Apple didn't explain how MobileMe determines where to retrieve the most recent data for synchronization, other than to say that the timestamp on a particular device plays a role. We're therefore unclear about what might happen if, say, you sync data via MobileMe from a computer reading the date incorrectly. Plus, there's no option for viewing a log of items that have been synced. We wonder if that could be a problem, should disaster strike. What if you edit contacts, calendars, or photos by mistake and find the changes pushed to all MobileMe locations?
MobileMe's Web-based programs pool your synchronized mail, calendar, and contacts as well as storage within a single location. We're glad that no ads appear in this paid service, which looks lovely. You can drag and drop information within the interfaces of the MobileMe applications, as well as into the Public folders for sharing.
The iDisk interface should be familiar to .Mac users who use it to store data in the cloud. MobileMe won't synchronize changes to, say, your MP3 library, which some iPhone and iPod aficionados might wish. However, iDisk could function as sort of a catchall for songs and other files you'd like to access from a Web browser.
Our first attempt at syncing our Address Book, Calendar, Mail, and photos from a Mac to MobileMe mostly went without hiccups, although MobileMe Contacts displayed a bunch of "no name" listings that looked less jumbled in the desktop counterpart. Thanks to integration with Google Maps, MobileMe pops up maps of contacts' locations. But Smart Groups don't work online.
The Calendar has a clean interface, with easy-to-use niceties such as color coding for multiple calendars, which are also found in Google's free competitor. MobileMe's Calendar features To Do items from iCal. But some users have reported problems with iCal syncing. In addition, iCal subscription support is apparently lacking--odd, since the free, beta Google Calendar works in that regard. We're also disappointed that MobileMe won't let you share appointments via a public URL. Nor can you send attached event invitations.
The layout of Mail is easy to use, with folders on the left and a large, central message pane. We had to click the Inbox link to display the latest incoming messages. Gmail feels faster. Mail flags potential spam e-mails, as Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, and Gmail similarly do. And it features standard SSL encryption for security. Oddly, though, Google Maps integration doesn't apply to Mail, which would be more helpful than it is in Contacts. When we used a Yahoo Mail account to send a message to a MobileMe e-mail--at both mac.com and me.com e-mail addresses, MobileMe's Mail displayed the message twice instead of detecting the duplicate. When we deleted one of those messages, MobileMe left its counterpart message intact.
iPhoto users will find MobileMe's Gallery interface familiar. The public URL where your photos appear is always in the upper right corner, so it's easy to share and invite viewers to subscribe via RSS. Building albums, you can drag and drop to arrange pictures, although you can't drag them from a local folder to the Webtop. MobileMe lets you rotate and rename photos. But Flickr and other services make this less of a hassle by providing arrow icons next to each picture. And we were surprised that MobileMe doesn't enable additional edits, such as contrast and brightness. If you're on a Windows machine, unfortunately, right-clicking the mouse won't pull up a menu of options. (Then again, hoping for a Windows keyboard or mouse convention to work within an Apple service may reflect wishful thinking on our part.)
As with .Mac, the creative capabilities of MobileMe are designed to be paired with Apple iLife '08. MobileMe galleries can accept pictures directly from iPhoto '08 and Aperture 2 and videos from iMovie '08. Changes made to photos at Me.com will push back to iPhoto or Aperture. Movies of various sizes can be viewed on compatible hardware and the Apple TV. Those who maintain Web pages via iWeb can similarly publish MobileMe content to their domain.
Although you can sync Safari bookmarks and RSS feeds as well as Internet Explorer Favorites among your connected computers and handhelds, we couldn't find a way to access the saved URLs online, which would have been even more helpful. We found this omission surprising, since free services such as Del.icio.us can save bookmarks locally to an online interface in one step.
The Search field in the upper right corner of MobileMe's online interface looks only within the currently-selected tool. If you're using Calendar and search for a name that only appears in Contacts, you won't find that person.
Service and support
MobileMe help and support includes an excellent knowledgebase and chatting live with an Apple representative, although by text or e-mail, not by telephone. We found the user forums to be the best way of learning that we weren't alone in bumping into errors in our early tests. Apple's Web site also keeps track of known issues with the service, so you'd be wise to frequent its articles.
Is MobileMe a good deal? Perhaps, if you rely heavily on the Apple ecosystem and wish to access a bundle of features in one place. There doesn't appear to be an equivalent, personal service for Windows users with this breadth of features.
However, you don't have to buy a Mac to enjoy similar tools for free, such as the free Windows Live lineup offers. In addition, SugarSync provides photo-syncing capabilities (video) that we found elegant in our tests, with triple the storage of MobileMe at the same $100 annual fee. Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have long provided free e-mail and calendars. Microsoft's free Windows Live Mail, replacing Outlook Express, integrates with Hotmail. Del.icio.us and Diigo sync browser and online bookmarks for free. Photo sharing sites such as Flickr, at $25 per year, offer unlimited storage. Online storage competitors that lack MobileMe's syncing features include Xdrive, which provides more than double the storage for $99 per year, Box.net's 5GB for $96 per year. Even better, Windows Live SkyDrive offers 5GB for free.
Nevertheless, Apple's marriage of an array of such services with its hardware is likely to continue to attract Mac and iPhone users who don't want to shop around. Overall, MobileMe looks more attractive than older .Mac subscriptions with fewer features and less storage. Apple won't share its plans, of course, such as, say, adding a Web-based word processor or synchronization tools for word-processing and other documents. Such additions, whether Apple is eyeing their potential or not, might be a natural fit attracting more business users and Windows devotees. First, however, Apple must solve the hiccups marring MobileMe's basic functionality.