Fantastical review: a slickly designed calendar iPhone app

  • Expert Rating: We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10 Best Buy We rate this 9 out of 10

  • Price When Reviewed: £1.69

  • Pros: Beautiful interface. Converts plain text entries into scheduled events nearly flawlessly

  • Cons: iOS limitations prevent it from allowing you to invite others to new events

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Fantastical is the latest in a line of elegantly designed iPhone apps that aim to make the duller parts of your professional and personal life easier. Like hypercoloured to-do app Clear, this calendar app is also an object lesson in interactive design that's worth downloading as much for inspiration and helping your own best practice as it is to use.

Fantastical started life on the Mac, offering easy access to your calendars, and impressively quick approaches for creating new appointments and meetings. The app made the leap from the Mac to the iPhone — and it lands with the grace of Steve Caballero. In jumping to iOS, Fantastical by necessity must shed a few of the features that make it stand out on the Mac, but still manages to offer a compelling alternative to the stock Apple app on your iPhone.

The app, which is built for the iPhone and iPod touch and optimized for the iPhone 5’s taller screen, currently costs £1.69/$2, though developer Flexibits says that the regular price will be £2.99/$4.

When you first launch Fantastical on your iPhone, you’ll be asked to grant it access to your calendars. Unsurprisingly, if you decline, the app is kind of useless; when you approve the request, Fantastical can act like a seamless conduit for any calendars you’ve added in the Settings app.

Tick, Tick, Boom: The DayTicker atop Fantastical's interface makes quick work of navigating to the date you're after.

At the top of the screen in Fantastical sits a clever Flexibits innovation called the DayTicker. It’s a horizontally scrolling list of dates, centered on today by default, with visual representations of your appointments for each day. As you scroll through the dates, your list of scheduled events for each day appears on the lower portion of the screen.

That list view is Fantastical’s only real window onto your schedule. Where Apple’s Calendar app offers a day, month, and week view in addition to its list mode — along with an endlessly scrolling landscape mode — Fantastical’s focus is instead exclusively its list-based approach.

As you navigate the Fantastical calendar, you’ll find it both clever and intuitive—a strong combination. Scroll through the vertical list of appointments by day, and the DayTicker scrolls horizontally along with it to center the currently selected day. Tap and hold on a a day to start adding an event for that day; double-tap a day to center it. Tap on the header bar (which shows the current month and year), and you’ll immediately jump back to today’s date.

The other way to schedule a new event is to tap on the plus (+) icon at the upper right. And, true to Fantastical’s origins on the Mac, you won’t see a traditional calendar entry form. Instead, you get a text entry field. If you’re like me, you may be tempted to tap the microphone button on the keyboard to dictate instead of typing in an event. Either way, as on the Mac, Fantastical is simply terrific at taking natural language that you provide and turning it into a scheduled calendar event.

Creationist: Fantastical's ability to create new events from plain text makes appointment creation delightfully simple.

For example, if you type in “Life of Pi Tuesday at 9,” Fantastical automatically creates the appropriate event on the right day, on your default calendar. Instead of “Tuesday,” you might type "tomorrow" or “fri” or “dec 6” or any other reasonable abbreviation of a recognizable date. The app generates a live, visual preview of the event it’s interpreting from your entry, and you can drag from side to side to see any adjacent appointments. That feature needs a bit of work, though: The bubbles containing your other scheduled appointments are sized according to those events’ duration; if an event has a shorter time span — like “Conference call with the team from work” for 20 minutes — you might only see “Conference call with the.” It’s not a huge issue, but in my testing, I’ve had to exit the event creation screen to see what these adjacent truncated, shorter-length events actually were.

If you want to add an event to a specific calendar (not the default calendar you’ve selected in Settings), Fantastical makes that pretty simple, too. You can use the Mac version of Fantastical’s shortcut, the slash key, as in: “Lunch with Jason /work.” But since the slash key’s nestled in another section of the iPhone’s keyboard, there’s a new shortcut, too: the triple space. “Lunch with Jason   work” gets the same thing done. And you can use shortcuts for your calendar names; the first few letters should suffice.

Through no fault of its own, Fantastical faces a few frustrating limitations Apple enforces with iOS. On the Mac, Fantastical lives in your menu bar, so you can click on its icon there or hit a global keyboard shortcut to immediately start entering a new appointment or quickly view your schedule; such features can’t be directly recreated on the iPhone. (Of course, Siri’s always waiting in the background to accept new calendar entries, and those will seamlessly appear in Fantastical, too.)

You're not invited

Worse is Fantastical’s inability to invite others to your meetings and events — another iOS limitation. You can use Fantastical to add or edit guests to a meeting that already has other invited guests, but you can’t invite others to a brand new meeting. That’s a problem for me: I frequently invite my wife when creating a new pediatric appointment for one of our kids, or invite coworkers when scheduling calls. It’s up to Apple to fix this limitation of its calendar APIs on iOS.

One other, more minor limitation is that calendar alerts from iOS launch the Calendar app and not Fantastical. Since iOS doesn’t let you choose new default apps for the calendar (or email, Web browsing, and the like), there’s no workaround.

Despite a few limitations, Fantastical is a beautifully designed app. Its list-based visual depiction of calendar data can sometimes obscure the fact that certain appointments are directly adjacent each other, or worse, overlap. But at the same time, it offers an ease of event entry that Apple’s own Calendar app can’t rival, and with aesthetics that are far more eye-pleasing, to boot. I’m punting Apple’s Calendar app from my own homescreen in favor of Fantastical, knowing that I’ll likely need to turn to it (or Siri) when scheduling appointments with invited guests. I’d rather accept a few annoyances than miss out on the rest of Fantastical’s benefits.

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