Your iOS device can wirelessly sync personal data such as contacts, calendars, reminders, Safari bookmarks and notes with your Mac, as well as with Apple’s iCloud, Microsoft Exchange and Google. But how you set up those syncs can vary widely, depending on the kinds of mail and calendar accounts you have.

iCloud

The simplest syncing setup uses Apple’s free iCloud service. It’s also the most capable option, as it synchronises the broadest range of data types (contacts, calendars, reminders, bookmarks and notes). And because iCloud is thoroughly integrated with the apps built into iOS, it’s the most convenient. Setting it up couldn’t be simpler: on your Mac, go to the iCloud preference pane, enter your credentials and turn on the services you want to sync. Then, on an iOS device, go to Settings > iCloud and do the same.

Exchange

Using Google’s Exchange option lets you sync almost everything

If you have an account on a Microsoft Exchange-compatible server, your iOS device can sync contacts, calendars and reminders with it, though not notes or bookmarks. To set up the account, tap Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > Add Account > Microsoft Exchange. Enter your credentials, tap Next and follow the prompts.

Google

Your iOS device can sync contacts, calendars and notes with Google’s free services – Gmail Contacts, Google Calendar and (for notes) Gmail – and it can do so for both standard Google (aka Gmail) accounts and Google Apps accounts. But syncing with those services requires more effort than syncing with iCloud or Exchange does: you need to know exactly what kinds of information you want to sync, because no one service can sync everything.

To set up a Google account on your iPhone or iPad, tap Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > Add Account. You can now choose from three different types of accounts; the type you select determines the features you get.

Gmail If you select Gmail, your iOS device uses IMAP to fetch notes (as well as email). It offers to sync calendars, but it won’t sync your Gmail contacts. If you see a message asking you what you want to do with your local calendars, select Keep On My iPhone. 

Microsoft Exchange With the Exchange option, your iOS device will connect to your Google account using Google Sync (Google’s implementation of Exchange). This provides push syncing of calendars and contacts (as well as mail), but not notes. If you choose to use Google Sync, we recommend you read Google’s help document (bit.ly/s5PBLu) and the Known Issues page (bit.ly/vhe0Qe) before you proceed.

Other By selecting Other, you can configure Gmail as a standard IMAP email account, though with slightly different options than if you tap Gmail. With that account, you can sync notes, but not calendars or contacts.

If one of these accounts doesn’t have a feature you need, you can always set up more than one of them. So, for example, you can set up one Google account as Gmail and turn on Mail, Calendars and Notes, then set up a second instance of that same account as Microsoft Exchange and turn on only Contacts. Just make sure you don’t set up two Google accounts to sync the same data; that may lead to confusion.

You also need to be aware of how Google syncs specific kinds of data:

Contacts To sync contacts between Gmail and a Mac, open Address Book on the computer, choose Address Book > Preferences and click Accounts. Select On My Mac in the Accounts list, click Synchronise With Google and follow the prompts. Google contacts sync only with Address Book’s local (On My Mac) contacts; this option won’t sync those stored in iCloud or on an Exchange server. If you want to merge local and server-based contacts, you can try Playa Apps’ Contacts Sync for Google Gmail (£2.49, itun.es/i6jp3k3).

Calendars You can also sync with Google Calendar from iOS using the CalDAV protocol. To configure iCal on your Mac to connect to Google Calendar, choose iCal > Preferences, click Accounts and then the plus sign button (+). Select Google from the Account Type menu, enter your Google credentials and click Create. You can sync an existing Google Calendar with iCal, but you can’t sync an iCal calendar with Google Calendar.

Notes When you sync notes with a Google account, they’ll appear in the Notes app on an iOS device, as email messages with the label Notes in Gmail, and as messages in a Notes mailbox in your Gmail account in Mail on OS X.

Tasks Gmail Tasks can’t currently sync with the iOS Reminders app, even when you use Google Sync. But you can sync them with a third-party to-do app, such as Readdle’s Calendars (£4.99, itun.es/i6jp3kx). 

Bookmarks Cloud is currently the only way to sync your bookmarks between the Mac and iOS versions of Safari. You can, however, use the Xmarks Premium service from LastPass ($12 per year; buy.xmarks.com), which also lets you sync your Safari, Firefox and Chrome bookmarks among all your computers. Several other iOS browsers and bookmark apps also offer syncing with Safari on your Mac.