Apple added push notifications to iOS in June 2009 when iOS 3.0 was introduced. It does an excellent job of allowing applications to send you notifications while preserving battery life. It does however have a few shortcomings which will likely be improved upon in future Apple releases. Today, you can improve on notifications with Boxcar.
Blackberry users give a few reasons why their devices are superior to an iPhone. One of those is the email notification on the device. Apple’s push email is helpful and it will show a number of messages on the mail icon. It doesn’t however work for all email services or provide as good a visual or audible cue.
An example of a service that doesn’t provide good notification for me is email from our company Exchange Server 2003. While newer versions of Exchange provide good support with the iPhone, 2003 has its limits. I am able to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to gain access to the email. This however requires you to login and check even if there is nothing there that you care about. Boxcar can help.
So let’s start at the beginning. First go to the App Store and download Boxcar directly to your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch or download it through iTunes. Boxcar is free if you don’t mind the ads or $4.99 if you wish to disable the ads. I don’t find the ads annoying so the free version is just fine.
When you first start up the app, say yes to push notifications. You can sign up from your iOS device and get started. At the current time, Boxcar supports notifications for email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, Google Voice, Foursquare, Gowalla, Reddit, any RSS feed, Github, OMGFacts, Growl, and App Recommendations. The list will continue to grow over time.
Email is the main service I was interested in and it works very well. It is probably easier to do this one on your computer since you will need to setup Boxcar as well as your email service . Go to the Boxcar website and login with the same login you setup on your iOS device. Click on Add a New Service and then choose Email Account. From here you can click on Get Your Boxcar Forwarding Address. At this point, you will get an email address that ends with @push.boxcar.io. Choose a friendly name to recognize the notification by as well as choose a sound when you receive one. Each service can have a separate sound to help you identify it or turn it off if this is annoying to you.
Now you need to go to your email service to use the new forwarding address. For Gmail, go to Mail settings from the gear icon. You now have two choices. If you want to be notified for all of your Gmail messages, go to the Forwarding and POP/IMAP tab and add a forwarding address to the email address you got from Boxcar. Make sure you also set keep Gmail’s copy in the Inbox. I actually use the other method because a notification for every email would be way to annoying. The other method is to use filters. Go to the Filters tab and Create a new filter. The first screen determines what messages you are looking to filter out. An example of a filter I use is one for all emails from our children’s school. You can do that by using just part of the email address starting from the @. You can do individual emails or subjects, whatever combination that will get you email that is important to you. The second screen has the option we are looking for where you can forward to our new Boxcar email address. Put that in and you should start getting notifications.
My original example was with Exchange 2003. After you have the forwarding address from Boxcar, you can go to any version of Outlook and set up a rule. As with the Gmail example, you can send all of your mail or set up multiple rules to send specific notifications. I limit the rules since I only want to know when it matters. Exchange provides server based rules which means that you don’t have to have Outlook open for the rules to work. Exchange will forward to Boxcar regardless. Boxcar does not provide the full message but it does give me enough information to tell me if I need to go get it without constantly looking on my own.
While I find the email service to be the main reason I use Boxcar, the other services can be of great value.
Boxcar offers notifications in four different ways with Twitter. The first is on your account. You have seven options here including your timeline updates to direct messages. Be careful what you choose or you might be notified too often. The second area is Twitter Lists. You can be notified anytime a list is updated. Twitter Searches and Twitter Trends are the other two areas. In addition, OMGFacts is a Twitter account that you can easily set up for notifications.
Google Buzz and Google Voice are available for notifications. Google Buzz can notify you for buzzes, comments and mentions. Google Voice can notify you when you receive a text message or a voice mail.
Foursquare and Gowalla are two popular location check-in services. Boxcar can let you know when your friends check-in with either service.
App Recommendations are based upon an algorithm that Boxcar has written. Check it out and see if you like it.
Reddit is a user community where people can submit web links for interesting stories. The community will then vote to the top the best links. You have multiple ways to be notified of reddit links.
An RSS feed is available on many web sites especially those with news. By using the RSS notification, you will know when a new story has been added to that web site’s feed.
The last service is the hardest to setup but is likely the most powerful. Growl is known to many Mac users since it provides notifications on your computer. I use it to get notifications for emails on my Mac. I won’t go into any more depth here but if you are looking for your computer to send you notifications this may be the best method to do it. Growl is also available for Windows.
Silence is Golden
Boxcar has a nice feature which allows you to silence notifications for a period of time. I have mine set to be silent from 11 pm to 6 am so that the iPhone doesn’t continue to send audible alerts during those hours. Even though I am a pretty heavy sleeper and likely wouldn’t here them, it is a very nice touch from the programmers. I am sure my wife appreciates it.
While it would be nice to have Boxcar notifications more tied into iOS, they do provide a much needed improvement to the current notification system. I expect you will find you like Boxcar as well. Just be careful what you ask for or you could actually find it annoying. In careful measure it is a great addition to your app collection.