Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Lifestyle Apps

With their extreme portability, iOS devices are uniquely positionned to be of help in many ways. From working out your share of a bill at a restaurant table with the handy calculator app to keeping track of appointments with the included calendar app, you'll be surprised how much you can do with apps that are automatically included with iOS. These are useful in everyday life and are helpful for students. These apps are simple and offer basic functionality. Beginners can feel comfortable practicing their skills using VoiceOver and exploring the screen.

Should you need more functionality or a different approach to these everyday tasks than the included apps offer, fear not. Chances are that you can get a more suitable app for your needs in the app store. I've found a number of apps offerring alternative approaches which suit me better. Later in this section, we'll go on two app store expeditions. I'll tell you about a couple of these alternative apps. I'll also explain how I found out about them. For lack of a better category term, I'm calling these lifestyle apps since they are useful in everyday situations. Calling them utilities just doesn't seem quite right.

Before we take a closer look at the various apps, remember that you can use Siri, Apple's built in personal assistant, to perform many of the tasks these apps can do. In fact, Siri makes use of these apps on your behalf. If you tell Siri to create a reminder or appointment, it will be done using the Calendar or Reminders app which come standard in iOS. Beginners who struggle with navigating and typing will be able to use Siri to enter appointments, create reminders and check what's due or coming up. More on Siri later. pause or cancel timers, do calculations for you, etc. Try asking it math questions. You can do quite a lot without ever going into the Clock and Calculator apps. Siri isn't as versatile when it comes to reviewing information in detail. If you want an overview of your scheduled events for the month, you are well advised to become familiar with the Calendar app.

The Calendar App:

The calendar app has a reasonably simple layout keeping everything on one screen. There are no tabs separating different areas like you'll find in other apps. Starting at the very topleft of the touchscreen below the status bar, you'll find Search and Add buttns. These let you search for and add events to the calendar. At the bottom right are "Today", "Calendars" and "Inbox" buttons.

So far, so good. However, things get a little tricky in the middle. The rest of the screen is taken up with a scrolling calendar. Years are separated by headings. Setting your rotor to the "headings" setting will therefore let you scroll easily through years. Each month is a button so flicking left or right goes backward or forward by month. You can scroll indefinitely backwards and forwards to past or future years. Touching a month at the top of the screen and flicking left won't get you to the search and add buttons. It will just keep scrolling. The same goes for when you're at the bottom of the screen and flick right. It takes a bit of getting used to. To reliably get to the option buttons, it's best to touch the top left or bottom right corners landing you on the "search" and "Inbox" buttons respectively. You then flick right from the "search" or left from the "inbox" buttons respectively to reach the additional buttons.

When you're at a month you want a closer look at, double-tap on it. You will be taken into that month's calendar. The current month and day are always indicated when you go over them in their respective levels detail. There are no headings in the month calendar. However, each week has its own row of days. Turn the rotor to "vertical navigation" to move quickly through the weeks of a month by flicking up or down. This keeps you on the same day of the week. Double-tap on a day to see events taking place on it. They appear at the bottom right just before the "today" button when the day is highlighted. However, you can get into an even more detailed daily view where any events in a day are shown along with their times. You can navigate this list by heading or by a special "event" setting which appears on your rotor. Double-tapping on an event will show all its details and any notes. For instance. St. George's Day is a holiday celebrated in some parts of Canada on April 23. A note included in the Canadian Holidays calendar indicates that it may not be celebrated in your area. Double-tap and hold on an event to change its start and end times.

 You can scroll through different weeks by three-finger swipes left and right.

The calendar gives good functionality but takes time and experimentation to really master. I only learned about some included capabilities while preparing this section of the guide and consulting the user guide written by Apple as part of that process. That's something you'll find as you use iOS extensively. Unless you take the time to read the user guide, there's not always a lot to point you towards useful features. It really pays to take the time to do that and also explore within various apps you use.

To add an event, double-tap the "add" button. An entry screen will appear with a number of edit fields and options. You can get around it by flicking lef and right. Double-tap on an edit field like "title" in order to enter information about the event. Once you're satisfied with the contents of the fields, find the "add" button at the top left of the screen right below the "New event" heading. Once you've entered sufficient information, this button will become active and nno longer be dimmed as it was when you began creating your event. Once you double-tap the "add" button, the event will appear in your calendar. Nothing is carved in stone. It is quite possible to change an event. Double-tap on it while in the day view where events are listed. You can also search for it and double-tap on it in the search results. You can then edit it easily and/or remove it.

The Reminders App:

This gives you the ability to create and deal with reminders. These can be repeating or once-only reminders. You can group reminders in different lists. For example, a list for work-related reminders and a separate list for home or personal reminders. This app is very basic. There's a heading at the top to get you back there quickly with the rotor. This app has no tabs. There are buttons to edit reminders, add a new reminder, and show your different lists.

Creating a reminder involves double-tapping the "new reminder" button. Type information into the edit field and flick right. Double-tap on the "more info" button to get to the details section. This lets you specify time, location, and other details needed to trigger the reminder. Otherwise, the reminder will merely contain the text in the preceding field. You can put a checkmark when you're done with a reminder to mark it as completed.

Reminders can be location specific. You could have one trigger when at the grocery store to remind you to get certain foods. Reminders which have completed or which you don't need anymore can be set to checked. This puts a checkmark beside the reminder and marks it as complete. As with the calendar app, you are able to edit and delete reminders when you need to.

App Store Expedition: Fantastical 2 and VO Calendar:

Whzat if it were possible to combine the information accessed through the calendar and reminders into a single app? All of your time management would be right there in the same place. While producing this guide, I was a regular contributor to a show called Kelly and Company. So was my colleague Tom Dekker. He runs a web site and service well worth checking out at:

By complete coincidence, both of us use our fifteen minutes of fame that week to discuss different apps which approached simplifying personal organization on iOS devices in two different ways. This provided a golden opportunity to illustrate a major advantage of the iOS ecosystem; The ability to choose and develop approaches suitable for people with varying abilities and skill levels. There's almost never just one way to do things.

Sadly, spreading the word about these choices, particularly ones designed for smaller markets, is tricky for app developers. Word of mouth is priceless advertising. Sites like:

are an essential resource for app developers and new users looking to learn about and make the best app choices with their limited funds.

Fantastical 2:

For those who are comfortable with VoiceOver and wish to use an app designed for sighted users, Fantastical is one attempt to combine calendar and reminder into something greater than the sum of its parts. This app is made by Flexibits and costs $7 Canadian. It uses the data from the calendar and reminders apps giving you a better univfied organizer. It also has a natural language parser capable of understanding event or reminder-related sentences you can type or speak into the app. At present, this works even better than Siri when it comes to understanding naturally phrased events and reminders.

To dictate an event, you must first use the "new event" button. Once you're in the edit field, find the "dictate" button on the virtual keyboard on your iOS device to the left of the space bar. If you're using a Bluetooth keyboard and want to dictate an event, you need to deactivate that keyboard so the virtual one pops up on your iOS device. The virtual keyboard is only present once you've entered an edit field. Fantastical doesn't replace Siri so holding down the "home" button or saying "hey Siri" will still behave as always. This lets you stil use Siri when you're hurrying through your day. However, if you can get into the habit of going into the Fantastical app and using its "new event" button instead, you gain the advantage to speak or type very naturally about the event or reminder and have Fantastical understand you perfectly and do the right thing. Once you're certain you've been properly understood, find the "add" button near the top left of the screen and double-tap it to complete the operation.

Fantastical has all the control buttons at the top of the screen. Below is the day ticker which displays days with events or reminders. You can choose whether empty days are shown or not. Each day starts with a heading so turn the rotor to headings to scroll quickly through days. You can scroll infinitely back or forward. A two-finger swipe downward while on the top of the day ticker will transform it into a month calendar. You can then turn the rotor to vertical navigation to examine days and weeks flicking up or down through weeks and left or right through days. Use a three-finger swipe left or right moving back and forth through months. On the day ticker, flick right to go over each event or reminder within a day. Flick down when on an event or reminder to accesss a context menu allowing you to select the default action, "more", or delete it. Double-tap on your choice to execute it or flick right or left to leave the menu.

 Creating events is very intuitive with Fantastical. The "new event" button is to the right of the "go to today" button. Double-tap it and you'll be in an edit field. Type or dictate your event in sentence form. If it's repeating, you need to be specific. For example, it doesn't automatically know that birthdays happen every year so you have to say: "Michael's birthday is on October 29th each year". It will then fill in all the fields for you. If you're happy with the result, flick right to get to the "add" button. You can also edit details to get exactly the event or reminder you want. If you want a reminder rather than an event, include the words "reminder", "todo", or "task" in the sentence.

the buttons at the top are "settings", "go to today", and "new event". There are also buttons allowing you to sort and filter what is displayed by "title", "location", and "invitees". All of these buttons will always be displayed at the top of the screen starting with "settings" at the top left.

VO Calendar:

For some people, a better approach to combining calendar and reminder into an easier overall app would be the Vo Calendar app. Produced by Devista D.B. in partnership with a Dutch agency for the blind, this app will cost you around $14. This app is only useful to people who make use of the VoiceOver screen-reader. It cannot be used without it by sighted users. The aim was to make it as simple as possible for blind users to use the built-in calendar and reminder functions of iOS. Like Fantastical, it makes use of data stored in other apps included with iOS. You can therefore share the data with other users of not only Fantastical but any apps making use of the same data sources. You can share events with friends and family who can incorporate them into their own preferred calendars. Calendar events shared by others can also be incorporated into your own calendar.

What really sets this app apart is the screen layout and ability to summarise your events so you don't need to go through them one by one. The screen is divided in two halves so you can use one hand to scan events and your other hand to tap and activate things. If you prefer, you may also use ordinary VoiceOver gestures to operate the app. Those who find it hard to master typing can record events thanks to Vo Calendar being able to tigh into the Voice Memo app included in iOS. You can hear events in your own voice.

App Store Expedition Souvenirs

This glance at two very different approaches to simplifying personal life organization demonstrates the value of looking beyond what is included in iOS. People have taken the basic building blocks Apple came up with and have produced some very innovative tools which greatly enhance your capabilities. Beginers who struggle with the basic calendar and reminder apps have alternative ways of keeping life on track. These apps could make a very big difference to people who have frequent appointments to attend and need reminders every day to take various medications at regular times. Students whose lives are filled with assignments, deadlines and social engagements will also appreciate having calendar and reminder functions enhanced and accessed in a single app.

It pays to take the time to see if apps exist which may do more of what you want with greater ease. All apps in the store have reviews and descriptions. These are quite helpful but are generally written with sighted users in mind. Not all apps offer good support for VoiceOver. This is especially important for beginners who are still learning VoiceOver gestures and getting used to how things are supposed to behave. I strongly recommend that before you make a purchase, take the time to look at:

There, you can check the app directory to see if the app you are interested in has an entry. These entries are written with blind users in mind typically by blind users. You'll find plenty of accessibility information including any discovered workarounds for elements of apps which are less accessible than they could be. As you become more experienced, you might eventually want to try apps which have yet to find their way into the app directory, podcasts and reviews on Applevis.

Once awareness spreads through the blind community about a particularly good app, it doesn't take much effort to find out about it yourself. I first heard of Fantastical 2 through online acquaintances I've made over the years. I wasn't much interested at the time and took no immediate action. However, it seemed to keep coming up in reviews of other apps and in conversation. Comments were pretty much always favourable. I did quite well with the calendar and reminders apps which came with iOS. However, when working on this guide, I thought I should get it and see how good an example it would make of an alternative and better accessible approach to personal life organization. Ever since, I've been using Fantastical 2 exclusively. I wish I had gotten it much sooner. The app developers are very responsive to ideas and/or accessibility issues.

Due to my skill level with VoiceOver, I felt no need to acquire VO Calendar. It doesn't really offer anything other than greatly simplifying calendar and reminder tasks. Others could easily come to the completely opposite conclusion especially if they struggle to use the touchscreen in general. The work which has gone into minimising the need for navigation is somewhat lost on me. However, for people just getting started or those who have motion difficulties, it could make all the difference.

The Calculator

This app is included in iOS and will likely fill the mathematical needs of most people. The calculator works well with VoiceOver. It has two different modes:

Basic Calculator:

If your iOS device is in portrait mode, you will have access to a basic calculator. Functions include addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and percent.

You'll find a numeric keypad at the left of the screen covering most of the surface. Lower digits are at the bottom and higher are at the top. Decimal is right of 0. Equals is right of decimal.

Above the equals sign, you'll find functions proceeding up the far right of the screen. Adition, subtraction, multiplication and division at the top. Above the 7, 8 and 9 keys are clear, plus-minus and percent keys. Above this is where the results are shown. Voiceover automatically announces results. You can also read them more carefully with the rotor after touching the result space.

The layout is simple enough to be mastered quickly. Very handy for most day to day stuff.

The Scientific Calculator:

As long as orientation is unlocked, turning your device sideways transforms the basic calculator into a scientific calculator with many more functions.

The basic stuff is all still there but is condensed onto an area at the right side of the screen. To the left of the numbers, you'll find the rest of the screen taken up by all sorts of higher math functions. This includes parentheses, geometric functions, exponents, and lots more.

This layout will take longer to master as it crams a lot more onto the screen. I recommend the use of touch typing mode. Set this with the rotor. This way, nothing is entered until you lift your finger from the surface of your device. This gives you a chance to feel around for the right digit or function and makes entry mistakes less likely.

The Clock App:

This app packs a bunch of handy time tools into a single app. It includes a world clock, an alarm clock, a "bed time" sleep analysis, a timer, and a stopwatch. Each of these functions have their own tab. From a blindness perspective, there are a few unfortunately missing abilities. There is no way to tell time through vibrative tactile feedback like with the AppleWatch. Also, there is no facility to set chimes.

The World Clock:

The left most tab on the bottom of the screen accesses this clock which can display current time in many different cities around the world. The "Edit" button is found at the top left of the screen. Double-tapping this brings you to an edit mode which lets you arrange the order cities are displayed in as well as delete cities you don't want. Double-tap and hold on the "re-order" button next to a city's name and slide your finger up or down to move it. Hit the "done" button when you're finished.

The "add" button is one flick right of the words "world clock". It lets you add new cities from a large list. You may not find your particular city but you'll find one close enough. I have Toronto, Cupertino California and London England on my world clock. Helpful for catching online events like Apple presentations.

The Alarm Clock:

This is a very easy alarm clock to operate. You can have multiple alarms for various days and times. For each of them, you can choose which of them are on or off. You can add new alarms with the "add" button. There's an "edit" button at the top left. Use that to change the characteristics of alarms by double-tapping on an alarm and flicking right through the various options. There are plenty of options including snooze, sound choice, etc allowing quite a bit of latitude in constructing your alarm. You can select different sounds, any ringtones you have, or songs from your music library.


This lets you schedule a reminder to go to bed plus a wakeup time. You can select from a number of attractive wakeup sounds as a more gentle approach to wakefullness than the alarm clock. Also, you can set things so you're not woken up on weekends. It's pretty flexible. It analyzes your usage of your device to help determine when you're actually sleeping or when you might perhaps have gotten up early. Data is recorded and placed in the Health app.


You can perform all stopwatch functions easily. No automatic reading of time is done but you can easily check it by touching the screen near the middle. There's a heading at the top so you can set the rotor to headings, flick up to get to the heading and then flick right to get quickly to the stopwatch time. Double-tapping the "lap" button will quickly give you the current progress reading the exact moment the button was pressed. There are also stop and reset buttons.


This is your basic timer. There are no announcements as the timer counts down. You can set duration and choose the sound which plays when the timer expires. Also, you can choose to have it stop playback of whatever music, podcasts, etc that you're listening to. Handy if apps don't have their own sleep timers.

Like the stopwatch, you can check timer progress while in this tab of the clock app. Also, presuming nothing eclipses it, you can find the timer on the lock screen. Music track information can have this effect as track information seems to get priority.

App Store Expedition:

If the clock and calendar functions aren't quite meeting your needs, Look on Applevis and the app store. There are some useful discoveries. For people needing more flexibility or a different layout approach to calculating, Adam Croser has developed three different talking calculators. These can read out large numbers better than Voiceover and have other accessibility considerations such as different contrast modes. Functions are divided up into panels rather than being all crammed onto one screen. To get these, look for "talking scientific calculator", "talking statistical calculator" or "talking calculator" in the app store search field. All of these support VoiceOver. Price for these calculators is around $6.

The clock is great for basic use. However, many blind people would very much like to be reminded of the time by hourly chimes or tactile vibration. I have yet to hear of an app which gives tactile feedback helpful for keeping track of time. The Apple Watch will do this but purchasing one for this ability alone seems crazy. However, my Twitter followers pointed me to "Westminster Chimes Full", a $1.39 app made by LutherSoft. This gives audible chimes in five different traditional English styles. The app fully supports VoiceOver and is quite simple to use. The developers are well aware of VoiceOver and have taken stepts to make their app fully accessible. Even beginners will have little difficulty setting the chimes how they prefer.

For timers with more capabilities, I have an app called Timeglass. I can build more intricate multi-stage timers with that app. For instance, I schedule work time and breaks for when I'm working on these notes, blog entries, or my guide. It has the ability to construct timers with multiple stages which can have spoken or sound cues. As I go through my work time, I hear signals letting me know when it's time to take a break. The app includes many pre-made timers for everything from doing laundry to safely cooling beer in the freezer. How epically thoughtful is that? Some timers can be had for free. However, to unlock the full functionality of the app requires an in-app purchase. To complete this, you'll need your Apple ID and password plus around $6 in available funds.

App Store Expedition Souvenirs:

Again, we see that it pays to keep current on what's out there. I found out about Timeglass through word of mouth. Somebody else stumbled on it and let his Twitter followers know. Thankfully, I happened to be one of them. Quite often, you won't be able to find precisely what you're after. You'll have to make do with what the included apps offer or choose between apps which each do part of what you want. That's when it might very well pay to let developers of apps which come close to meeting your ideal about what you wish their app would do. Developers are often eager for feedback and open to suggestions. These two app store expeditions have yielded some powerful extentions to capabilities included in iOS. There are many more treasures to be found. Keep an ear out for more app store expeditions in this guide.