SmartDay: A Powerful, Menubar-Based Scheduler

Remember when iCal didn’t look like it had been designed by a fifth grader learning to use KidPix? The only other decision I’ve ever seen Apple make that was so universally panned as the iCal redesign was Ping, but at least you could just turn that off. Whether your aversion towards iCal is due to its tacky design or its cumbersome method of inputting events, you fortunately have no shortage of alternatives when it comes to scheduling your day.

Of course, buried beneath the eye sores is one redeeming quality: iCloud syncing. Many alternative calendars for OS X and iOS still integrate with iCal in order to utilize that syncing power. SmartDay by Left Coast Logic lets you interact with your calendar and to-do lists from the menubar, while adding a few neat features. This isn’t a new concept, so making it an appealing option for Mac users means it needs to introduce some innovative features.

The Basics

SmartDay sits in your menubar, and acts as a quick way to access your calendar and reminders. The app lets you create a new event or search for one that is already created. Different views show you days that you have more events scheduled, helping you decide when you should try to schedule that next meeting. It syncs with your reminders, so anything you enter with your iPhone or iPad shows up.

Layout and Design

SmartDay employs a two column layout that automatically drops down when you click on the menubar icon. The left side has a text input field where you can either search for existing events or create a new one. Next to the field is a tag selection icon, that allows you edit tags or filter what you see.

The main window shows the month, as well as your daily schedule.

The main window shows the month, as well as your daily schedule.

Below all of this is a calendar, which highlights days that have events scheduled. You can scroll by month only; there is no yearly or weekly view. If you’d like to jump to today’s date, a button allows you to do so. Days that have more events show a darker shade of gray, whereas less busy days are lighter. Apple’s iCal does this as well in year view, though iCal’s design is easier to read because of a better color scheme (yellows and reds).

iCal, right, does a better job displaying how busy you are on a given day.

iCal, right, does a better job displaying how busy you are on a given day.

The remaining area of the left column shows your daily schedule. Events show up as they were entered in your iCal calendar. Viewing and entering new events is as intuitive as in any other scheduling app: Double click on a time and a box pops up allowing you to enter pertinent information. The right column, which can be hidden, shows you your lists and categories. You can choose which categories you want to display.

From a design perspective, SmartDay isn’t the prettiest scheduling app I’ve ever used. The typography choices aren’t the best, and even the alignment on certain parts of the layout aren’t optimized. When you expand the right column, the app takes up an enormous amount of real estate on your screen, thus negating the benefits of a menubar drop-down window.

Scheduling

To use the input box, you begin typing and SmartDay will give you suggestions based on past events and to-do’s. When you’ve finished typing the title, you can choose whether this is an event, a task, or a checklist. Unlike some of SmartDay’s competitors, there is no “smart” event input, which means you can’t just type “Meeting from 7pm to 930pm in main conference room” and have the app set the event name, time, and location automatically based on that sentence.

If you understand how to input an event in iCal, SmartDay will be straightforward for you.

If you understand how to input an event in iCal, SmartDay will be straightforward for you.

If you’re entering an event, the information you enter will look very much like creating an event in iCal. Where things diverge slightly with SmartDay is the ability to add tags. In my use, I didn’t find it particularly helpful to use tags, since I’d rather just sort events by category. However, I can certainly imagine other peoples’ workflows being compatible with tags.

Your daily view shows gray areas denoting time outside of your workday. You can pull these areas with your cursor to move the times, or just set defaults directly within the settings.

My task management typically involves using 3rd party apps for managing my tasks, (I prefer Things). With iOS 5 introducing Reminders, I’ve started using the feature for specific things I need to remember to do at a specific time or place, as opposed to a to-do that GTD and other systems involve. Its a subtle difference, but I’ve adapted both systems into my workflow. Nevertheless, I’ve never really bothered using reminders in iCal, and have actually hidden the sidebar altogether. I wasn’t even aware until recently that you could drag a reminder from that sidebar into your calendar to create an event, so as to block off time in your schedule in which to complete the task.

Moving events around or creating new ones from your reminders is a simple, drag-and-drop procedure.

Moving events around or creating new ones from your reminders is a simple, drag-and-drop procedure.

SmartDay allows a similar functionality. This app does expand on the concept, though, by letting you organize tasks using criteria such as “starred” or “due.” SmartDay’s calendar column shifts events’ alignments based on whether an item on the list is a scheduled event or a task.

Syncing

As I mentioned, many people such as myself stick with iCal (soon to be called “Calendar” in Mountain Lion) because of the syncing that it allows with other computers and your iOS device. But what if you’re not really a fan of app to begin with? SmartDay lets you use its own syncing service known as mySmartDay.

You can sync through iCal or with the developer's own sync system.

You can sync through iCal or with the developer’s own sync system.

The developers also have an iPad version, and though this is not the place for a review of that separate app, I can say that it synced flawlessly in my experience. There is also a webapp that you get access to, and syncing worked fine, (although the design quite the eyesore).

Comparison to Similar Apps

If you’ve ever used Fantasitcal, all of this might look very familiar to you. At its core, SmartDay is essentially the same type of app. Both are menubar-based calendar apps that let you view and manipulate your calendar and tasks.

Fantasitcal is a much cleaner implementation of the idea, with a more attractive design and natural-language event input. Fantastical doesn’t offer its own syncing solution, but in addition to iCal it also works with other calendars such as Outlook, which is undoubtedly an appealing feature for many. Fantastical also integrates with your reminders, but moving them into your calendar with drag-and-drop ease isn’t quite as simple as it is with SmartDay.

Fantastical is a better looking implementation of the same basic idea.

Fantastical is a better looking implementation of the same basic idea.

If you’re deciding between these two apps, I would consider how you use a calendar and reminders in your workflow. Fantastical offers more keyboard shortcuts, has a more appealing design, and syncs with third party calendars. On the other hand, SmartDay’s full day view makes it easier to move events around, and drag reminders onto a time to schedule them as events. If you frequently reschedule things, SmartDay is worth a look.

At $20 each, we can eliminate a price difference as being a factor in deciding between the two. Are they exactly the same app? Well, they certainly aim to do the same thing. Personally, after using both, I am partial to Fantastical because it just feels sharper. But as I mentioned, SmartDay is actually more powerful when it comes to re-organizing events and scheduling your reminders. If you’re looking for a simpler solution, I can recommend CalendarBar. If you like the idea of integrating this sort of app with your reminders and want the flexibility to move events around, take a look at Alarms.

Positives

My favorite feature here may seem like a minor one, but it is something I wish more menubar-based apps would offer: The choice of where the window launches. Traditionally, windows that pop-down from the menubar appear just below the icon. SmartDay lets you choose that default option, or have it appear on the far left or far right of your screen. I’d love to see more developers doing this.

Being able to move a reminder into your day, just like you can in iCal, is also great. I think with reminders gaining in popularity among Mac users, this is a feature that could potentially get a lot of use. I especially liked the idea of being able to organize tasks into a “Today” vs. “Later” list.

Problems

For an app that is designed to be used frequently throughout your day, your shortcut options are shockingly sparse. If you are going to be opening the window, creating events, and moving things around all day you probably are going to want to speed up the process with your keyboard.

The lack of any other views for the calendar beyond monthly is a strange oversight. I personally like to look at my schedule on in a weekly view, but SmartDay prevents that.

If you are someone who uses iCal’s invitation function, SmartDay may not be a solid replacement for you. Inviting others to a meeting isn’t possible here, but you can still open an event created with SmartDay in iCal and manually edit invitees.

As I mentioned, there are a few poor design choices that hold it back. I’ve covered most of those problems, but one last (and very minor) design issue is the icon itself. Many apps come with a colorful menubar icon but give you the option to use a monochrome version because people like me prefer the menubar to be as free of distractions as possible. SmartDay’s blue icon sticks out like a sore thumb with no option to turn it black.

Conclusion

Overall, this is a productivity solution that should appeal to a wide-variety of users. In some ways, SmartDay feels like a natural implementation of iCal for the menubar. Being able to see events as blocks of time on your daily agenda helps visualize your day. The integration with reminders isn’t anything new, but the ability to move them into your day to make sure you focus your time on them is a bit more unique for this sort of app.

I really have a hard time overlooking an less-than-pleasing design when an app costs 20 bucks. Of course, the integrated syncing that the developer offers may help you justify some of that cost, assuming you have some aversion to just using iCal to sync your calendars. Design flaws aside, this app does perform well; I didn’t run into any bugs, and syncing worked fine. The biggest appeal I see here is the tight integration with reminders, and with Mountain Lion’s imminent release, that feature will likely only become more appealing.


Summary

A menubar-based calendar app that lets you view your schedule, create and edit events, and interact with your reminders.

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