BusyCal Review: Finally real time management on Mac OS X

Apple's iCal can be quite limited in functionality. It lacks good synchronisation with third party calendars, for example. It's also a bit limited if you want to use it for alerts and time management. Enter BusyCal by Busy Mac. This application seamlessly synchronises with iCal, yet offers much more in terms of synchronisation with other people's calendars on the network, and even syncs with Google Calendars. BusyCal is a real time management tool with a simple interface.I am always weary of replacing an Apple application by something else. You never know if a developer is going to continue churning out updates and upgrades, or if Apple suddenly decides to change a technology so the third-party replacement does no longer work. In BusyCal’s case, I thought I’d just install it, try it out, write the review and throw it off the system again, but after having played with it for several weeks now, that’ll be hard.

When installing BusyCal, you can set a preference to let BusyCal be your default calendar software. If you allow that, BusyCal will integrate with every other application that can communicate with it, like Mail for example. I get a lot of invitations for conference calls and WebEx meetings, so over the weeks that I have it installed on the system, I was able to see that BusyCal does a far better job of integrating with invitations than iCal does—even if the invitations come from a Windows machine.

That was the first hint to me at what BusyCal is capable of. My first real test was to see how BusyCal would synchronise with other calendars on the LAN and with Google’s Calendar. I must admit that I was expecting delays, crashes, and more trouble. In reality BusyCal did a wonderful job. On the LAN—being alone at this job—I just made believe there were others entering events and to-dos in their calendar. That’s not really a stress test for a synchronisation algorithm, but it all worked so wonderfully effortless that I can’t imagine it to go awfully wrong in real-world situations.
The synchronisation with Google’s Calendar was equally flawless, although the updates appeared with more of a delay as a matter of course. Oh, the synchronisation with Google and the LAN calendars works bi-directionally.

My first impression of BusyCal wasn’t so good, though. I hate cluttered interfaces, and BusyCal is installed with WeatherAccu’s weather forecast events active by default. That makes for a very busy calendar even as it is installed and before you actually get to create your own events, banners, etc. Luckily, turning weather forecasts off is as easy as opening the Preferences panel.

So, why do I think BusyCal makes for a time management tool rather than a bare calendar? Well, apart from having all the goodies that iCal also offers, BusyCal has far more intelligible options to allow you to scroll through to future dates (by day or by week, for example). It also has an Info panel that can be left open, with information that you can set to be as scarce or as abundant as you want it to be yourself.

You can categorise events and to-dos by adding tags to them. A separate Preferences panel acts as your control panel for information you want to see in the Info panel, including information like “Free/Busy”, “Tags”, and “First Occurrence”, and even “Start and End Time Zone”. To-dos and events can also show icons or graphics that you drag from other applications to BusyCal. Those clutter up your calendar, but may also convey information in a blink of an eye.
If you want to document events and to-dos, you can switch the calendar view to a sort of Notes taking view, were all your events and todos are listed in a horizontally split window. The bottom half of the window serves as a text editor. You can write entire novels in there, if you wish. In my copy, the notes window was stubborn at accepting text the first time I wanted to write something in there—probably a minor bug, as it accepted text the second time around.

Another very interesting option you can set is to have two weeks viewed in the By Week view. That gives you one more view on what you have to do and which events need your attention. Post-Its are another such nice touch. Once you close the Post-It, it will reside in the banner space above your daytime view as a tiny Post-It. Hovering over these with the mouse reveals an equally tiny magnifying glass to zoom in.

Of course, the real power of BusyCal is its network functionality that enables collaboration, but its many features stand apart from those of competing products, including iCal. In fact, I found that next to BusyCal iCal looked like a toy. The one and only thing that I’d love to see added is the ability to automatically push data to applications like OmniFocus and Things. Both of these do integrate with iCal and therefore with BusyCal, but it’s a one-way street.

To make it perfect, BusyCal has a menu applet showing you future Alarms.

BusyCal can be downloaded for trial and I certainly recommend you try it out.

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