Syncing Notes from Mountain Lion Macs to iOS and Android

Apple's new Mountain Lion operating system for the Mac makes it easy to sync jottings from the Notes application between Apple devices. But it's also easy to sync to Android.

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan is a journalist who has covered the search and internet marketing space for over 15 years. He's founding editor of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, and writes a personal blog called Daggle (and maintains his disclosures page there).
Danny Sullivan
5 min read

One of the nice things about the new Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion release is that the Notes application makes it easy to have notes sync from your Mac to your iPhone or iPad. But what if you're an Android user or want your notes to flow outside the Apple ecosystem for some reason? Yes, it can be done.

I don't take a lot of notes, but I've found it handy to have some things like frequent flyer numbers jotted down digitally in an easy-to-locate format. As a longtime Outlook user, I've used Outlook's own notes feature for my occasional note-taking needs.

It was especially nice that I could sync from Outlook to my iPhone using a tethered connection. These days, I sync through iCloud. That's left my notes effectively trapped within Outlook, unable to flow over-the-air to my iPhone or iPad, much less my Android phone or tablets.

Yesterday, I loaded up Mountain Lion and explored how the new Notes feature might help me get my notes back in sync.

Is it @me or is something wrong?
It seemed so easy. I went to the iCloud settings on my iPhone, toggled the Notes switch to on and figured the sync would begin. Nope. My iPhone demanded that I create an @me address in order to turn on note syncing.

Annoyingly, I already had an @me address. Why wouldn't iCloud just let me enter that? No matter what I tried, I couldn't find a way to enter my existing address. Finally, I allowed it to create a new one for me. Now I have two @me addresses, but problem solved.

Next, there was the small issue of the Notes app continually crashing on my Mac. In the end, the solution for me seemed to be going to Settings; then "Mail, Contacts & Calendars;" then disabling Notes for some accounts I had listed there. I also went to Settings; then "iCloud" and enabled Notes there. The crashing stopped, to my relief.

Testing Notes sync
Time to play. Firing up the Notes app on my Mac, I created a note to see what would happen. Since Notes supports pictures and hyperlinks, I made sure to add these along with some text:

Next stop was the iCloud Web site, which immediately confused me. Where was the online Notes app there? I didn't see it listed alongside other applications such as Mail or Contacts:

Eventually, I went into the Mail app and realized that Notes lives there. I gather that before Mountain Lion, Notes was part of the Mail app (as an Outlook user, I never went into the Mac mail app). I guess it still makes sense for many people that Notes remains part of Mail in iCloud. But for me, using Notes as a separate app for the first time in Mountain Lion, I sure found it confusing that it wasn't a separate app in iCloud.

Anyway, success! There was my note within Mail. The picture didn't display, but it was included as an attachment:

I also found that the note successfully flowed to both my iPad and my iPhone. Similar to iCloud, the picture didn't show:

Unlike in iCloud, clicking on the paper-clip attachment icon didn't download the image for viewing. No worries. My notes all tend to be text, anyway.

From Apple to Google
What's not to love? Well, I live a multiplatform life. If I'm out using my Android phone, I'd like to have quick access to my notes. Since my calendar can sync from my desktop to my iOS, Android, and Windows Phone devices, how about my notes?

It turns out to be pretty easy. If you have a Gmail account (or a Google Apps account), on your Mac, go to "Mail, Contacts & Calendars," add the account, and tick the "Notes" box:

After you've done that, syncing still works as it did back with iOS 4. Your notes will flow into Gmail and be given a "Notes" label. Click on that label, and you'll find your notes there. I made a note similar to the one above, and here's how it flowed into Gmail:

The same note also flowed to my Galaxy Nexus, as it did to my iPhone and iPad.

To reach your iOS devices via Google, go to "Mail, Contacts & Calendars" in Settings on your device. Add your Gmail account, if it's not already there. Then move the Notes setting to on.

When you've done this, notes you make on your iOS devices or your Mac will sync between them. It's pretty nice, plus you'll have copies that flow one-way to Gmail.

Three limitations to consider
One-way? Yes. That's one of three big drawbacks to this method:

  1. If you edit a note in Gmail, or try to create a new note there, it won't flow into the Notes app on your Apple devices.
  2. Notes won't be "instant on" with your Android devices. You'll need a connection to load them, if you haven't already downloaded them.
  3. Notes will not flow into iCloud.com.

These limitations are important. If you're living in an all-Apple world, there's not much sense in trying to sync over to Gmail, I'd say. If you live in both worlds, then this might be an option you wish to explore.

A better option is perhaps using a service like Evernote, which supports multiple devices including Windows Phone. You'll have to pay for offline access, however.

Another workaround would include just logging into iCloud from your Android phone and getting your notes that way, when needed.

Some wishes for Google, Apple, and Microsoft
What I'd really like to see is Android get its own Notes application that could talk with Apple's. I'm not holding out much hope on the cross talk. But I do find it odd that Android phones I've used don't seem to have their own standalone note-taking app (the Galaxy S3, with S Memo that can sync to Google Docs or Evernote, is a nice exception, in my experience).

What I'd like to see even more is Outlook on the Mac getting a way to talk to iCloud to sync notes created within Outlook. And contacts. And calendars. These are things Outlook for Windows can do (though it can't do Notes).

Finally, though I love the new functionality of Notes sync, I was greatly disappointed that there seemed to be no way to sync existing notes marked as "On My iPhone" or "On My iPad" to flow into iCloud.

As best I can tell, notes that have never been associated with a cloud-based account can't be added or moved to one.

If you want these notes to flow into the cloud, it seems to be a tedious process of copying them individually from a device-specific account to a cloud-based one.