The Great iPhone Sync Debate: Desktop, Laptop, or Cloud?

For the last few months I've been conducting an experiment, trying to figure out whether it better suited my needs to sync my iPhone 3G to my desktop computer, to my laptop, or to embrace the (potential) future and try to sync only over-the-air with the cloud (online services and storage).

First, a little about the contenders.

  • My MacBook is purposefully kept light. Aside from whatever temporary I'm working on at the time, it has almost nothing on it, including no media unless I'm actively watching it. It's speed on-the-go with limited capacity.
  • My iMac is heavy duty and also serves as my media machine. It's connected on one end to a Drobo and serves an Apple TV in the living room on the other. It's pure power and content, but absolutely no portability.
  • My cloud is, well, the cloud -- everything I keep on my MobileMe, iDisk and Apple keeps ready for me on their massive iTunes servers.

A month with each of them (Round Robin interuptus notwithstanding) and what were my results? Which have I stuck with (for now)? Read on to find out!

Syncing the iPhone with a Laptop

The laptop is a convenient sync-solution to be sure. It goes almost everywhere I go, so it's almost always available. If I get new content, be it a new podcast or a new iTunes movie, I can immediately plug my iPhone in and sync it over. This is one heckuva compelling argument, even more so prior to iPhone OS 2.2, when the iPhone itself couldn't directly download new podcasts. It also makes for easy charging on-the-go. There's always a USB port available, and I don't have to worry about iTunes wiping out my current content to "helpful" prepare for syncing with a different machine. Have a problem? If Apple pushes out a firmware update, or -- horror of horrors -- I need to restore, the laptop being mother-ship, means I can handle it right away -- no waiting to get home to re-load everything.

The downside? My laptop hard drive is small. My old laptop had a tiny 100GB 7200RPM drive (I went for speed over size) and my new one has a 128GB. With the OS, applications, data, etc. (sometimes virtual machines), that leaves precious little space for media files. This meant I was always in "management" mode. I could keep a small subsection of my laptop, either subscribing to a few of the same podcasts I already subscribed to on my iMac, or moving files back and forth when I was on my home network (or, in a pinch, slooooowly over iDisk). This reduced the convenience and eliminated one of the best features of the Apple ecosystem -- the ability for it to keep track of what you've watched and how much of it you've watched across platforms. Duplicate files throw that out the window.

Syncing the iPhone with a Desktop

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The desktop is a powerhouse. Big drives, lots of ports, and in my case it already serves up content to my Apple TV. That means what I want to watch and listen to it is already loaded up -- and because it's on most of the time, is constantly downloading new podcasts and other content. I can wake up in the morning, plug in, and get the latest stuff, maybe move over a TV show or movie if I want to go somewhere later and watch something (via the iPhone AV-out cables -- like a portable Apple TV!). And then when I get home at night, I can sync up again and continue watching/listening to anything I haven't finished yet via Apple TV or AirTunes speakers (and thanks to the iPhone Remote App, I can control it from anywhere in my home), from right where I left off.

Limitations? You betcha! Aside from not having my host machine with me while I'm away from home -- meaning I can't get new stuff when I want it -- if I ever decide to rent HD content (or create my own with an HD camcorder) or subscribe to HD podcast feeds to really make use of the Apple TV's 720p output, those won't transfer over to the iPhone. If I subscribe to both HD and iPod feed, then I have the same content duplication problem. Granted, for most podcasts the iPod version is fine, but when we get into TV Shows and especially movies, it just won't cut it anymore.

Syncing the iPhone with the Cloud

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Since iPhone OS 2.0, with MobileMe and Exchange ActiveSync support, both my work and personal email, calendar, and contacts have been syncing with the cloud, and I've been able to buy wirelessly from the App Store (2G/3G for under 10MB, WiFi for over). That was step 1 in my considering living foot-loose and tether-free. iPhone OS 2.2 was step 2: over-the-air (OTA) podcast downloads (with the same 10MB cell/WiFi split). Sure, I'm skipping the iTunes music store, but I don't buy music anywhere near are often as I get Apps or download podcasts. If I'm out and about, without desktop or even laptop, and I find out a great new podcast has just dropped, I can either hit the "get more episodes" link, or just search for it in the iTunes App and download it directly to my iPhone. With apps like MobileFiles, I can even access my iDisk to view my docs and even transfer them to my local iPhone storage.

Need more? Yeah, I'm still waiting on Apple revamp MobileMe and add push support for Task, Note, Photo, and Backup, syncing as it looks like Microsoft is about ready to do with Windows Mobile 6.5's "My Phone" feature (cute name!) Bandwidth limitations, however, make me think I won't be getting OTA TV show or movie downloads anytime soon. Given the size of firmware updates, they too will likely remain tether-only for now. Also, just like I can be caught away from a laptop or PC, even WiFi and cell coverage have their limits.


After having tried these three different sync solutions, each on their own, which one have I decided on? Which one is the clear winner?

None. Frankly, each one has advantages and disadvantages, so I've evolved into a hybrid model. My iPhone is setup on my iMac desktop and I sync there fairly regularly. Due to the advances in iPhone OS 2.0 and 2.2, however, I don't sync anywhere nearly as often as I used to, and if I need new content while I'm away, I just download it directly (for podcasts) or drop it into my iDisk (for other types of small media -- using Back to My Mac from my laptop).

It's not completely elegant and seamless yet, granted, but it's amazing how far we've come even just recently, and while "sync is hard", I have every confidence future iPhone and MobileMe updates will make it easier and easier over time.

So What Do You Do?

Sync from your desktop? From your laptop? Pure cloud baby? Or, like me, do you keep a couple tools at the ready? Let me know what you're doing, especially if you have any ninja-sync skills you wouldn't mind sharing!

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • I'm new to all this with picking up a Touch recently. I sync it with my iMac and not my work macbook pro for all media. I use Mobileme for syncing all my work stuff that the macbook pro uploads to the cloud. I use a blackberry too for all critical stuff, so the Touch is a backup with calendars, contacts and stuff.
  • I sync pure cloud for the most part. Unless adding media, its all on the cloud. However, m MacBook Pro accompanies me most places now a days, so if i need something I go to a Starbucks and do a physical sync for media.
  • I sync all of my PIM data (contacts and calendar) via mobileme and exchange.
    At home I have an iMac that acts as an iTunes server. It shares content out to my appletv and my laptops. I sync my iPhone to the iMac nightly to update podcasts and everything else I've added to iTunes.
    I used sync with my macbookpro so I could update my music and podcasts on the go, but lately I feel like I don't need to do this because I can purchase music over 3g and update my podcasts via wifi.
  • I sync with my laptop since I work out of town and may need to do a restore. But I point my ORB app at my desktop for docs, audio, pix, and video. Not the best solution, but it works for me.
  • I'm using Google Calendar, syncing via NuevaSync, and so far it's been great. NuevaSync even setup support for calendars you can't edit, i.e. US Holidays.
    The only slight hiccup is you have to open Calendar on the phone to download new events and changes made on GCal proper every now and then. To me, it's not a big deal; if I've been working at my desk for a while and I know I've added events, as I'm leaving I pop open Calendar on the phone and it automatically updates. For free, I will deal with that. I also wish the Calendar colors would match up with my GCal colors, but the way I understand it is that's an iPhone Calendar problem, not a GCal/NuevaSync problem.
    What I do NOT understand is why I can't sync my phone via wifi. Is adding an album and three contacts really so data intensive that I need a USB cable?
  • i wish i could sync with both!
  • I sync with my MacBook Pro. I use it for everything. Plus I'm not to sure how cloud works.
  • I sync with my PC (I know, I need to convert to Mac). Don't really sync to my laptop cause I do the same, just use it for small projects and stuff, no media. If I ever get a Mac, I'll sync to that and cloud.
  • I primarily use the cloud for syncing. But anything I forget to grab of my Macs before leaving home can be dowloaded to my phone via FTP from anywhere. I can also use my Mac's desktop apps if I really need to with LogMeIn. So, I rarely drag my MacBook around with me much anymore. I'm not much into photo and music stuff so those drawbacks of MobileMe don't bother me at all.
  • I just setup contact and calender sync with the new Google sync so that stuff is now in the cloud being pushed to my iPhone and am loving it. But I'm still new this whole cloud thing and getting everything working so I understand it and can benefit. So far so good.
    Everything else is on my personal laptop, which is my only computer. I use my laptop for everything and it manages all my media. Right now I'm kind of stuck in the middle of eco-systems. I stream all my media (music, TV shows and movies ripped from my personal DVDs) to my Xbox 360. So I'm kind of stuck between managing my content in iTunes for my iPhone and managing that same content with the Zune Player to stream to my Xbox.
    So I guess I'm in limbo. I left WinMo for the iPhone and love it, but that is about all from Apple that appeals to me leaving me with 2 systems to manage the same content for 2 devices. I'm kinda hoping Microsoft can combine all their stuff so I can get a unified system, but I have doubts.
  • For me, I predominately use the cloud, and it works really well. I would be happy to digest all my content from the cloud, but two issues linger. 1) Security of my data in a consumer/end user cloud and 2) network infrastructure. Clearly without 2) I don't get to my data, and without adequate 1) I could lose a lot! Still, these will be ironed out and I think the sync to base model is outdated.
    Bring on the cloud!
  • Fruux all the way!
  • I have 3 computers a desktop at Home, a desktop at Work, and my laptop for being mobile. I have tried to sync on all of them, but in the end i have ended with syncing on my least used computer; the desktop at home. It has become my home server, it houses all of my media and is an extension of my cloud using syncplicity, and orb.
  • I have a strange set of requirements. I have a Windows XP PC in a secure office where I work. I have an iMac at home. I have a Smartphone WM 2005 I have used to sync at work with ActiveSync (but I gave up on MissingSync months ago for its perpetual errors). Luckily Google provided Google Desktop Sync for Windows so I can sync MS Outook cal from the office to Google Cal (cloud). I then use the iMac desktop's iCal app ability to sync with Google Cal - and thereby pass data over to my iPod Touch Calendar app. Right? Well not quite because iCal Google Cal miss syncing items occasionally. And it requires docking the iPod to the iMac. Worse, the office environment is locking down all USB ports so no more personal Smartphone linked to PC via ActiveSync! So I need a WiFi solution for syncing to Google Cal. So I am trying out SaiSuke Calendar app for iPhone/iPodTouch - so far very good! (Note: MobileMe did not work because it does not sync the iCal's link to Google Cal, so then syncing iPod Touch with WiFi to MobileMe fails to sync Google Cal data.) Bottom line: Google Calendar is Cloud-Central and lets various "clients" talk & sync with it: Windows MS Outlook via Google Desktop Sync for PC, and iCal for iMac desktop, and SaiSuke calendar for iPhone/iPodTouch. [but, sigh, I have found no way to move Calendar data over to or back from the Smartphone if I am denied ActiveSync at work, unless there is a AT&T 3G Cell/Internet based cal sync solution I don't know about.] Aloha.
  • since I cancelled my MobileMe Subscription I encounter problems syncronizing contacts and calendars from my iMac to the iPhonel. Updates are not showing up on my iPhone at all. What settings do I have to change?
  • I sync with my desktop, but I am always frustrated on trips that I can't sync it with my Macbook Pro like I can with my ipod classic. In the end it was the media that made the decision, my laptop has too small of a hard drive so most of my media sits on my imac. I like to juggle media on my iphone, so I don't feel I have much of a choice.
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  • I actually sync to both. If you save your library file to a server or shared location and then set up iTunes on your desktop and laptop to access it there (media folder and the actual Library itd file) you can actually move files freely between your iPhone and DT or LT. It gets a little weird if you try to open on both at the same time though, so just use one at a time and close iTunes when you're done so the library file get's updated properly.
  • Interesting here's an article I found to help if you are looking for a reliable virtual currency site.
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