There's more than Lunch at home on Friday
One of the things that fascinates me about Flexibits' Fantastical is its ability to understand a simple sentence to create an event. The natural language recognition makes the app quicker to add entries than other calendar apps in the mobile space, such Apple's own. As Dr Drang notes in this article, the real genius is not pulling off the language parsing trick but to tell users what the hell is going on. That cute animation showing how the word you just typed becomes a specific field on a calendar entry is not just for looks: it's confirming you are doing it well, teaching you how the words are recognised.
I'm already driving Fantastical mad on my Mac with my poor language. Since there's a new Fantastical out now specifically designed for iOS 7 and compatible with Reminders, I thought it would be a good occasion to play around with it. This experiment comes from a non-native English speaker who is still struggling with prepositions of time (at, in, on), which makes me question basic expressions Fantastical could be taking for granted. Let's see the type of things you can do with some basic sentences.
To fully understand the scope of the app, I'm going to look into the fields on a new event as we would create it on any other calendar app. The first is the title (name of the event), which tends to use the words that are not recognised for other fields. Location allows you to associate the event to a geographical area, possibly matching what you mean to something Apple Maps knows.
Just for the sake of testing let's try typing "Meet Amanda at the Barbican". The event name is recognised as Meet Amanda and the location is recognised by Apple Maps as the famous venue in London. Pretty good, right? Maps are not that clever all the time. If I want to "Grab a Big Mac at McDonalds", the event is created in a place next to Bennetsville, United States, ignoring the fast food chain ten minutes walking from my current location. If I try pizza instead — the awesome Il Bordello in Wapping, London — Fantastical manages to pull the correct restaurant but doesn't show a little map preview as it did with the Barbican example. There's more about locations and reminders at the bottom of the post when I combine supermarket locations for my grocery lists.
Date and time
Recognising date and time rarely goes wrong, allowing you to use simple expressions such as "Sunday", "Sat" or as complex as "Sunday in two weeks". Days of the week also work well with ranges like "from Tuesday to Thursday" but struggle with the dance class of your daughter on Tuesdays and Thursdays (you can set the recurring on Tuesday and add Thursday on the edit mode). The weekend is strangely only the Saturday and not the Sunday.
Dates are recognised using either the number — long iPhones have an extra keyboard row with them — or the word itself as in "first of November" or "2nd December". It can get a little tricky to combine these with time, forcing you to specify what you mean with the numbers "wed 20th at 6pm". When you don't give it the time it will automatically an all-day event.
You don't necessarily need to set a time using the 24-hour clock though. Fantastical will work out what you mean when you say "in 20 minutes", which can be a great way to use with the Reminders option or alerts. Also very cool is scheduling events "for lunch" or "dinner", at 12:00 and 18:00 respectively and "noon" or "midnight" if you find any use for it.
The strength of a good calendar setup is adding recurring events automatically to be able to see the free slots when adding a one-off event. You can choose to have an event repeating at regular intervals, on a particular day of the week, as well as well as more complex combinations. These include expressions such as "drinks at work every second Friday", "recycling on Tuesdays", "payday last Friday of the month" and my favourite "haircut every three weeks on Thursday" (requires some manual editing).
Since Fantastical 2 also syncs with Reminders, you can convert those events into tasks that will be fed directly to the app. Although Reminders has traditionally struggled with appearances, I like the simplicity of the app and reliability of its free sync. All of the syntax mentioned above works for reminders. Just add a word like "remind me", "reminder", "todo" and "task". I tend to write these notes talking to myself as in "remember to buy milk at Waitrose", which is sadly not recognised as a task. This is not too bad as Fantastical's minimal data entry interface has a switch to toggle between calendar and ToDo items.
These are only a few ideas using the fields that I reckon most people use. When you want to create something more complex, adding a new event using natural text is always great start. Once the event has been created you can tweak it further, like my haircut example, which I think is much faster than creating one from scratch using the date picker. These are only for inspiration. Now it's time to have the confidence to type what you feel is right and learn from what Fantastical is doing with your words.