The Efficient Mac User

Unleashing the Power of iCal

- 2006.03.09 - Tip Jar

In continuing my "Replacing Entourage" series, I'll begin to focus on iCal and the functions that it offers. To cover the details of calendar and time management, to-do and task management, and other time and project management ideas, it will take at least two articles - probably three.

Today, I'll just discuss time and calendar management.

As calendar software goes, iCal has a lot to commend it. While it's not as robust or feature-rich as some, it offers a simplicity in calendaring that I like while covering the features I need.

Multiple Calendars

Probably the most familiar feature that makes iCal stand out is the use of multiple calendars. Whereas Entourage and others allow users to sort events within a single calendar and color-code them and organize them by user-defined categories, iCal goes a different way. In iCal, you set up separate calendars rather than categories within a calendar, and you organize your events into these.

At first glimpse, it appears that iCal has simply accomplished the same thing through a slightly different means. The real power of this approach, though, is how easy this method makes viewing select sets of events (and to-do items) without being distracted by others. There are several ways to do this.

The most basic is the color-coding changes. When you set up a new calendar, you select what color you want those events to be rendered. For many users, each calendar will have a unique color that can, in time, become easily recognizable as associated with a certain set of events.

Calendar events"Fair enough," you say, "but Entourage does the same thing with color-coded categories." True, but the interactivity with these is different, for when you select a particular calendar - either by clicking on the calendar name in the Calendars list, or by clicking on a certain event in the displayed view - that calendar is brought to the front, and its color becomes the predominant color in the display while the others are muted.

Thus, the calendar you've selected is easily distinguished within the window, as are the events associated with it, as you can see in the unselected (light blue) and selected (darker blue) items in the image on the right.

This feature alone makes it easy to quickly distinguish between the different sets of events in your life. But iCal takes it one step further by allowing individual calendars - or even groups of calendars - to be selected and deselected. When a calendar is deselected, its associated events disappear from view completely! This leaves a clean and obvious display of only those events that you wish to view.

The possibilities that this feature-set opens up are many. You can have entire sets of calendars devoted to things that you view only occasionally - for example, sports schedules for your favorite baseball teams - and can leave them hidden most of the time. When you need to see it, it's so easy to compare it to the other calendars for conflicts.

It's helpful for planning in certain "epochs" of your life, such as a wedding or moving to a new house, that will consume you for that season of time but be largely irrelevant after the fact; set up a calendar for it, then delete or archive it after you're done.

Published Calendars

This substantial feature-set also makes possible something that many iCal users take advantage of: The ability to select certain calendars and publish them for others without offering all of your calendar data to the public.

For example, I keep an iCal calendar that details the school-wide events for the small private school where I work. Any student or family - or anyone else, for that matter - can subscribe to this calendar and get real-time (or periodic) updates when new events are added or existing events are changed. The events that go into this calendar are limited to those that are truly public; they don't get to see the committee meetings or parent conferences that I have in a separate calendar.

.mac users can publish their calendars for public viewing and subscription through their .mac accounts, but iCal users are not limited to using .mac. A utility is available called iWebCal that publishes calendars to the Web without a .mac account.

There are also several websites devoted to publicizing available calendars and making subscriptions easy to establish. A few that come to mind are iCalShare, iCal Exchange, and iCal Hosting. You can also find a selection through Apple's iCal library.

Since iCal (and its published calendars) use the open "iCal" standard - fast becoming a universal standard, not unlike the vCard - other calendaring applications, such as Thunderbird Calendar and Sunbird, can read them.

Calendar Views

The standard selection of calendar views - daily, weekly, and monthly - are all available in iCal. I'm a little surprised that a yearly view is not an option, but I'm willing to excuse it as one that would overcrowd the application and threaten the streamlined simplicity that it embodies. (I so seldom require a full-year view in my calendar that this point is not really a substantial complaint.)

Navigating from one view to another produces an odd result by default: The window-size shifts depending on which view you select. While distracting, there is some sense to this: There simply is more information displayed in the monthly view than the daily view, and the application is set to require only as much of your screen's real estate as necessary to adequately display the information.

Understandable though this is, it bugged me, so I took my fate into my own hands and performed a little hack: I'd learned that you could set the windows to be the same size regardless of which view you selected. I used the hack instructions (see Set Identical iCal Window Sizes) and came out with a unified view that was the best thing for my interface since Uno.

Switching views is easy: Three buttons at the bottom allow a quick click switch. But iCal is also pretty keyboard-command ready: cmd-1, -2, and -3 let you switch between day, week, or month views, respectively.

Also, notice that you can change more specifically what you are viewing: In the Preferences pane, specify the length of your work week and workday, including when your day begins and ends. You may also choose how many hours are displayed at once. (Hint: you can also change the number of hours viewed in real-time by holding down the "option" key while scrolling the wheel on your mouse. Thanks to Tim Gaden for this tip.)

Mini month calendarThe Mini Calendar

Users will find the "mini-month" calendars helpful to keep open in all three views. These small calendars offer two quick navigation helpers: first, and most obviously, they allow you to quickly move from the date(s) currently in view to another day, week, or month - and since they include arrows (at the top) that let you scroll through the months quickly, you can jump ahead or back with relative ease.

The other handy nav-helper is the button with the diamond icon in the middle, between the scroll arrows: This button automatically jumps to the current date, so after you're done looking ahead for your vacation time in six months or back to the meetings you already spent on that topic, you can easily return to the current date. (I remember Entourage requiring a couple of clicks and a menu to accomplish this simple task!)

By the way, you can also do this by keyboard-command: command-T will jump to today, while shift-command-T will allow you to select a date to jump to. Command + a left or right arrow will move to previous or next view, be it day, week, or month.

Other Commands

Other information tools are available through basic buttons: Joining the "mini-month" activation button, the standard "plus" button adds new calendars, and another button (the one that looks like an in box) replaces the mini-month view with a "notifications" view. I'd like it if you could show both mini-months and notifications, but for some reason Apple doesn't offer that. As a result, I leave notifications always off.

On the other side of the window, you'll find three more buttons: The first, which looks like it could be a task-list, actually toggles the view for search results; Spotlight works quite well within iCal, and searches are efficiently displayed in a small box at the bottom - and easily hidden. (An aside: Despite the mixed feelings that many have about Spotlight, my finding is that it works extremely effectively when utilized within an application that employs it. To wit, none of the reflections on Spotlight's shortcomings have spoken negatively about this.)

The second button, with a "push-pin" icon, reveals or hides the to-do list. (I'll discuss to-do lists in detail next week.) My biggest complaint here: Why not use the list-like button for to-do items and the more familiar magnifying-glass icon for the search?

The last button reveals the "info" window/drawer, which I'll address in more detail in a future article. You can select which you prefer: If it shows up as a drawer (the default, I believe) and you prefer a window, select "Detach Info" from the Window menu. The reverse is also true - "Attach Window" will be the option to return it to drawer status.

Personally, I prefer the drawer, and I keep it open all the time in all views. I have also resized the drawer to be as narrow as possible (which you can do, also, without a hack - even though the usual three lines are absent from the lower right-hand corner, you can still grab it with your mouse and drag it to resize).

I've maximized my window to fill the screen. On my 12" iBook, this gives me full display of as much information as possible, and it's just about right. Would I keep it smaller if I had a larger screen? Probably not; I like to have as much information in view as I can.

iCal Weaknesses and Add-ons

iCal has a few fairly significant weak spots. One that many complain about is the inability to give each event an alarm by default. Since I don't use alarms very much, I don't find this a problem; I think I would quickly get annoyed if this was the default. If you would prefer it, however, there's a helpful tool called iCalFix that changes this to add an alarm to every event by default.

As usual, there are some nifty doodads that are available to soup up your iCal. iCalMail will let you schedule a message to be emailed at a specified time. iCalViewer lets you display your iCal contents on your desktop - I tried this for a while, but I didn't care for it much. I do like the Dashboard widget called iCal Events, which does a great job of displaying upcoming events.

Users of older versions who are frustrated by the lack of birthday transfer from Address Book will be glad for the tool called iCal Birthday Shifter. (iCal version 2.x, which ships with OS X 10.4.x "Tiger", will find that Address Book already supports this feature.)

And those in need of Microsoft Exchange compatibility for calendar-sharing will, perhaps, find Snerdware's GroupCal (US$55) a helpful option. (Be warned, however: A reader reports that some of Snerdware's products are not currently compatible with the latest version of OS X, v.10.4.x.)

Check back next week when I discuss task and project management in iCal and other applications. LEM

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