Is the iPhone’s Built-In Calendar Overlooked?

Ben Brooks wrote a piece sometime ago about the problem with calendar apps, and included a mockup of what he would like to see. He explains:

My reasoning for three days is so that on Friday you would be able to see Monday’s events in the view, thus helping those of us that work M-F. Additionally this doesn’t show you the past days, because really how often do you need to refer to your calendar to see what you did yesterday?

It’s such an obvious suggestion but no one seems to take advantage of it. No one really cares about yesterday’s appointments, only what they have coming up. Depending on how your life works, the amount of time in the future varies. The next 24 hours is probably important to a lot of people. Three days likely covers things for most people. When it’s all said and done though, it makes sense just to see when (and what) things are happening, not when nothing is happening.

Some of the most popular calendar apps1 are Calvetica and Agenda. I have used both extensively, but found both of them lacking for various reasons. Agenda on the iPhone has come closest to being a usable solution. It’s default view is an endless scrolling list of days, starting with today, with each event filled in on it’s respective day. This is very useful view, although if I have nothing coming up for the next five days, I see a bunch of blank rows. The app also has a standard week view that can be accessed by entering landscape mode. This mode shows Sunday through Saturday of the current week. The month view shows the current month with colored dots on the days with events. Swiping right drills down to the corresponding day, and swiping right on an individual event drills down on that event.

Calvetica opts for a split view, with a monthly view at the top and details of the given day/week at the bottom. Turning this app into landscape mode presents a week mode that resembles iCal, but starts on the current day instead of showing past days. Calvetica prides itself on having a better than average interface for adding events as well as customizable alarms that allow multiple reminders to be set for appointments. Calvetica is probably most useful for people with tons and tons of appointments who typically have very full days. The same company that makes Calvetica (Mysterious Trousers) also makes a more minimalistic app called Tempus, which is very similar to Agenda. It has a month view and a scrollable list of upcoming days with their respective appointments.

I have bounced between these calendar apps for well over a year. In this time I hadn’t opened the built-in Calendar app and really didn’t remember anything about it. So when I popped it open recently I was immediately surprised.

The first view that is presented in the “List” view. This view is similar to the scrollable view that Agenda and Tempus have, but it only lists appointments, and not empty days. The result is that I see my next four events, ranging out about a week. This is perfect for someone like me that doesn’t have tons of appointments everyday, but could even be useful to someone who does and quickly wants to see what they have coming up. My biggest gripe is that, mostly due to the search box at the top, only 4 or 5 events are visible here. If you could hide the search box and/or shrink the text size a bit, it seems like 6-8 events could fit, which would likely cover at least an entire day for most people. Of course, this list is scrollable so it doesn’t take much effort to see a bit more.

The second button at the bottom presents a “day” view. This defaults to putting the current time at the top (unless its late in the day, then it only goes up until midnight) and has a little bar that shows the current time. In an effort to not cram too much onto the screen this shows about 7 hours or so, depending on whether there are any “all-day events”. You can easily scroll left or right to change days, but this is not without it’s flaws. Changing days keeps the first time shown as whatever you were already looking at. So if it’s 5 PM and I scroll right, I see 5 PM tomorrow. Meaning I have to scroll around to find any appointments or the time of day I am looking for. There is no way to change how many hours are shown, or to zoom in or out. So the 7 hour view is about all you get.

The next button shows the “month” view. The current day is indicated with an inset dark grey color, and the currently selected day is noted in blue. Any day with events is noted with a dot under the date, but there is no indication of how many events, or which calendar the events belong to without clicking on the date. This is a major advantage that Agenda, Tempus and Calvetica have. Clicking on a day displays the events for that date at the bottom. Two events are shown without scrolling.

Turning the phone into landscape mode unveils the “hidden” multi-day view. This view shows three days, the currently “selected” day in whatever view was active before is now the “middle” day on the view. It also shows the previous and next day. But like the day view, it only shows about 7 hours or so. There also does not appear a way to jump to today without exiting landscape mode.

The interface for adding events in the built-in calendar is not very good. Mostly because of the scrolling date/time wheels2. Unfortunately for fans of Agenda, the built-in add event interface is used there as well. Calvetica and Tempus share a very similar interface for adding events, and it’s really solid. I still, however, prefer Quickcal’s natural language input for adding new events on my iPhone.

One other perk of the built-in app is the homescreen icon, which prominently features the current date, and less prominently features the day of the week. The other calendar apps use a “hack” by setting the notification badge as the date, but this is not an implementation I have ever been a fan of.

At the end of the day, like Brooks has said, there is no perfect calendar app on the iPhone. I would argue that on the iPad, things are no better3. I am going to give the built-in calendar on the iPhone another chance for the next couple months to see if is more useful than Agenda. Top to bottom it might be the closest. It lacks any sort of customization, most of which would likely vault it to clear superiority. Things like, setting the start of the week to Monday, hiding the search box4, and allowing smaller text on the list view would be a start.

  1. At least in the circles I run in []
  2. Or whatever you call them []
  3. Agenda, Tempus and Calvetica are all universal apps, so they have iPad versions built-in at no extra cost. Tempus is probably the best of the three on the iPad. Agenda is my least favorite because of the lack of list view in landscape mode. []
  4. Make it show up when a user scrolls up on the list view, instead of it statically being there all the time []