There is no shortage of apps that help you manage to-do lists on your iOS devices. Several offer some truly powerful features, from projects, actions, start dates, and due dates to contexts, tags, and perspectives. But sometimes powerful features work against us. Sometimes you just want to create and manage a few simple lists. The best app for managing these kinds of lists is Clear for Mac and iOS. Clear offers the best combination of design, ease of use, and flexibility.
Editor’s Note: While the app still functions, it appears that the developer has stopped work on Clear. We are currently revisiting this review and will have an update soon. Until then, if you’re looking for a good, simple list-making app, Apple’s Reminders is a great option for most people.
Human beings have been making lists as long as they’ve been writing things down, and probably even longer than that. Epic poems like Homer’s Iliad contain lists of ships and lists of warriors. Religious texts contain lists of kings, commandments, sins, and saints. There are lists of plant and animal species, lists of chemical elements, not to mention dictionaries, encyclopedias, David Letterman’s Top Ten Lists, and every listicle you run across on the internet.
As the philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco said,
What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists.
Of course, most of us aren’t in charge of drawing up the next Periodic Table of Elements. Instead, we create order from the infinity of our own lives by making to-do lists. Before the introduction of the smartphone, to-do lists had been confined to pieces of paper that we might lose, allow to clutter up our desktop, or affix like little yellow flags of anxiety to our computer monitor. But now we have a device in our pocket for creating and storing a near infinite number of those lists. Perhaps more importantly, the lists are now fluid and easy to manipulate. We can reorder, rearrange, and potentially even sync those lists with multiple devices.
To-do list apps flourished in the early days of the iPhone App Store, as you can see from this list of 25 apps recommended by App Storm in 2010, but there wasn’t a lot of variety in terms of the user interface. Most apps showed a list of items with a checkbox next to each. There were different options for sorting items into categories, tagging, or adding due dates, but nothing truly revolutionary.
Our criteria for picking the best simple to-do list app
Today, simple to-do list apps have become one of the latest “UI design playgrounds” — app categories clustered around limited problems for which developers invent radically different solutions.
The problems of a simple to-do list app are fairly simple: how to display the lists, how to add to the lists, how to change the lists, and how to alert the user of important items on the list. With these problems in mind, I considered the following criteria as I tested apps for this review:
- Basic design: the lists should be beautiful to look at, easy to organize, and have an understandable hierarchy.
- Animations: checking items off my list should be satisfying, if not delightful.
- Speed: adding items to a list and reordering those items should be as easy and quick as possible.
- Flexibility: there shouldn’t be too much rigidity in what kinds of items I add to my lists or how I use them — I want an app that conforms to my needs and preferences.
- Alerts: there should be an option of adding reminders to specific items.
- Multi-platform with sync: I want the possibility of accessing my lists on other devices or on other platforms with fast and reliable over-the-air sync.
The only app that meets all of these criteria for me is Realmac’s Clear ($5 for iOS, $10 for Mac), which is fitting, since it more or less reinvented the whole category of simple to-do lists when it launched.
Clear: our favorite simple to-do list manager for Mac and iOS
It’s hard to remember just how different Clear looked in 2012 when compared to its competition at the time. Clear was one of the first (or possibly the first) truly “flat” app on the iPhone. But it didn’t just lack gradients and textures. It lacked buttons of any kind. In their place, Clear used a series of gestures in a variety of new ways: pulling, pinching, tapping, and dragging.
Matthew Panzarino wrote a prescient piece about the app for The Next Web at the time, concluding:
I think that we’re ready to leave buttons behind and enter the next level of smartphone interfaces. Interfaces dominated by natural interaction instincts and not slavish conformity to the conventions of physical buttons. And I welcome it with open arms as I’ve experienced first hand how fast and enjoyable to use this kind of interface can be.
Panzarino’s prediction has more or less come true, with many apps (even iOS 7 itself) using gestures and design elements that are also in Clear. But the app has been with us for a while, and there are now several other apps with similar design styles. Is Clear still relevant? Has it kept pace?
The Utility of the Design
In most important ways, Clear has changed very little since its introduction on the iPhone. The flat, buttonless design is identical. You open up the app and all you see is the text of your lists with numbers next to them to tell you how many items each list contains.
Open up a list and all you see is the text of your items. For me, the lack of chrome isn’t just a striking design decision, it actually declutters my thoughts so I can focus on the text of the lists. The subtle shading of the heat map is the one non-textual visual element, helping to differentiate between items and give a visual cue to their priority.
But where the app really shines for me is in the gestures:
- Pull down on the top of a list to create a new task.
- Pull down again to create another.
- Zoom out with your fingers between two items and create a new item there.
It’s hard to overstate how frictionless this feels compared to many similar apps, most of which require you to tap an “add” button, type in the task, tap done, and then tap the add button again.
There’s also the fact that you never leave the context of the list itself during new item creation. Many apps of this kind take you to a whole new interface for item creation and then return you to the list when you’re done. By leaving the list visible but only slightly dimmed beneath your new item, Clear makes it easy to remember what your most recent added items were in case you’re brain dumping quickly and typing faster than you can think.
The simple, text-based design also allows you enormous freedom for deciding what your lists should consist of. The app isn’t requiring you to think of these as to-do lists or grocery lists, necessarily. They could be lists of books to read, movies to watch, restaurants to try, things you want to learn, places you want to travel to, things you want to do before you die. Or they could be the opposite: things you’ve already done; places you’ve already visited; your favorite books, movies, and restaurants; the things you’ve accomplished so far in your life that give you pride.
The simplicity and restraint of Clear’s design actually increases its potential uses and flexibility.
The most recent feature added to Clear is the ability to attach reminders to task items. I worried about this feature when I first heard about it, because I feared it would take away from the simplicity of the app, but it’s integrated in a way that does nothing to clutter up the interface.
With reminders turned on, you have the option of tapping in the reminder field of each task, which gives you a date and time picker and the ability to view the date on a calendar. It’s both intuitive and unobtrusive, and one of the best possible integrations I could imagine with the app as it exists.
My one quibble is that, like almost every other reminders app I’ve tried, Clear only reminds you once. I require more nagging than most people to get anything done, so for truly time sensitive tasks, I prefer the dedicated reminders app Due, which gives you the option to make reminders repeating, as well as persistantly alerting you until you check them off or snooze them. Still, for simple, gentle reminders, Clear can serve quite well.
The Delight of the Design
In addition to the gestures for item creation, Clear also employs gestures for item completion, rearrangement, and navigation. Just swipe to the right to check an item off the list, swipe left to delete an item from the list, and pull up to clear completed items.
You can also tap on any item, and it will pop out of two dimensional space, gaining a slight drop shadow, to let you know you can drag it to any position within the list.
To exit a specific list, you need only pinch the top and bottom of the list together. Or you have the option of dragging the screen down past its breaking point and the list of lists will drop down from above. Each of these gestures is imbued with the perfect level of physics and tactility to heighten the sense that you’re directly manipulating these blocks of color with your fingers.
Watching how the app bends, bounces, and snaps together, I’m reminded of The Illusion of Life, a video that shows guidelines for Disney animators. Despite its flatness and stripped down simplicity, Clear feels lifelike. A big part of that life comes from the app’s sound design. Each gesture, tap, pull, pinch, and poke is accompanied by its own unique sound, giving the impression of playing a throwback video game. Checking items off a list, in particular, evokes the sensation of collecting virtual coins on your way to saving the princess.
Options, Tips, and Tricks when using Clear
Despite its simplicity, Clear does give you some options for customization, which you can find if you reach the top level of navigation by pinching closed your list of lists or dragging down from the top.
The first thing you can customize is sounds. As noted above, the sounds of the app are already unique, but thanks to a recent update, you can take these sounds further with in-app purchases. The two options, Sci-Fi and 8-bit, are just as detailed and delightful as the original sounds, and you can try before you buy. Sci-Fi is reminiscent of ’50s movies about UFOs and robots, whereas 8-bit is reminiscent of Donkey Kong. Clear also offers a number of different themes, including a few that are “unlocked” if you have certain apps installed on your phone, but I’ve always been partial to the original.
The Tips & Tricks section within the app’s settings is worth exploring. My favorite trick is the shake options. Shaking the phone while inside a list gives you the usual option to undo, but you can also paste text from another app to create new tasks instantly. Shaking also gives you the option to share a list via email. The recipient will be able to see an image of the list, and if the recipient has Clear installed on their device, they can import that list directly into their own app.
Clear on the iPad and the Mac
Though Clear started as an iPhone app, it’s now universal. Before I tried the iPad version, I wasn’t sure if I’d even want it on that platform. Up until recently, I had used Clear mostly for quick one-offs, like a last minute grocery list. But as I’ve started using Clear for more and different kinds of lists, I’ve actually found the iPad to be a perfect companion app because it gives you a more comprehensive view of your list collection.
Clear takes advantage of the larger screen real-estate by showing you all of your lists on the left-hand side of the screen and the items within the selected list on the right-hand side. The app uses color to distinguish which list you currently have selected, and the effect, as with all aspects of the app, is a lack of clutter, a clarity and simplicity in your view of the relevant information.
The Mac version of Clear is a strange beast, though it feels slightly out of place in the desktop environment, it’s still an essential part of the app’s overall appeal.
In its current form, the Mac version of Clear looks and feels somewhat like a ported version of the iPhone app. The default interface gives you access to one view at a time, either your list of lists or the content of a single list, which feels limited on a large screen. You do have the option to pull lists out as separate windows, but I think it might make more sense for the layout of the Mac version to mirror the layout of the iPad version, with the ability to see all the lists and the content of one or more of these lists in a single integrated view.
That said, it’s still incredibly useful to be able to pull up your lists on your Mac to either quickly add or view items as you’re working and to have those items synced across all your devices. It’s an advantage only a few of the other simple to-do apps can match.
What’s Missing from Clear
A big part of Clear’s appeal is its simplicity, but it’s worth noting what features it lacks compared to other, similar apps.
- There are few options for categorizing lists and tasks. You can’t assign priority, other than dragging an item to a different position within the list. You can’t put a group of lists into a work folder and another group of lists into a home folder. Of course, you could call this an advantage since it limits the amount of fiddling, but if you want more fine-tuned control over the labels and placement of your buckets, Clear won’t give it to you.
- Clear also doesn’t give you the ability to search your lists. So if you go crazy and add too many items, you might have difficulty finding something.
- You can’t add any attachments to items, such as notes, images, emails, or documents.
- Clear syncs only with iCloud. In my experience, this works fairly well, but I don’t love the black-box nature of iCloud or the fact that I never know exactly when the sync will start. Sometimes it starts immediately upon opening the app, sometimes it takes a minute or more, and there’s no button to press that says “sync now.” I’d prefer a Dropbox option with more fine-grained controls.
- Finally, there’s no real way to export your data as anything other than a proprietary Clear file. This is true of most of the other simple to-do apps (with one exception below), but it’s worth mentioning.
A Free Alternative: Apple’s Reminders App
You can get a lot of the same list management functionality from Apple’s built-in Reminders app. Just like Clear, you have the option of creating multiple lists, adding items to those separate lists, and adding reminders to those items. Also like Clear, these lists will be synced over iCloud to all of your devices.
In Reminders, you have the additional option of adding priority and notes to individual items as well as creating location-based reminders. But the biggest advantage of Reminders is that you can add items to lists through Siri. For instance, if you tell Siri, “Add milk to my grocery list,” Siri will do exactly that, as long as you in fact have a list called “grocery.”
The main downside to Reminders is the design. I personally find it to be one of the least attractive and least user-friendly apps on my phone.
The card stacking metaphor makes sense for the layout of lists, but the animation of switching between them feels clunky and confusing. Once you’re inside a list, you might want to change the list’s title, but if you tap on it, you’ll go back to the main menu. Turns out, you can’t just tap on the list’s title, you have to tap the “edit” button next to it. The same goes for deleting a list from the main menu. Swiping on a list has no effect. Again, you have to “edit” to delete.
You can swipe to the left on an item in a list in order to delete or modify it, but forget swiping to the right to check it off your list. You have to tap the tiny circle next to the item, which causes the circle to gain a colored dot in its center and the item to dim slightly. This feels about as satisfying as shooting a free-throw and having the basketball get stuck in the basket. So while Reminders offers a lot of the same functionality as Clear, it’s just a lot less fun to use.
Begin: For Focusing on Your Work
Though Clear gives you the option of adding reminders to your tasks, it doesn’t focus on time as an important aspect of your list management. But a few simple to-do list apps have come on the scene recently that ask you to consider time as your primary organizing principle. My favorite of these apps is Begin (free with $1 in-app purchase to unlock options).
Begin organizes your tasks into three lists: what you want to do today, what you want to do tomorrow, and what you didn’t finish yesterday. This is not an app for keeping track of every last to-do in your life. It’s designed to help you, as you begin your day, to focus on just those things you actually hope to accomplish.
To create a task, you simply pull down from the top of the screen and start typing. If you want to add more than one task at a time, you can keep hitting the + button in the upper right hand corner, which is fast and fluid. The tasks you create will automatically be added to your “Today” list. To complete a task, swipe to the right to check the item off your list. If you realize you’re not going to get to something today, swipe to the left to send the task to tomorrow. To see what you didn’t do yesterday, just swipe up from the bottom of the screen.
Begin doesn’t provide the flexibility of Clear to manage multiple kinds of lists, but that’s not its purpose. It has a singular focus, and its design serves that focus extremely well. Apps like Task and Finish do something similar, asking you to affix tasks to specific time intervals (days of the calendar for Task; short, mid, and long term for Finish), but this feels like too much. Begin’s limited time window feels exactly right. The only reason I don’t use it more regularly is the lack of companion apps, especially on the Mac. I’d love to have it in the upper right hand corner of my screen as I sit working at my desk.
Taasky: Colorful Little Boxes
There are a few other apps that give you more control over how you sort your lists and how you organize items in those lists, and the best of these is Taasky($2).
Taasky lets you sort your lists into colorful little boxes that fold out nicely from the left side of the screen. You can customize these boxes, giving them names, colors, and a limited number of icons. And at the top you have a convenient everything box that will show all your tasks in one place.
Taasky also gives you a lot of options for a single task, letting you set a reminder or a due date, and the task can even be repeating. You can add a note if necessary. And if you tap the star button, your task will stand out from the rest in larger type.
My only real complaint about Taasky is its low information density. You can only see seven tasks on the screen at a time and only five of your lists along the left side of the screen. Worst of all, the text of an item doesn’t wrap unless you star the item, so if you use more than 20 characters, your item gets truncated with an ellipse.
Zippy: For Personal Productivity Statistics
With a $1 in-app purchase, Taasky can show you statistics for how you complete your tasks. Statistical analysis of your productivity is also one of the main features offered by Zippy ($2), a beautifully designed app that keeps track of how often you complete your tasks on time, how often you snooze your tasks, whether snoozing your tasks affects your completion of those tasks, when you tend to plan your tasks, when you tend to get things done, and so on.
It’s fun to look at the charts and graphs, and Zippy also distinguishes itself by sorting tasks with tags rather than lists. That way, a task can belong to more than one category.
But I’m not sure how helpful these kinds of special features are in a simple to-do list manager. Spend too much time thinking about your task list, examining it from different statistical angles, picking new icons and colors and tags, and you may never get anything done.
Keeping it Simple
I imagine there are some folks who might find the design of an app like Clear a little too colorful and playful. Perhaps you want a simple list-making app without any fancy bells, whistles, or whimsy. In that case, I have two final suggestions, and the first of these is Paperless ($2).
Design-wise, Paperless doesn’t distinguish itself. In fact, it leaves most of the design decisions up to you, letting you decide the color of the app, the layout of the main menu, whether you want to assign icons to your lists, whether individual lists should have checkboxes, and so on. As for list creation and management, it’s pretty basic. You can add notes to list items but not reminders. In fact, the only reason for including Paperless in this review is a special power hidden under an icon of a magic wand.
Tapping the magic wand brings up a few options for manipulating a list. Many apps will let you check all items off of a list at once, but Paperless is the first I’ve seen that will let you uncheck all items. This is especially useful if you want to reuse the list. For example, you might want to make a list of all the things you need to pack every time you travel. With Paperless, you can check those items off as you pack, and then the next time you have to travel, you can uncheck them all with just two taps.
The other barebones alternative to Clear is Listacular (free for three lists, $5 for unlimited), one of the few list-making apps that lets you create lists in plain text and save those lists in Dropox. If you’re a Taskpaper user, you can also choose to save your lists in Taskpaper format.
I’m not especially fond of Listacular’s index card based design, but it’s nice to know that your lists aren’t saved in a proprietary format. The app’s keyboard also gives you some special Markdown-ish options for formatting your list, and you can add reminders by swiping a task to the left. Finally, Listacular has its own true standout feature. If you want to dictate a list using Siri, just say the words “new line” in between each list item and Listacular automatically creates new items for each one. It’s the fastest list creation method I’ve used on any device.
Despite the features offered by some of these other apps, I keep coming back to Clear. It hasn’t replaced my GTD-based task management system; rather than using it to keep track of things I have to do, I use it to keep track of the things I want to do. One of Clear’s singular features is to offer up an inspirational quote whenever you complete a list, and in my testing I ran across this one:
It’s a fitting idea for the app itself. In all my years of using an iPhone, few apps have captured the delight of the touch interface as well as Clear. The pleasure of using Clear is precisely what makes me want to use it, and wanting to use it makes it more useful.