HolidayBuyer's Guide

Google Calendar colors a CNET reporter's day

CNET News.com's Elinor Mills says the search giant's online calendar best suits her needs. And it has nice colors, too.

My friends tease me every time I pull out my black, leather-bound date book to jot down an appointment. True, it weighs just over a pound and crowds my purse, but it also contains a notepad, address book, pen and a bevy of business cards.

Still, I've been waiting for something to nudge my scheduling into the digital era. So when Google Calendar was released last month, I saw my opportunity. I also decided to try the Web-based calendars from Yahoo and Microsoft to see how they compare.

Let me tell you, even for a calendar junkie like me, it hasn't been easy juggling three online calendars and my old-fashioned, paper date book for the past two weeks. That said, my attempt at calendar multitasking left me with a few clear thoughts, starting with the fact that marking appointments, or "events" as they're called in the online world, turned out to be fairly straightforward on all three programs.

But Google, in my very unscientific test drive, won out. (For a more technical look at the Google and Yahoo calendars, by CNET Reviews, click here.) Google's had the best interface and the most interactive features of the three. But there's one big caveat, something that didn't bother me so much but could annoy other people, particularly on-the-go business users. While Google Calendar allows users to import from and export to Microsoft Outlook, it doesn't synchronize with Outlook or handheld devices. A Google product manager has said the company will offer that functionality in coming months.

First, some tech background: I used Firefox and sometimes Internet Explorer on a Windows-based PC and tested the calendaring feature in the Windows Live Mail beta rather than Hotmail, which it will eventually replace. On a side note, Microsoft is building a calendar feature into its pending next-generation operating system, Vista, which is due later this year.

Typically, a calendar user creates an appointment by clicking on a button to add or create a new "event" and filling in blank spaces on a new page with details such as event type, day, time and location, and then clicking Save.

Google gives you several different ways to create new events without having to go through all those steps. One way is to click on a particular day and type in some details in a pop-up window, such as "Triathlon in Napa." After that, the program automatically creates the event. Another way is to click on a "Quick Add" link, type in a few more specifics, such as "Triathlon in Napa, Sunday 8 a.m.," and it will automatically create the event for that day.

Google also lets users easily change the day of an event once it's scheduled by dragging and dropping it on to a new day. The other calendars require people to open up the event details and change the date manually, which takes more time.

Google Calendar also was the easiest on the eyes, allowing me to choose from a broad palette of colors for different calendars. For instance, events that are work-related show up in turquoise, personal items are purple, birthdays are pink and travel is yellow. My nine different calendar views each sported different colors, giving the setup an exciting look, if I do say so myself. Google also has kept the interface simple and clean, with no ads (at least for now).

By contrast, Yahoo and Microsoft offered fewer colors to choose from and they both showed ads. Yahoo's interface seemed downright cluttered with ads and a random nature shot, which I could choose from a variety of such pictures. For me, that was distracting and an unnecessary waste of space. Yahoo automatically shows me the weather outlook for the day, which was kind of helpful, if you trust those forecasts.

But Yahoo and Microsoft do have one leg up on Google. They synchronize with Outlook and mobile devices. Microsoft synchs with handhelds through Outlook, a representative said.

All three offer the ability to view the calendar in day, week and month modes by default. Yahoo and Microsoft also offer year views, and Google offers a "next four days" view, which is arguably more useful than viewing the whole year without any events listed. Google has a unique and very handy display function that lets users highlight any number of days or weeks in a monthly calendar thumbnail on the left-hand side to change the main calendar display to show only those days. With Yahoo and Microsoft, users have to click an arrow to navigate through to the next day, week or month, which can be tedious.

Google also offers an agenda view that lets users see a running list of events on the calendar, and Microsoft offers separate views for tasks and for notes. Yahoo lets people create a list of tasks that are seen on the main calendar view on the left-hand side.

That seemingly small feature turned out to be very important to me. It's the digital equivalent to the yellow Post-it notes for ongoing tasks that I migrate through my print date book every week. And if you ever saw my desk, you'd understand how important Post-it notes are to me. They serve as a constant reminder of things I need to do, like train for the triathlon, renew my passport and take care of long overdue e-mails and phone calls. Having it easily viewable there every time I look at my calendar will, theoretically, improve the chances that I will actually get those things done.

Google and Yahoo also allow users to search for events in the calendar by keyword through a search box on the main page, which Microsoft doesn't. Google let me search the Web for events I might want to add to my calendar, although the search is only as good as the events listed. For example, a search for "DJ" and "San Francisco" turned up 47 items, many of which looked useful, whereas a search for "belly dance" in the same city turned up zero items--though I know of a bunch of belly dance events in the city (don't ask why).

And Google Calendar is integrated with Gmail so that when I receive an e-mail that mentions dates and times for an event, I can click an "add to calendar" button and it will automatically add the event to my Google Calendar. Neither Yahoo nor Microsoft offers that function, although accepting a meeting request in Outlook will automatically put it in Microsoft's Calendar, a representative said.

What Google probably does best is offer the ability to share calendars with others. Not only could I create different calendars for myself--one for work, one for travel and another for personal events--but I could also combine those calendars, along with outside public calendars and calendars from friends, all into one view. A user can hide or show any of the different calendars at any time by clicking boxes next to a list of them. This is very handy for when I don't want my friend's crazy yoga schedule littering my work-related calendar view.

Google Calendar solves a problem that has plagued me and my friend for months. Instead of e-mailing back and forth or conducting long and confusing phone conversations about when we are both free to go to Harbin Hot Springs for the weekend, we can now go to a Web browser and quickly see that that trip (unfortunately) won't be possible until next month at the earliest.

Sharing our Google Calendars was easy. We just typed in each other's e-mail addresses and it sent us invites. Anyone can share, not just Gmail users. Forget who is speed dial No. 1 on my cell phone; sharing a calendar with someone shows where they really stand in my personal hierarchy.

After a confusing start, I was able to share a Yahoo Calendar with a colleague. But I had a harder time finding a Hotmail or Windows Live Mail beta user to swap calendars with. Then I had a difficult time synchronizing my real-world schedule with that of a Microsoft representative so we could figure out how to share online calendars. When we finally did get on the phone to do it, we both got error messages saying that the sharing feature was "currently unavailable."

So much for that.

I saw a few things that could be improved in Google Calendar. For instance, it allowed me to send event invites to friends for a date that had already passed. I didn't notice that the date was wrong until I happened to open up the event in my calendar and see that one of the friends had responded and pointed out my error. It should alert me if I accidentally try to input something for a date that has passed. And I'd like to get an alert or somehow be notified when a friend responds to an invite to an event.

Google and Yahoo calendars also let users set the system to send them alerts via e-mail and mobile phone, while Microsoft lets people send reminders only via e-mail, which is the method I chose to receive all the alerts. In the Microsoft reminders, the text was so small that I could barely read the details, and clicking on the "view details" button did nothing. The Google Calendar alerts can be set to be displayed in pop-up windows too. Google Calendar sent me an alert one day notifying me of a meeting at 2 p.m., but it didn't specify that the meeting was for the following day, which would have been helpful. A Google representative said the company is addressing that issue.

I also was able to search on outside event database sites for items to add to my calendars, such as from Trumba.com and, for Google and Yahoo, Eventful.com. It was easy to export events to Yahoo Calendar from Upcoming.org, which Yahoo acquired last year.

I'm exhausted maintaining these calendars. While they all did the job, I think I'll keep using Google Calendar because of its ease of use, customization and sharing advantages. But I'll still be toting around my date book, because there's no compelling electronic calendar/address book/notebook replacement yet for this old-fashioned girl.

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