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Pocket Informant for iPhone- Keeping up with a fast moving target

Version 1.51

The last time we touched on Pocket Informant was version 1.3 back on April 20. Thankfully, Alex Kac and the guys at WebIS don’t stand still long, and have released two major updates to their iPhone app since then. This is impressive, considering that they have also been working on a separate HD app for the iPad, as well as a new Android app. Of course, anyone familiar with WebIS knows they usually keep a pretty brisk development pace. This is certainly a plus, as PI is fairly pricey for an iPhone app at it’s normal $11.99. If you are looking to save a few pennies, WebIS is currently running a sale in celebration of the release of their Pocket Informant HD for the iPad. Both are currently running half price, so it’s time to take a good look at what’s new after the jump.

Before we get rolling, let’s recap exactly what Pocket Informant is. WebIS’ Pocket Informant is a Personal Information Manager application that has been around for almost a decade and now spans most of the major smartphone platforms. It was released for the iPhone over a year ago and has seen many updates and new features since. PI is one of the few apps available that has integrated support for both Calendar Events and Tasks, and it was the first in it’s category to offer synchronization to third party services. The original version synced to Google and Toodledo respectively. With several Calendar views, templates, filtering, and support for multiple alarms per event, it goes well beyond what the iPhone’s native Calendar offers. It also offers a plethora of customizable settings for each view, so that the user has full control over the way their data is displayed. In recent updates, the guys at WebIS have even managed to add Outlook Sync via a Windows Desktop Client. 

What’s happening now?
So, what’s new with Pocket Informant over the last two versions? Here is a rundown of the new features in the recent updates:

Version 1.4:
1. Subtask support.
2. Subtask sync for Toodledo Pro customers.
3. Automatic sync settings.
4. Week view can now be set for M-F.
5. Template support for both Events and Tasks.
6. Tapping on the Calendar icon can take you to Today, or if Today’s date is shown, the “Go To Date” selector.
7. Added a new setting for “Tasks Completed Today” to be shown on the Today screen.
8. Syncing resolves attendees to Contacts on the phone.

Version 1.5:
1. PI database and logs can be accessed via iTunes File Sharing.
2. Icons can be assigned to Events and Tasks.
3. Tap and Hold in the Month View brings up a menu to create an Event or Task.
4. Contexts can no be assigned locations and notify the OS when you are within a mile or two.
5. Multiple tasks can be selected for Completion or Deletion.
6. Retina display support.
7. Local Notifications for Alarming.

Lots of bang for the buck
As you can see, there are several new additions to Pocket Informant to consider. So which features really make a big impact? Well, first there is the obvious iOS 4.0 support. Unfortunately, Apple isn’t allowing developers to sync their apps in the background. They do, however, allow a sync in progress to finish, so at least it won’t fail if you get a call on 3G or WiFi, or open another app. PI’s OS4 support also encompasses saved state, which works just as it should.

When PI is left in the background and pulled back up from the Multitasking Bar, it comes up right where you left off, no matter where that is. Like in all of the apps that we see getting updated for iOS4 daily, this is a very handy feature when a task requires swapping between multiple apps. This is common use case for a Calendar app, and while PI didn’t take long to launch before, it takes even less time now. One thing to note- if you set PI to sync at startup, it will sync every time you open PI from the Multitasking Bar.

Everything but the Kitchen Sync
While we are on the subject of synchronization, the timed automatic sync is also a very handy feature if you are planning on using Google and/or Toodledo.

As well as syncing at startup, timed choices from 45 minutes to 24 hours are available to keep your database up to date. If you open the app cold or from the Multitasking Bar and more than the set time has passed since it was last opened, PI will automatically sync with the servers you have selected.

This can be set up individually, or for both Google and Toodledo.

Cookie Cutter
For anyone that used PI back in the Windows Mobile days (or dark days, depending on how you remember them 😉 ), you may remember how cool the Templates feature was when WebIS rolled it out.

Having the ability to save copies of common layouts is a huge time and headache saver, especially with the wealth of grouping and tagging options available in PI. This feature is a big deal for power users and a big selling point over the built-in iOS Calendar app.

Look out below

Subtask support is also a great new addition, especially for those into hard core task and project management. Combining this feature with assigning Projects, Tags, and Contexts for you tasks allows users tons of flexibility in how they manage their tasks. There are a couple of drawbacks here, though. First, it can be difficult to see the parent/child relationship in some Task views. In the current version, they can only be viewed in the Task view, not the Today or Calendar views. (According to the WebIs website, this should be coming very soon, so it is good to see that this is on the radar) Also, if both Tasks are not in the same grouping (Due Date, Project, Tags, etc), the relationship is not shown on the screen. There are icons that denote that given tasks are parents or children, and full relationships are shown in the detail views of any task, but there is still some working out left to do in this interface. It would be nice to give the user the option to show relationships regardless of the current grouping on the screen, or maybe include a Task view that is solely focused on parent/child relationships. This feature is still pretty new to PI, so give I will give WebIS the benefit of the doubt that they will smooth out any kinks here.

The other issue with subtasks is the synchronization method. While subtasks will exist in the local PI database despite the user’s synchronization method, they can only be synced with a Toodledo Pro account, which requires a subscription fee. While I am pointing this out as a weakness, it is not really within WebIS’ control. This is due to a combination of the limitations of iOS, which has no integrated Task Management solution, and the Toodledo service that WebIS has chosen to partner with. In my opinion, the free Toodledo offering is great and was the best available to WebIS as a broad based task sync solution. It was the web based service I chose to manage my tasks back on the original iPhone. I even bought their own, very capable app and used it before I switched over to PI. Unfortunately, like most cloud based apps outside of Google, the higher end features are limited to paying customers, and subtasks falls into this category. As much as I like this feature, I can’t justify paying for Toodledo Pro based solely on a feature that I will only occasionally use. A lot of users, even business users like myself, are probably going to fall into this category. It would be nice if Alex and the guys at WebIS can figure out a way around this situation so that all users have some way to at least back up child tasks (preferably an automated backup) to protect against data loss.

Local is better
Before Push Notifications went live, alternative Calendar and Task apps like Pocket Informant were limited to using emails or text messages to generate alarm notifications. Push was certainly an improvement, but it was still completely dependent on network access. No network, no reminder to do something potentially very important. Thankfully, Apple finally got around to plugging this gap, and PI is much better for it.

Now, users can depend on Pocket Informant to deliver the alarms they need to get on time, every time.

It’s all about Context
Here is another feature that Apple just took the wraps off of in iOS4, and again, WebIS is one of the first to the party with their implementation. Now that apps can query the OS for the user’s current location, PI can now trigger reminders based on the user’s proximity to a defined location. Locations can be linked to Contexts for Tasks through a new Google Maps app interface.

Users can choose their current location, or enter a valid address or recognizable location name, and PI will link it to the chosen Context. Then, anytime the user is within a mile or two of the given location, they will be notified that there are tasks nearby.

Choosing View will then take you to the given Context.

This is one of those features that I didn’t know I needed until I had it. Now that I have seen it in action, I can see where it might be useful. If there are tasks I don’t perform on a regular basis that are tied to a location, let’s say a particular store, then I can get a reminder to drop in when I am in the area. The only thing I would like to see in the future would be the ability to define the distance of the notification. I am not sure if the OS will allow this or not.

Need more? I have two words.
Retina Display. Of course, this only applies to the iPhone 4, but it is worth a big shout out because it has completely changed how I use Pocket Informant on a daily basis. I have always used the Month View of the Calendar, but had never found the Mini-Text view options very appealing. The text was just too small and obscured on my old iPhone 3G and 3GS to be useful to me. I never had a problem with having to select a day on the Calendar to get to the Detail View to see the text of appointments and tasks. Until now, that is. Even after I upgraded to the iPhone, I didn’t think to try the Mini-Text View out until I noticed the screenshot on WebIS’ site touting the Retina Display enhancements while researching for this review.

I switched my settings and haven’t touched them since. Even though the text is small, it is easily readable with the high pixel density of the new Retina Display, especially in Landscape Mode. It certainly saves me a lot of extra clicking. If you have an iPhone 4, this just might seal the deal for you.

Is it perfect?
As good as Pocket Informant is, nothing is perfect. Any complicated piece of software is bound to have a few gotchas, especially one that moves as fast in development as Pocket Informant. As a former beta tester around the time of PI’s release, I can attest to the fact that WebIS has a great team in place and tests their software very thoroughly before release. Despite this, bugs still do get through on occasion. The most notable issue from versions past was a nasty little beta version kill switch leftover from a beta that we covered a few months back.  It caused PI to give a error message saying that the app version had expired. This was a tough one for WebIS, and they took a lot of flack in blogs and user reviews over it. Despite this problem, I have to give Alex and the WebIS team big props for their prompt handling of the problem, coming up with solutions to mitigate the situation until a patch could be released, and for being transparent and open about the whole situation. It didn’t affect me too much since I had my iPhone jailbroken at the time and keeping PI open in the background was one of the solutions to get around the crash. I know it did affect others in a negative way, though. We come to depend on organizational software such as PI in our day to day work and personal lives, so it is good to know on the front end that there have been some bumps in the road, and there is always the possibility they can happen again. On the flip side, it is also good to know that a company stands behind its work and will be up front with its customers. As a programmer myself, I have no problem accepting the small risk of these types of issues. As with Apple’s situation with Antennagate, innovation sometimes comes with a little risk. There will always be bugs and crashes in software, especially complex software that depends on multiple 3rd party services, each with their own ways of programming and doing things to do its job.

The issue I described above is the kind that probably just happens once in a company’s lifetime. WebIS has released several updates to PI since then and there haven’t been any similar problems. As far as the more mundane, day to day bugs and issues go, there are a few that I have personally experienced. There have been a few crashes here and there. There have been a handful of UI issues. Anything like this has usually been cured in the next update, never to return. 99% of the problems that I have experienced have been related to synchronization, and most of those have been with Google Calendar. I had some issues with sync locking up on the phone occasionally. Closing and reopening PI always seemed to cure that. I did have some problems with some Events not being synced from the phone to Google in 1.4, but that seems to have been cured for me in 1.5. I have also experienced some instances where some Events would end up duplicated numerous times, as many as 15. After clearing out the copies, I have not seen the problem again since upgrading to 1.5.

Toodledo sync has been pretty solid in my experience since early on in Pocket Informant’s lifecycle. I haven’t actually tried the Outlook Sync Client, so I can’t really speak to it. Frankly, I depend on PI so much for my work at this point, that I am just too chicken to screw it up! That is also why I stopped beta testing for WebIS long ago. I loved being on the bleeding edge and trying out the new features, but I needed the stability of the stock release versions too much. If anyone out there using the Outlook Sync Client could share their experiences in the comments, I would love to hear how well it works for you.

It is tough to say how many of the various sync problems are WebIS issues, and how many are on Google’s end. Alex has expounded in the WebIS forums and in his blog about some of the problems, how Google will occasionally change things without notice and how their documentation leaves something to be desired. I am sure that doesn’t make a developers job any easier, but thanks to Apple’s approach up until iOS4, it is what it is. Fortunately, even more sync options are on the way, so if Google Calendar and Toodledo don’t work for you, other options available now, with more right around the corner. More on this in a sec.

Where is Pocket Informant headed next?
Here is a list of some new futures coming in future updates to Pocket Informant:
1. iOS Native Calendar Support
2. Custom task Filters and settings per filter such as sorting, showing future, showing complete
3. Timezone Display Per Calendar, Event times
4. Drag and Drop for appointments between days and times
5. Notes view with sync to Toodledo Notebook

When I corresponded with Alex Kac recently while researching for this review, I asked what upcoming features he was most excited about. The one feature he wanted to highlight above all else was Native iOS Calendar support. This feature has the potential to change how Pocket Informant is used, and who is willing to buy it. I know I recommended it to several people at my company when it first came out, but none of them was willing to part with our Exchange Server to go the Google route. I tried the Google Calendar to Outlook back to Exchange synce solution for a while, but it was a pain, and only worked for one calendar. If you set up more, you are out of luck there. I finally got fed up with the frustration and ended up completely migrating over to Google. I can imagine that this was a barrier to some potential buyers early on. Even Outlook support probably isn’t enough for Exchange users and for those who aren’t technically inclined and don’t want to worry with the sync setup. Now with Native Calendar support, Google is no longer a requirement, just one of many available sync solutions. If you are an Exchange user, you don’t even need a local computer with Outlook. Now, you can just do…well, whatever it is that you have been doing, and PI will simply use the same information from the native Calendar app. It will just look, feel, and act a lot better and have a ton more options for sorting and alarming. The only limitations that Alex made me aware of are that you can’t make new calendars or set up meetings from the app. Also, if you have gone the Google route like me, then you end up with separate Google and Native Calendars. From what I understand, they can’t be combined or interact with each other.

Do I need it?
If you are a heavy Google Calendar user, yes. If you are a power user that needs a little more juice than the stock apps can provide? Yes. If you are looking to do some heavy duty task and project management? Yes. I would also normally say that, at $11.99, if you don’t need any more than the native iPhone Calendar app gives, and if the myriad of free to $.99 task apps out there suit your needs, then maybe Pocket Informant isn’t a must for you. However, at $5.99, I think everyone should at least take a good look. Even if Google Sync or the Outlook Sync Client don’t meet your needs, Native Calendar support is right around the corner in version 1.6.  Despite whatever flaws and past mistakes I have mentioned, I can heartily recommend Pocket Informant to anyone. You can buy it knowing that you are getting the best app of its breed by a mile, you are doing business with a reputable company, and you are investing in an app that will be updated with many new features for years to come.

WebIS’ Pocket Informant is available in the Apple App Store for $11.99, but is on sale for a limited time at $5.99.

FYI: This review was done on changes made from PI versions 1.4 to 1.51. Version 1.52, which contains a few minor updates and several bug fixes, was submitted to the App Store during the writing of this review. The details for 1.52 can be found here. I wasn’t kidding. They really do move fast!

Disclaimer: While I was briefly a beta tester for WebIS prior to and just after the release of Pocket Informant for iPhone, I have never received payment or free release software from WebIS for any services rendered. I have not been active as a beta tester for the company for almost a year now.

This app was independently purchased by the post author in the iPhone App Store. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.

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  • Jerry G

    I have had PI for the iPhone for quite awhile now but even with the great additions there is one thing that is still missing: native iCal support. Now that Apple opened up the iCal ApI, I am hoping that WebIs can use the a pi’s to read and write to the native database to provide a seamless experience. I sync my device with both Exchange and Mobile Me neither of which is supported currently by PI. Hopefully the calendar API’s will allow PI to access that information.

  • QUOTE: @Jerry G — native iCal support. Now that Apple opened up the iCal ApI, I am hoping that WebIs can use the a pi's to read and write to the native database to provide a seamless experience. —

    Agreed 100%. Until there's native iCal Support, PI isn't going back on the phone. Great app to be sure, but I would prefer ti use the native calendaring as opposed to Google's calendar APIs.

    Great writeup by the way.

  • jhrogersii

    Thanks for reading guys. My understanding after talking to Alex from WebIS is that all of your native calendar information, no matter where it comes from on the iPhone side, will be shown in PI starting in version 1.6. If you have Exchange or MobileMe, and that info is pushed to you, then it will end up in PI, just as it would in the native Calendar app. You just have the small limitations that I mentioned in my review. At $5.99, you might grab it now and just wait until 1.6 to fully implement it. Hope this answers your questions.

  • Pingback: Pocket Informant 1.52 hits the App Store « Just Another iPhone Blog()

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  • Stefan

    I have those action points which I need to do, but I am not always able to do them. Than I want them to move automatically with the days (to everytime the current day). So I don’t want every day to move these actions from yesterday to today. Does anyone know if this is possible with this app?

  • jhrogersii

    Stefan- It is possible to set up recurring tasks that repeat every day. It isn’t completely automatic, as you have to check the task for it to be regenerated on next day. When you are finished, either delete the task, or turn off the recurring feature for that task. This is probably as close as you can get right now. Hope that helps.

  • Stefan

    thanks. Downside is that in future days I see all current open tasks. Hope someone knows a good calender which offers this.
    But thanks anyway!

  • Stefan

    good news, I bought this and actually on today also past actions are shown. So it works fine!

  • When will being able to add contact information by accessing the iPhone contact database be available. This was so easy with Blackbery and it is so hard to do with iPhone and any PIM on the iPhone. Many thing make me like the IPhone better than the Blackberry but this one thing would help the the most.

  • Laurie Kimmel

    Someone please help me. I really like PI. For some reason it no longer syncs to my mac. This happens every once in a while. Could someone tell me the steps to coordinate PI through google calendar?

  • Laurie Kimmel

    I forgot to say I have an iphone 3gs. I upraded this yesterday to the new 4s system. Thanks

  • Bill Berg

    My wife has been using PI on her iphone for all most two years and really loves it, the problem I have is that the PI backup from the iphone can not be restored on the PI on my HTC Android phone. Is there any way to sync the PI on the two different phones?

  • Jane

    How do I get some of my events out of the read only mode?