Five underappreciated iCal tricks

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All too often, people treat Apple’s iCal exactly like a paper calendar—a place to scribble down appointments and little more. As these tricks demonstrate, iCal has the power to automate, communicate, and remind.

1. Quickly create events

Many Mac users neglect (or are unaware of) OS X’s Data Detectors. This feature lets compatible applications like Apple’s Mail identify embedded information— addresses, phone numbers, days, dates, and times—and allows you to use that information in other applications. For example, hover your cursor over an address in an e-mail message and you have the option to create an Address Book contact based on that address or show the address in Google Maps.

iCal plays a part in this as well. Hover your cursor over something as innocuous as “lunch tomorrow with Paul‚” in an e-mail message and a small triangle appears next to “lunch tomorrow.” Click that triangle and you have the option to create a new iCal event. That event will appear in iCal and be scheduled for the next day at noon.

2. Schedule your Automator workflows

You have better ways to spend your time in front of the Mac than performing tedious chores. Using Automator (/Applications), you can create workflows that automate some of these tasks. (Check out "Make Automator work for you" to learn the basics of creating Automator workflows.) Better yet, with iCal alarms you can trigger these workflows to happen when you’re away from your Macs. For example, at the end of the day one might back up the files related to an ongoing project to another hard drive. To do so in Snow Leopard launch Automator. In the template sheet that appears, select iCal Alarm, and click the Choose button. Create your workflow and save it. When you save, you’ll be prompted to name the iCal alarm. Do that, click Save, and a new Automator calendar appears along with an event that will trigger your workflow. Feel free to change the time and day of the event as well as configure it to repeat.

3. Easily transfer calendars and events

Suppose you want to take the events on your desktop Mac and place them on your laptop for your next road trip. It’s easy to transfer events, single calendars, or all your iCal calendars from one Mac (or account) to another. To make a copy of an event, just select the event in iCal and drag it to the Desktop, where it turns into a .ics file that can be opened with any application or Web service that supports the iCalendar format. To copy a calendar, select the calendar in iCal’s Calendars column and choose File -> Export -> Export. The resulting sheet bears the name of the calendar (Home, for example). Click Export to save the copy. To export all your calendars choose File -> Export -> iCal Archive. The resulting .icbu file contains all of your iCal calendars, ready for you to import into another copy of iCal.

4. Remember to-dos

Remember your to-dos
Get those to-do items done with the help of an iCal alarm.
iCal users routinely create tasks with the program’s To Do feature and then promptly forget to pay attention to them. If you need a gentle nudge to actually do something about a to-do item, select it, press Command-E, and in the window that appears, create an alarm for it. iCal’s to-dos support the same kind of alarms offered for iCal events—Message, Message With Sound, Email, Open File, and Run Script. Although to-dos don’t include a repeat option, you can create multiple alarms simply by clicking the subsequent Alarm entry that appears after you create the initial alarm.

5. E-mail an event no matter what your e-mail client

iCal has a helpful feature that lets you e-mail someone else an event. To do so, just Control-click (or right-click) on an event and choose Mail Event. Regrettably, this feature uses Apple’s Mail application, regardless of the e-mail client you may have configured as the default.

If you use a different e-mail client such as Microsoft Entourage, Qualcomm’s Eudora, or Stickshift Software’s Mailsmith, you’re almost out of luck. You’d be completely out of luck if not for ZappTek’s free iCal E-mail Notifications. These AppleScripts force iCal to choose a different e-mail client (supported clients include Entourage, Eudora, Mailsmith, CTM Development’s PowerMail, and GyazSquare’s GyazMail). Although the ZappTek site makes no mention of Snow Leopard, the Leopard scripts appear to work with Snow Leopard’s version of iCal.

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At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Data detectors in Mail make it easy to create calendar events from text in e-mail messages
    • Integrates with Address Book and Mail
    • Easy to use
    • Powerful
    • Free


    • To-do list feature is basic: does not let you assign to-dos to projects or track progress of tasks
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