A new iPhone PIM on the block – and it’s good!

After all my ranting and raving about ToDo versus ToodleDo, Pocket Informant comes along and changes everything.

Just a few months ago, I went to great pains to write about my anguish over choosing between ToDo and ToodleDo as my iPhone task manager.  So it’s rather ironic that I should be writing about something else now.  But write I must, cuz Pocket Informant – though not perfect – raises the bar in some pretty fundamental ways.

When I was using ToDo and ToodleDo, I was also using the iPhone’s built-in calendar app for personal appointments.  I had another system on my server, Calcium, on which I kept my work appointments.  Calcium is cool because you can configure it to allow anyone to add an event so long as that block of time was free.  So any student could book time with me without logging in or jumping through any other hoops.  The problem with this was (a) most students didn’t make an appointment – they just dropped in, and (b) I had to “sync” Calcium and my iPhone calendar by hand, copying appointments manually when needed.  This led to more scheduling malfunctions than I would have liked.

I’d looked at using iCal on my server, but it was just too hard to sync things with my laptop at home and my iPhone, without converting to MobileMe and whatever else Apple wanted me to use.

Then along came Pocket Informant.  It’s been around for other platforms for a while, but the iPhone app is quite recent.  PI includes a very full-featured task manager, and a full calendar system.  And it syncs tasks with Toodledo’s servers (like ToDo and ToodleDo) and calendar events with Google Calendar.  And I can access GCal from any browser, so syncing my laptop would be unnecessary.  PI gives me a wide variety of layouts, including a very useful Today view of what I have to do just today.  It supports both GTD and Franklin-Covey prioritizing systems.  It also has an integrated search capacity that looks through my calendar, my tasks, and my contacts too.  Another really cool feature is that it looks for the first reasonable task from each project that has been started but that isn’t complete, and creates a list of all next actions, which are then displayed on the Today view.  Of course, you can reorder tasks in any project, so the right item comes up as the next action.  Brilliant!

There were three things I had to give up, none of which are showstoppers for me.

  1. Letting students book themselves time with me.  Fortunately, as I’ve suggested above, this wasn’t a big deal.
  2. My iPhone is jailbroken, and I had bought an app called IntelliScreen that showed my calendar on the iPhone’s lockscreen.  With this app, I don’t need to unlock the phone every time I want to check my next appointment.  IntelliScreen only works with the native iPhone calendar app, so switching to PI meant giving that up.  I can say, however, that after a couple of months of living without IntelliScreen, I’m doing very well indeed.  So I guess I didn’t need that feature after all.
  3. Under iPhone OS 2.X, third party software can’t access the system to alert the user – so event alerts and reminders in PI’s calendar don’t work.  This would be a big deal if I depended on those reminders.  Fortunately, I don’t.  And it seems that in the next release of the iPhone OS this is changed, so it won’t be long before PI’s reminders work properly.

One thing I had to think through was how to deal with my personal appointments on GCal.  I want people to know I’m busy, but not necessarily why. So I set up a “personal” GCal calendar that I can edit from either my laptop, my server at work, or my iPhone, and since that calendar is configured to hide details, others only see that I’m busy.  Combined with my other GCal calendars, I get what I need.  Not as elegant as I would have liked, but plenty good enough for me.

There are some things about PI that bother me (given my experience with ToDo and ToodleDo).  Some things are just annoying, others are probably bugs.  But PI for the iPhone is only at version 1.02, so I’m willing to cut them some slack and give them a chance to sort it out.  (I should add that the differences between version 1.01 and 1.02 were huge and excellent, so I’ve got big expectations.)  A few of these things are:

  • The star icon for “starred items” is yellow, just like the icon used to indicate that a task has a “note” with it.  As a result, I often get confused between notes and stars.
  • There’s no way to choose which GTD features you want to use.  ToodleDo let you configure that yourself, to cut down on the size and complexity of the data entry fields.  In PI, you just have to ignore the fields you don’t want.  Which means you end up tapping the wrong item sometimes.
  • The order of next actions shown in the Today view appears random; I wish there were ways to sort those things in some way.
  • There’s no “fast” way to enter a task(1).  In ToDo, there’s a “lightning add” function that uses user-defined defaults for all task parameters except the task name.

So it turns out that neither ToDo nor ToodleDo are the right answer for me.  The ability to have a calendar and a task manager together just outweighs everything else.  So I’m with PI now.

Now, there is one more app, a real dark horse in my opinion, that has huge potential.  The app is SmartTime.  It has an impressive user interface: clean, simple, and usable.  It also has a fascinating way of arranging your tasks.  You tell it how long you want to spend doing something, and SmartTime will schedule it wherever in your schedule it can find the time.  If you don’t get to something in time – i.e. you don’t mark it complete – it can just bump it forward in time to the next available slot.  And it syncs both tasks and events into GCal alone.

I really, really like it, except for one thing that, for me, is a mortal flaw: each project requires you to create two Google calendars, and the process of connecting those calendars to the projects is not very easy – certainly not as easy as it should be.  Indeed, I’ve found it to be supremely inconvenient, especially as I keep a fairly large number of projects, and add new ones quite frequently.  This is the only thing that has stopped me from switching to SmartTime.  It’s too bad, cuz I love the user interface.

Anyways, there it is.  Even if you go through massive rationalization to decide on a good solution, you must always be ready for the alternative you never thought of till someone bring it up.

  1. Update 21 June 2009: Actually, PI v1.02 does have fast task entry, but it is active only in some folders, like the Inbox.  It is not available in project folders, which is were I do all my task entry, and which is why I didn’t notice the feature till late last night.

4 thoughts on “A new iPhone PIM on the block – and it’s good!

  1. I just got an iPhone and I’ve been trolling search sites and the app store for some sort of calendar + todo app. It’s been more of a pain than I expected! Anyway, thanks for your thoughts on PI. I have that and SmartTime and Todo Lite in a row with the possibility of trying Toodledo as well. I’m switching back and forth so much that I’m getting a bit confused about which app has what! Oh well, a decision will be made eventually I suppose.

    • You’re welcome! The show stopper for me is integrating the calendar into my daily life. Gcal’s working for me at the moment. I’ve tried about 20 PIMs from the app store over the past year. SmartTime, PI, ToDo, and ToodleDo are the best – Ultimate ToDos and Actions are also interesting, but still have key features missing for me.

      In the end, each person will have his/her own likes & dislikes. The best thing to do is as you have been doing – playing with as many as you can. At some point, the best choice for you will make itself apparent.

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