Apple provides great first party apps, but are they worth using?

Paul Alvarez

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Apple has always provided some great apps as part of there operating system. In previous versions of macOS and Mac OS X, Apple has included apps like Automator, TextEdit, and other utilities such as Terminal, Digital Color Meter, Grapher, etc.

This trend didn’t change when Apple introduced the iPhone providing first party apps that still exist today. I have always had a love/hate relationship with these apps. Having apps built-in to the system provides a variety of benefits like working with Siri natively, Handoff, integration with Shortcuts, and the mere fact that you won’t have to pay when the app is upgraded since it is apart of the operating system.

When you have an App Store as robust as Apple’s though, especially for iOS and iPadOS, it is hard to stick with just using the first party apps provided — since some other version might provide a lot more features and polish.

The benefit of an App in the App Store being developed by a third party is that they can continually update the app as much as they want. Apple is stuck with it’s yearly OS cycle meaning that some of these applications won’t get new features at a, minimum, yearly basis.

Their are outliers where Apple will drop a “.1” update providing new support to some or all of their apps, like cursor support, but it is rare. And in some cases some apps do not get any updates for years, like how Reminders hadn’t changed for years until iOS 13.

With all that said, I wanted to give some of Apple’s stock apps another shot. What ultimately led me to think about this was two posts written by Matt Bircher from Birchtree.me titled The Value of Using Stock Apps, and then a follow up post titled, More on Stock Apps. What really stood out to me in both of these post was this:

Look, my iPhone and iPad home screens are full of third party apps. For me, the benefits they allow (especially having web interfaces and working cross-platform) provide me value, but there is definitely a strong case to be made that it’s safest and cheapest to use stock apps unless you have a good reason not to do so.

This could have been a really long post since I use a lot of third party apps that have a Apple stock app variant. Such as my podcast app of choice, calculator, books app, spreadsheet application, weather, and even my password manager. But instead I decided to stick with the apps that I feel I use the most.

Those apps include:

  • Notes
  • Safari (and Reading List)
  • Reminders
  • Maps
  • Calendar
  • Mail

I paired them up with third party apps I am currently using and wanted to see how my experience differed for both overtime. I only did this for a couple of weeks and will admit sometimes I just went back to the app I preferred out of frustration or habit, but I did really try to spend as much time as possible on each competing app to get a good grasp on the differences.

For the title of each match up, I list the app that I am “trying out” first. For example, I am currently using Notion for all of my note taking and since I am comparing it to Apples Notes app, I have Notes vs Notion since Notes is the app I am trying to use. I mention this because in some cases I am already using Apple’s stock app, like Mail and Safari, and wanted to compare it to a pervious third party app I used in the past to see how they stack up today.

Notes vs Notion

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Since Apple released notes with the original iPhone I never really used it much. I didn’t really see the need for taking notes and still to this day it is hard for me to conceptualize the need for notes. I need to remember things and need to be able to go back to things that I want to remember but never really got into the whole jotting things down in a single place for all my “stuff”.

I feel like things should belong in a certain place, meaning that an app should be used for the different things you want to keep track of. My wife and I use AnyList for our groceries, I use Things (more on that later) for my tasks, and everything else I just didn’t put anywhere. I think this is because “everything else” was never specific enough for me to give it a place.

That was until I discovered Notion. Notion has provided a place for me to put more details for the tasks I want to do. Like all of the research data I want to use for Medium articles, my work daily task lists, and pretty much anything else I can think of. I created a page called Inbox and started just sending things I either wanted to look at later or save (mostly app suggestions).

So the “everything else” became clear to me as I started using Notion. When I wanted to try out using some of Apples stock apps I wanted to see if Notes could fulfill what Notion has been able to do. Their are definitely some things that Notes does better, especially on iOS and iPadOS, but still feel like Notes has a long way to go.

The main areas I feel Notes is not as good as Notion is the polish and limited functionality. Icons and Cover Pages are a nice touch with Notion, making it feel more personal and fun. Notes is almost a little too simple and the textured background on both the Light and Dark Mode is awful.

One thing I really liked in using Notes was how it was able to move a completed, or checked, item in a checklist to the bottom moving the unchecked items to the top. I also see the appeal of the minimalist design if you want to use it for writing but Ulysses already provides me a very minimalist writing experience (without the awful textured paper look).

I can see how Notes would be a good starting point for most that want a place to just store random things. The main reason I think I want to keep using Notion, even if it STILL doesn’t support cursor support on the iPad, is I can throw everything at it but then organize as much as I want once I am ready too. Instead of just a long list of random notes in one place or multiple folders without much customization.

Chrome vs Safari

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Chrome has always been a favorite browser of mine whether on macOS or Windows, so I really wanted to see if I would enjoy using it on my iPhone and iPad. Unfortunately I feel the opposite about Chrome on the iPhone and iPad as I do on macOS. For some reason I feel Safari is inferior to Chrome on a Mac but on the iPad and iPhone Safari is so much better.

One main reason is the ability to make Chrome as a default on macOS, so when clicking a link you always go into Chrome if you want too. On the iPad that isn’t an option so you have to purposely open a link in Chrome if you want. Regardless of how I got into Chrome, though, the app just isn’t that great.

As you can see in the screenshot above, I do not like the bar at the bottom of the app leaving the top bar only showing the URL. It makes no sense to have the URL bar that large, even if it is a long URL since you only see part of it anyway.

I also found Chrome a lot slower. When using both browsers side by side, after using Chrome for while, to take a screenshot I notices how much slower certain pages would load compared to Safari. I didn’t really notice this when I used Chrome alone on my iPhone but now that I am using Safari again I do feel like my web browsing feels snappier.

So Safari is still king when on an iPhone and especially when on the iPad. I think if Chrome was able to be set as default, was able to support extensions on iPadOS, and was faster, I would probably start using it on my iPad Pro going forward. But until then I will stick to Safari.

Reading List vs Instapaper

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I knew right when I thought about comparing Safari’s Reading List to Instapaper it wasn’t going to be very fair. Since Instapaper is it’s own app and Reading List is just a feature in Safari it was clear early on that Reading List was going to be lacking a lot. But I wanted to try it anyway since this is technically Apple’s version of a Save-It-Later app.

I love the idea behind Reading List. If I am on a blog or any website that has something that I would like to read later, you add it to the Reading List and it is sitting there waiting for you to come back when you have time. The problem is that it is in Safari and I am never opening Safari to read stuff.

RSS feeds and News apps are much better in curating articles and posts that you would like to read then to be jumping around websites in Safari. I am rarely opening up Safari to go find something to read. Most times I am looking something up quickly or I am thrown into Safari from a link that I found elsewhere — like Twitter or a message. But once my question is answered I will leave Safari, not save the answer for later.

Nor will I stay on a website from a link elsewhere but instead will send it to, well, Instapaper. So maybe it is just a habit now, but for long form articles or things that people send me I like the idea of an app keeping track of it for me than my browser.

Not only does Instapaper provide a better reading experience by formatting the text of the webpage into a more readable version but I also have organizing options with folders. I can even select a folder I want a specific blog post to go to from the share sheet extension or web extension.

Safari does provide the option to put a webpage in Reader View, similar to that of the reading style in Instapaper, and also has the option to save the list in Offline Mode but for some reason had trouble with that working. Not that it is really something that I need to worry about because I always have a connection to the internet through wifi or cellular, but when I tried testing it out I was never able to read anything while on Airplane Mode.

Sending things to Instapaper is now an automatic reaction for me when I am sent a long article or see something in my RSS feed that I want to make sure to read thoroughly later. I love that I have different folders for each topic I am wanting to read and do enjoy the fact that it is a separate applications for me to go to when I actually want to read.

Reminders vs Things

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Reminders was the one app I really wanted my mind changed on. I thought with the improvements since iOS 13 and the fact that it has so many great features integrated into the OS it had to be really good now. One feature that pretty great is the ability for Reminders to notify you if a reminder has a task specific for someone that you might be on the phone with or messaging with.

After using the app for sometime, I realized that I had the same feeling about Reminders as I did about Notes. Though both have been improved, especially Reminders, I still feel like the polish and organization features are just lacking.

I do like that it inherited aspects of other task managers like having an Inbox, which they call All, and I really do like the Today bucket which is something in Things that really is useful to have. But again I feel like Things not only still provides a better looking app but it also lets you have a pretty basic app at the surface allowing you to go more complex as you go.

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The fact that I can separate my Today bucket into another “This Evening” area is really slick. It also supports Projects which can include separate tasks for each project that you setup which then all can be put into an Area. These small additions can go a long way in having a Task Manager that works for you. It provides a non-intimidating way of using a very simple and pretty task manager app but still giving you the ability to use more powerful features only if you want.

The fact that Things is also always on top of supporting the new features of on new OS too is pretty nice. They, for a long time, have supported a variety of keyboard shortcuts and now cursor support on iPadOS. This is very different than that of Notion that I talked about before which still has not been giving the same level of treatment to their iPadOS app.

Calendar vs Fantastical

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When it comes to my Calendar I will be completely honest and say that if Fantastical went away tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t be that upset. Not that Fantastical isn’t great and I do prefer it over the Calendar app overall.

When I got my iPhone 11 Pro last year I decided to setup it up as a new phone and not restoring from a backup. I then took my time in installing apps back on my phone and one of those apps I didn’t reinstall right away was Fantastical, I used the Calendar app for awhile not really caring that it didn’t have some of the features Fantastical provides.

But then it was something I either heard on Connected or Mac Power Users that made me realize how much I missed the natural language typing of an event allowing you to have every detail of the event setup without the need of flipping any toggles or using scroll wheels. In one sentence I could add an event on a day, at a specific time frame, and on the exact calendar I wanted.

Besides the natural language component the other thing I really love about Fantastical compared to the Calendar app is the views that it provides. Like the screenshot I am showing above, I love the ability to see an entire month then scroll through my event below telling me any events in that month or any upcoming months, allowing the month to change as I scroll to the next months events.

The design is also a little more polished, I know I sound like a broken record here, but I do love and appreciate Apple’s minimalist design aesthetics. I think something that these third party apps are showing is that you can still have a minimalist design but it still be functional, I feel sometimes Apple’s apps falls more on the side of design than function and think that could be the reason I don’t find myself using them.

Outlook vs Mail

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I, like many others, have tried a variety of different mail apps on my iPhone, iPad, and even Mac. But every time I do I end up back in the stock Mail app. The main reason I do this is losing emails. Some of these apps provide additional filtering which throws some of my mail into Trash or Junk without me realizing it.

I currently have an iCloud, Gmail, and Techuisite email address that I use for all different reason. iCloud is used for more personal things like financial or family uses, my Techuisite account is for more “business” related needs for my writing, and everything else goes to Gmail — and I mean everything. Every newsletter, random website that I need to create a required account for that I will never use again, or an email to just give out for me to random people that need to contact me that are not that close.

The reason I treat Gmail this way is because I use a service called Sanebox to help me filter and remove any emails I no longer want to receive or block. It provides an additional filter than just the Spam one that Google provides and puts them in a SaneLater folder for me to go through and either allow to come to my Inbox or move it to the SaneBlackHole where I will never see it again.

All that being said, I have a system already that lets me filter my emails and allows me to see the things that I need to see flow through each email address. So for a email client, I just need a place for all those emails to come through. For the most part Mail has always provided that to me without fail.

Other email clients like Outlook or Airmail I feel they try to provide a different experience with email that I just don’t find useful. For instance, Outlook has a Focused and Other toggle in the app. This is supposed to provide you a way to see the emails you must see instead of seeing all of them at once.

On paper this seems like a good idea. A lot of times emails that you actually need to get to quickly get lost in the long list of emails and you might miss it. Outlook is trying to remove that issue and give you all the emails you need to look at right now and then provides a toggle for you to see the rest whenever you need.

My problem with this is I don’t know what emails Outlook thinks needs to be in Focused or Other and a lot of times I ended up forgetting switching over to other thinking that an email just hasn’t come yet. Again, this is another filter or barrier that an email client thinks is useful but for me just gets in the way. Mail just gives me my emails and I like it that way.

Overall, as you can see above, I have not really changed my mind about any apps. If anything this just gave me more of a reason to stick with what I have now. Maybe iOS or iPadOS 14 might provide big and better updates to their stock applications but for now I am going to keep the ones I am already using and continue to use the third party variants for the others.

It’s not to say that I don’t appreciate or like some of things Apple is doing in providing some applications for some basic needs of its users. A lot of people probably use and find no issues with using a lot of these stock apps that are already installed on their new iPhones as they boot them up.

The fact that these apps don’t cost anything and are just there for you to use is also a bonus, users will never have to pay a upgrade fee or download a new version of any of the apps when Apple does make changes to them.

I am impressed with Apple’s improvements and continual support for their first party applications but while they continue to allow third party developers to come up with more powerful and full-features options I think I am going to keep looking in the App Store for something better.

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My passion is in technology. I write reviews about gadgets that interest me but also provide some kind of value in my toolset to achieve my goals. Most of my writing is surrounded by technology and how it plays a role as a tool, help with productivity, and also provide mindfulness for a more fulfilled life.

Turlock, CA
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