Our second Reminders alternative is Checkmark ($10.49). This new app from developer Snowman ups the ante with a superior implementation of one of Reminders’ key features: namely, location-based reminders.

Checkmark addresses most of Reminders’ issues in a sleek, efficient interface.

The app is broken down into two handy lists of reminders: Where, for location-based reminders, and When, for time-based reminders. You switch between the two using the Where and When buttons at the bottom of the screen. You won’t find custom lists here; every reminder is tied to either a place or a time. Checkmark has no system for prioritising tasks; if you need that functionality, this app isn’t for you.

Checkmark’s location-based reminders trump those of Reminders. The app uses custom iOS home-screen-style pages of frequently visited locations. You add a location by using your current location, searching for a point of interest on a map, importing an address from your Contacts, or manually entering an address. So you can easily add not only locations such as home or work, but also other places.

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