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The best $5 I ever spent on an iPhone app

If you thought the iPhone wasn't for tinkerers, think again. Workflow puts powerful task automation in the palm of your hand.

Taylor Martin/CNET

When you think of smartphones and automation, your mind might immediately gravitate towards IFTTT or even Tasker for Android.

Automation apps let you create "recipes" that enable devices and services to intermingle and act based on "triggers." For example, you can make your smart lights pulse a certain color if you're mentioned on Twitter or have Youtube videos you've selected to Watch Later emailed to you.

The recipe variations are endless. And if you're an iPhone owner, there's an app that brings almost the same level of tinkering power you might find on Android to your iOS devices. It's called Workflow, and it's the best $4.99 (£3.99 or AU$7.99) you will spend on an app for your iPhone or iPad.

Currently, Workflow is on sale for $2.99 (£2.29 or AU$4.49) to celebrate winning most innovative app in the App Store Best of 2015.

What is Workflow?

Workflow is sort of like having IFTTT baked right into iOS, but with far more flexibility and granular control.

workflow-best-ios-app-2.png
Screenshot by Taylor Martin/CNET

Instead of two-part recipes (trigger and action), you build workflows, which can be as simple as a two-step automation or far more complex with upwards of 20 steps. Building workflows takes practice and patience, and there's a much steeper learning curve than what you're used to with IFTTT. In fact, Workflow for iOS is more like Zapier -- IFTTT is just more relatable.

Some examples of what you can do with a single (or double) tap using Workflow:

  • Shorten or expand URLs
  • Send an article or web page to Kindle as a PDF
  • Open Twitter links in Tweetbot
  • Convert videos, bursts or live photos to GIFs
  • Order an Uber to get you to the next appointment in your calendar
Taylor Martin/CNET

Once you've got an arsenal of workflows at the ready, you can open the Workflow app to run them, or you can access them in the Workflow Today Widget. Some workflows exist as app share extensions, meaning when you hit the share button from within an app, tap Run Workflow and select a workflow such as Expand URL or Get Images from Page. And if you want quick access to specific workflows, you can add a shortcut to them on your homescreen or run them from a connected Apple Watch.

If you want to see a larger gallery of examples, check out Workflow Directory, a (unofficially) user-submitted database of workflows you can browse without having to purchase the app first.

Using Workflow

To get started, you should first explore the Gallery. This is where all the best user-submitted workflows exist within the app.

To view a workflow, just tap on it. This will bring up a pop-up menu where you can scroll through all the actions and inner workings of that workflow. If you like it, you can add it to your collection by tapping Get Workflow. After it's added, it's ready to run -- no setup required. However, if you want to tweak anything, you can tap on it from the My Workflows tab and change any of the values or settings. You can even delete or replace actions with your own.

To create your own workflow, tap the plus sign in the upper-right corner of the My Workflows tab. Select which type of workflow you want to build (Normal, Today Widget, Apple Watch or Action Extension) and swipe from left-to-right to reveal a laundry list of suggested actions. Find the action you want, long press, drag it to the right and drop it. Do this for every following action until you have a working workflow and tap Done.

Taylor Martin/CNET

There are literally hundreds of options for actions, so the sheer number of possibilities is not only staggering, it's also terrifying. I often find it difficult to even know where to start with a workflow, but iMore's Federico Viticci has a very helpful tip for creating your own workflows. Start by finding and dropping in the first action. Next, locate and drop in the final action. Then you "only have to figure out how to go from Point A to Point B," says Viticci.

Workflow and IFTTT

Even more, Workflow added IFTTT support earlier this month, so you can now integrate IFTTT right into your workflows. To use it, locate the Trigger IFTTT Recipe action, drag it into the workflow and give it a Trigger Name. Then, when creating the IFTTT recipe to go along with it, select Workflow as the Trigger Channel and the set Trigger Name for the Trigger Action.

You can use this new integration to migrate your iOS contacts to Google, create a Spotify playlist from an Apple Music playlist or logging your caffeine intake in Evernote.

Workflows to get you started

To help you get started, here are a couple of my favorites from the Gallery inside the Workflow app. To add any of them to your list of workflows, open the app, navigate to the Gallery tab, search for the name of the workflow, tap it to open and select Get Workflow.

  • Use Expand URL to check out where a questionable shortened link is going to take you before having to click it.
  • Pizza Assistant searches "pizza" within 1.5 kilometers (just under a mile) of your current location in Maps. It then asks you to select one of the results and immediately places a call to that pizzeria. Afterwards, it can create a reminder that accounts for cook and travel time, so you arrive to pick up your pizza as it's coming out of the oven.
  • The Google Clipboard recipe allows you to copy any text and launch a Google search with it.
  • File Downloader allows you to download files you normally can't download onto an iPhone and save them to any connected cloud storage account, such as Dropbox, Google Drive or even iCloud Drive.
  • AirDrop Screenshot allows you to AirDrop the last few screenshots you took to your nearby Apple devices with a single tap. If you want, you can tweak the number of screenshots to include more or less each time you run the workflow.