A Calendar to Go, Please

Wednesday Mar 29th 2006 by Joseph Moran

30 Boxes, a remarkably powerful, flexible and easy-to-use calendar and schedule application is as close and accessible as the nearest browser.

If you're a highly organized type, chances are you rely on some kind of calendar and scheduling software. More specifically, though, you probably rely on the computer on which that software resides. Contrast that to 30 Boxes from 83 Degrees, a remarkably powerful, flexible and easy to use Web-based calendar application that you can access from any Internet-connected computer.

User Interface
30 Boxes, which is still in beta release as of this review, relies on AJAX (Asynchronous Java And XML), a programming technique that can help Web-based applications appear and behave a lot more like conventional software. One of the main benefits: AJAX makes Web pages more responsive by exchanging small amounts of information with a server, eliminating the need to constantly refresh the entire page.

Just because a Web-based application like 30 Boxes uses AJAX doesn't mean that you're likely to mistake it for shrink-wrapped software, though, and in the case of 30 Boxes that's not necessarily a bad thing. In contrast to the busy, feature-laden interface you're likely to find in the typical PIM-based calendar, the 30 Boxes interface is decidedly simple, dominated by a large four-week display (technically, this is only 28 boxes, but we digress) along with a handful of links to various application options.

This default four-week calendar view can span across two months rather than making you switch back and forth between months x and y. It displays events for each day, and clicking on a box brings up another window with a more-detailed view of that day's events.

Creating Calendar Entries
You can add new events to your 30 Boxes calendar in two ways. The more conventional method is to click a detailed entry button, which calls up a dialog box through which you can create an event and specify all the particulars, including start and end times (and dates, if applicable), category tags, and random notes, as well as recurrences and reminders. Reminders can come in the form of an e-mail or to your mobile phone via a SMS-based text message.

The One Box, a free-form text field at the top of the page, offers a much more convenient way to create new entries. With the One Box, you can enter as much or as little data as you care to in a single stream of text. 30 Boxes then parses what you typed and automatically creates the entry based on what it can discern from the information provided.

For example, to create an entry for that new business pitch, you can simply type "Proposal for Acme Inc., Monday 4:00," and 30 Boxes creates a corresponding entry for the upcoming Monday at 4 PM. If the event is a bit further out in the future, you can type specific dates (i.e. 5/14) instead of days of the week.

If you're entering a recurring task or event you can add language like "repeat weekly" to your description. You can also have items that repeat bi-weekly, monthly or yearly, and have them stop recurring on a given date, but at this time 30 Boxes can't handle more complex recurrences, such as "the first Friday of each month."

The One Box doesn't always translate your intent perfectly every time — it recommends that you enter the event name, date and time in that order — but it is surprisingly accurate, and as often as not works as expected. It even displays some rudimentary artificial intelligence — when 30 Boxes detects keywords in the description like "birthday" or "anniversary" it automatically offers to create yearly entries for that event.

Moreover, if you forget to specify AM or PM in an entry (as in the example above), 30 Boxes does a pretty good job of determining what you meant — when we created entries like "breakfast at 7:30" and "dinner at 7:30," the application correctly identified which event would be taking place at dawn and which at dusk. It doesn't always get it right when dealing with more vague terminology — like "soccer game" — but it always errs in favor of the afternoon over the wee hours of the morning.

The One Box isn't just limited to the who, what, and when of an event: You can employ a number of useful tricks to enhance an entry. For example, you can indicate a high-priority event by adding an asterisk to your description, which becomes a yellow star in the calendar entry. If your description includes an address surrounded by brackets, it becomes a Google Maps link. Web addresses also can become links (but unfortunately you must include the http://prefix for them to be recognized as such).

Sharing Information

One of the neat things about 30 Boxes is how easily it lets you share your calendar with your co-workers, family and friends. You can create a "buddy" by typing in someone's e-mail address and then, in just a few mouse clicks, give that person the ability to view your calendar. (You can limit visibility to entries that have not been designated as private or only those with specific tags, such as "work" or "personal.")

You also can request access to the calendars of other 30 Boxes users. The sharing feature's main catch is that in order to view your calendar, your buddies need to log in to 30 Boxes, and in order to log in, they must have their own 30 Boxes account (signing up, in beta release at least, is free but does require a valid e-mail address).

Whenever you create a calendar item, you can issue an event invitation to another person via e-mail by providing his or her e-mail address. The person's response to the invitation will then be displayed as part of the detailed calendar entry. (You can easily generate invitations via the One Box by prefacing e-mail addresses with a plus sign.)

30 Boxes offers several other ways to share calendar data, including creating links to some or all of the calendar events as a public Web page. There are also options to view your calendar through an RSS feed, or to publish it to a blog.

There isn't a ton you can do to customize the appearance of your 30 Boxes calendar, but you can currently choose from among three themes that toggle the background color between a muted blue, grey and white, and you can also change the color of some text. Font type and size are fixed, although you can display the event text in one of about a dozen colors by including the name of the color as a tag when you create the event.

In addition to your calendar, your 30 Boxes account can play host to other types of Web-based personal information like a blog or Flickr account. (When you include links to these sources and share your calendar, it shares these items as well.)

The biggest complaint about 30 Boxes is that at this point it doesn't offer any way to import existing data from Microsoft Outlook or other calendar programs, which means you'll need to spend some time retyping your appointments. It also lacks other PIM features like an address book or contact list.

Overall, while it can't compete on a feature-for-feature basis with Outlook or similar programs at this early stage, the ease of use, ease of sharing and the ability to access it from almost anywhere make 30 Boxes an immensely useful program.

Adapted from winplanet.com.

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