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Timer: a single-serving iPhone app for timing stuff

The guiding principle behind the Unix command line lurking underneath the GUI of every Mac you own is a collection of simple programs that co-operate to enable you to achieve complex tasks. That co-operation part is missing from iOS, due to tight app sandboxing, but the idea of simple, small apps that do one thing well is very much alive.

The latest from this school of design thought is App Cubby's $0.99 app, Timer. It comes highly recommended -- with a 4.5-star average review in iTunes and featured-by-Apple App Store spot. I almost don't need to explain the functionality; a screenshot alone may be enough, although there are some neat, subtle touches that don't immediately meet the eye.

Timer gives you twelve buttons, each corresponding to a distinct count-down timer. Some are pre-filled with values; some are not. Tap on a pre-set button to start the countdown timer for the appropriate time. Tap it again to pause the timer.

Timer a singleserving iPhone app for timing stuff

Tap the other buttons to enter a one-off custom time to count down to:

Timer a singleserving iPhone app for timing stuff

Tap and hold on any button to configure a pre-set in that slot, with options for colour (which you can use to visually group timers) and alert tone:

Timer a singleserving iPhone app for timing stuff

When the timer goes off, your choice of alarm tone sounds and a notification pop-up appears, in the usual fashion:

Timer a singleserving iPhone app for timing stuff

Like most reminder apps since the edition of local notifications in iOS 4, you don't need to leave Timer running to make the alarm sound.

If the phone is muted, you get a vibrating alert instead. However, note that it does not continue to vibrate -- it's one buzz, and the screen lights up, and then the device goes back to sleep a few seconds later. Similarly, audible alarms play only for a short period -- ten or so seconds, depending on the tone you choose -- before shutting off. Depending on what you want, the non-repeating nature of the alarm could be perfect, or an annoying limitation.

If you don't respond to an alarm, it transforms into a count-up timer instead. When you return to the phone you can use this to see how long it's been since the alarm sounded.

Why this and not any other timer?

I can think of at least two specific scenarios Timer is perfect for.

The first is where you want to time a specific interval over and over again. For example, the Pomodoro productivity technique calls for you to single-mindedly concentrate on a task for 25 minutes, then have a five minute break, then repeat the pattern. Every fourth break, take a bit longer (15-20 minutes). This requires timing the same three intervals over and over -- Timer is perfect for this.

The second activity I've found Timer to be spot-on for is complicated cooking. I have a little standalone digital timer in my kitchen, but once I have a few different elements on the go -- all with their own end-points -- I find it all too easy to lose track of where I am. With Timer, I was able to configure multiple clocks for each element of the meal, and see at a glance if I had time for another glass of wine before I had to remove the chicken from the oven to rest.

Why Timer instead of Siri?

In my case, because I'm still rocking an iPhone 4, so I don't have Siri; but that's a fatuous answer. There's also no way to coerce Clock to track more than one countdown at once on the earlier iPhones that can't access Siri's special area. You can use Reminders, although then you have to do mental arithmetic to work out the end points of your various timers and set a reminder for the corresponding time.

Even if you are using an iPhone 4S, however, you still can't easily get a glance over up to a dozen timers without re-invoking Siri, and setting timers over and over again for the same block of time ("remind me to stir the ragù every 20 minutes" was my most recent use case) isn't as easy as tapping a single button.

Future changes

I spoke with Dave Barnard, of App Cubby. He told me they are already hard at work on v1.1 of Timer, which they are aiming to release "really soon" now they are done with Launch Centre Pro. This version will bring optional names for timers, some extra UI polish (I can't imagine where; it's a very slick app already), and a few bug fixes.

Is it worth the money?

This, of course, is the $64,000 question. Or, more accurately, the $0.99 one, as that's what Timer costs.

On the one hand, there's apps that do this sort of thing for free, and you can get by with the built-into-iOS stuff too. I can't really claim that Timer will change your life.

On the other hand, it's $0.99, and it's legitimately more convenient than the built-in stuff -- or any other timer app I've looked at. It's nice to use, has a nice UI, and genuinely useful. How much time does it have to save you to justify that paltry cost? To my mind, not much at all. Recommended.

Timer is available on the iOS App Store for $0.99, or your local currency equivalent.