Finding the best app for lists

Many great apps for the Mac, iPad, and iPhone will keep track of your to-do list. But what about other lists—ones that aren't composed of things you have to do but instead are just lists of things?

For example, I have lists of library books I want to check out, groceries I want to buy, and gear I want to take with me on my next business trip. I’m constantly referring to and adding to those lists, so I call them running lists. To-do apps per se aren’t always right for them, but plenty of other apps could be.

Adapting Omnifocus

For a number of good reasons, I initially tried to use my go-to task planner, OmniFocus, to maintain other lists. First, in most cases, using a single app is better than using two. Second, OmniFocus works on both iOS and OS X, and syncs quickly and reliably. Third, OmniFocus has some clever location-aware tricks up its sleeve. For instance, I could create a context called 'Grocery Store', and OmniFocus would search for grocery stores near me and display them on a map right in the app. Using that feature, I could step off a plane anywhere and know where to go if I needed, say, some rutabagas.

But after using OmniFocus to manage my running lists for a month, I decided against it. For one thing, I don’t travel much and found that I rarely used the location-aware features. But an even bigger strike against OmniFocus for me was the fact that it was already so essential to the way I manage my tasks that I didn’t want to clutter up that workflow by mixing in a bunch of other lists.

Clear is colorful and fun to use, but it doesn't have all of the features I was looking for.

First I went to the opposite extreme and tried using plain-text files for running lists. Armed with nvALT, Dropbox, and a good iOS text editor (I’m currently using WriteRoom for this purpose), I could easily sync text files across my Mac, iPhone, and iPad. (If you use Evernote, you can make text lists there, too.) I created individual text notes for each of my running lists. They were easy to sync and didn’t require additional apps beyond the ones I was already running. I found, however, that adding items to my lists in text files and in Evernote was a hassle, requiring extensive tapping and scrolling. I wanted something easier for running lists, so I kept looking.

Next I looked at Clear, an iPhone and Mac app that makes creating, managing, and deleting lists fun. Clear has a unique touch-friendly user interface that enables you to manage running lists with pulls, swipes, and pinches. It also emits very satisfying sound effects as you move, create, and strike off items from your running list. I very nearly stuck with Clear, but I wanted still more features and kept looking.

Next I tried an iPhone app called Checkmark. Like Clear, Checkmark’s developers spent a lot of time on the user interface, and it shows: The app is easy to pick up and start using right away. Checkmark also has great location support that ties locations to entire lists, not to individual items. The Grocery Store list, for instance, will appear when I arrive at my local grocery store. As much as I liked Checkmark, though, it fell short, too: No complementary Mac version is available, and you can’t add tasks to it with Siri.

Reminders

Finally, I decided to try Apple’s Reminders app for my lists—and it worked. Reminders delivers the features I like most: easy capturing, syncing, and sharing. I wanted to be able to add items quickly with Siri, and Reminders delivers. Telling Siri, “Add gouda to my grocery list” does just what I want it to, witout my having to to open any apps or do any tapping, scrolling, or searching. I have multiple running lists, and this capture method works great with them.

Reminders isn't just for to-do items; it can keep lists of almost anything.

Furthermore, with versions of Reminders for the Mac, iPad, and iPhone, I can edit and review these lists from anywhere. Finally, Reminders lets me share my lists with my wife and coworkers. (To share a Reminders list, tap the radar icon in the Mac app or from Reminders in iCloud.com.) Since I share the grocery list with my wife, the gouda shows up on her iPhone as well as on mine.

Reminders isn't perfect. Though it supports location-aware notices, that feature isn’t particularly easy. You have to set the location on each individual Reminder item. Checkmark handles this task much more elegantly, letting you attach the location to a list as a whole. Moreover, in Reminders, you must either enter the grocery store address or create a grocery store contact and add the entry that way, which is a pain. But again, since I don’t use the location-aware feature for running lists that often anyway, this shortcoming wasn’t a deal killer for me; otherwise, I would probably have chosen Checkmark or OmniFocus.

Plenty of other apps available for both iOS and the Mac can manage lists for you. Nevertheless, I was surprised that, at the end of my journey, Reminders was the best option for me. It provides the right mix of features, including easy capture with Siri, syncing between devices, and sharing my lists with those important to me.

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