Cross-Platform Syncing Solutions for Your iOS, Mac, & PC Devices

iDisk on iPhone

For me the revolution started with the iPhone, and once the iPad was fully integrated into my workflow, the dictator had been completely deposed: the hard drive was no longer king. Now syncing solutions keep my digital life in step regardless of my local storage situation.

Let me guide you through a number of solutions that allow you to sync data, contacts, calendar, and notes between your iOS and Mac devices.

Data Syncing

iDisk: Apple’s MobileMe is the only all-in-one solution I’ll be mentioning. However, data syncing via iDisk is the service’s biggest flaw. Frankly, it’s too slow for quick syncs. Even uploading one file can result in a several minutes’ worth of sync-time. Uploading a ton of data can be intolerable. I’ve also run into a ton of sync errors, where my local and remote iDisks get so far out of sync, I end up needing to start from scratch, forcing me to figure out on my own what didn’t get synced to Apple’s servers. That said, for small amounts od data the iOS app is a great way to share content while you’re out and about. Also, the iOS iWork suite natively connects to iDisk for file management.

Dropbox: Dropbox is the gold standard for data syncing. It just works. The basic account gives you 2 GB of storage, which is probably fine for most people. They do offer 50 and 100 GB solutions as well. The sync is near-instaneous, and Dropbox also allows you to restore deleted files via the web. I really can’t remember ever having have an issue with Dropbox. You can use DropDAV to allow WebDAV access to your Dropbox account so it will work with iWork on iOS devices. Dropbox also has an API available, so text editing apps like Elements and PlainText can access your Dropbox directly.

SugarSync: This service the potential to be a nice alternative to Dropbox. For starters, its free model gives you 5 GB versus Dropbox’s 2 GB. For  $99 you can get 60 GB of storage while Dropbox only gives you 50 GB for the same amount. But there is no WebDAV support, even via a 3rd-party tool, which may not be an issue if you’re unsure or unwilling to use WebDAV access anyway. However, the big difference is in how you determine what folders sync. On Dropbox, everything in your Dropbox folder is synced automatically; SugarSync requires you to use a desktop program to determine what folders sync. Overall, I found SugarSync’s interface a little cumbersome.

How I do it: I use both iDisk and Dropbox. Rapidly changing files (work, writing, business, school, etc.) are stored on Dropbox and I use DropDAV to make sure I can access the files using iWork on my mobile devices if I need to (for most of my text needs, I use Elements). Dropbox gives me the sync reliability I need, along with a rudimentary backup solution. Large or infrequently changed files (e-books and the like) are stored on iDisk. This gives me mobile access to the files, and I don’t have to deal with an overly-complicated sync system.

Contacts and Calendars

Frankly, syncing contacts and calendars is one of the easiest things to do. Address Book and Mail in OS X both natively sync with MobileMe, Google and Yahoo and when you add your accounts to your iOS device you can choose to sync both contacts and calendars. You can also add your Yahoo and Google calendars as sync calendars in iCal on the Mac.

How I do it: I’m a MobileMe subscriber, so I use that. It may not be free, but it keeps things simple.

Notes

For me, there are two different types of notes. I’ll make a note about something I need to get at the store, or a quick thought in passing, or the name of a book I see in a bookstore. Then there are more formal notes: the type you make during a meeting or class. Especially on iOS, there are almost as many note apps as there are flatulence simulators, so I’m going to focus on a few of my favorites.

Apple’s Notes: All iOS devices ship with the Notes app, which you can use to sync notes with any email account you have on the device. Notes is a nice little app for the basic things, but not great when it comes to long notes. While often derided, I actually like it quite a bit, especially since the notes sync happens during mail fetches. However, if you don’t use the Mail.app on OS X, it’s limited in its appeal, because while the notes will show up in Gmail, for instance, you can’t edit them.

SimpleNote: This aptly-named app has a nice, clean interface. It doesn’t natively sync with a dedicated desktop notes software (you edit notes on the web), but on their download page the app’s developers do list some programs and web extensions that do support the service.

Evernote: This is the big boy of note-taking apps. It’s great for collecting mass quantities of research notes, clipped web pages, graphics, the unabridged version of The Stand and that rusty kitchen sink in the basement. I don’t find it all useful for quick notes, and I don’t think that’s its focus. It is also a great collaborative tool letting you share notebooks.

How I do it: I use Notes for the minor, short notes and Evernote for all my project and class notes. PDFs from school get imported to a dedicated Evernote notebook for that class. The shopping list I’ve been handed goes into Notes.

The Future

Apple needs to get its act together for mobile syncing. The Wall Street Journal reports Apple is beefing up MobileMe, complete with the introduction of the oft-rumored wireless iTunes sync. One of the things keeping the iPad from being a true, untethered mobile solution is a better cloud system from the mothership, so let’s hope these latest reports prove true.

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