Fantastical, when released in 2011 as the menu bar app that could, won productive hearts every where with its charming design and its natural language input that shaved off previous seconds on entering events and appointments.
It sat in your menu bar, and had the perfect balance of design and utility, such that it’s nice to look at, but also fast and frictionless. It was, however, a companion to the desktop iCal app, bundled with OS X since the start of time (also known as 2002). While it could be used as your only calendar app — I found almost every feature I used to be available in Fantastical — it still relied on iCal (now known as Calendar) to sync all your accounts and events. And since it only lived in the menu bar, it didn’t appeal to everyone. It became an accessory for iCal to most people, very much a means of input for events and quickly checking appointments.
Fantastical 2 is the latest version of Flexibits’ desktop calendaring software, and it’s more than just a mere design refresh.
Instead of just a beautiful redesign in line with the new design language brought by OS X Yosemite last year, Flexibits — that’s Michael Simmons and Kent Sutherland — have transformed the original app — which started it all — into a full-blown, independent desktop calendar app.
This year, Fantastical goes beyond the menu bar. And in extraordinary fashion.
The New Mini Window
This year, Flexibits has answered the prayers of power users with a full desktop app; but don’t worry, the menu bar app we all know and love isn’t gone — it’s now called the Mini Window and continues to reside in its usual place.
It’s back, and better than ever. In addition to receiving a fresh coat of paint, you can now detach the Mini Window from the menu bar, which is helpful if you don’t want the window to auto-hide when another window is in focus. However, clicking the menu bar icon again doesn’t open a new instance of the Mini Window, but rather focuses on the already opened window, but it’s not much of an annoyance.
The new Mini Window also has an “infinite list” — you can now view appointments and events from any date, including the past, unlike previous versions of Fantastical, which is an update that even light calendar users who don’t need the full app can enjoy.
The Mini Window mirrors the look and feel of the compact iPhone app, and much of the experience remains the same. The same animations when you enter events in natural language, the same UI, the same experience. Yet they’ve taken it to a new level with the things you can’t do on iOS: hover over events to view details, over days in the mini-Month view to view all events taking place on that day, and even edit events straight from the menu bar app.
The Mini Window has undergone the redesign you’d expect for any app transitioning from previous releases to OS X Yosemite. I believe Flexibits did not have a hard time deciding upon a user interface for the Mini Window, given its similarity to its iPhone counterpart.
The Main App
Unsurprisingly, Fantastical 2 looks a lot like a combination of its iPad app and the OS X Calendar app. You can’t deviate much in terms of design from what it looks like: columns, divided by days with filled shapes representing events. Much of the design on the main window resembles Calendar. What’s unique, however, is the black sidebar on the left of Fantastical 2.
The sidebar features the same compact layout as the Mini Window: a quick entry input field allowing users to enter events using natural language, a mini-Month view, showing dates for that month (hint: clicking the name of the Month brings you back to today’s events.1), and a compact list view showing all events in the near future, color-coded by calendar and presented nicely in chronological order. The app is utterly beautiful, complete with vibrancy to bring out your desktop background even when using apps; in fact, the whole Fantastical lineup recently won an Apple Design Award for its thoughtful and beautiful design language, compliant with Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines.
As you scroll through the list of events on the left, the app dynamically indicates both the week the event takes place (in subtle gray) , and the day itself, in a darker shade of gray. What differentiates Fantastical from most calendar apps is the thoughtful user experience — it’s clear that Simmons and Sutherland have put in the extra work just to make the experience a little more convenient for the user, unlike competitors who are happy enough to leave users with web apps in native wrappers.
Fantastical’s native integration is clear as day; in addition to having a menu bar app, they’ve also built a Today view widget to quickly view events in Notification Center2.
If you’ve used Fantastical before, you’ll notice that the app syncs much faster than before. Fantastical is now independent of Calendar.app, and now has its own native CalDAV engine. Upon first launch, Fantastical will import accounts from iCloud and accounts configured in the “Internet Accounts” pane of System Preferences, but you can also configure accounts in-app.
The new app is great; as a person with a busy schedule, it’s welcoming to have a traditional calendar view at times to see times when I’m free. This was previously not possible with the original menu bar app. Fantastical does a great job of expanding their app and ecosystem without cluttering the experience the way other apps tend to lean towards doing. While Flexibits may have been late bringing Fantastical 2 for OS X Yosemite, it is clear they’ve spent more time than just about anyone to get it right. And they’ve killed it.
Most users would be happy with just a new app and design, but Flexibits doesn’t stop there, with a new feature called “Calendar Sets”.
Calendar Sets is a feature for people with multiple calendars, or perhaps a “J-O-B” job (hi, Casey Liss) and a night job, both filled with hundreds of events you just can’t keep track of. Calendar Sets allows users to designate certain calendars to certain groups — for example “Work” and “Home” — and then filter the calendar views in both the app and Mini Window to only display events belonging to a certain set — think of them as groups or folders for you calendars and events, which you can initiate with a keystroke and hide all extraneous events with, allowing you to focus on just the important parts.
I’ve used this with “Home” and “School” — while busy at school, at times all I want to see is my upcoming classes, and not events from a shared calendar my family is using. I can instantly hide other events with a single keyboard shortcut, quickly allowing me to see my day ahead. And the best part is that this change doesn’t only occur with the main app — they happen throughout to the Mini Window as well.
Looking back, this feature seems so obvious for any professional desktop calendar app, it’s a surprise this hasn’t happened before in other apps. It’s a godsend for people like me who have different commitments outside of their main job or, in my case, school. Thankfully, Fantastical goes a step further with Calendar Sets — you can automatically enable or disable Sets based on location. I have this set up so that Fantastical automatically shows just my “School” set when I leave home, switching back as soon as I leave school.
It’s a great feature, but at times I wish it could go beyond location — for certain people who may not need to leave their home for work, a time-based setup for Sets may be more useful, with their “Work” calendar being shown just as they finish breakfast at 9 AM, and have it switch back in time to pick up their kids from soccer practice.
For me, however, Calendar Sets is an indispensable feature that allows me to regain control of my calendar again, and I hope it gets added to Fantastical’s apps for other platforms in coming updates.
Other New Features
There are a few more enhancements and new features in Fantastical 2, including better time zones support, extensions in OS X Yosemite, and Continuity, as well as features brought over from its iOS counterpart, such as dark mode.
Time zones have been supported in Fantastical for a long time, but Fantastical now has enhanced support for time zones, especially in relation to the natural language parsing that has become perhaps the key differentiator from other apps.
As before, you can type in “Skype call at 5pm EST”, and Fantastical parses this into an event according to your time zone. However, instead of just convertin the time zone, it keeps the original time handy so that changes are mirrored to your time zone. You can see times for both time zone, and see what time the event will take place at for your friend.
You can even search for the city if you don’t remember the time zone for that particular location, which is a nice touch.
I very rarely have to work with time zones, so this feature isn’t that important to me, but it’s still nice to be able times for Apple events without having to calculate the time for your location beforehand.
Integration with OS X
Fantastical is a good OS X citizen, and makes use of the extensibility APIs introduced last year at WWDC 2014. Fantastical has a share sheet extension, and a Today view widget.
The share sheet extension is straightforward enough: you can send any information on a webpage or from other content and turn it straight into a calendar event. For example, you can select a date an app will be released on the developer’s blog and send the text to Fantastical to parse, along with the URL of the page, if needed.
The Today view widget is excellent to get a quick glance of your day, however isn’t very different to the widget Apple already ships with OS X for Calendar.app.
Usage of these APIs make Fantastical an excellent citizen on both OS X and iOS.
I’ve found myself using the main app less, and the Mini Window more. Since Calendar Sets have allowed me to show less events on my calendar, I don’t have to flick back to the Week view in the main app so much. I enabled “Hide Fantastical in Dock”, because I wanted to keep a Fantastical running on the menu bar, and only as the full app when I need it to, showing that a Fantastical has something for both power and casual users.
Fantastical’s excellent design, wonderful integration with the system, and innovative new features makes me confident to say that, yes, Fantastical is the best calendar app for OS X available today. Flexibits is one of the most innovative independent development companies, and has a great product line with Fantastical.