As we prepare to publish our 2009 iPod + iPhone Buyers’ Guide, we wanted to look at a collection of six important or interesting applications that didn’t necessarily fit cleanly into broader comparative categories, but were definitely worth a look based on outstanding functionality or design. Below, we review OmniFocus, eReader, Urbanspoon, Instapaper, Fring, and Cocktails, apps that have nothing in common save for the fact that we’ve really been enjoying using all of them.
At first glance, OmniFocus ($20) from The Omni Group seems like little more than an expensive to-do application, of which there are many on the App Store. However, OmniFocus goes far beyond the traditional flat to-do list, implementing the popular Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology to provide robust multi-layered task management for busy professionals and adherents of the GTD method. It can link with an OmniFocus desktop application for the Mac ($80) so that you can manage tasks both from a computer and when you’re on the go, or operate independently.
In a nutshell, the GTD method involves dividing your task list into “projects” and “contexts.” Projects define multi-task goals which individual tasks move forward, while contexts define situations and locations in which you can perform those tasks. As a result, there are few places within OmniFocus where you will see any kind of “flat” task list. Instead, your tasks are either viewed as part of your larger projects, or they are viewed within contexts where you can actually perform them. For example, you might place a task such as “Take out the garbage” within a project named “Clean House” and a context named “At Home.”
OmniFocus permits quick and efficient task entry right from the device, allowing a quick task-entry window to be opened with a single tap and then the task info to be filled in directly. Project, context and start and due date information can be entered on this screen as well, but it is not necessary—tasks with no project or context go into the “Inbox” for later review either on the device or in the OmniFocus desktop application.
You can also insert audio recordings or pictures from the iPhone’s built-in camera into any new or existing task. These attachments will not only be available for viewing on your device, but also synchronize as attachments to OmniFocus on your computer.
Overdue tasks are highlighted in red, while tasks coming due soon are highlighted in orange. Numeric values are also shown beside groups which contain tasks for either category, with overdue tasks taking precedence. In addition to the project and context views, OmniFocus also offers pre-defined views from the home screen for all tasks which are coming due soon, overdue, or flagged. The number of Due Soon and Overdue tasks is shown together as a single number on the application icon on the iPhone home screen. Unfortunately, due to current limitations in the iPhone OS, this number can only be updated when OmniFocus is actually running, and will otherwise remain static. Further, since only a single badge can be shown, and badges can only be shown in red, it is impossible to distinguish between the Due Soon and the Overdue tasks from the home screen.
Users who like to plan their project and task lists well into the future will also appreciate the ability for OmniFocus to hide tasks that are not yet available either by setting start dates, or by setting projects to run sequentially—where task A must be completed before task B becomes available. Tasks with future start dates are normally hidden in context view but shown when viewing projects, although this can be changed in the application’s settings. Note that tasks which are overdue but not yet available because a prerequisite task has not yet been completed will still show in the Due Soon or Overdue counts which appear in OmniFocus. Whether this should be the case or not is a somewhat philosophical debate—an overdue task is overdue regardless of whether it’s available for action or not—and this behavior is consistent with the OmniFocus desktop application, however it may make your overdue task counts look a little daunting whenever a multi-stage project comes due.
OmniFocus for iPhone was written as an extension of the Mac desktop application of the same name, but it goes well beyond simply being a portable repository of your OmniFocus database, adding some unique features of its own. The most notable of these is location-based contexts: on the iPhone, you can assign a location to each of your contexts, and then use the iPhone’s GPS to show you tasks that can be completed near your current location. Locations can either be entered based on where you’re standing, or you can enter street addresses, company name searches, or choose from your iPhone address book. The name search setting is particularly useful, as this allows OmniFocus to display relevant tasks when you are near any matching location, so instead of recording the address of a specific store, you could simply enter the store’s name. You can also choose to have certain contexts show up as always available, in which case they will be displayed regardless of your present location.
Once you have a few contexts with locations set up, you can simply tap on the location button from any OmniFocus screen to immediately be presented with a list of tasks you can perform near your present location. Further, tapping on the distance button at the right of a location heading will bring up the Maps application with directions from your present location to the selected location.
For integration with the desktop version, OmniFocus for iPhone takes a slightly different approach from many other iPhone applications by using an external WebDAV based service such as MobileMe’s iDisk. The desktop and iPhone versions both synchronize their data via the WebDAV server, over Wi-Fi or 3G/EDGE, rather than requiring a direct Wi-Fi connection between your desktop computer and your iPhone. For an application such as OmniFocus, this has the advantage of ensuring that you have current data available on your iPhone even if you forgot to sync the device before running out the door in the morning. An upcoming version is presently awaiting approval by Apple, apparently also adding Wi-Fi based Bonjour syncing for those users who would prefer that approach—this may appeal to users without an available WebDAV service.
However, for the reasons already mentioned we feel that the WebDAV approach is far preferable for an application such as OmniFocus, where having current data at any time is critical.
Despite its ties to the OmniFocus desktop application, the iPhone version of OmniFocus can work quite well as a standalone app; synchronization with the desktop is not required, and the only significant feature you’ll be missing in the current version is the ability to adjust recurring tasks—at this point recurring task settings can only be adjusted in the desktop version. For users of the desktop application who are GTD adherents this is not a serious limitation, as tasks are normally only “captured” on the iPhone and then later reviewed in the desktop application anyway. Despite this, however, OmniFocus works best with its companion Mac desktop application, which will unfortunately leave Windows users out in the cold at this point.
When used with the OmniFocus desktop software, OmniFocus for iPhone is easily a highly-recommended application, and well worth its high price tag for anybody who is already either using or considering OmniFocus. Even without the desktop, it remains reasonably usable for serious GTD adherents, but we don’t imagine many users will want to enter and manage complex task and project lists directly on the iPhone itself, and the inability to set task recurrence is a serious limitation in this case. Regardless, however, OmniFocus is an outstanding application for those users looking for a full-featured GTD app for the iPhone, with nothing else presently on the App Store even coming close to its approach or feature set. Overall, OmniFocus rates a B+—an A- for OmniFocus desktop users, and a B- for those who are looking to use it as a standalone application. iLounge rating: B+.
eReader (Free) by FictionWise, Inc. is the iPhone incarnation of a popular e-book reader application for Palm, Windows Mobile and Symbian devices. Rather than just being a direct port, however, eReader offers a number of iPhone-specific features such as accelerometer support for reading orientation and touch-screen gestures for page-turning.
eReader is provided by the very popular e-book services eReader.com and Fictionwise.com, where you may purchase e-books online to read on your device. Although purchasing is not supported directly in the eReader for iPhone application, eReader’s mobile site is iPhone-optimized, and any e-books that you have purchased on the site, regardless of whether these were purchased from your computer or your iPhone, are available in your “bookshelf,” and are downloaded directly to the device from there. The bookshelf appears to be persistent: a whole catalog of e-books that we purchased several years ago for use on a Palm device were still on our bookshelf and immediately available for download into eReader on our iPhone as soon as we logged in.
Note that you are not limited to downloading e-books only from your eReader.com bookshelf. If you have e-books from other sources that are in the standard Palm DOC e-book format, these can be downloaded from any other web site that you may have them stored on, and eReader.com also offers a personal storage service where you can upload your own e-books onto your bookshelf for download into your iPhone.
For reading and navigating through your content, eReader works very intuitively, and makes good use of the iPhone interface. Books are displayed in a page-oriented format, rather than as free text, and you can change pages either by swiping your finger across the screen in a page-turning motion, or simply by tapping on the left or right-hand side of the screen, depending on your user preference. Menu bars are hidden by default to provide you with a full-screen uninterrupted reading experience, but these can be brought up simply by tapping on the screen—or by swiping if you’ve configured eReader to use tapping to turn pages. They can also be configured to remain on all the time.
eReader offers a number of configuration options, accessed by tapping the settings gear icon at the right-hand side of the bottom menu overlay. From here you can choose from three different display font types and six font sizes, turn full justification on or off, set a fixed screen orientation, invert your screen colors, set your page turn gestures, and more. Some of these settings can also be adjusted from icons on the menu bar itself. The fixed screen orientation feature is notable, since you may frequently want to read books in positions where the iPhone’s orientation sensor may get in the way, such as reading while lying in bed.
In addition to simply allowing you to read your e-books, eReader offers a number of additional useful features for study and reference purposes. Most books include chapter markers which allow you to navigate to certain sections in the book, but you can also add your own bookmarks simply by tapping on the top-right corner of the page. The top-corner turns to a folded-page to indicate that a bookmark has been set for this page. Bookmarks can be accessed from the Chapters/Bookmarks menu in the menu bar.
Further, if you have a dictionary book installed on your device, eReader can quickly look up selected words in the dictionary. Simply hold your finger down on a word until it highlights, and when you release your finger, eReader will prompt you with a list of options. Tap “Look up in Dictionary” and eReader opens the dictionary with a definition of the selected word, if available, or a list of similarly-spelled words if not.
eReader also allows you to highlight text and add your own notes. This is done by holding your finger on a starting position and dragging over a block of text to select it. From the pop-up menu you can choose to either simply highlight the selected text or highlight the text and add a note of your own to the highlight.
Highlighted text will be shown in yellow in your book, and can also be accessed from the third tab in the bookmarks section. Any notes you’ve added to a highlight can also be displayed and edited from here, and you can even add notes to sections you’ve previously only highlighted.
eReader is the best application we’ve seen for reading commercial e-books directly on your iPhone, providing features on the iPhone that rival dedicated e-book readers such as the Kindle. While eReader is obviously geared toward purchased content, the reality is that most avid e-book readers are going to need to purchase their content from somewhere, and eReader and FictionWise form two of the largest general e-book content providers available. Despite this, however, the eReader application does not prevent you from placing your own e-books onto the device, provided that they are in the compatible e-book format. Since this format has been available for about seven years on the Palm platform, a number of tools are available which can handle conversion of text and rich-text documents into the Palm DOC e-book format supported by eReader. The only small issue with using your own content is the requirement to upload your content to a web site before you can download it onto your device; a more direct approach would be useful here for those users who do not have easy access to a web-based service to store their content, however users can also easily sign up for a free eReader.com account and make use of the personal bookshelf feature, so this is not a serious limitation. Overall, if you’re a fan of books, eReader is a great way to get them onto your iPhone or iPod touch for easy reading. iLounge rating: A-.
Urbanspoon (Free) by Urbanspoon is an application that acts as a front end for the Urbanspoon.com web site, providing access to Urbanspoon’s restaurant database, reviews and ratings while on-the-go. The application is free, but there is some ad-support in the form of a relatively unobtrusive banner that appears at the top of information pages.
Rather than just acting as a simple front end to the web site, however, Urbanspoon offers some additional iPhone-specific features, such as the ability to locate nearby restaurants using the iPhone or iPod touch location services, and the ability to use the iPhone’s built-in camera to take a picture of your dining experience, then upload it to Urbanspoon.com as part of your restaurant review.
Urbanspoon also offers a somewhat random restaurant selection mode where you can specify the neighborhood, type of cuisine, and price range you would like, then shake your iPhone to have it spin the wheel and recommend a restaurant for you.
Other features of the Urbanspoon.com site are also included in the application, such as the ability to write and upload your own reviews, search for or browse restaurant listings by various categories, add restaurants to your favorites, follow what your friends are doing and recommending, and even send out messages via Twitter with your comments on various restaurants and a link to the Urbanspoon.com page.
The only serious limitation of the Urbanspoon application is that it is limited by the data available at Urbanspoon.com, which seems confined to major metropolitan areas. For example, Urbanspoon had no problem locating a wide variety of dining options through the entire Greater Toronto Area, with accurate location information and comprehensive reviews for many of the more popular locations. In Buffalo, on the other hand, Urbanspoon’s available data was far more limited. This makes Urbanspoon an excellent tool for those who plan to use it in major cities, and it can in fact be particularly useful for travellers visiting a new city, however the database of restaurants isn’t great for smaller cities. If you enjoy visiting new restaurants and either live in or regularly travel to a larger city, this is definitely an application worth having on your iPhone, particularly for the free price tag. iLounge rating: B+.
Available in both an Instapaper Free version and an Instapaper Pro ($10) version, Instapaper by Marco Arment is an application designed for one very simple purpose: it allows you to save pages from your computer’s web browser for later offline reading on your iPhone. This is handled by adding a bookmarklet to your browser to mark/save pages for offline reading—simply tap on the “Read Later” button in your browser shortcuts, and the page is flagged for later download to Instapaper on your device. This works by placing the page information into a queue on Instapaper’s servers. When you start Instapaper on your iPhone and tap the “Update” button, your iPhone goes out and downloads any queued articles directly onto your device. This process requires that your iPhone be within either Wi-Fi or 3G/EDGE coverage to actually receive any new articles, but they can be read off-line from that point onward.
Instapaper downloads both web-based and text-based versions of each page, allowing you to view in a text-only mode for faster and easier reading, or in normal web page form, including any embedded images. If you are within network coverage, there is also an option to open a link to the original page in MobileSafari. Page viewing is supported in either portrait or landscape orientation.
While the Free version provides all of the basic functionality necessary for offline reading, the Pro version adds a few additional features that may of interest to more advanced users, including the ability to set a black-background text view, remember your reading position, send out page links via e-mail, and adjust your font sizes. A “tilt scrolling” feature is also present in the Pro version, allowing you to scroll up and down through an article simply by tilting the iPhone to automatically scroll through the article in a teleprompter-like fashion.
Instapaper is an interesting concept, and although the free version offers limited capabilities, it works well for the user who simply needs to read or keep a few web pages available on their device. While the Pro version offers some interesting features, its $10 price tag is definitely high for the limited additional functionality. Instapaper Free: iLounge rating: B+. Instapaper Pro: iLounge rating: C+.
Fring (Free) by Fringland is one of the most exciting apps that we’ve looked at in terms of concept, since it effectively brings a whole new paradigm to the iPhone and especially the second-generation iPod touch by enabling them to enjoy Voice-over-IP (VoIP) calling capabilities.