Timers, reminders, alarms—oh, my!

I was shocked—shocked!—to see people disagree with my last post. I was even more shocked to learn about bizarre omission in the HomePod software. I decided to dig into the many ways you can set timed alerts on your Apple devices and how the alert systems vary from device to device. It is, you will not be surprised to learn, a mess.

Let’s start with the summary. In the table below, I’m comparing the features of the three alert types on iOS: Timers, Alarms, and Reminders. Included in the comparison is how certain features work (or don’t work) on the iPhone, iPad, Watch, Mac,1 and HomePod. Most of the entries for the HomePod are empty because I don’t have one to test, but I’ve included it because it was the device that got me started down this path. Also, there’s that software omission I want to talk about.

  Timer Alarm Reminder
Number 1 ∞︎ ∞︎
Name/Description No Yes Yes
Autodelete Yes No Yes
    iPhone Yes Yes Yes
    iPad No No Yes
    Watch Yes Yes Yes
    Mac No No Yes
    HomePod ? ? No
Time left
    iPhone Yes No No
    iPad Yes No No
    Watch Yes No No
    Mac No No No
    HomePod ? ? ?
Time of
    iPhone No Yes Yes
    iPad No Yes Yes
    Watch No Yes Yes
    Mac No No Yes
    HomePod ? ? ?

Many of the entries in this table have caveats, so let’s go through it.

The number of alerts that can be set was the starting point for the last post. People want multiple timers in their HomePods. That’s great, but Apple’s never had multiple timers in any iOS device, which is why I’ve always used reminders instead. “Reminders aren’t a substitute for timers!” I’ve been told by several people. I admire your steadfast adherence to your principles, but I need a solution, not a manifesto. (We’ll get to the deficiencies of using reminders as a substitute for timers later in the post.)

Since there’s only one timer, there’s no need for it to have a name or description. So when the timer on your phone/watch/table/speaker goes off, you might have to think a bit before you remember what it’s for. Alarms and reminders don’t have this problem.

I didn’t mention alarms in my last post, but Kirk McElhearn reminded2 me of them. If you’ve only used Clock app’s UI to set an alarm, you may think you have to use a specific time (like 8:55 PM) instead of a relative time (in 20 minutes). But Siri offers another way:

Hey Siri, set a casserole3 alarm for 20 minutes.

One problem with using alarms as your alert system is that they don’t delete themselves when you dismiss them; they just sit there, inactive, taking up space in your list of alarms until you undertake a second action to remove them from the list. Timers delete themselves upon dismissal, which is certainly more convenient. Reminders almost delete themselves—when you mark a reminder as complete, it gets hidden in the Completed list. I take this as close enough to deletion that I gave Reminders a Yes on the Autodelete line.

One of the biggest advantages to using reminders is that they’re shared via iCloud, which also syncs them to your Mac. This is very convenient if you use reminders during the workday and allow notifications from the Reminders app, which I do. Timers and alarms are not shared; the timer you set on your phone doesn’t appear in the Clock app on your iPad or on your watch. But the watch is special because of its intimate relationship with the phone. Your watch will alert you of a timer or alarm set on your phone, even though it doesn’t appear in the watch’s Timer or Alarms app. The Mac is ignorant of all timers and alarms.

Here’s where we get to the HomePod’s software omission. Even if you set up your HomePod to access your reminders—which, I admit, you may be reluctant to do in some households—the HomePod will not alert you when a reminder comes due. I was first informed of this stunning fact by Holger Eilhard, and it’s been confirmed by others. So I guess you can create a reminder through your HomePod but not be alerted by one. For whatever that’s worth. Because I don’t think it’s worth much, I decided to put a No in the Reminder column for sharing on the HomePod.

A feature many people find essential is getting the time remaining before an alert goes off. I would like to tell these people to chill out, take a Zen approach, that “a watched pot never boils,” but that would only anger folks who seem to be a little on edge already. My blithe assertion that timed reminders is the solution to the lack of multiple timers was based too much on my own use. In the 4+ years I’ve been using reminders for timed alerts, I have never wanted to know how much time was left, but I guess the rest of the world doesn’t slavishly model itself after me.

So if you need to know the time left on an alert, the timer is your only friend. Neither alarms or reminders will give you that. Alarms and timers will give you the time an alert will go off (like 8:55 PM), but you’ll have to do the subtraction yourself, which isn’t convenient.

By the way, although I put a Yes in the “Time of” section for the Watch, my watch has never actually been able to tell me the time a reminder is due when I ask it via Siri. It definitely understands me, and it acts like it’s going to retrieve that information, but it’s never finished the job. I can, of course, see the due time of a reminder using the watch’s Reminders app.

And there are also a couple of problems with asking Siri for the time of a reminder on the phone:

Siri reminder times

The obvious problem is that the time Siri says is wrong. And it’s been wrong every time I’ve tried this over the past two days.4 For this example, the reminder was set for 3:50 PM, but Siri told me a time six hours earlier. Now, I happen to live six hours away from UTC, so my first thought was that Siri was programmed (stupidly) to respond in universal time. But then I realized the six hour difference was in the wrong direction. 3:50 PM US/Central is 9:50 PM UTC, not 9:50 AM UTC. So Siri’s answer is so bad it isn’t even wrong in an understandable way.

The less obvious problem is Siri’s characterization of my casserole reminder as the “next reminder.” Inexplicably, she uses that phrase even if the reminder you ask about isn’t the next one. Sigh.

After going through this exercise, I will continue to use timed reminders because

I’ve said on Twitter that I think Apple intends timed reminders to be the substitute for multiple timers. I still think that, but I’m less certain now than I was a few days ago.

Update Feb 18, 2018 9:22 AM
There’s always more.

First, something I had scribbled in a note but forgot to put in the post: a timer may not sound an alert. If you like to fall asleep listening to music, you may have the Timer’s When Timer Ends setting assigned to Stop Playing.

Timer setting

If that’s the case, the next time you use Siri to set a timer, it won’t make a sound, which probably isn’t what you want.

Second, reader Thomas Shannon has emailed me that alarms go off only at minute markers. So if it’s 9:55:45 and you tell Siri to set an alarm for one minute, it will go off 15 seconds later. I was annoyed to hear this because I looked into this four years ago with regard to reminders and found that their alert times are not restricted to whole minutes. If you tell Siri at 9:55:45 to remind you of something in one minute, the alert goes off at 9:56:45.

I used to tell people the advantage of using Apple products was their consistency across devices and applications. I don’t do that anymore.

  1. You’re right, the Mac isn’t an iOS device, but it does work with Reminders, which can be very handy, so I’m including it. 

  2. Hah! I slay me. 

  3. I’m using casseroles in the examples because I’m a homespun Midwesterner (and not from Minnesota). 

  4. As I said above, I’ve never asked about the time of a reminder. Good thing, too.