Howto: Your Data, Everywhere, In Sync

Calendar Card via Flickr

Keeping your data organized is hard. Keeping your data organized across many devices is harder.

Today, I’m going to show you how to keep your calendar, contacts and email in sync across devices using Google as the glue. As a bonus, I’ll even tell you how to have your files and notes everywhere too. Be advised that some of the puzzle pieces here are subscription based and cost money — things that work well usually do.

My data is stored across three applications on OS X: Mail, iCal and Address Book. They’re simple, fast and to the point. Email is painless to access across devices because of IMAP and its quick using IDLE, but calendar and contacts get tricky. Address Book is unique insofar as it has built-in support for Google syncing out of the box. It does, however, have a knack for forgetting to continue syncing after a while. iCal is the big one for most people and there are ways to rig syncing for free using CalDAV and tools like Calaboration. It quickly becomes a mess and is beyond most people; be sure you have backups of your data before trying.

With your Gmail or Google Apps email account, you’ve already got Google Calendar and Google Contacts. With these, you’ll be able to access contacts and calendar using any web browser, as well as push syncing on Android smartphones and iPhone.

Getting your data into Google’s cloud services is simple with the help of Spanning Sync. It installs on your Mac(s) as a preference pane that coordinates hourly syncs to Google of your iCal and Address Book data. Pricing is fair at $25/year or $65 for a lifetime subscription. Their pricing model is per Google account rather than per device which is a plus if you have more than one Mac.

Prior to starting your first sync with this, it’s always a good idea to backup your data. You can do this in both iCal and Address Book easily by going to File > Export > Archive in each program. Syncing can get messy and having backup takes a few seconds and saves hours of headaches.

Go ahead and start your first sync, it’ll take a while depending on how much data you have. Upon completion, explore iCal and Google Calendar and make sure events are linked to the correct calendars and that any recurring events are as they should be. For your contacts, compare the number of contacts in Google Contacts to the status bar’s count in Address Book. Everything matches up? Great. We’re half way done.

With respect to mobile devices, I have two to worry about: an iPhone 4 and a Droid Incredible (Android 2.2). Since we’re in the Google ecosystem now, the Android part of the equation is simple. Log into the Gmail or Google Apps account and enable syncing for all three categories (Calendar, Contacts and Mail). You’re data is set once you see the icon disappear in the notification bar.

Now onto iPhone. Most people are syncing their Gmail and Google Apps with iPhone incorrectly, perhaps because they don’t know there is a better way. Google has licensed Exchange ActiveSync from Microsoft and uses this as a simple way to get comprehensive PIM syncing working on iOS as part of Google Sync. What you’ll need to do is set up a new mail account in iOS 4. Select “Microsoft Exchange” as the type, use your Gmail username or full Google Apps address as the username, leave the domain blank and use “m.google.com” as the server address and you’re set. Ignore any certificate warnings that pop up and ensure SSL is checked. Give it a few minutes and your data will be synced to iPhone as well. One benefit you’ll notice about this method for accessing Gmail, other than it now syncs your contacts and calendar too, is that mail is now delivered via push instantly. Nifty.

Here are some other steps you may or may not need to worry about. If you have multiple iCal/Google Calendar calendars, you’ll need to manually turn on syncing of these for iPhone as by default, only your initial Google Calendar gets access via Exchange ActiveSync. Go to m.google.com/sync on your iPhone, tap on “Calendars”, and add a checkmark to those you want on your device. You’d also want to disable syncing of your contacts and calendars when linked to iTunes since that will have been obviated by over-the-air syncing. Lastly, for Google Apps users, Google Sync needs to be enabled in order for this to work. You can do this by logging into your “Manage this domain” control panel, clicking on “Service settings” and then “Mobile”. Check the box next to “Enable Google Sync” and you’re set.

One more thing about iPhone and Google via Exchange. When you add new contacts to iPhone, be default it will save them to the phone only in its own address book. Go to “Settings”, “Mail, Contacts, Calendars”, scroll down to “Default Account” and change it to your Exchange ActiveSync account.

That’s it. Your contacts and calendar and mail are all syncing over the air, accessible across your Macs, on the web, and on your mobile devices all the time. Changes on one reflect on the other and you don’t have to worry about plugging in your iPhone for anything other than adding music and updating podcasts.

I’ll cover text capture and file access later this week, but it’s easy: Simplenote for web and iPhone, Notational Velocity for Mac and Andronoter on Android. Don’t touch Evernote with a ten-foot clown pole.

Comments

3 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Great article.

    One sentence seems a bit confusing: “Ignore and certificate warnings and ensure SSL is checked.” I’m not sure if there’s a word missing or just a typo.

    (Feel free to delete this comment once it’s changed. Won’t hurt my feelings :-)

  2. Good catch, TJ. Typo and awkward sentence construction fixed.

  3. I got my iPhone 4 on Friday, and found your advice extremly helpful.

    However there is one tricky part: If you’re not in the English-speaking part of the world, and want to sync multiple calendars with Google, you may find that http://m.google.com/sync will tell you that your device or browser is not supported.

    The solution in this case is to enter the URL as http://m.google.com/sync?hl=en so that Google uses English as its language—et voilà, it works just fine!

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