Using Apple’s Stock Apps, and other things I’ve learned.

Hello, internet. I’ve been engaging in an experiment. I tried using Apple’s stock apps.

What? Apple has stock apps on their phones?

That’s because, in the past, Apple stock apps have never been as good as the third party apps that replace them. And Apple seems to have a habit of forgetting certain stock apps for a while. Before iOS 9, Notes was simply there. It existed, for anyone who needed a quick note pad, but it wasn’t really worth much. But we are approaching iOS 11 now, and Apple has gone to some lengths on most of their stock apps to make them worthwhile.

As I once again power on an iPhone (after a brief stint trying out the latest of Android and cheapness of Windows), I decided to dive into the world of apps made by Apple. Why would I bother to do this? There are several good reasons to consider using the stock apps over the third party. First and foremost, they don’t take up any extra space on your device. And if you are working with a lower memory device (32GB, or even worse the now defunct 16GB iPhones), any space saved is good. Yes, you can “delete” Apple’s stock apps these days, but the impact on your storage is negligible, as you are really just deleting the icon from your home screen (goodbye, stock Stocks stock app). On the flip side, an app like Microsoft OneNote (replacing Notes) is taking up 325MB of space on my iPad (including app size and app data; Notes is only using 12MB). Those third party apps can add up (especially Microsoft’s). Apple’s stock apps are also the most integrated in the OS, meaning they work best with Siri and when using more than one Apple device. Third party apps have come a long way in recent years as far as integration goes, but Apple still won’t let you make the default browser app Chrome, or the default maps app Google Maps, which means any time you ask Siri to look something up, she’s gonna default to the defaults.

Disclaimer: I am using iOS 11 Public Beta, so there may be some features that I’ll mention which haven’t arrived on everyone’s devices. For reference, I’m using an iPhone SE and the iPad Mini 4.

So what do Apple stock apps offer in 2017? Well, the results were pretty mixed. There were good, like Photos and Maps, and there were bad, like Mail, and there were some that were neither bad nor brilliant, like Notes. Let’s see what I discovered.

Photos:

Well, for me, for two reasons. Even though my photos default to Photos, I usually let them upload to Google Photos for my primary back up (and then delete the copies in Photos). That hasn’t really changed, except that I no longer delete Apple’s native back-up. But, more importantly, I’ve allowed Photos to replace my go-to apps for photo editing. Generally, I use Snapseed and Pixlr when it comes time to edit my photos, and recently I’ve fallen in love with Photoshop Mix and Fix. But I know Apple has been building in a lot of photo editing controls into the Photos app. So I’ve given it a try. And you know what? The Photos app is actually a great photo editor, for basic editing. Sure, Pixlr and Snapseed have a lot more options, and frankly nothing is going to replace Adobe’s robust Mix and Fix capabilities, but what I use most is simple tuning, and the Photos app does as well as, if not better than, any of the others. It also has some unique features, like Mark-Up, which allows you to draw on the photos (which I use far more often than I would have thought). Will it replace my other apps? Not entirely, but it is quickly becoming my go-to when I want to edit without changing apps.

A side note: the Photos app will change the original photo. Which means if you, like me, would prefer to preserve your original and edit a copy, you have to have the forethought to make a copy before you start editing (unlike 3rd Party apps, which will allow you to save a copy post-edit). It’s an extra step over what 3rd Party apps offer, and therefore, it is a mark against.

Related: I’ve never really stopped using Apple’s stock Camera app. I know there are others out there, but they just don’t make sense to me to use them, given all the shortcuts that Apple put in place to access the camera (and the inability to change which camera app these shortcuts default to). I’ve dabbled with other camera apps, but I always find that they either don’t take as good a quality of photo, or features like the insane burst mode or Live Photos (which gets some cool new editing features in iOS 11) aren’t available. Hell, the reason I came back to the iPhone in the first place was primarily for the camera, which is leagues better and more reliable than anything I tried from Android or Windows. So the stock Camera app is one I’ll definitely stick with.

Notes:

Apple’s Notes has gotten far more robust since I last played with it. It brings in a few features that I really loved from OneNote and Evernote, namely the ability to create different folders for different notes. For me, having a separate folder for regular notes, book notes, and whatnot, is a real lifesaver, and way more useful, in my opinion, to using tags to later identify notes, as you do in Google Keep. I mean, tags do sound useful, but they take extra time to type out, and then I have to remember what the tags are to find them again. Folders, on the other hand, are quick to set up once. That’s just my personal opinion. OneNote, however, still has an advantage over Apple Notes, and that is the ability to create tabs within folders. I like organization. Especially when it comes to writing a large book series. So being able to sort notes within the folder (such as having different tabs for each character, for major events, locations, etc and so forth) is a big plus, and one that is lacking in Apple Notes (and in Evernote, btw). OneNote also allows me to copy a note as well as move a note (Notes only lets you move them), so if I have a note that fits into both, say, Major Events and a specific character’s folders, I can have it in both.

But Apple’s Notes has some good advantages over everyone else, as well. For example, in the iOS 11 control center, there’s now a dedicated button that will instantly open Notes for you to start notating. That is a handy feature, and one step quicker than pulling down the notifications bar, swiping left, and finding the OneNote or Evernote widget. And, of course, being Apple, that means you can’t swap out which note-taking app this button summons. Notes also has some fun features like Mark-Up (also available in Photos) which allow you to doodle on your notes (but this is hardly exclusive, as Evernote and OneNote also have similar features, but it is nice that Mark-Up works the same as it does in Photos and Screenshots and anywhere else Apple has tucked Mark-Up into).

Will it replace OneNote for me? No, because OneNote offers me even more organization than any other note-taking apps thus far. But it is a nice, quick go to when I need to jot down a note very quickly, given the native button in the control center, which is accessible from any screen.

Mail:

Will it replace Outlook and Inbox? I really wanted it to. Possibly more than any other stock Apple apps, simply because it combined the need for two separate apps for two separate email accounts into one. But the inconsistency in which it worked with my Outlook account made it a deal breaker. And, honestly, Apple’s Mail app reminds me of everything I’ve always disliked about email, something Inbox has remedied lately. Inbox’s smart organization has done wonders for me, and there’s more than a few emails I would have probably missed had I not been using the third party app instead (including the email which has led me to a brand new career).

Pages:

The major differences between them come from what they are designed to do. Word is PC based, meaning all of your work is stored on the PC, and then uploaded to the cloud (if you so choose). Google Docs, on the other hand, is entirely cloud based; all of your work is kept in the cloud, and then downloaded to your device for offline editing (if you so choose). Pages, however, seems to be a best-of-both-worlds scenario. My files start on my iPad, and are then uploaded to iCloud Drive. It is closer to Word’s way of doing things, but simpler to use, like Google.

I’ve tried Pages before. Before I stumbled upon Chromebooks, I always used Pages on my iPad (and, briefly, Storyist). But that was before I really got into using the cloud to save my work. But back then, Pages wasn’t really much of a competition for the likes of Microsoft Word. Nowadays, however, it is, with one caveat. It works best if you primarily are an Apple user.

The reason I went back to it this time, the reason I’m trying all of Apple’s stock apps, is because I am going all in with Apple. I’ve made the decision to keep with iPhone, and ignore Android and Windows. I’ve decided to sell my Windows laptop (I still have a small Windows tablet for iTunes, if I need it), and primarily use my iPad for computing, since iOS 11 is making the iPad much more robust when it comes to replacing the PC (something I almost wrote last year would never happen). I still use my Chromebook (Asus Flip), almost daily, but it is becoming more of a homebody, since the iPad Mini 4 is even more portable than the 10-inch Chromebook. So when it came time to deciding between Word and Docs, I decided to throw Pages back into the mix, since Pages works the best with iOS, and has more integration.

At first I was thrown by the design of the app; I’m used to Windows, which has all of the tools in the toolbar at the top. But Pages is more intuitive. You get pretty much all the same tools (at least the ones I use on the daily) but they are offered when you need them. Instead of all the tools being static at the top of the screen, you get contextual tools, depending on what you are doing. Stuff like font size and control, alignment, comments, footnotes, and other common tools are actually placed along the top of the keyboard (or the bottom of the screen when you are using a physical keyboard), which is very useful, putting them right at your fingertips. The rest of the options are in drop down menus at the top, leaving the majority of the screen free for the document itself.

Pages also does a few other things extremely well over the others. For example, the “Page Thumbnails” option is a very easy way to navigate through large documents, giving you an actual glimpse of each page rather than just a number or a title to skim over. Features like adding footnotes, which is something I regularly do in my writing, are present, where they are missing in the iOS (and Android) version of Google Docs (but available in the browser version). Pages is also able to handle documents over a hundred pages long (like a book manuscript), something that Google Docs falters on (especially when using the browser version instead of the app). Likewise, I feel like I spend a lot of my time in Word clicking through the menus to find whatever I want to add into the document. Pages putting these controls at the keyboard level makes it super easy to continue writing. Pages also has the easiest to navigate folder system. Docs for some reason shows all your documents in one page, even if they are in different folders in Google Drive (you have to click the folder icon to see the folder view, and then find your documents that way, and you have to do this every time you need to switch documents, which is really annoying), and Word begins by showing you what you’ve worked on most recently, and you have to navigate to the folder subsystem (which only gives you a cluttered list of folders, and not an actual file system like you get on PC). Pages basically keeps your documents in Pages, not in a separate cloud drive app (although you can also access your documents from the Pages tab in iCloud Drive/Files), and all the organization is done within Pages. Meaning my work is where I want it when I want it.

And if I’m working on my Chromebook one day, I can still use Pages. I simply have to log into iCloud.com, and I can get to Pages, as well as Notes, Photos, and several other Apple apps that store their contents in the cloud. Pages in the browser works just as well as Google Docs or Word online, although if you are using a third-party font app on iOS, your fonts won’t transfer to the iCloud.com app. Also to note, though it probably goes without saying, iCloud.com does not work offline, unlike Google Docs, which has a complete offline mode through Google Drive (given Chromebooks are entirely web based).

There are some features still missing from Pages. Word and Docs both have some more niche features like table of contents creation (Word only in the PC mode and Docs only in browser), but I quickly figured a work-around using Pages’ bookmark feature. Pages also doesn’t appear to have any way of telling the app to keep certain documents offline (for when I want to work on something without a wifi connection). It seems to keep the most recently used documents offline, much in the same way Word does, and I can go to the Files/iCloud Drive app and download what I need, but I wish I could tag specific documents as always being downloaded to the device, as you can do in Google Docs. Google is still the king of the instant-save feature, but Pages seems to do nearly as well, and both leave Word in the dust, which seems to save only once you stop typing for a moment, and has issues when I try to open a file on a different device.

Will Pages replace Google Docs and Word for me? Yes, it already has. I am still using Docs at the moment, but primarily because that is where my current drafts are, and I’m only using it to transfer a new document to Pages when I need it. I also use Docs to update my proof readers, as it is easier to send them a Google Doc, but Apple does offer collaboration features that I haven’t yet explored (though I assume they only work with iOS and MacOS devices). Otherwise, I’m all in with Pages, and I think it is possibly the app that has come the furthest when it comes to Apple’s stock apps.

Side Bar:

Apple Music:

That said, over the last few months, I’ve actually been doing the reverse of what this article is all about: I’ve been trying all the other guys. Spotify, Google Play Music, Deezer, Amazon Music Unlimited, and even Groove Music.

Did Apple Music win out over everyone else? Yes, but mostly because it is native to iOS. It works fine on my mom’s and my dad’s Android phones, but it is one of the most integrated apps with Siri on the iOS devices, which means it is the only music streaming service where I can say “Hey, Siri, play Monumental Meltdown from Spider-Man: Homecoming” and get an accurate result (seriously, asking Siri to play the same song in Spotify still opens up Apple Music). If I were going all in on Android, I’d probably be saying Google Play Music was my go-to choice, for the same reasons (and I still use Google Play Music to store my personal collection, since it is free to do so). If I had to pick a third-party app to go to, I’d probably go to Spotify, of which I love the user created playlists and the ability to use on things like Roku, but it is much easier to get my personal files into iTunes than it is to upload it into Spotify. Apple Music does a great job of discovering new music for me to listen to, and I see no reason to change it up now.

Maps:

Pretty much every feature available in Apple Maps, such as the ability to find things on your route, alerting you to traffic conditions, and the new indoor maps feature, are also standard in Google Maps, and since Apple Maps have gotten better at the, you know, maps side of things, they are really about even, in my opinion.

Will Apple Maps replace Google Maps? Yes, if for nothing more than saving some space on my phone’s storage. Plus, I like to leave Siri in Australian accent mode, so that carries over to Apple Maps, whereas Google’s voice navigation sounds like regular, boring American Siri.

There are, of course, other stock apps that I really didn’t bother to write about, like the calendar app, since I’ve never really bothered to replace that one with Google Calendar or Outlook. iBooks is another one I won’t really talk about, since I use it, as well as Kindle and Google Play Books, almost evenly (although if you own an ePub book file, it is easiest to open it in iBooks), and the same goes for Apple’s TV app, which replaced the Movies app, and apps like Amazon Video, Vudu, Hulu, etc and so forth (although I do like the new feature where TV adds in feeds from other apps like Hulu and HBO Now). Safari gets the most use from me as well, simply because it syncs between my iPhone and iPad, and because whenever I ask Siri for something or do a Spotlight search, they open up into Safari. I use the Google Now app and Apple News evenly when it comes to reading stories (plus, you know, Medium…). Siri is used by default, even though I have Google Assistant and Cortana installed.

I hope this article provides some good insight into what Apple apps can, and can’t, do. Don’t know if anyone really cares about this sort of thing as much as I do, but this was a sort of personal project I wanted to write about, and so thank you for indulging me.

I am just clever enough to get into trouble…