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BusyCal2 a big improvement over Apple’s iCal calendar

I find I've been using the calendar applications on my computer and smartphone nearly as much as the browser. They’ve become indispensable for planning for the day or the month, for scheduling both business appointments and travel.

Ever since moving to the Mac, I've been using its bundled calendar program, iCal, synchronizing with the calendar on my iPhone, most recently via Apple’s iCloud.

In theory, adding an appointment to either device syncs with the calendar on iCloud and populates the other device. While I've dabbled with other applications, including Microsoft’s discontinued Entourage and Outlook for Mac, syncing has been more problematic, so I’ve stuck with iCal.

While iCal provides basic functionality, it has barely progressed over time, and some of its changes border on strange. In its latest version, a gold-colored leather strip with a torn sheet of paper was added across the top to resemble a paper calendar; that's provoked an outcry and third party apps to remove it, being so out of character with the Mac’s modern look.

While iCal is fine for basic needs, it's limited in a number of areas including the ability to customize views and to handle to-dos.

I've been trying out an alternative, BusyCal2 from BusyMac, that’s targeted directly at Mac users that want something more.

One of the best features of BusyCal2 is how it handles to-do items or tasks. Unlike with iCal, which treats tasks as a separate function, BusyCal2 lets you integrate tasks into the calendar and create alerts, just like you do for appointments.

That works more like the way we work. We plan each day to both attend meetings at specific times and to accomplish tasks during the day. Sometimes we create a list of tasks and schedule them for completion in the future. Tasks and appointments are treated similarly. To-dos in BusyCal appear on your calendar on the date due, as well as in a side window. You can click on a to-do to open a very large window where there's plenty of room to add lots of information. If a to-do is not completed by the due date, it’s carried over each day in the calendar.

BusyCal2, at first glance, could be mistaken for iCal, with its similar look and arrangement of windows, although there's no “leather strip.” It even works much like iCal. It syncs to iCloud and has views by the day, week, month and year. But it also adds a very useful list view. Unlike iCal, it doesn’t support Microsoft Exchange.

But, BusyCal2 offers much more depth and many more options: Here are some of my favorite features:

It has a useful icon on your top menu bar; click it and a drop-down window shows your day's schedule with a text window to add an appointment by just typing naturally (e.g. “call Phil on Monday at 7 am”). The drop-down menu also shows the weather, based on your location.

BusyCal2 lets you adjust what your calendar displays by applying smart filters. For example, you can view key dates of a project, while hiding everything else. Or choose to view personal items or just business appointments with one client. The filters you create are listed along the top of the calendar window so you can invoke them with a single click.

You have much more capability to customize your views, such as adjusting the number of days or weeks displayed. Rather than showing a full seven-day week view, I sometimes prefer to display four or five days at a time so that more details will be visible on those days. You can display two to 14 days. The 14-day view works especially well on a large monitor. Two sets of arrows let you scroll the week view by one day at a time or a week at a time.

In the month view, I can show one to a dozen weeks at a time. I typically use five or six weeks to provide a broader picture and to schedule multiple-day events that span adjacent months. Its year view cannot be adjusted, but displays more information than does iCal.

You can open a small floating window that displays your contacts and drag several of them to your calendar to set up a meeting. BusyCal2 will send out an invite to each contact and keep you informed about who has accepted and declined. It also has powerful alarm capabilities that display more details about the appointment, along with a snooze alarm for any duration of minutes, hours or days.

BusyCal2 is not a cure for some of the syncing problems inherent with iCal, such as with invitations sent by others using Google calendar. While you can add the appointment or sync a Google calendar to BusyCal2 quite easily, Google appointments added to iCal and BusyCal don't sync to iCloud and, therefore, never show up on your phone. (That’s because Google appointments must remain on Google’s servers and cannot be moved to Apple’s iCloud. A workaround is to accept Google appointments both on the computer’s calendar and the phone’s calendar.)

Some users report occasional syncing problems between iCal and their iPhone or iPad, but I didn't notice much difference between the two.

After using BusyCal2 for two weeks I like it well enough to replace iCal. It's easy to install and it imported all my appointments from iCal, as well as other calendars such as TripIt and Google, during setup. It took just a couple of minutes, and leaves iCal intact, should you want to switch back.

BusyCal2 is available as a free 30-day trial or can be purchased for $30 until February 15, a discount from the regular $50 price. (busymac.com)

Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer" published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others, holds 30 patents and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Phil can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Phil's blog is http://blog.philipgbaker.com and his website is philipgbaker.com.

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