March 28, 2016
Email is – for the most part – the stuff of modern productivity. Begin able to send and receive email, along with the calendars, contacts, and tasks that it brings; is essential to getting work done these days. When you use the native Mac apps, everything is fine. When you need to use 3rd-party tools, things go sideways in a hurry.
For example, I work – as most do – with email, calendar, task, and contact apps on a daily basis. To keep my personal accounts independent from my work accounts, I use the native OS X apps (Mail, Calendar, Contacts, etc.) for my own stuff and 3rd-party apps for everything else. While I was working for a company that used Exchange/Office 365, this was easy to do. Native apps for personal, Outlook for work, and everything went relatively seamlessly. Granted, Outlook has issues, but it worked.
For my personal stuff, all the apps talked to each other and would share data with each other. Accepting an invitation in email put the resulting appointment into the calendar. With 3rd-party apps, the wheels fell off the wagon insanely fast.
After much searching, I gave up on a unified app like Outlook. There are a few out there, but they either rock at email and totally suck at calendars, or vice versa. None could handle everything. Since I now use Google calendars, Outlook for Mac was right out – it doesn’t support CalDAV, which is required for Google Calendar functionality.
So, it’s now 3 different apps – one for email, one for calendars, one for tasks. While not optimal, I can live with that, if they’d actually talk to each other!
I went with Airmail (US$10 in the App Store) for email, Fantastical (US$49 in the app store) for calendars, and todoist (Free with paid features in the app store) for task lists. This was after much experimentation and finally gave me the integrations I need, but there was a TON of trial and error to get to this point.
I tried one email client (Postbox) that worked really well for email. The layout was perfect for me, it allowed me to archive messages to something besides the “All Mail” folder, and it didn’t appear to be a resource hog. Problems arose, however, when I found out that pretty much every *other* vendor decided to stop supporting it for integration and shortcuts. It operated horribly when it came to calendar invitations, sometimes not bothering to tell the calendar software it got one, other times refusing to open the invitation at all, and always spewing out a ton of garbled text instead of the body of the invitation itself.
Then I focused on the calendar. One software package (BusyCal) was great in terms of layout and syncing with Google, but couldn’t handle HTML in invitations. I’m not sure why that was the case, as it’s 2016 and HTML-based invitations have been around for literally a decade now, but whatever. Since 80% of my invitations were for Webex or otherwise included a lot of HTML, this killed the usefulness of the app entirely.
OK, how about tasks? Miserable. Either they have so many features and “Getting Things Done” rule-sets that they’re unusable for someone like me (classically trained in the Franklin/Covey method); or they were just simple task lists with no flexibility at all. One was so complicated that after a week I gave up even trying to figure out how to move a task and just “completed” it so I could start over and create a new one.
So, I figured a “if you can beat ’em, join ’em” approach and tried out a couple of apps that simply framed up the Gmail website into the app itself. While they both worked, they also both refused to talk to anything except themselves. That meant I was stuck with Google’s horrible calendar interface, or nothing. Not a good trade-off for me. Of course none of them allowed for offline support either, which makes traveling painful when I can’t get wifi. To add insult to injury these apps, while essentially being an HTML wrapper, didn’t support any of the Gmail plug-ins that others in my company use regularly. So I got all the headaches of the web interface, and none of the benefits.
Finally, someone suggested Airmail. It does only mail – nothing else – and is a great hybrid between Gmail features and usability on the desktop. The app doesn’t support plug-ins from the Gmail site, but it does have offline sync, handles HTML mail/invitations well, and plays nicely with the OS X Notification Center. That’s about all it does, but it does it very well, and serves its purpose.
Fantastical gave me a great calendar experience. Showing the week-at-glance in a way that was readable, and easily figuring out what an HTML invitation was. It’s functional, readable, and flexible enough to deal with most common calendar scenarios. The price is rather high, but worth it if you need an independent calendar.
Todoist is the glue that holds it all together for me. It integrates with Airmail (and about 20 other apps) and can easily handle flipping tasks around, shifting priorities, and knowing when I need to see things. On the road, I can email things to Todoist and it’ll throw them in the inbox for me to sort out later.
It’s taken over a month of trial and error, but I finally found a set of apps that give me a workable solution to what should have been a no-brainer situation. I’d really like to see someone come up with a workable all-in-one app for Mac-based Information Workers like me, but I guess there just aren’t enough of us to make it financially workable for someone to do it.