Upgrade your iOS apps – Calculator, Calendar, Contacts

Macworld Staff
9 September, 2013
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Apple’s stock apps for the iPhone, iPad 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.

 

Calculator

By Dan Frakes

The basic Calculator app is certainly good enough for simple calculations, but if you want a full-dress scientific calculator, you’ll find no better app than PCalc, from TLA Systems. It offers a panoply of features that are on a par with those of its Mac counterpart, including separate interfaces for the iPhone and the iPad, scientific calculations, conversions, iCloud syncing and a tip calculator.

Given those features, and the fact that Apple mysteriously omitted a default calculator app from the iPad, PCalc ($10.49) and its sibling, PCalc Lite (free), are incredibly appealing to users who need a good calculator on their device.

PCalc packs all the number-crunching goodness found in standard scientific-calculator fare, including roots, exponents, trigonometric functions, nested operations, an RPN (reverse Polish notation) mode, an inverse function and more. And it provides a time-stamped virtual tape for revisiting (or even emailing) your calculations, as well as a register (called a stack in RPN mode) that displays memory contents and decimal-, hexadecimal-, octal-, and binary-base versions of the number currently being displayed.

PCalc Power. The iOS app is as feature-rich as the Mac program is.

 

To customise your calculator, you can choose from a slew of visual themes and several key layouts – nine vertical and eight horizontal on the iPhone. (The iPad’s larger screen accommodates more keys, which means less need for different key arrangements and subsets of possible keys.)

A final touch: You can also choose one of seven font styles for the virtual LCD, and any of six key-click sounds.

More Features

You can copy results from the display, and paste numbers into the display for use in calculations. You can also undo and redo multiple actions: On an iPad, you get dedicated Undo and Redo buttons, and on all devices, you can shake to undo or simply swipe your finger across the screen – right to undo, left to redo.

In addition, you can change the number of lines in the display – having more lines is especially useful in RPN mode. You can have up to four lines (six on the iPad), and the on-screen keys shrink or grow to fit the chosen size.

PCalc provides quick access to commonly used scientific and mathematical constants, as well as a conversion feature that lets you quickly convert the current number using scores of functions, in categories ranging from angle to fuel efficiency to weight. TLA Systems continues to add many new conversions within existing categories, as well as new currency and cooking categories. The Constants and Conversions menus conveniently display recently used options in the top menu bar, and you can even create your own.

PCalc Lite

Not everyone needs all these features, nor does everyone want to spend $10.49 on a calculator for their iPhone or iPad. So TLA Systems also provides PCalc Lite, a free version that gives you a subset of the full version’s features, constants, and conversions. For many people, PCalc Lite will be more than sufficient.

 

Calendar

By Lex Friedman

Flexibits’ Fantastical started life on the Mac, offering easy access to your calendars and impressively quick approaches for creating new appointments and meetings. The $5.49 app has since made the leap from the Mac to the iPhone – and it sticks the landing, though it has shed a few of the features that made it stand out on the Mac.

When you first launch Fantastical on your iPhone, it will ask you to grant it access to your calendars. After you approve the request, Fantastical can act as a seamless conduit for any calendars you’ve added in the Settings app.

At the top of the screen in Fantastical sits a clever Flexibits innovation called the DayTicker. It’s a horizontally scrolling list of dates with visual representations of your appointments for each day. As you scroll through the dates, your list of scheduled events for each day appears on the lower portion of the screen.

Whereas Apple’s Calendar app offers day, month and week views in addition to its list mode – along with an endlessly scrolling landscape mode – Fantastical’s focus is instead on a list-based approach.

Event Creation. Type an event, and Fantastical automatically creates the event on the right day, on your default calendar.

As you navigate the Fantastical calendar, you’ll find it both clever and intuitive. Scroll through the vertical list of appointments by day, and the DayTicker scrolls horizontally along with it to center the currently selected day. Tap and hold on a day to start adding an event for that day; double-tap a day to center it. Tap the header bar (it shows the current month and year) to jump back to today’s date.

The other way to schedule a new event is to tap the plus button at the upper right. True to Fantastical’s origins on the Mac, the app won’t show you a traditional calendar entry form. Instead, you get a text entry field. If you’re like me, you may be tempted to tap the microphone button on the keyboard to dictate instead of typing in an event. Either way, as on the Mac, Fantastical is simply terrific at taking natural language that you provide and turning it into a scheduled calendar event.

For example, if you type Personal training tomorrow at 9AM, Fantastical automatically creates the appropriate event on the right day, on your default calendar. Instead of tomorrow, you might type fri or dec 6 or any other abbreviation of a recognisable date. The app generates a live visual preview of the event it’s interpreting from your entry, and you can drag from side to side to see any adjacent appointments.

The feature needs work, though: The bubbles with your other scheduled appointments are sized according to those events’ duration; if an event has a shorter time span – such as Conference call with the team from work for 20 minutes – you might see only Conference call with the in the bubble.

Shortcuts and Issues

If you want to add an event to a specific calendar (not the default calendar you’ve selected in Settings), Fantastical makes that simple, too. You can use the Mac version of Fantastical’s shortcut, the slash key, as in Lunch with Jason/work. But since the slash key is in another section of the iPhone’s keyboard, Fantastical provides another shortcut: the triple space. Entering Lunch with Jason, a triple space, and then work gets the same thing done. You can use shortcuts for your calendar names too; the first few letters should do.

Fantastical does face a few limitations that Apple enforces with iOS. On the Mac, Fantastical lives in your menu bar, so you can click its icon there or press a global keyboard shortcut to immediately start entering a new appointment or quickly view your schedule; such features can’t be re-created on the iPhone.

Of more concern is Fantastical’s inability to invite other people to your meetings and events – another iOS limitation. You can use Fantastical to add or edit guests to a meeting that already has invited guests, but you can’t invite others to a brand-new meeting.

One final issue: Calendar alerts from iOS launch the Calendar app and not Fantastical. Since iOS doesn’t let you choose new default apps for the calendar (or email, web browsing, and the like), no workaround is available.

 

Contacts

By Joel Mathis

It’s easy – and cheap – to stick with the native apps that Apple installs on its iOS devices. But sometimes third-party apps turn out to be head and shoulders above those that come preinstalled. Buzz Contacts from Savvy Apps is in that rare category: It blows Apple’s native Contacts app away. (The developers describe Buzz Contacts as an iPhone dialer, a contacts app, and a texting and group text messaging app all in one.)

The native Contacts app defines just two groups of people: your favourites, and, well, everybody else. Buzz Contacts lets you organise your contacts (for phone, email, FaceTime and SMS) into as many different kinds of groups as you wish – friends, family members, clients at specific companies or any other preference that you might have.

Keep People Organised. Buzz Contacts lets you arrange your contacts into the groups you wish.

This preorganisation of contacts makes it really easy to send out bulk email or SMS messages directly to a whole group, without having to take the time to add each name and number individually to your message.

You can’t similarly do conference calls or group FaceTime chats, but it’s still helpful to organise contacts in groups. For example, if you remember that you need to email a client in Milwaukee, but you’ve forgotten her name, she might be easy to find in the Clients folder of contacts you made – a quick search in that folder is certainly easier than scrolling through one long list of hundreds of names, as you would have to do in the native Contacts app.

Also helpful: The Groups view displays contacts as large tiles – four to a page – so scanning for names is especially easy.

Modes of Contact

One more aspect of this app’s organisational superiority: When you add a new contact, Buzz Contacts lets you choose your primary mode of contact with that person – voice, email, SMS or FaceTime. You are not limited to communicating with your friends through this primary mode that you designate, but the app does let you set up your preferences for communicating with each person.

Making a Call. Instead of entering a number, you can start entering your contact’s name – Buzz Contacts will shrink the list of possibilities until you get to the right one.

If you want to actually call a friend, you can use his or her number – the same as in Contacts. However, you can also start typing a full name or merely the initials – Buzz Contacts will narrow down your list of contacts until you get to the right one.

Similarly, Buzz Contacts is smarter about creating a type of favourites list for you, making a separate folder of contacts for people you call more than once.

Buzz Contacts also doesn’t assume that you’ll want to use the Phone app to make phone calls – it offers options to default to several voice communication apps, including Skype, when you dial out.

Dropbox Integration

And while it’s difficult to start an email in Contacts and then attach a document from another app, Buzz Contacts offers integration with both the Box and Dropbox apps on your iOS device.

If you’ve also purchased Savvy Apps’ companion scheduling app, Agenda Calendar, the two apps work in tandem to remind you when you need to send a particular email message or schedule a certain business call.

 

For the best mail, messages, notes and reminder replacement apps, click here. 

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