Free MobileMe Alternative: How to Set Up Google Sync for Mac and iPhone

47 Comments

google_syncMobileMe, Apple’s (s aapl) online personal information management (PIM) solution, has withstood quite the controversy. While some of the more fortunate subscribers, like myself, have had only positive experiences, others had to wait several months before syncing worked without reporting cryptic errors or silently failing.

My only gripe was the buggy MobileMe web site. Problems were numerous, such as the page randomly refreshing in the middle of adding a calendar event. Obviously this wasn’t disastrous on its own, but annoying tics add up, and eventually push people to look for alternatives.

Recently, I discovered an offering from Google (s goog) that challenged the PIM synchronization features of MobileMe and competitors like Microsoft (s msft) Exchange (what you unfortunately probably use at the office). This new service, Google Sync, offers the same seamless integration between your computer and mobile phone. It’s fast, free, and, most importantly, it works.

Setting it up, as you will soon find out, can be tricky, and takes time, patience, and an understanding of two-way syncing. Unless, that is, you’re starting from a blank slate with no contacts or calendars. However, I assume you already have a digital life, so I will attempt to coach you through transferring your information to Google first. I’m not going to retype all of Google’s own instructions. Instead, I’ll outline shortcuts around the sticky issues I encountered while setting up Sync. Google doesn’t organize its instruction processes well, so hopefully this will save you some time and a few headaches.

Requirements:

  • Google account
  • Contacts organized in Address Book
  • Calendars organized in iCal
  • You do not use an Exchange account on your iPhone

Exporting your Address Book Contacts to Google

  1. I used a Google-recommended application called A to G to export my contacts as a large CSV file, and then import them into Google Contacts. You can get A to G here.
  2. a2gAfter you created the CSV file on your desktop, go to your Google Contacts page:
    https://google.com/contacts
    Note: For Google Apps users go here:
    https://mail.google.com/a/[domain name]/#contacts
  3. Click on “Import”, choose the CSV file on your hard drive, and boom, your contacts are now in Google.
Address Book Import

Exporting your iCal calendars to Google

  1. Unfortunately, you have to export your iCal calendars one at a time. You can do this by clicking once on a calendar in the CALENDARS area, and selecting File -> Export.
  2. iCal list
  3. Then, go to Google Calendar:
    https://www.google.com/calendar/
    Note: For Google Apps users go here:
    https://www.google.com/calendar/hosted/[domain name]/
  4. Settings -> Calendars -> Import Calendar
    GCal settings
  5. Click “Choose File” to select the exported calendar on your hard drive. Choose which Google Calendar you want to import the information into. I recommend manually creating calendars in Google Calendar with the same names as your iCal calendars. Then, import the iCal files into their corresponding Google calendars. Repeat for each file you exported from iCal. Your calendars are now on Google.

Let’s recap. Your current contacts and calendars are now on Google. However, that information will never change unless you set up synchronization on your iPhone and Mac(s).

Configuring Google Sync

Warning: This is where you begin changing settings. If you’re a MobileMe user, all of your data is safe with Apple and everything you do here is completely reversible.

It’s easy to temporarily disable MobileMe while you set up Google Sync. Go to Settings -> Mail, Contacts, Calendars, select your MobileMe account from the Accounts list. Switch Contacts and Calendars to their OFF positions. If, in the end, you don’t want to use Google Sync, you can remove the Google Sync account you are about to set up, and switch your MobileMe Contacts and Calendars to their ON positions.

mobilemesettings

If you sync your Address Book and iCal information via iTunes, you should deselect those options in iTunes and resync your iPhone. The goal here is to clear out your contacts and calendar information on your phone. Again, if you decide to not use Google Sync, you can remove your Google information, select the contacts and calendars checkboxes in iTunes, and sync your iPhone with your computer once more to restore your data.

Now you’re ready to get your iPhone syncing data from Google. Follow these instructions about setting up your iPhone to get that working.

Important Google Apps note #1:
Apps users have to enable Google Sync in your dashboard, which can be done following these instructions.

Important note #2:
If you use more than one calendar, you have to configure that on the iPhone, otherwise only one will appear in the phone’s calendar app. After you’re done with the “Setting up your iPhone” section, go to m.google.com on your iPhone and select Sync. If you’re a Google Apps user, scroll to the bottom to select the “Google Apps User?” link. After logging in you can select which calendars you want to sync to the iPhone (maximum is five currently).

Now, any changes you make in Google Contacts or Google Calendar will be reflected on your iPhone. Also, any changes you make to your iPhone’s contacts or calendar information will be reflected on Google’s corresponding sites. Do you use IMAP for your Gmail account? Then consider yourself 100 percent synced.

If you’re satisfied with using Google’s sites and your iPhone to manage your information, then you’re done. However, if you want your current information to appear in iCal and Address Book, then you have a few more steps:

  1. Importing your Google Contacts into Address Book
    This requires setting up built-in Address Book preferences.
  2. Importing your Google Calendars into iCal
    This uses software called Collaboration.

Conclusion

Congratulations on making it this far. Hopefully, you’ve successfully set up Google Contacts and Google Calendar with your existing information, and both your iPhone and Mac(s) are now synchronized with Google. You can now make changes to or add contacts and events from any computer or your iPhone, and all without spending a dime. Please leave a comment below if you have any questions!

47 Comments

Andrew

There is quite a simple freeware – SyncMate (mac.eltima.com/sync-mac.html). I used some of its features for syncing, it might be helpful.

JeffP

I just finished setting up google sync on a BB Storm for my son and discovered that the calendar on the BB is limited to 24 weeks forward and 4 weeks back even thought the google calendar is complete. I am considering a Iphone purchase. Does google sync for Iphone have this same limitation?

tpauly

Anyone tried Spanning Sync? I tried it out tonight and it seems to work. spanningsync.com

Angelica

Could this work if for example I’ve got two Macs (a desktop and a laptop) and use it as a the go-between to sync the two together? Eg. I sync my desktop to Google and sync my laptop to Google hence, having both bookmarks, calendar, address book and mail all synced between the two machines?

LarryMcJ

Please disregard my previous comment…I use a BlackBerry, not iPhone, though some of the points are still valid.

LarryMcJ

I agree that Google Sync is a nice way to go, and I’m using it mainly for the OTA automatic syncs. However, since it doesn’t sync contact addresses, I may move to The Missing Sync.

FWIW, the best way I’ve found to automatically keep my Gmail Contacts in sync with my Address Book is a program called Syncman. It’s cheap and really works well. Keeping Calendar in sync with Google Calendar is easy and then Google Sync does the rest.

JohnO

Excellent article.

I had one problem with the Contacts syncing. It turned out that the imported contacts were placed into “All Contacts” but I needed to also have them in “My Contacts” on Google. Once I figured that out, all was good.

carlm

I’m just syncing my AddressBook to Google, and in the past its not gone very well. But now Google supports vCards! I created indentical Groups in Google that I have in AddressBook, imported all address in one bunch as vCards, and, wow, that was easy!

dbk

I’ve been using Plaxo for almost a year now to automatically sync my home Mac and work Mac. It’s free, and works fairly well, although sometimes there’s a delay in the updates from one computer to the other in the calendars. I’ll take the occasional delay over manual exports and imports, though. You can view your calendars and address book online, and it syncs with Yahoo and Google address books (and calendars, I’d guess) though I haven’t tried this.

Lim Isaac D.

This is a great tutorial. Thanks for taking the time! At first I really loved MobileMe, but with the slow iDisk speeds and (still) buggy me.com and the thought of paying another $99 after this year just kills me and pushes me to find alternatives. Of course, Google’s freeness is always here to help!

schiffty

Is there a way to filter Google Sync so it only syncs the contacts you’ve exported from the Address Book? Otherwise I’d end up with a bunch of additional contacts, wouldn’t i?

PHP eBook

I’ve had this setup for a few weeks now and it works great. I have it synced with my iPhone, iCal on my home laptop, and Outlook on my (Windows) work computer – though I tend to use the Google Calendar when I’m at work.

Two issues I’ve had:
1- The calendar colors show up differently in iPhone, but sync across all other calendars.

2- Can only get Outlook to read one of my Google Calendars, so I had to do a one-way sync, so Outlook gets the new info from Google Calendars but doesn’t send any info – because otherwise Outlook pushes all the data into my ‘main’ calendar.

CB

@Daniel K: Try NuevaSync. It’s free, works just like Google Sync, but lets you sync up to 11 calendars.

ADI

i’ve found one frustrating thing with syncing contact:

name and surname is switche in gmail account. i dont know why, but aftr the sync all contacts have surnames in name field. wtf? u all get the same?

StyleNation

I use MobileMe and the iDisk sync as an backup for my daily work. When Google offers their own cloud storage I will consider a switch. Right now I’m happy to have all may data synced with one service between my desktop, laptop and my iPhone.

Ro

There are a few iDisk like apps, two that come to mind are dropbox, and zumodrive – free storage up to 2gb(3gb with referals) on Dropbox, and 1gb free on Zumodrive. Chargable for bigger storage.

Daniel Kvasnička jr.

BusySunc is a good way of syncing iCal with Google. I found it to be worth of its price. What’s keeping me from using google mobile sync is the 5 calendars limitation… :/ Hope they remove it soon so I can turn off cal syncing in iTunes.

Arne

I’m still hoping for an alternative I can install on my own server, so all my data is contained. I dont like to depend on external services.

At least the announced iCal/CalDAV syncing in iPhone 3.0 will go a little bit in that direction, then I’m only missing contact synchronization.

bonesb

Your business or buddy-in-an-apartment-building address would look like:
Fred Peters
124 Main Street
Suite/Apt. 1234
Seattle
WA
98107
And the fields will line up just fine. Don’t use commas or other delimiters. The first time you use Calaborator you’ll see commas. Edit the data in your Google Account. Trust me on this one. If you don’t trust me, never mind and enjoy pulling your hair out.

bonesb

The author’s left out a couple of details… Yeah, I’m some guy posting here, but Google’s own documentation fills in some of the blanks but for one point posed here.

To wirelessly sync the Address Book app to your Google account, you’ll need to grab and install Calaborator, a Google app specifically created to connect the two as a conduit.

The fields issue isn’t an issue. Google uses CSV delimiters and not vCard data. Google’s using *two* address fields in place of Address Book’s one address field. For example, using “Suite XXX” or “Apt. XXX” after a street address, the sync would be perfect. In my Google Account’s Contacts, I use one line for each item and add a hard return with no text before the return and I’m good to go – my entries look just like this:
Joe Smith
123 First Street

Portland
OR
97103
and Address Book just gets it. Anytime you edit your contact in Address Book, however, will likely muck things up in Google’s Contacts. It took me a few tries to figure it out, but I’m syching my iPhone (using Exchange), BB Storm (using Google Sync), Address Book, and one free and one Premier Google Apps account seamlessly now.

My 2¢.

CB

@David: Cool. I’ll check back and see if you can get it to work. I’ve tried in vain for a while with no luck.

David Klein

@CB Interesting. I’ll have to look into that. I turned off iTunes syncing altogether. I’ll double-check that Address Book is up to date. I thought selecting “Synchronize with Google” was a two-way street.

Julien

I just thought I’d chime to mention Fruux which does Contacts, iCal and bookmarks syncing. It’s still at Beta stage so there’s some room for improvement, but works rather fine globally and I’m happy with it.

CB

@ David Klein: No, not saying that. What I’m saying is that if you use Google Sync to automatically sync your phone contacts with Google Contacts, then Address Book stops syncing when you connect your phone to your computer. If you use iTunes to sync your contacts, then yes, Address Book, your phone, and Google will all have the same info. They will only sync when you sync your phone, however.

At least that’s been my experience. If someone knows of a work around, I’d love to see it.

rickap

too bad apple did not include “notes” as a basic app available to sync with a workstation/laptop -email, calendar, and contact sync-ing is all fine and good but a simple journal app that i can sync WITHOUT going to a web page is the ticket for me-
filemaker bento is about as close as to what i am looking for but a bit overkill (and i will admit i have not searched nearly enough)
any suggestions would be great

dougashton

In the past I’ve only had bad experiences trying to synchronize address book and google contacts. The fields didn’t seem to work in the same way. Just noticed that google have added fields (such as birthdays and anniversaries) to the contacts which could swing it for me.

David Klein

Hmmm. I use Google Contacts and the iPhone to maintain my address book. Are you saying I’m unable to update contacts using the Address Book app in OS X?

CB

The Address book portion of this does not work. Once you start syncing Contacts from your phone to Google, you are no longer able to sync address book contacts with google, because syncing contacts is now disabled in iTunes. Everything else works though. I’ve had it like this for a while with no issues, although I use nuevasync, because I have more than 5 calendars.

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