Which Apple apps or services are truly great?

I was recently reading this article about how Apple’s services are often creaky, slow and feel half assed and it got me thinking: for any given app or service, what is the best in breed for that area? I’ll skip some smaller utilities and such, and focus more on the core apps and services.

Apple Maps

Do I use it? Sometimes
What is the best? Google Maps
Why? The gap has closed significantly, with Apple Maps actually being better in many ways (turn by turn UI, overall UX, speed), but still lagging in search results and POI info like how busy the location is, and the list functionality is not on par with what you can do with Google. Also, bike mapping & overall global rollout is lagging. Ask me again in a year or two, though. Apple is catching up, fast.


Do I use it? Sometimes. Almost all of the time on mobile, rarely on desktop
What is the best? Google Chrome on desktop, Safari on iOS (only because of extensions)
Why? I want to like Safari, I really do. But it just feels so fiddly sometimes. Questionable UX decisions on desktop and mobile, tabs are flushed from memory too frequently, the extension model (downloading an app just to have an extension), relatively slow development / lack of focus on modern web app features all make it hard to really love it. I use Safari on iOS only because it’s the only way to use extensions on those platforms. I’ve been impressed with the recent investment in improving Webkit so I’m hopeful the apps will get further spit and polish so I can stop using Chrome or Brave while at work. Philosophically, I don’t want to support a monolithic rendering engine world and I do appreciate Apple’s stance on privacy.


Do I use it? Yes
What is the best? Unclear, it depends
Why? Notes is great as a simple note taking app with a few sneaky-pro features like sharing, locked notes and tagging. It does everything I need, and they tend to improve it incrementally over time. There are small details I hope to see improved like rich links when pasting in URLs, more themeing options and linking notes for more power-user types but I’m really happy with Notes.


Do I use it? Yes on iOS/iPad, no on desktop
What is the best? Depends – Gmail app, Spark, Outlook
Why? Mail is simple and does what I need but it’s missing nearly every modern mail client feature. That’s probably okay for most people and I’ve never really cared enough to stick with any of the 3rd party clients. I use Fastmail for my personal email and Gmail for work, so I tend to use the stock app on my devices and the webapps on my laptop.


Do I use it? No
What is the best? Fantastical
Why? Calendar is fine, but doesn’t do much beyond the basics. Fantastical isn’t cheap but even the free version looks and functions better than Apple’s Calendar app. Better integration with video calls and more intuitive calendar views on mobile would make them a better match for Fantastical but right now it’s not really close. But for non-business users who only have a few calendar events here or there it’s really a great app.


Do I use it? Yes
What is the best? Probably Whatsapp
Why? Messages is pretty solid but I think the gold standard is Whatsapp. It’s a top 3 or so service though and I think people are generally happy with the features and functionality. I wish they’d adopt RCS, make group texting a bit more intuitive


Do I use it? No
What is the best? Things
Why? Reminders is fine for most people and it has been improving over time. Lots of new features have come out in the past few years to make is a good option for many people (shared lists, tagging, smart views and more). I use Things but that’s mostly because I have so many projects going on at work that I need to organize. If that wasn’t a concern I could see myself using Reminders. I really appreciate the fact that they use an open API that any app can plug into, and hope they continue to expand that over time. I also hope we see a defaults preference for Siri one day where when I say “Remind me to..” it would just dump the request into my app of choice.


Do I use it? 75% of the time
What is the best? The Kindle app offers a better ecosystem but Books is a better app.
Why? This one is complicated. Books is a better app in most ways. It feels good to use, is fast, has lots of neat features like reading goals and has a generally good UX. The Kindle app feels clunkier but boasts a better ecosystem. It also struggles with IAP due to Apple’s rules. I tend to look for the best deal on eBooks and all things being equal, will choose Books.


Do I use it? Sometimes
What is the best? Google Photos
Why? I use photos as my defacto library and use iCloud Photo Sync along with a few shared albums to send photos of my kids to family, but tend to use Google Photos as the front end as it’s faster, has more layout options, the slideshows/memories features are better and sharing is cross platform. Photos is a really great service on both platforms, I just think Google Photos is one of Google’s best products.


Do I use it? Yes
What is the best? Zoom
Why? Zoom is cross platform. I know FaceTime has the basic web link functionality now, but until they release a full fledged app and more filtering options, I think Zoom is the best for both professional and personal use.


Do I use it? No
What is the best? Overcast, Pocket Casts and Castro are all better.
Why? The one thing I like about Apple’s podcasts app is the recommendation engine, so they score points there. It suggests one-off episodes you might like and that is super helpful for discovery. Overcast, Pocket Casts and Castro are all infinitely better from an organization, performance and UX perspective, though. This is one app that I feel like is getting slightly worse over time and unfortunately they’re letting Spotify take over as a result.


Do I use it? Yes, mainly via Control Center on iOS
What is the best? Home
Why? Fortunately, the Home app is mostly a frontend for the HomeKit APIs so there are other apps that can do most of the things other than Control Center integration. I’m hopeful we see that area open up to 3rd party developers so I could use Home or HomeWidget more frequently. Both of those apps have better, more customizable UIs and allow you to prioritize info the way that you prefer for your home.


Do I use it? Yes
What is the best? Apple Music
Why? This one might rankle a few feathers but for me, Apple Music is the best but only barely. I’ve written about this in the past, but the album-focused nature of Music along with the APIs that allow amazing apps like Albums, Marvis Pro and Soor to exist means it’s the best for me. Add to that the great but flawed control center integration and controlling music in my home is easier w/ Apple Music and Sonos / HomePods. However, Music is slow, kind of poorly laid out, and is super creaky from decades of tech debt from the old iTunes store. I don’t know how you fix this other than a total rewrite on the Mac.


Do I use it? Yes
What is the best? Peloton? Depends, but I think this app is really good.
Why? I use the Fitness service from time to time and I think it’s likely their best service right now, especially given how relatively young it still is. The fitness app does a good job of tracking workouts, the videos and integration with the watch is great, and it motivates me to work out more frequently. We also subscribe to Peloton so I use that service for biking but otherwise it’s Fitness for me.


Do I use it? Yes
What is the best? Toss up between Flipboard, Google News and Apple News depending on your needs
Why? I wrote about this a while back, but I think people dunk on Apple News for some strange reasons. I really like the audio stories and magazines portions of the “plus” service, and the actual news feed does a good job of learning what type of stuff you read and offering up similar topics from time to time. My biggest complaints are the browsing experience for magazines and audio stories is kind of clunky, it’s hard to organize topics you follow, the Mac app isn’t great, and I wish you weren’t so locked into the app for reading stories but could instead bounce out to the webpage when possible. Flipboard and Google News are also great services, and I use those as well.


Do I use it? Yes
What is the best? It’s kind of a category of it’s own…
Why? There’s a lot to love and a lot to hate about this app. I love the ‘up next’ queue but unfortunately you’re at the whim of services and apps on if that’s integrated. But it’s nice having a way to quickly add shows or movies to my queue from the universal search UI. I wish there were a dedicated widget just for that purpose. Being able to be notified when new shows, movies or sporting events are happening is pretty awesome. The app itself is kind of a mess. It’s about a dozen or so infinitely side-scrolling lists that don’t make a ton of sense when browsing. It’d be cool to see the APIs for “up next” to be opened up so we could see some 3rd party clients take a stab at it, and I hope Netflix and other major services use the queue in the future.

Arcade / Game Center

Do I use it? Yes
What is the best? No real competition here
Why? It’s the best because nothing else really does what they’re doing. However, the fact that the Arcade apps are tucked inside of a tab on the App store is kind of strange. What I’d love to see is a standalone app that has special parental controls that allow you to freely download any game with certain ratings so I could essentially hand my kids an iPad, have them open up the Arcade app, and they can play whatever they want as long as it’s within a certain age range. I’d also love to see Arcades-game-specific data management rules. For instance, any game that hasn’t been played in x number of days could be offloaded to save space. In addition, the app could have better integration with Game Center, which could show more info about games your friends are playing, achievements you’ve unlocked, etc. Apple Arcade is actually a great service that I’ve grown to appreciate as my kids have gotten older and can play more of the offerings but the way to get to them is super clunky. So this one is tricky, much like the TV app. Nobody else does it so they’re technically “the best”, but I don’t feel like they’re doing that great of a job, either.

Wrapping up

So I think my conclusion is in line with the linked article from Benjamin Mayo. Apple’s apps and services are fine, with a few really solid showings for that 80% of users they’re trying to satisfy. However, many of my complaints aren’t about lack of functionality. It’s more about bad UX, slow interfaces or creaky tech debt. For a company that sweats every millimeter on the hardware side, I expect more on the software side. If they can’t or won’t address those concerns I hope they at least move down a path of adding more APIs that allow 3rd parties to address those needs. Apple doesn’t need to build every app or service that I use, but when they have a unique position that they’ve created and then don’t deliver, that’s a problem.

My worry is that all of the EU and US regulation that seems to be gaining traction is going to force the company to take their eyes off of the ball even further over the coming years and users of iOS and Android are going to see limited innovation as engineers on those platform scurry to build experiences that match the new laws coming out.

Ok, now what?

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