Selecting the five best task management apps for the iPhone and iPad presents quite a challenge. A simple to-do list may be the best fit for one user, but woefully inadequate for someone who wants to implement a more robust task management system like the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology developed by David Allen. Rather than focus on one end of the spectrum to the detriment of the other, I chose the five best apps in order of increasing functionality. Whether you only want to keep a simple list of tasks or need an app that can keep track of every detail of your life, you will find the perfect app among the following. (Note: An "iPad version" listing means a separate version has been developed that takes advantage of the iPad's larger screen and other features. Apps designed for the iPhone/iPod touch also run on the iPad.)
Free (iPhone and iPad versions), app2.me/2573 (A Simplenote "premium account" disables ads and includes additional features. It's available for $8.99/year and can be accessed through the app's account options menu.)
Although typically considered a note taking app, Simplenote also works as a simple and straightforward to-do application for the inveterate list maker. Download the free iPhone/iPad application and then sign up for a free Web account. Simplenote stores your notes in the cloud and syncs automatically with the iPhone/iPad app and a growing list of Mac and PC desktop applications (see simplenoteapp.com/extras).
Your notes consist of a title and body only. There are no formatting options, no due dates, tags, attachments or any of the other features usually associated with a task manager. But Simplenote succeeds where other more traditional to-do apps fail—it has the ability to capture or view tasks from any electronic device and sync flawlessly and effortlessly between them.
Cultured Code introduced an iPad version of their award-winning iPhone and Macintosh GTD application two days before Apple released the iPad. Things provides a gentle introduction to GTD for those who need more functionality from a list making app than provided by an app like Simplenote. Things sports a polished and uncluttered interface that is easy to understand and the flexibility to use as little or as much of its features as you wish.
Someone just getting started with Things can simply add due dates to their tasks. Other more advanced functions can be added when needed. For example, tasks can be given "tags," which can specify the location of the task (home, work, school), its priority (high, medium, low), or even its difficulty (easy, hard). The body of a task can include links to files, folders, Web pages, or e-mails. The app also supports repeating tasks and projects (i.e., tasks that contain subtasks).
Tasks are organized into five lists that help you focus your attention: Today, Next, Scheduled, Someday, and Projects. Any task with a date assignment automatically appears in the "Today" or "Scheduled" lists. Ones without a date assignment appear in the "Someday" list, which is a place to stow future tasks without cluttering up your current priorities. "Next" lists the next tasks in multi-step projects.
You can use Things as a standalone app or sync it with the Mac version of the program, but only via Wi-Fi. Things also syncs with Apple's iCal. The lack of cloud based syncing with the Mac application or a web-based app is sorely missed. Another limitation is the lack of a Windows client.
The "Getting Things Done" method
The Getting Things Done (GTD) method was developed by David Allen and popularized by his book of the same name. The first principal of GTD is to off-load tasks from your head to an external storage media (e.g., the apps described in this article). Tasks are then placed in the following sub-folders: Inbox (for ill-defined tasks), Today (for tasks due the current day), Scheduled (for future tasks due on a specific day), and Someday (for well-defined tasks that are not yet a priority but may be in the future). Allen further organizes tasks into Projects (complex tasks that require multiple subtasks to complete) and Next (which contains subtasks that are the current step in a multistep Project). Individual tasks can be assigned Tags, which can specify a location where the task must be accomplished, its priority, and its difficulty. Tasks can also have a Context, which is a physical requirement to complete the task (tools you need, activity you must be engaged in, person you need to be with, etc.). You can find out more about the GTD method by visiting David's Web site (davidco.com/what_is_gtd.php).
Open up Appigo's Todo on the iPad and you'll swear you're holding a paper-based daily planner. The beautifully rendered user interface resembles a spiral bound notebook, making Todo intuitive and easy to use. The left-hand page contains your task lists; the right page shows the individual tasks in the selected list. The app also includes user-definable filtering and sorting options that make finding and organizing tasks a breeze.
Todo includes more options than Things. In addition to "Normal" tasks, you can create special items, including Checklists, Call a Contact, Email a Contact, SMS a Contact, Visit a location, or Visit a website. All tasks can have a due date and time, and the repeating task functionality is very robust.
Todo's settings are exhaustive—at times almost comically so. Is it really necessary to include over 30 different strikeout styles to use when you complete a task? However, the variety of syncing options is a real plus. Todo integrates with 9 other apps, including Appigo Notebook, TextEpander, GoodReader, iCal, and Outlook. You can even sync with Toodledo or Remember The Milk on the Web.
OmniFocus (Winner of the 2008 Apple Design Award for Best iPhone Productivity Application) is another combination Mac and iPhone GTD application. It focuses on completeness over simplicity. The serious user is advised to read the manual or go through the excellent video tutorials available from the developer. (omnigroup.com/applications/omnifocus/tutorials).
OmniFocus strives for completeness and is a bit complex, so getting started is a little harder than with the previous two apps. The serious user is advised to read the manual or go through the excellent video tutorials available from the developer (omnigroup.com/applications/omnifocus/tutorials). One nice touch is that the app includes your first project, which is called, "Get started with OmniFocus." This includes three tasks that assist you with the three main steps in a GTD process: Capture, Organize, and Do. Working through these three steps and watching the video tutorials should be enough to get a savvy user up and running in OmniFocus.
OmniFocus includes additional Project and Task management options beyond what is offered in Things—it offers the most complete implementation of the GTD system that I have seen. Projects can have sub-projects, be put on hold, flagged, have start and due dates, and be turned into tasks and back again into projects. Tasks within a project can be sequential (structured so that one must be completed before another is started). Attachments can be imported, so you don't have to keep a document you are working on in the file system (a limitation of Things). Just double click on the attachment and the document opens. The Clippings feature allows you to import parts of e-mail messages, Web pages, or other data into OmniFocus's inbox or a specified project. Audio notes and photo notes are also supported in OmniFocus on the iPhone.
OmniFocus takes advantage of the iPhone's GPS capabilities to indicate your proximity to scheduled tasks by displaying them on the built-in Maps application—an incredibly useful feature. It ingenuously implements cut, copy, and paste. Touch and hold on the checkbox next to a task and the pop-up menu appears, allowing you to cut, copy, or paste the task and all its underlying data. OmniFocus for the iPhone syncs with a Mac over Bonjour, using MobileMe, or a WebDav Server. iCal syncing is also supported.
The long awaited iPad version of Omni Focus was released in August. Was it worth the wait? In this reviewer's opinion, yes! It is apparent that a lot of thought went into this product. OmniFocus for iPad has a very well thought out interface and extends the already extensive feature set of its iPhone cousin.
The new Forecast view offers a novel way of predicting your workload. It provides a breakdown of the week's upcoming tasks with due dates. Tap a specific date to focus on that day's tasks. The Forecast view is an effortless way to spot days when you will be swamped and plan appropriately.
One aspect of the GTD methodology I have never used is review mode, which involves tagging all projects with a review period (weekly, monthly) and ensuring the project is on schedule and still relevant when reviewed. OmniFocus for the iPad's streamlined review mode is the easiest and most natural I have ever tried. Reviewing projects was quick, painless, and even fun. Syncing options include all those found in the iPhone client with the addition of a beta of OmniSync server.
The addition of the iPad version solidifies OmniFocus as the top app for the hardcore GTD aficionado.
Pocket Informant is the granddaddy of all Personal Information Management applications. WebIS has been putting out versions of this app since before there were smart phones. Long a top seller in the App Store, Pocket Informant HD brings this integrated task manager and calendaring solution to the iPad.
The tabbed planner interface is attractive, uncluttered, and functional. Four tabs line the right side of the screen: Today, Calendar, Tasks, and Settings. The Calendar tab provides access to a fully functional calendar and scheduling application, with separate views for Lists, Days, Week, and Month. The Task tab lets you create and view Tasks with all the usual task management features, including due dates, priorities, filtering, projects, contexts, and more. The app supports both the GTD and Franklin Covey Priorities task management methods. The Today tab gives you an integrated view of the day's tasks and calendar events. The Settings Tab contains five tabs, one for General program preferences, one each for the Today, Calendar, and Tasks tab, and one for Sync Settings.
Pocket Informant stands out as the most fully featured app. Most task management apps provide you with some degree of calendar integration, but Pocket Informant makes it an integral part of the app. PI provides a similar variety of syncing options as Todo. Tasks can be synced to Toodledo, while the calendar can sync with iCal, Outlook, and Google Calendar. I did find it a bit complex and occasionally buggy (infrequent app crashes and calendar display issues, for example). Fortunately, WebIS is a company with a proven track record of fixing bugs and adding features. If they follow through with their very ambitious product roadmap—which includes direct access to the iPhone/iPad calendar and syncing to an OS X desktop client application—Pocket Informant could become the holy grail of task management apps, providing integrated task management and calendaring with a clean, usable interface and seamless cloud and desktop syncing.
There's an app for you
Whether your needs are simple or complex, there is an iOS task management app for you. There's no downside to starting out with Simplenote, which is free and by far the easiest program. Things and OmniFocus provide more robust task management in a list driven interface, with OmniFocus being the more capable and more expensive solution. If you feel more comfortable with a day planner/calendar interface, you can't go wrong with either Todo or Pocket Informant.