5 Of The Best App-Ternatives To Apple's Apps

In which we list the alternatives to the iPhone's core apps that, like Maps, might be better than the built-in version.

Apple’s home-baked Maps application taught many iPhone users a new way of using Apple products: Don’t assume Apple has the best application for you. Apple went so far as to apologize and recommend alternative maps applications from competitors. What if crowd-pleasing alternatives existed for other core iPhone and iPad apps, and you had a list of them, ready to install?

Those Apple app-ternatives do exist, but Apple’s not about to create an App Store category for them. Luckily, we have a list right here of what are determined to be some of the best alternatives to your iOS device’s calendar, email, notes, and alarm apps.

First, a mild warning: The universal drawback to any non-standard iPhone app is that any other app that connects to them—such as Siri making calendar appointments or setting alarms, or apps giving you an "Send via email" option—will defer to the built-in Apple app. In most cases, that’s okay, because those are one-shot screens, and you’re syncing all your data to an outside server, in any case. But no app is actually a true replacement, just a better interface.

With that in mind, let's get tapping.

Calendar: Agenda

What’s wrong with Apple’s Calendar: For one thing, setting up a Google Calendar properly (with multiple calendars) requires onerous setup of a fake Exchange account through Google. The way the "Month" view doesn’t differentiate between insanely overstuffed days and those with a single 10-minute appointment bothers quite a few people. Calendar simply feels like an app for those with rather light, loose schedules.

What’s great about Agenda: If Daring Fireball author John Gruber thinks Agenda is better than Apple’s own Calendar, that’s something. Why? Because of its: "Thoughtful, clean, useful layout." And the name implies Agenda’s focus: showing you what you have scheduled right now and coming up soon, from the moment you first launch the app. Agenda is extremely easy to set up, because it grabs its calendar settings from your phone’s settings, and its five different settings are easy and intuitive to swipe through.

Cost: .99 cents (for iPhone and iPad).

Email: Gmail App

What’s wrong with Apple’s Mail: Actually, Apple’s Mail app has grown up a lot since its inception, and added keen features, like the VIP list. But it’s designed for any and all kinds of email, not the specific advantages of Gmail.

What’s great about Gmail (app): Namely, the Gmail app supports all the little things that make Gmail great: Priority Inbox (actually a big deal), better universal search, stars, message threading that matches the Gmail desktop site, and quicker access to Gmail labels (folders) and vacation responder settings. Bonus: If you’re a fan of the magically synchronous Chrome browser for iPhone, Gmail will open your email links in Chrome if it is installed.

Cost: Free (for iPhone and iPad)

It must be said: By all rights, Sparrow is the most beloved Gmail app for iPhones, but it was acquired by Google and is no longer receiving updates.

Notes: SimpleNote

What’s wrong with Apple’s Notes: If you’re not using primarily Apple products (MacBook, iPad, iCloud), then syncing through Apple’s cloud isn’t that convenient. There’s also the skeuomorphic yellow "paper" background, which can get old, and no real desktop client for when you’re at your big keyboard.

What’s great about SimpleNote: There are many options for write-once, see-anywhere notes, but let’s throw out an elegant app-ternative: SimpleNote. SimpleNote doesn’t aim to serve the all-in-one organizational role of Evernote, and doesn’t have 1/8 as many buttons. SimpleNote is just a service for saving your plain text notes and serving them up on just about any device with a screen. Lifehacker dubs SimpleNote the "Holy Grail of ubiquitous plain text capture". Translation: Your great grocery store revelations are easy to get down and see again when you’re at the office.

Cost: Free app; subscription to SimpleNote Premium (with no ads and extra features) is $20

Your Morning Alarm: Nightstand Central Or UNIQLO (Depending On The Day)

What’s wrong with Apple’s Clock: The alarm noises and chirps will definitely wear on veteran iPhone owners after a while. And there’s no protection against your subconscious ability to dismiss an alarm in a fit of exhaustion. But keep in mind that Apple’s built-in alarm is the only alarm that can work in the background, requiring any other app attempting to wake you up to be opened right before bed. So any recommendation is for weekends, light sleepers, and mornings that don’t involve job interviews.

What’s great about Nightstand Central or UNIQLO Wake Up: Nightstand Central works best if you have a stand, a dock, or a place to put your iPhone or iPad so that it’s facing your bed, like a traditional alarm clock. The Nightstand team has thought of everything, including brightness adjustment with a finger, shaking the device to activate a night-time LED flashlight, and a very nice view of the weather and time.

UNIQLO Wake Up is a cuter, less serious alarm app, designed to play different music, assembled on the fly, based on the weather, the day of the week, and other factors. UNIQLO Wake Up has a bright, futuristic look, and can share the details of your wakeup and conditions with its little social network, if you’re feeling experimental. But it’s a nice alternative alarm from the firm that wants to customize everything for you.

Cost: Nightstand Central is free, but a $2 premium version dismisses ads and unlocks some key features. UNIQLO Wake Up is free.

[Base Image: Flickr user Ben Miller]

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9 Comments

  • John Hartshorn (MapSqueak)

    Whilst the out-of-the-box Maps app has been the subject of much discord, particularly as a navigational app, there is also a knock-on effect for those of us who've chosen to use the default Apple mapping data set for our own apps.  As one of those developers (our app is MapSqueak - launched just after the release of the new Maps in iOS 6!), we really do have our fingers crossed that Apple throw some significant resources into the underlying map data and produce a product that is as good in iOS 6 as the Google Maps are in iOS 5.  Not a great time to have launched a Maps based app, perhaps!  We are seriously now considering Open Street Map as our map base.