I’ll be honest: the past 18 years of school have made me a forgetful, disorganized, unmotivated procrastinator. Since I like shiny, pretty interfaces and putting off doing work, I’ve spent a lot of time looking into various GTD and to-do list apps. During the school year, I used a full-featured GTD app (Things) to track and organize dozens of readings, assignments and exams.
However, now that school’s out and I’m freelancing a lot more, Things is starting to seem a bit excessive, and I’m still waiting on the promised iPhone cloud-sync. Enter SpeedTask, the iPhone-turned-Mac to-do list app that promises clever, easy-to-use features and powerful cloud sync.
SpeedTask deserves to be looked at from three different angles: as a Mac app, as an iPhone app, and as a cloud-syncing solution, so we’ll discuss each feature one at a time.
SpeedTask is a menu-bar app, and while I’ve been told many times that I have too many menu-bar apps, I like them for a reason: I notice what’s there whenever I check the time. Unlike other apps that have window interfaces with menu-bar functionality, SpeedTask lives entirely in the menu bar, so if you have a menu bar aversion, SpeedTask is probably not for you.
To start using SpeedTask, you simply enter a new task in the text field at the bottom and hit enter, you have the option to set a priority for the task from a drop down menu, but the default priority is High. Once you create a task, there are three actions you can make on it in the main interface: complete, move to a different day, or share.
To edit priority, set an alarm or delete a task, the arrow on the right of the task takes you to the edit interface.
SpeedTask uses a day-based organization system, where each added task is assumed to be due today, but you can push it forward a day or two with the arrow icons that appear when the task is hovered over, or in the edit panel. I found the way this information was displayed to be pretty unintuitive, especially the top bar of the panel, which allows you to switch between days. A simple improvement would be to use more human-friendly date indicators, “today”, “tomorrow” etc.
Another thing I found a bit confusing was the difference between the two “modes” of viewing tasks, I eventually figured out that one mode lists all tasks organized by day, and one only shows today’s tasks. The arrows on the top bar allow you to switch between days, and displays alerts over the arrows indicating how many tasks you have tomorrow/how many you didn’t complete yesterday.
One of SpeedTask’s more powerful features is the ability to set alarms or reminders for time-sensitive tasks, and display a count-down until the task is due. I know a lot of people that won’t get tasks done unless they’re yelled at, so alarms could be a really helpful feature.
When the task is due, SpeedTask displays an alert and plays a sound (if you want) on both your Mac and your iPhone so you hear the alarm wherever you are. It uses the standard Mac alert in the middle of the screen, which is nice, but I’d prefer Growl. Growl for everything!
I have a number of complaints about SpeedTask for Mac after using it for task management for about a week. Hopefully these issues are merely symptomatic of SpeedTask’s young age, and will be addressed in future updates.
SpeedTask boasts two ways to quickly add tasks: dragging selected text to the menu bar icon, and right-clicking on the icon to bring up the quick entry input. Neither of these features works exactly as I’d like, though.
It would be nice if after dragging text to the icon, the panel would open so that I could edit the details right away. The right-click quick entry works as advertised, but unlike most menu-bar apps, where the display disappears when you click elsewhere, the SpeedTask window remains open until you re-click the icon, and you can’t use the right-click quick entry if the panel is already open.
Learning Curve / Support
I guess this is a pretty significant complaint, because a productivity app boasting simplicity should be easier to figure out. The introduction screen is only somewhat helpful, and it took me a while to figure out what all the little icons meant.
For example, I probably wouldn’t have guessed that clicking the tiny “speech bubble” icon would open up my mail client to email the task.
Clicking on the “SpeedTask Support” link from the App Store only took me to the app homepage, which features a log-in form and little else. I should mention, however, that Liquify Studios quickly answered all my questions via Twitter.
Or rather, lack thereof. When you open the app from the menu bar, you have to click on the text field to focus on it, and if there are any shortcuts at all, I haven’t found them. In my opinion, keyboard shortcuts are key for productivity apps. Some people may not use them, but I think it’s a deal-breaker for all us keyboard nerds.
Minor Interface Gripes
I’m obsessive over everything being polished and pixel-perfect in apps I use frequently, and there were a couple things that bugged me about the interface that will hopefully be resolved. For example: the “preferences” button sometimes glows blue, and I have no idea why.
If you want to assign a task to be done tomorrow, it’s easy to just click the “right” arrow once. However, if you want to put something off a couple days, you’re stuck clicking the button until you get the date you want, and I’ve “lost” a couple tasks to unknown days like this.
I like the SpeedTask iPhone app much more than the Mac app, likely because it’s older and has gone through a longer process of refinement (this gives me hope that the Mac app will be improved). It features a stylish cork-board appearance that goes with the “paper” look of the tasks.
The iPhone app also has a handy mini-calendar at the bottom which allows you to see an overview of the number of tasks due in the previous and next two days. It has a classic pull-down-to-sync function that is always appreciated, and has a much more attractive task editing panel.
SpeedTask’s cloud sync option is easily its best feature. I’ve used many apps that sync between Mac and iPhone either through the cloud or wi-fi, and none of them worked nearly as seamlessly as SpeedTask. I never once had to prompt either app to sync, and it worked quickly and unobtrusively.
Another useful element of the cloud-based nature of the app is the ability to share URLs for tasks. When you click “share” on a task, your email client opens with a message containing a link to the task. The URL leads to a simple web page containing the task which allows a user to complete a task and have it sync back with the original SpeedTask account.
You can also view your to-do list in the browser from another computer by logging in at speedtaskapp.com which will of course sync both ways with your Mac and iPhone to-do lists.
You can subscribe to your SpeedTask tasks in iCal using the URL found in “preferences”. This worked perfectly for me when I tested it, and I was impressed with how quickly it updated.
Make sure you turn off cloud-syncing when you have no internet connection, or you’ll receive annoying alerts from both SpeedTask and iCal.
I had high hopes for SpeedTask, given the rave reviews on the App Store and its huge popularity. In many ways, I still do have high hopes for this app, I can tell it has a lot of potential.
Unfortunately, at this stage in its development, it has too many barriers to truly user-friendly, intuitive use for me to recommend it as a task manager for the masses.
However, if cloud syncing is important to you, or you regularly use multiple computers, you may be able to overlook some of the other shortcomings, because SpeedTask handles cloud sync extremely well. If you’re looking for a way to manage today’s tasks in a way that keeps you on task with alarms and menu-bar icons, SpeedTask might work perfectly for you, but I didn’t find it a great solution for managing longer-term items.