Sync Your Phone Wirelessly--for Free

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In early February, Google released Google Sync for Mobile, a free utility that lets you sync your Google calendar and contacts wirelessly with Apple iPhones, RIM BlackBerrys, and phones running Windows Mobile. (Currently, Symbian OS phones are limited to syncing contacts only.) I like what I see after two weeks of use, though there's some room for improvement.

The Back Story

Google Sync for Mobile, like practically every Web-based service the search giant offers, is technically in "beta." (Introduced in 2004, Gmail is still in "beta," too.)

Google Sync for Mobile lets you wirelessly sync your Gmail contacts and up to five Google calendars with the address book and calendar programs on supported handhelds. Your phone will need a data plan in order to sync over the air with Google Calendar and Gmail contacts.

The concept is similar to Apple's MobileMe consumer service and Microsoft Exchange, which is often used in corporate environments. In fact, Google Sync for Mobile uses Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync technology to sync contacts and calendars.

Here's how it works: If you make a change to your calendar on your handheld device, that change is automatically pushed wirelessly to your Google Calendar on the Web. You don't have to physically connect your handheld to your computer in order to sync the change to your master calendar.

The same is true with contacts. If you change someone's phone number in your Gmail address book on the Web, the new phone number will be automatically added via Google Sync for Mobile to that contact on your handheld, too.

Pros and Cons

Google Sync for Mobile does for free, at least in terms of syncing calendars and contacts, what Apple charges you $99 a year for with MobileMe. MobileMe does more than that, of course, including file storage and photo sharing. But if syncing your calendar and address book is all you care about, Google Sync for Mobile is a worthy alternative.

Setting up Google Sync for Mobile on my Apple iPhone 3G was easy, thanks to Google's straightforward directions. The process is a bit intimidating, however, because it wipes out your iPhone's existing contacts and calendar appointments to make room for the synced data. I was given ample warning about the deletions, however, and I didn't lose any data.

As of this writing, Google Sync for Mobile doesn't sync e-mail. However, I don't see that as an issue for most people. For example, whenever I launch the Mail app on my iPhone 3G, Mail automatically downloads any new Gmail messages. If I read or delete a Gmail message in Mail on my iPhone, that message is automatically marked as read or is deleted in Gmail on the Web, and vice versa. Also, you can set up two-way syncing between Gmail on the Web and your smart phone e-mail client using Gmail's IMAP for Gmail feature

I'm not enamored with Gmail's address book, however. It feels a bit like an afterthought, compared to Outlook's Contacts. For instance, unlike Gmail Contacts, Outlook contacts let you assign tasks, flag for follow-up, and has fields for anniversaries, birthdays, assistant's name, manager's name, and spouse's name, which you don't get with Gmail Contacts.

So for the time being, at least, I'm still syncing my iPhone's address book with Outlook on my PC. The good news is that Google Sync for Mobile gives you that option: You can choose to sync only your Google calendar with your handheld, or only your Gmail Contacts with your handheld, or both.

Another minor complaint: When you create a new appointment in your iPhone's native Calendar app, you can set up two reminders--one for, say, a day before the event and a second one for 15 minutes before. I've found this feature extremely useful. However, when you use Google to sync your Google calendars with your iPhone's native Calendar app, you lose the ability on your iPhone to set up two alerts for the same appointment. You can set up to five alerts for one calendar entry within Google Calendar on your computer, however.

The Wrap Up

With Google Sync for Mobile, Google has some competition from Microsoft, as always. The software giant's My Phone service, also in beta and also free, wirelessly syncs your Windows Mobile phone's contacts, calendar entries, photos, and other information with a Microsoft-hosted site. So if you're a Windows Mobile user, you might want to give My Phone a try.

Otherwise, I recommend Google Calendar and Gmail users at least give Google Sync a chance. It's not perfect, but it's a great start. And given Google's tendency to continually add features to its services, it's bound to get better.

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Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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