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January 4, 2017

Fantastical 2 vs BusyCal

I recently began using a Mac full-time in a corporate environment again (yay Amazon!), which is to say that I’m using it to talk to a Microsoft Exchange server for both email and calendar events. Of course, I have a copy of Microsoft Outlook on my Mac, and that has some excellent features - for instance, it has a good understanding of rooms vs people as meeting attendees, and also has a great room-finder feature for when you’re setting up new meetings. However, I found its interface for general-purpose email use really slow. I was pretty surprised, as I’ve been using Outlook on Windows for the last 3 years, and it actually works relatively well (as long as you install something like XKeymacs to get working Emacs-like keybindings, like Ctrl-E to go to the end-of-line). Thus, I returned to Mail.app and Calendar.app (which used to be known as iCal). Mail.app works really well - better than I’d remembered, actually, and there are some really excellent plugins for it that add a lot of functionality to make it solidly a better email client than Outlook (there may be similar plugins for Outlook, I don’t know). For reference, check out Mail Act-On and MailTags, and anything else from SmallCubed.

However, the Calendar app Apple provides is, well… I think “basic” is the kindest way of putting it. It can talk to an Exchange server and display things… mostly. It is unable to understand event categories, preferring to force users to move events between multiple calendars to get any sort of organization. They do it smoothly enough that it would almost be an acceptable solution EXCEPT that once you move an event out of the main Exchange calendar—even to another calendar on the same account on the same Exchange server—that event will no longer receive updates (e.g. if the organizer change the room). That’s clearly unacceptable, so the search was on for a replacement! (Many people have experienced other problems with Apple’s Calendar app, such as not receiving updates or deleting entries unexpectedly - I didn’t use it long enough to have such issues.)

If you look around, there are several calendar apps out there, but two stand out as the most comprehensive, full-featured programs for a Mac (as of October 2016):

  1. Flexbits Fantastical 2
  2. BusyMac BusyCal

They both cost $50 for the full version (which might be steep, but keep in mind you’re using this tool daily). To decide for yourself which you prefer, you can download both of them for free and use them unhindered for 30 days, which is exactly what I did. And, honestly, I think they’re both pretty close. Both are MUCH better than iCal, and the level of quality and the feature-sets are fairly similar. I think I’d be happy with either one.

After spending 30 days with both (first one, then the other), I prefer Fantastical by a hair. It’s a bit prettier, and it has a strict sense of what a week is, so when I have it display the “week” view (which is my standard), I get a sense of progression through the week. (It sounds minor, but for a tool you use all the time, minor things matter.) Flexbits makes a lot of hay out of their “natural language event adding”—they did it first (BusyCal has something similar now), and they do it best (BusyCal mis-parses things sometimes, whereas Fantastical’s parser is nearly magical). Fantastical can also modify which calendars get displayed/enabled based on your location, which is a neat trick that probably most folks won’t care about. In general, Fantastical seems to have slightly more engagement with the latest and greatest MacOS features (for example, they pull your account information from the system database, whereas BusyCal requires you to enter that information again).

BusyCal is slightly more configurable (e.g. you can select between several appearance styles, beyond just changing the font), and it has a more flexible way of handling a large number of calendars (if you don’t have or don’t like having large numbers of calendars, this is just clutter rather than a benefit). BusyCal also has a dedicated panel for showing the details of events and editing them, whereas this requires a double-click in Fantastical (or hovering with a couple keys pressed, in their latest update), and that’s rather convenient. It has some features that Fantastical doesn’t that I consider mostly useless (like showing the weather for the next few days). However, it refuses to enforce a 1-week view, but rather simply displays a 5- or 7-day view. Some people would probably find that very helpful, because it provides a 5- or 7-day view into the future regardless of where you are in the week. I find it annoying.

Both display data from Gmail/Exchange/iCloud/etc. and seem to speak Exchange natively (whereas Apple’s Calendar.app speaks Exchange with a thick accent and a limited vocabulary, if that makes sense), and both support event categories/tags (e.g. changing the color of an event without changing the calendar). Both also handle reminders/todos along with events, which is handy for those of us who are mostly satisfied with basic reminders—but neither’s featureset on that front will wow anyone who is used to a dedicated GTD-type app. Both also have companion iOS apps—I haven’t tried them, but they exist. Both also have highly detailed calendar menu widgets—which, if you don’t want to have the calendar app window open all the time, is a huge improvement over Apple’s Calendar. Fantastical actually started as a menu-only calendar, but grew a full-featured app. BusyCal went the other direction, but both have ended up in a similar position.

They both also have similar drawbacks. Neither have the “Find a Room” feature that Outlook has, which is a real shame. And neither one has a really good “small month” view that can be displayed along with the reminders. Fantastical will display a very pretty and relatively useful small “month” view along with a list of upcoming events, but if you want to display reminders that will replace the month view (I’d rather it just replaced the list of upcoming events). BusyCal will display a tiny, nearly useless “month” view (equivalent to the cal program on the terminal), but puts it under the (unnecessary, imho) list of the various calendars I’m subscribed to, so that showing both it and the Todo (Reminders) list scrunches the main display, thereby making events harder to read. This month view is so small, they could have put it elsewhere, to take real-estate from something else that can tolerate losing space better (like the reminders list). Also, both seem to have a slightly higher lag time (minutes) in displaying changes on the Exchange server than Outlook does - something I haven’t yet figured out, given that they all use Exchange push notification. Maybe Outlook updates the calendar on email pushes as well as calendar pushes explains the difference, I don’t know.

Anyway, hopefully that review helps someone. I ended up purchasing Fantastical 2, and after four months, I haven’t regretted that decision even once.

About January 2017

This page contains all entries posted to Kyle in January 2017. They are listed from oldest to newest.

October 2016 is the previous archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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