To Do applicationsOver the past ten months I’ve been using a variety of To Do management applications to solve my personal task management woes. This blog post is a recap of the four best contenders that I have found, where they succeed, where they fail, and what needs to be on the table for me to be happy.

Laying the Ground Rules

As the lead UI designer behind our group task solution Stacks I can be a pretty harsh critic on things that don’t feel or work right. Also along this same line, I understand the difficulty of developing a product and trying to meet feature requests. It’s impossible to keep everyone happy, not to mention build features with time and care. For some of these apps the features I want might be coming, for others they aren’t part of the ballgame and never will be. I get that, but let’s still “talk it out”.

Required vs. Nice to Have

Must have:
  • Well designed interface
  • Quick task entry
  • Repeating tasks
  • Time based notifications/reminders
  • Access to tasks at all times (ideally: mobile, desktop, ipad, and web)
  • Cloud syncing
Nice to have:
  • Categorization of tasks (long term, work, personal, etc.)
  • Notes or sub-tasks
  • File attachments
  • An API
  • Great keyboard shortcuts

Alright, let’s jump into the four selected contenders and see what they’ve brought to the table.

Simplenote

Done Well:

phenomenal cloud syncing, quick task entry, access to tasks at all times, notes/subtasks, an API

Lacking:

repeating tasks, reminders, categorization, great keybaord shortcuts

At first I felt a little bad including Simplenote as a task management app. The truth is that Simplenote was never meant to soley manage tasks. That said, it’s just too good at what it does to not have it on this list. First off, Simplenote is bar none the best cloud syncing application I’ve ever used. It’s never once lost my changes or updates and I’m using it on my computer, iPad, and iPhone. Also, in a pinch it has a web interface (that doesn’t suck) as well. On top of this it has an API (although it’s not fully public yet) which has allowed developers to tackle the interface in unique ways. For instance, Just Notes and Notational Velocity are independent apps that work great with the Simplenote API.

Simplenote screenshot.

There are a few big hurdles you have to be willing to accept with Simplenote. First, it won’t be able to send you reminders in any way shape or form. This means you have to remember to check it to see what’s due. This became a deal breaker for me after a few months, but if you’re the type of person who’s disciplined, this may not be an issue. Second, Simplenote has no way to repeat tasks, so all those CC bills and monthly reminders need to be created every month.

If all you’re looking for a is a small To Do app that also has great note taking capabilities Simplenote is probably your best bet. Beautiful Helvtica type, a super clean and fast interface, and very proactive developers. If you need more than just a few lines of text, like me, then it’s onward to the next app.

Things

Done Well:

quick task entry, categorization/tagging, nice interface, access on multiple devices

Lacking:

Repeating tasks are terrible, badge only notifications, no cloud syncing

Things is perhaps the most well known Mac and iPhone task management solution. Culture Code, the creator of Things, has been featured on Apple’s developer site and has done well in a number of reviews. From the surface Things looks like a winner. Beautiful icon and interface, multiple device support, plus tagging and categorization. Yes it is expensive, $50 desktop + $10 iPhone + $20 iPad, but that’s sometimes worth it for a great experience. The problem is that Things felt off the whole time I used it. It’s not that it doesn’t have a few great features (ie: quick task entry via hotkey on the desktop version) but rather that the deep features trail off. The features that should be most thought out don’t seem to be at all. For instance, let’s look at creating a scheduled repeating task:

Repeating tasks and a better way.

First off, the entire due field is uneditable so why does it even allow typing? Second, the wording is just ridiculous, ‘copies are due’ could just be ‘this task is due’. Further, why at the bottom do I have to say each copy has a due date, didn’t I just specify that up above when I said the day it’s due? Granted, maybe there is someone out there who needs to randomly assign tasks every month, on a given date, and doesn’t actually have a date that task is due. But really?! Even so, Culture Code should spend some time wording this better, as it is now it’s just insanity. Check out some better solutions that other developers created:

Repeating tasks and a better way.
Super dudper repeating task options.

Second, Things doesn’t have cloud syncing. For an application that is meant to exist on three different devices it is extremely weird that there is no cloud connection. Instead, you have to have each device’s wifi on and then let them sync over a home/business wifi network. This, in my opinion, is a recipe for disaster. Router and wifi questions aside, what if I add 7 tasks on my laptop but am connected via ethernet, then take just my phone out of town for the weekend? My data is completely inaccessible. For a $50+ dollar set of apps I expect cloud syncing, even for a yearly cost.

Third, Things isn’t very good at reminding you about tasks. It shows you a badge of how many tasks you have but beyond that you have to go in and look at your tasks on a daily basis. Maybe some people do this but I don’t. Let me specify a time to be reminded and then show me an alert on my phone, simple enough?

End game, Things just doesn’t stack up for the price. If Culture Code works on usability and wording, allows cloud syncing, and gives a discount to users that own all the apps I’ll consider it again.

NotifyMe 2

Done Well:

beautiful mobile interface, push reminders, categorization, task notes, price

Lacking:

web interface might as well not exist, no desktop version, no API

NotifyMe 2 is the most recent application that I’ve been using. While it lacks a desktop client (which is a huge downfall) the mobile client is extremely good. The biggest and strongest pitch for NotifyMe is exactly what it’s name says: notifications. NotifyMe syncs your tasks to the cloud and then sends a push reminder to your phone when the task needs to be done. At that point you can either snooze it and be reminded later (at an interval you set) or check it off. Additionally, repeating tasks on NotifyMe are better than any other interface I’ve seen – especially considering it’s a mobile interface. You set the date and time the task is due, then how often it should repeat, you can do alternate weekdays, weeks, months, or years. Or, something like remind me every 45th day. The best part about this is the ease with which it works. You can tell the crew at PoweryBase sat down and really went through the steps.

Among the other nice things in NotifyMe are task notes and task sharing. Task notes are placed nicely within each task, a small icon appears next to tasks that have notes letting you know additional information exists. This seems small but the ability to add a few notes into a task is huge. For instance, I add a task to set up a doctor appointment easily, but remembering to bring my new insurance card and the new office address could be just as important. The ability to have notes fixes this problem. Additionally the app also has a sharing and friends feature. I haven’t tried it enough to know how well it works, but if it works as advertised (and I assume it does based on the rest of the app) then it should be a hit for married couples or families. The ability to assign notifications to others on the fly could be extremely useful.

To Do applications

The biggest knock against NotifyMe has to be their application web interface, webapp.notifymecloud.com. In fact, let’s be honest, it doesn’t even deserve to be called a web interface. It’s more like a pile of trash sitting online that is meant to somehow duplicate functionality of the mobile app. And, while technically it has the functionality, the feel and care of the mobile app is 100% absent. The icons are gross, the corners of the containers are rough and thrown together. The task fields are unstyled and unorganized. It’s literally like someone went into Dreamweaver and inserted a bunch of default text fields, added some terrible icons, and said “that’s good, I’m done”. The fact this application is so bad makes me terrified that PoweryBase doesn’t take their design seriously. If they are willing to put out something this bad on the web who’s to say the app might some day slip into the same void. Terrifying.

In conclusion, NotifyMe 2, from a mobile perspective, is the best task manager I’ve seen. This is big because if there is any place to have a great app it’s on the device that’s always with you. Sadly, the web app is not worthy of discussion. It’s unusable and beyond in a pinch circumstances, worthless. Let’s hope this gets addressed so I can give NotifyMe 2 the clear victory in the To Do application space.

The Hit List

Done Well:

best desktop experience of any app I have ever used, great keyboard shortcuts, tagging/categorization, extremely fast task creation, repeating tasks

Lacking:

vaporware iPhone version, an API

The Hit List screenshot.

I’ve never been as excited about a program as I was about The Hit List. It’s beautiful, fast, easy to learn, and incredibly well thought out. Sadly two years into the product life cycle the announced iPhone app has never been released and the desktop version has never come out of beta. The developer has dropped off the face of the earth. While the desktop version is truly a marvel to be seen (even in beta), the lack of syncing, API access, or a mobile version render this app a dinosaur. Some people have gotten it to work with the 2Do via calendar syncing, but I’m just not willing to use some hack method for important tasks in my life.

Because I’m such a fan of The Hit List I believe it belongs in this showdown. For someone that only needs a desktop application there is nothing better on the table. Just check out this quick video I whipped up:

If The Hit List gets an iPhone app I will jump on it no matter what the cost. Though I’m a realist and therefore betting this app, sadly, won’t see the light of day.

The Final Conclusion

Considering it’s mid 2010 I’m astonished that someone hasn’t solved the GTD personal task solution in a way that meets the few goals I provided above. There is a lot of potential in the market but no superstar. I’d love to hear other people’s solutions to the GTD problem, maybe something’s out there that I don’t know about. Until then I’ll keep hoping for a better desktop or web version of NotifyMe2. Or, even better, the mystical unicorn Hit List iPhone application from Andy Kim.

  • http://trevor.is Trevor Filter

    Bruce, I’m surprised you left out OmniFocus! I use it between my Mac and iPhone many times a day and it’s never let me down. It’s also more true-to-GTD than any of the others you mentioned. Both versions (Mac and iPhone) are on the expensive side, but they’re extremely well thought-out and they just work. Take a look and see what you think.

  • http://imulus.com Bruce Clark

    Trevor, I did think about this, sadly because of the entrance cost and not being able to see it on the iPhone without paying I couldn’t include it in the review. Also, sometimes I feel like the Omni Group’s design choices don’t coincide with my ideals. While I do realize they make some very good software it never feels quite right in my eyes. For instance, Omni Graffle Pro is a great application but there are a lot of shortcuts and usability decisions that I get frustrated with.

    Next time you’re in town hit me up so I can give it a run through on your phone and see if it changes my mind. Cheers

  • http://www.fairtradesports.com Scott

    I’m fairly satisfied with my current setup – BusyCal on my desktop syncing with 2do on my phone – but not enough to avoid spending 45 minutes goggling others’ solutions!

    Thanks for the round-up. Agree with the mystical Hit List wish. I’d pay love that kind of functionality + beauty, especially the sub-tasks.

  • http://www.photofacts.nl Elja Trum

    I’m using (and liking) Remember the Milk.
    Although an iPad app is still in the making, there’s a iPhone app, web interface and there are some desktop apps to (I use ‘App for the Milk’ on my Windows pc).

  • Gavin

    I’ve been fliting between various apps and still really not totally satisfied yet.

    Remeber the milk got a lot of use during the annual fee, but I didn’t want to renew it as I wasn’t 100% happy with the iphone app (too many clicks to do anything), and the poor management of lists on their webapp.

    I find i almost need two gtd apps, one simple style and a more feature rich one with tags, reminders, categories/projects, etc..

    I’ve since used simple notes (i like it a lot, but sometimes too simple for some tasks)

    Springpad (quite good, but can be very cumbersome – many clicks to do simple things, seems to be able to do many things)

    action complete (had latency issues with this but may go back, again can’t create just a simple note)

  • http://None Tal Shani

    Hay
    i’ve been trying this app
    http://hublistapp.com/
    it seems to be similar to THL
    it’s in alpha stage so i would wait, im still crossing my fingers to its potential and googleing others
    for the meanwhile i use http://www.nirvanahq.com, its the best GTD related, although i wish it has THINGS UI

  • http://imulus.com Bruce Clark

    Nice suggestions here. I’m looking to update this review in the future with a few other ones, for instance: http://zenbe.com/ has a nice app that a co-worker of mine has been using. And it seems they’ve got good platform support. Also, Due (http://www.dueapp.com/) which was just released has potential too.

    So far, I’m still using NotifyMe. They just released an iPad app that I have yet to try. Really though they’re still missing a good desktop experience.

  • Melvin Tan

    You might want to give Appigo’s Todo a try. It has native iPhone and iPad apps and its latest incarnation comes with a cloud service (it’s not a free trial service for 14 days, after which it is $19.99 a year if I’m not wrong). You can sync with toodledo for free if you so wish.

  • http://tommertron.com Tom Robertson

    What I would really really love is a service that scoured my simplenote notes and added marked lines as tasks in a to-do list application of my choosing.

    The way I take notes at meetings (using pen and paper) is to just write down everything as bullet points. Some are informational and are just regular bullet points. Others are action items and I mark then with a (t) and then transcribe those to my to do list application when I get back to my desk.

    I really like this system because I don’t have to switch to some other list when I take a note that’s an action item. I’d love to do this system with an iPad and Simplenote, but there’s no way to monitor ‘incoming’ or ‘unprocessed’ notes in Simplenote. One day maybe…

  • Drew

    Recently I came across to this online note organizer ? websendsms.com , i should say it is pretty simple and easy to work with.Also you can send sms globally.