A guide to online data syncing services

Remember the early days of PDAs? They revolutionized the concept of a planner by combining calendars, contacts and notes into a compact, easy-to-carry device that could be connected to and synced with your computer.

Fast-forward to today, when you are likely to rely on a smartphone or other handheld device (an iPhone, iPod Touch, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile or Android device, to name a few possibilities) plus multiple computers (desktop at home, laptop at work, netbook on the road, for example) for accessing and managing your personal data. And depending on your job or school, you may find yourself needing to access some of your personal information through a publicly accessible Web service.

While broad and instant access to your e-mail, contacts, meetings and notes can be incredibly advantageous, it presents some challenges -- particularly if you need to add or edit contacts, notes or appointments on the go -- because you need to ensure that all of your sources for information are accurate and current and contain the same set of data.

One way to manage this data syncing is with cloud-based services, where an Internet server acts as a central repository and gateway to your information. A key part of achieving the dream of accurate and reliable information syncing is choosing the right service for your habits, your mobile devices, your particular mix of computers and the applications you use on them.

To help you choose, I've compiled information on six common Internet-based data-syncing options, complete with a summary of their strengths, weaknesses and which platforms and tools they work with. I've covered four free services -- Google, Microsoft's Windows Live, Yahoo Mail and Plaxo -- and two paid services, Apple's MobileMe and hosted Microsoft Exchange.

Now there's no excuse not to have your e-mail, contacts, appointments and notes updated across all of your devices.

Free services

Let's start off with the free services: Google, Windows Live, Yahoo Mail and Plaxo.

Google

A giant of Web-based services, Google provides a number of online applications and suites, including Gmail, Google Talk, Google Docs and Google Calendar. Gmail and Google Talk also incorporate contacts as part of their combined services.

All of these services can be accessed online from almost any computing or mobile platform (though some devices, such as the iPhone, allow just read-only viewing of some features such as Google Docs), which means that not only does Google function as a sync solution, but it can also serve as a stand-alone Web-based application suite -- or you can use a combination of both approaches.

If you want to stick with your own applications, it's possible to sync them with various Google applications. Google Calendar, for example, supports sync with Microsoft Outlook via a free tool called Google Calendar Sync; it also uses the CalDAV calendaring and scheduling client/server protocol to sync with Apple's iCal, Mozilla Sunbird and other CalDAV clients.

Be forewarned that some setup is required, and the process is not always intuitive for novice users -- particularly those trying to sync Apple's iCal. Mac users seeking easier integration might want to consider third-party tools for integrating calendars between iCal and Google, such as Spanning Sync ($25/year or $65 for indefinite use) or BusySync ($25, with bulk discounts available).

Thankfully, the Address Book in Mac OS X 10.5.3 and higher offers native sync support for contacts with Gmail -- meaning no additional tools are required.

Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlookis a tool that syncs all personal information between Outlook and Google's services. It requires a Google Apps Premier Edition or Education Edition account and is designed for businesses shifting from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps, not for consumers. A similar tool called Google Apps Migration for Lotus Notes helps businesses shift from Notes to Google Apps.

For personal users working with Outlook on a PC, a range of third-party tools can accomplish similar tasks, though none is yet built into Outlook or available from Google. They include the following:

* Goosync, a server-based solution that supports syncing of calendars, contacts and tasks (note: although pricing for Goosync is in British pounds, the service is available to U.S. customers; exact pricing varies depending on current currency-conversion rates).

* KiGoo ($9.95/year), a downloadable application that offers syncing of calendars and contacts between Google and Outlook

* SynContact, free software that syncs only contacts.

With Google's recent addition of support for Microsoft ActiveSync for mobile devices, you can also now sync an iPhone, iPod Touch or Windows Mobile device to your Google Contacts and Calendar. Because ActiveSync is natively supported on these devices, there is no additional software to install, though there are limitations when it comes to the number of calendars that Google will allow you to sync.

If you are using a BlackBerry, you can download a sync tool from Google to accomplish similar tasks.

Another option that offers support for a somewhat broader range of devices is NuevaSync (currently free while in beta), which relies on ActiveSync to integrate support for Google Contacts and Calendars with the iPhone, iPod Touch or Windows Mobile devices, as well as Nokia-branded smartphones and a number of Palm OS devices. In addition, NuevaSync will sync devices with Plaxo, a social networking integration service that we'll discuss later in the article.

A word of caution: In general, be aware that Google's very broad range of sync options can become too much of a good thing. If you sync between a very large number of different devices and computers -- as well as make changes to your personal data via Google's Web site -- you can encounter sync conflicts and confusion when the same set of data is not synced to every device.

Finally, while not directly related to sync capabilities, it's worth noting that your Google Calendar information can be shared with other Google Calendar users and that you can easily subscribe to a number of other event calendars. Both of those options expand your ability to collaborate using Google's offerings.

At a glance: Google

Works with:

* OSs: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux

* Devices: iPhone, iPod Touch, Windows Mobile devices (natively); BlackBerries (with free add-on); Nokia smartphones, some Palm OS devices (with third-party tool)

* Apps: Microsoft Outlook, Apple iCal, Mozilla Sunbird

Pros:

* Free

* Wide range of support for other applications and devices

* Polished and highly functional Web interface

Cons:

* Limited number of calendars (five) supported via ActiveSync

* Lack of built-in contact sync options with Outlook

* Can be cumbersome to sync from a large number of computers or mobile devices

* Support for Mac OS X iCal not as good as third-party offerings

* No dedicated solution for syncing personal notes

Best for:

* Individuals looking for a free solution that tackles many different syncing tasks

* Particularly good for people who are already users of multiple Google services, such as Google Docs, Google Reader or Google News

Windows Live

Windows Live is a combination of free services from Microsoft that includes e-mail (Hotmail), online storage (SkyDrive), calendaring, messaging (MSN/Windows Live Messenger), photo sharing and editing, and online search and collaboration tools. Windows Live is designed to serve as a central hub for all those online activities, either directly through the Web or via a Windows-based PC.

Hotmail (rebranded as Windows Live Hotmail) also offers the ability to integrate e-mail from third-party providers that offer POP access (including most ISPs).

The service is designed to sync with Outlook. In addition, Windows Live Sync automatically syncs files from both Windows and Mac OS X with SkyDrive, and it syncs users' photos and movies from Windows desktop applications. The system also supports a Facebook plug-in for photos. (For more information, check the Windows Live Blog.)

On the mobile side, Windows Live at this point primarily supports access from Windows Mobile devices, though support for some features via BlackBerry and other mobile phones is included. (There is no specific support for the iPhone or the iPod Touch).

Support for the iCalendar standard is included, which allows Outlook, Apple's iCal, Google Calendar and most other modern calendaring applications to accept event invitations received by e-mail. It does not, however, offer direct sync with other tools via the iCalendar standard.

At a glance: Windows Live

Works with:

* OSs: Windows (some support is provided for Mac OS X and Linux, but most full feature access requires Windows)

* Devices: Windows Mobile devices; limited support for BlackBerries and other mobile devices

* Apps: Microsoft Outlook

Pros:

* Free

* Wide range of sync support beyond basic personal information

* Tight integration with Windows and Microsoft applications

Cons:

* Limited support beyond Windows and Windows Mobile

* Range of additional features beyond sync is a disjointed mix

* Some supported programs are rather poorly documented

Best for:

* Users of Windows and Windows Mobile devices

Yahoo Mail

Yahoo Mail is one of the older Web-based e-mail services on the Internet. As part of its suite, Yahoo includes contacts, calendar and notes features built into the Yahoo Mail interface.

Yahoo has always relied primarily on a Web interface (and a fairly basic one at that) for these services. The company doesn't offer POP or IMAP access to e-mail via an e-mail application on a computer except as a paid add-on or through the use of third-party tools for Outlook, Outlook Express and Mac OS X's Mail.

IPhone and BlackBerry users can configure direct access to Yahoo Mail from the e-mail applications on their devices without the need for a Web-based interface. Other mobile users can rely on their device's built-in Web browser to access a mobile-specific Web version of Yahoo Mail provided by the company. And for iPhone users, Yahoo Mail offers the only free push notification of new e-mail messages. (Paid services such as hosted Exchange and Apple's MobileMe do offer this and other features.)

While the lack of direct e-mail client support is a problem for some users, a Yahoo application called Yahoo Autosync for Windows allows you to sync other data, including contacts, calendars and notes, with Outlook, Outlook Express and Palm Desktop.

As with Google, Mac users can rely on Address Book itself to sync contacts with Yahoo. Such synced data can then be synced from the computer to a mobile device, though direct access isn't available.

Overall, Yahoo represents a decent solution for many people -- particularly those who rely primarily on Web-based interaction and/or don't need over-the-air syncing with mobile devices. The service is somewhat stronger for Windows users; Yahoo's tools provide more advanced sync capabilities for Windows than they do for Mac or Linux.

At a glance: Yahoo Mail

Works with:

* OSs: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux

* Devices: the iPhone and BlackBerries (directly); other devices through a Web interface

* E-mail apps: Apple Mail, Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express (with paid add-on or third-party tool)

* Contacts, calendar, notes apps: Outlook, Outlook Express, Palm Desktop

Pros:

* Free (unless you want direct POP/IMAP access)

* Native support for iPhone and BlackBerry e-mail access

* Some sync options for Windows users

Cons:

* Largely designed for Web access

* No direct or over-the-air sync tools for native contact, calendar and notes applications on mobile devices

Best for:

* People who work primarily on Windows PCs and/or those who frequently use different computers to quickly check e-mail and calendars

* iPhone users who want free push e-mail service

Plaxo

Plaxo is a free service that is, at this point, largely focused on integrating a diverse range of social networks (including Facebook, Flickr, Delicious, Digg, YouTube, MySpace and a variety of blogging tools) into a single interface.

Although Plaxo is primarily designed as a content aggregation service and social network in its own right, it also includes contacts and calendar tools that can sync with Yahoo and Google services. It can also sync contact and calendar data automatically with Outlook and Outlook Express on Windows or with Address Book and iCal on Mac OS X through the use of additional tools, which are free. Also available is a tool that lets Windows users know when social-networking-related information changes.

On the mobile front, Plaxo doesn't directly support sync to the iPhone (though the service does provide a Web interface that is optimized for the iPhone's Safari browser) or BlackBerry, but it does offer a Windows Mobile application that can directly sync contacts and calendars with Windows Mobile phones.

If you're already in the market for a tool that lets you manage your social networking accounts, and if you would welcome the added bonus of being able to integrate them with contact and calendar systems, then Plaxo is a choice well worth considering. For sync options alone, however, you might be better off with another tool.

At a glance: Plaxo

Works with:

* OSs: Windows, Mac OS X (Linux is supported for Web access, but downloadable sync tools are available only for Mac OS X and Windows)

* Devices: Windows Mobile devices (directly); iPhone through Web interface

* Apps: Apple Address Book and iCal, Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express

Pros:

* Free

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