Review: BusyCal

Let’s face it: in the category of calendar apps, there isn’t really a whole lot of choice out there.

Sure, you’ve got Microsoft Outlook, but that’s kind of blah to work with. Google Calendar is also not the easiest app on the block to use, though it does get a bonus for its sharing features. Apple’s iCal (built-into Mac OS X) is probably the best there is (and it is due for a pretty facelift in OS X Lion), but it really doesn’t have much more functionality than the calendar apps on the iPhone or iPad. I mean, c’mon, we’re on a Mac for Pete’s sake! Well, if you’re looking to get a bit more out of your calendar app than you’re getting from iCal, then BusyCal is the app for you.

Looks Like iCal, Works Like iCal
If you were to put iCal and BusyCal side-by-side, you might not know the difference without looking closely. Indeed, BusyCal’s interface is almost identical to iCal’s (Mac OS X Lion notwithstanding), complete with the list of calendars in the sidebar, the mini-month in the lower-left, dates represented by colored bubbles on a timeline, and a navigation toolbar up top. If you’re used to iCal, there’s almost nothing to relearn in this program.

And there’s nothing to re-enter either. BusyCal and iCal actually share the same database of calendar information, so any calendars and events that you already have in iCal will immediately show up in BusyCal, no questions asked. And anything you do in BusyCal reflects back to iCal (with a few exceptions for BusyCal-specific features) as well. This latter point matters because your BusyCal events will still sync perfectly with your iOS devices and across MobileMe (and in the future, iCloud) using iCal as the intermediary.

Better Interface, Better Experience
BusyCal may look a lot like iCal, but it packs a significant number of interface tweaks to dramatically improve your experience using the product. Some of these are minor, such as the really cool animations for moving between days/weeks/months (which you can also do with a three-finger swipe on a multi-touch trackpad), or the fact that in Day and Week view, simultaneous events don’t physically overlap each other in the timeline (yay, readability!). And perhaps a big boon for those who are annoyed with the “pop-out” event inspector in iCal; BusyCal lets you choose between an embedded info panel in the right-hand sidebar or a floating info panel, and you can have complete control over which settings it displays.

You can enable an option within the View menu to scroll within weeks or months. For example, in week view, you can choose to scroll by days, so that you move through the week view one day at a time to give you a custom seven-day view. This also works in month view, letting you scroll one week at a time. Also in the View menu, you can choose to hide weekends in the Week and Month views–great if you’re managing calendars for work or school where weekends are never applicable.

BusyCal also makes Month view much more useful than iCal does. In iCal, days with a lot of events in them merely get truncated, but if you hover over a busy day in BusyCal, a scroll-bar appears so that you can actually scroll through the list of events. BusyCal also lets you toggle Word Wrap–turn it on, and you’ll see an event’s entire title, or turn it off for a more compact view where the title gets cut off after one line.

BusyCal also sports a List view (not offered by iCal), which allows you to see a straight up list of events. The list is very customizable, letting you list events by day, week, month, year, or even decade, and it lets you sort by a variety of factors including date, start time, end time, title, or when the event was last modified. Also unlike iCal, BusyCal supports rich text formatting in the event’s title and notes. In fact, the List view takes this ability a step farther, by providing an entire rich-text formatting bar (based on TextEdit’s) below the list view for customizing an event’s notes.

So Many Ways to Pick a Date
BusyCal provides a lot more types of items to create than just calendars and events. For starters, BusyCal’s support for to-dos blows iCal’s features out of the water. You can create a to-do directly in the calendar view to assign it a due-date, and the to-do is displayed in the calendar itself along with the optional to-do sidebar on the right-side of the window. To-Dos are just as customizable as events, allowing for rich-text notes, alarms, attachments, locations, etc. You can even set a recurring to-do to have a repeating due date, the same way you would ordinarily set a repeating event. You can also assign different priorities to the to-do. You can also create an Undated To-Do, if you need to add a to-do item that just doesn’t really have a specific deadline.

BusyCal is also really smart about how it handles to-dos. Whenever you mark a to-do as “done,” BusyCal notes when you marked it as such and moves the to-do to the “done” date for historical purposes. And if the deadline for a to-do has passed without being completed, BusyCal keeps pushing the date of the to-do in your calendar to the current day to remind you that you still have to do it.

BusyCal also supports a few other types of data in its calendar. Banners act just like “all-day events” in iCal (in fact, marking a BusyCal event as “all-day” turns it into a banner). You can also create a Sticky Note for a date, this lets you put small bits of information in a note that is then represented by a tiny sticky next to the date–clicking on the sticky brings it back to full size. You can also create a Journal, which is kind of like an event or piece of information that isn’t associated with a specific time on the day. And lastly, you can even add your own custom graphics to the calendar to be displayed.

BusyCal also lets you create calendar groups that you can group calendars inside of–this also makes it easy to enable/disable calendars as a group instead of individually.

A Few Other Nice Features to Take Note Of
BusyCal can also display the weather forecast and temperature for the next six days in Day and Week view, represented by a small icon and the high/low temps; you can hover your mouse to view the forecast in a tooltip. A setting in BusyCal preferences lets you assign a zip code or city name to use for the weather report. BusyCal can also use this information to show you the phases of the moon in day/week/month views, even telling you the specific local time to expect the moon in perfect alignment. BusyCal even shows the moon in a shade of blue when the occasional blue moon occurs.

You may notice that iCal’s interface dims the background of the Day and Week views at times before 8 AM and after 6 PM. While this probably is to emphasize when the workday is supposed to be, most people probably find this fairly arbitrary. Well, BusyCal shades its backgrounds in the Day and Week views similarly, but it actually does so based on the actual sunrise and sunset times for those days. Skim through a couple of weeks at at time, and you’ll see the shading on the calendar move closer together or spread far apart depending on if the days are getting longer or shorter. This trick also adjusts itself for Daylight Savings Time, and it also uses your weather location to determine the sunrise/sunset time. As an example, pick a city in northern Alaska and BusyCal will show you how it’s dark there 24/7 during the winter and sunny 24/7 during the summer. It’s really quite cool.

Sync It, Baby
One of BusyCal’s big advantages out-of-the-box is its ability to synchronize with Google Calendar. Google Calendar is of course a great tool to use to share your calendars with others or to have access to when you’re away from your computer, and BusyCal’s sync works really well to the point where you don’t even have to think about it. Events you add to BusyCal almost immediately show up in Google Calendar, and vice-versa. Plus there’s no set up or special authentication verification necessary to publish your calendars to Google. Offline editing of calendars is also supported.

If you’re not using Google Calendar or MobileMe, BusyCal also supports Bonjour syncing with other computers on your local network, as well as TCP/IP syncing if you’re into that sort of thing. BusyCal also supports CalDAV servers, such as Mac OS X Server’s iCal Server, if you’ve got access to that setup. Through each of these setups, multiple users are able to edit the same calendars, and BusyCal keeps everything in sync.

And while you can synchronize your events to iOS devices via iCal+iTunes, you can also synchronize your to-do lists within BusyCal to its companion iOS app, BusyToDo ($9.99 on the iOS App Store).

When I first discovered and started using BusyCal, I immediately fell in love with it; I will never go back to using iCal again. At least, not unless Apple really steps up its game with iCal. BusyCal keeps everything that is great about iCal, while at the same time adding a tremendous amount of polish and a handful of additional features to truly make it an incredibly flexible and versatile calendar application. If you spend any amount of time managing calendars, events, and to-dos on your Mac, I highly recommend you give BusyCal a try.

The Nitty-Gritty
BusyCal Version 1.5.3 by BusyMac
My Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Price: $49.99
Download: BusyMac Website or Mac App Store

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About Douglas Bell

I live in Washington, D.C., and work as a Broadcast Technician at WAMU 88.5 FM, the local NPR affiliate in the Washington metro area. My primary shift is to engineer the local feed of NPR’s Morning Edition, including local news and weather, long-form features and station breaks… and yes, the shift starts at 5 am, so I’ve got the whole quasi-nocturnal thing going on. I am also the Coordinating Producer for Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie, an independently-produced podcast and public radio program. Extracurricularly, I play cello, and participate in a church choir and a handbell choir. I enjoy discovering new places, and am constantly searching for the perfect cheeseburger. I am also known as a frequent teller of puns.