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Fantastical 2 Aims to Replace Apple’s Calendar

Bundled apps — such as Apple’s OS X Calendar — tread an uneasy path. It is of course a good thing that every Mac user has access to a generally capable calendaring app for free — that’s necessary to ensure that OS X remains competitive with other operating systems. However, bundled software has a chilling effect on competition, and thus on innovation. It’s hard to make a business case for the time and effort necessary to create a new app when you have to convince every customer to switch from a free alternative that’s already installed.

It’s always refreshing to see a Mac developer step up to take a swing at the incumbent, and that’s just what Flexibits is doing with Fantastical 2. The initial version of Fantastical was a focused menu bar utility that extended Calendar by showing your schedule with a click and making it easy to enter new events with natural language processing. Flexibits has now expanded Fantastical beyond the menu bar, making it into a standalone app with a full calendar window with standard day, week, month, and year views.

Notably, Fantastical boasts a left-hand sidebar that shows a mini month view and a highly useful list of both upcoming events and dated reminders (a quick click on a checkmark button switches the list to show only reminders). In this respect, it’s extremely similar to the company’s well-regarded versions of Fantastical for the iPhone and iPad, and if you already like one or both of them more than iOS 8’s
Calendar app (as I do), you’ll be at home in the Mac version.

Rather than just tie into Calendar’s data, Flexibits wrote their own native CalDAV engine for Fantastical, which gives it direct access to iCloud, Google Calendar, and Yahoo Calendar. It also brings in and displays to-do items from iCloud (the things you’d usually access in Apple’s Reminders app), and can show birthdays and anniversaries based on date information stored in Apple’s Contacts app.

That can add up to a lot of calendars, and perhaps the most welcome innovation in Fantastical is its concept of calendar sets. It’s not hard to turn individual calendars on and off in Apple’s Calendar, but it gets tedious fast, so most people don’t bother. With Fantastical, you can easily separate sets of calendars, so, for instance, I can hide personal calendars for the school district and various clubs I’m in while pondering Take Control release schedule weeks. You switch between calendar sets using a pop-up menu at the bottom of the left-hand sidebar, but Fantastical can even change them automatically based on your Mac’s location. This is welcome — there’s far too little locational awareness among Mac and iOS apps.

When you want a new event, just double-click the appropriate day or click the plus button at the top of the sidebar. Either opens a new event popover into which you can type event details like “Snowshoeing at Hammond Hill at 6:30.” Fantastical turns such text into an event titled “Snowshoeing” with a location of “Hammond Hill” and a start time of 6:30 PM. You can define alerts to be applied automatically. My only minor annoyance with the natural language processing is that I sometimes want the location
to be in the title of the event so I don’t have to double-click the event to see the location in a popover. The workaround for this turns out to be to enclose your desired title in quotes; Fantastical doesn’t try to parse quoted text.

With reminders, you can even add a geofence that transfers properly to Reminders or the iPhone version of Fantastical so you’ll be alerted when you leave or arrive at the specified location.

The left-hand sidebar is a key aspect of Fantastical usage, and that’s another small problem I have at the moment, since I like to put my calendar full-screen on my left-hand monitor (a 27-inch Thunderbolt Display, paired with a 27-inch iMac with Retina display), meaning that sidebar is so far away that I can barely read it. Flexibits tells me an update will let you swap the sidebar to the right side, where search results show up now.

Another slight confusion comes when you click a day in month view; the sidebar list scrolls to show that day’s events and events on subsequent days. That’s sensible, but since Fantastical doesn’t indicate in month view what day you’ve clicked, it can be hard to orient yourself in the list (the mini month view calendar at the top of the sidebar does always indicate the selected day). Since scrolling in the sidebar list also changes the selected day quickly, it’s easy to end up at an unexpected date. Plus, month view shows six weeks, which continually throws me, since most calendars show only five weeks, and that makes it harder to orient myself relative to the end of the month.

I’m also not enamored of the position of the arrows to navigate through days/weeks/months/years (in the sidebar, and at the top left of the main window, rather than in some way connected to the center-mounted Day, Week, Month, and Year buttons). That’s personal preference and likely wouldn’t be an issue on a single-monitor system, but I find myself instead relying entirely on Fantastical’s left and right arrow shortcuts.

Speaking of year view, it’s something Fantastical does so much better than other calendars that I might begin using that view more frequently. To start, Fantastical colorizes each day in year view as a heat map, so different colors tell you at a glance how busy each day will be. Also, if you hover the pointer over a day, Fantastical displays a pop-up showing the events for that day. Clicking a day scrolls the sidebar list to that day too. I’ve never had much use for day or week views either, since my days aren’t that scheduled apart from Macworld Expo weeks in past years, but it looks as though Fantastical does a fine job with those views as well.

If you’ve been using Fantastical 1 and like its menu bar approach, Fantastical 2 retains those capabilities. (Happily, it even has an option to colorize the menu bar icon so you stand a chance of finding it among the multitude of dreary icons in 50 shades of Yosemite grey.) You can now even detach the mini window from the menu bar; since it essentially replicates the contents of the full window’s sidebar, it’s a small but fully functional calendar in its own right. It even shows the little pop-ups from year view when
you hover over a date.

Fantastical requires OS X 10.10 Yosemite, and supports Handoff from the iOS versions of Fantastical, if you’re somehow incapable of finishing creating an event on your iPhone or iPad. It also features a Notification Center Today widget, plus Share and Action extensions that let you add events to Fantastical from other Yosemite-savvy apps.

At this point, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that Fantastical 2 competes not just with Apple’s Calendar, but also with BusyMac’s $49.99 BusyCal, previously the main alternative to Calendar. Both outstrip Fantastical in calendar sharing — Fantastical can subscribe to shared calendars, but not share them. You can add an attendee to an event in its popover or share an event with a contextual menu that attaches a .ics file to a new message in Apple Mail (but not other email clients) or by dragging the event to the Desktop to create a shareable .ics file. (Full disclosure: Take Control published Joe Kissell’s
free “Take Control of Calendar Syncing and Sharing with BusyCal” in 2013.) BusyCal also does a better job showing the selected day and marks today more obviously; and it shows weather forecasts for the upcoming 10 days in month view, which makes it even easier to identify the current day and the near future at a glance. But it lacks Fantastical’s excellent list of events and reminders.

As compelling as Fantastical’s sidebar, calendar sets, year view, and natural language processing are, I suspect few BusyCal users will switch. But that’s not the goal — Flexibits is instead targeting those who find themselves dissatisfied with Apple’s Calendar, and if you fall into that group, you should give Fantastical 2 a serious look — or at least watch its video.

Fantastical 2 has a 14-day free trial, and currently costs $39.99 from either the Flexibits Store or the Mac App Store; the price will go up to $49.99 after an introductory discount period.

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