MobileMe 1.1 Review

Apple's rebranded .Mac service, now called MobileMe, has been up and running (of sorts) for four weeks now

Frankly, we were unsure as to when we should review MobileMe. Apple's new internet service had a difficult birth, and it originally seemed impossible to review fairly.

Although problems remain, it is clear is that Apple has been working hard to fix MobileMe. The desktop part of the service was quickly updated, and push syncing now seems to be working, as does the Web access, iDisk, and Gallery. We feel that MobileMe is at a point where we are confident of using it on a day-to-day basis, and we are reviewing MobileMe on that understanding.

The following review is not about its initial foibles, which we believe have mostly been fixed (especially problems with the Mail service). We are reviewing the service as it stands, which – at least for us – appears to be in working order. User experience may vary, and we're sure many Macworld readers are still suffering frustrations, but when Apple fixes the problems affecting them, we believe the service we currently enjoy will be the one they will be using. At least for the foreseeable future.

What is MobileMe?
MobileMe is Apple's replacement for its ageing .Mac service. Sold on a yearly subscription (£59 for individual users, £89 for a family pack that accommodates up to four users). MobileMe, like the .Mac service it replaces, brings together a disparate collection of internet services and integrates them efficiently within the OS X operating system.

Most of the services in MobileMe will be familiar to current .Mac subscribers. We split them into three main categories: sync services, online storage and Web services; you also get a me.com email address, which doubles up as an iChat account.

People who currently have a .Mac account will find themselves automatically switched over to MobileMe. The old @mac.com email address will still work, as will the new @me.com email address.

Of course, MobileMe is more than just a name change. There are a number of new features that are worth mentioning. The biggest of these is push functionality in MobileMe's email, and instant syncing in some circumstances for your data. The way it works is that information is immediately stored in an online ‘cloud’ (a set of servers) and the pushed out to the various devices you own via the internet as soon as possible. Usually the process is more or less instantaneous.

Sync when you're winning
Over the years, we've come to the conclusion that synchronising information between multiple computers with 100 per cent reliability is a Herculean, perhaps even impossible, task. In theory it should be easy enough: copy info from one machine to another – make sure both end up the same. The reality is that the sync doesn't always work, information gets changed in multiple places at once and the sync service gets confused. The result is "conflict errors". We grew tired long ago of seeing .Mac say something along the lines of: "There are 812 conflicts. Do you want to review them now?"

The new method of push syncing information in MobileMe is by far its biggest strength. It can sync information (notably Calendar, Address Book, Safari Bookmarks) almost instantly. If you change Contact information on your iPhone it will immediately appear on your computer, and vice versa.

MobileMe syncing

It is a shame that the push syncing works so well, but isn't extended to the desktop. This reverts to the same conflict-prone sync functionality of .Mac

Apple originally billed MobileMe as ‘Exchange for the rest of us’, although there is some question as to whether the rest of us really need Exchange. An Exchange service – as the name suggest – is really for multiple users to share the same set of information. Business users need to be instantly up to date, so if, for example, a meeting changes in a shared calendar all people involved are instantly made aware of the change.

We're not convinced that individual users really need that level of performance, but what we do need is reliability – which is where MobileMe's push service actually excels (even though the system has publicly failed in other areas). Problems are usually caused by information changing in two places before syncing has taken place, but with the push service, changes are made and synced faster than you can change them. Technically, once it’s up and running, you should have no more conflict errors.

If only the push system was ubiquitous we would have no hesitation in making an instant recommendation. However, the syncing between multiple computers isn't quite so fast. iCal and Address Book changes made under OS Leopard are updated every 15 minutes, and are therefore not "pushed" when edited. Apple clarified this after launch.

Where MobileMe fails (as .Mac did before) is when syncing between multiple computers. It is still getting confused and we have found ourselves having to dive into the Advance settings to reset sync data in a similar way as we did with the .Mac service. This is a real shame because if it wasn't for this factor, MobileMe would be a much-improved service that we would recommend wholeheartedly.

There is one big advantage to syncing between desktops with MobileMe, though. It now supports syncing on the PC as well as the Mac (thanks to a Windows App that installs alongside iTunes on the PC). We found this service temperamental at first, but it seems to have settled down. People who work on multiple operating systems will find MobileMe's ability to sync up the information between Mac and PC a real boon.

Push it real good
Another new feature of MobileMe is the push email account. The way it currently works is that the iPhone Mail app is currently set to check for mail every 15 minutes. An email sent to your MobileMe account, however, is "pushed" from Apple's servers directly to the iPhone.

We found hearing the constant ping of emails arriving to our iPhone interesting, but hardly life-changing. Maybe if minutes really do matter, then push email is vital to you. We find the 15-minute intervals usually suffice when we're out and about. Yahoo originally supplied push email to iPhone owners, and if you want Push email without the expense then that is still an alternative.

Web services
One great feature that MobileMe has inherited from .Mac is the online access, which is now even better. Pointing Safari towards www.me.com takes you to a set of Web apps that are so good they could be mistaken for actual applications. The email app now enables full search, and the Calendar app enables you to add and remove events with the drag and drop simplicity of iCal. It even has integrated features – clicking on a contact enables you to put it in Address Book.

The me.com Web site is amazing to look at and Apple should give the designers of the Me.com Web site a pay rise. Seriously. They are probably the best-designed Web applications in the world. They are ideal for when you find yourself working on another computer without access to your own Mail, iCal and Address Book apps.

MobileMe Mail application

One superb feature of MobileMe is the online applications. These are truly superb, and hard to distinguish from desktop applications

It's a shame we hardly ever use them. Personally we use iPhones when out and about, and have fully synced-up Macs at work. But those people who work on corporate computers that can't sync their home data will love the online apps.

Another Web service that's come along for the ride is the Gallery function. As with .Mac you can upload images from iPhoto directly to an online gallery. Links to these can then be emailed around. As with the other Web services, the Gallery is a highly interactive Web site.

For all the online services you need to be running Web software that fully supports AJAX and JavaScript: Safari 3, Firefox 2 and 3, OmniWeb 5.7, and Camino 1.6.1 all worked fine, while Opera 9.5 and Flock were denied entrance. Under Windows, Safari 3 and Firefox 2 and higher are recommended; Internet Explorer 7 will work, with some caveats (from what we can see Mail doesn't work as well and the Calendar app is dog slow); Internet Explorer 6 is not supported.

The lack of decent support for Internet Explorer may present some people with a problem. In the month that MobileMe was launched, IE6 made up 25.3 per cent of the browser usage market (http://www.w3schools.com/browsers/browsers_stats.asp). IE6 is standard in many corporations and Apple's advice that people should upgrade their browser isn't really good enough. And seeing as IE7 makes up another 25 per cent of the market, Apple's message to upgrade to Safari 3 or Firefox 3 seems somewhat petulant (what if your systems department at work doesn't allow it?). It's the sort of thing we'd criticise Microsoft for doing, so see no reason why Apple should get off unscathed.

Back To My Mac
Another service that shouldn't go unmentioned is the fantastic Back To My Mac system. This was introduced in the last major upgrade to .Mac, and is potentially worth the entire £59 fee all on its own. Back To My Mac uses the account information from MobileMe to enable remote access between your computers. With this switched on you can log on to any Mac on your system any other Mac linked up with MobileMe. You can share files and even remotely control the screen. There is remote access software available to do this, but you will usually need a fixed IP address (which your ISP will charge you approximately £5 per month for). Back To My Mac is one of MobileMe's true saving graces. With all the chaos surrounding the sync services, it's too easy to overlook a genuinely useful function such as Back To My Mac.

Virtual storage
iDisk was – and remains – another genuinely useful feature of MobileMe. The icon has changed and the storage space has upgraded to 20GB, but aside from that little is different. This is great because iDisk is by far the best way we know to share large files. You simply drag and drop them on to the virtual disk, which appears and functions no different from a physical drive on your computer. Other Mac users can access your iDisk Public folder by using the Go>iDisk option in the Finder's menu. And both Mac and Window users can now use the public.me.com URL to access a new snazzy Web interface.

MobileMe iDisk

MobileMe's iDisk service enables you to store files on a 20GB virtual online hard drive

These files can be used wherever you've got an internet connection (or you can sync them). The infuriating speeds that some UK users reported seems to have disappeared. We tested iDisk using Transmit and a 28MB movie clip. The download speed was approximate 150KB/s and took roughly two minutes, upload speed was 55KB/s and took roughly five minutes. While the speed still appears to be capped, it is fast enough to be usable.

MobileMissing
Several items from .Mac don't seem to have made the move: .Mac Groups can no longer be created, though you can still use existing groups. And HomePage, which was supplanted by Web Gallery, continues to function but won’t be getting any further attention from Apple. Although customers who signed up for email-only .Mac accounts can renew that service, an email-only plan is not an option with new MobileMe accounts.

OUR VERDICT

.Mac used to suffered from a "kitchen sink" syndrome where a number of disparate – and not always useful – features were cobbled together. In that sense, it's good to see MobileMe get some direction – even if it has come at the cost of some features like Groups.

We did think that the push-syncing feature and cloud storage in MobileMe would be the killer app we were waiting for. Sadly, the service remains patchy when syncing between multiple Macs, and it is this that makes MobileMe a far less compelling purchase than it should be.

It's clear that Apple has some way to go with MobileMe, and we don't mean in terms of fixing the problems of launch. Apple simply hasn't nailed desktop syncing. Features like Gallery and Web access feel like bonus extras, but don't overlook features such as Back To My Mac and iDisk – if you use these regularly they can be worth the cash alone.

However, none of the working features truly make up for what should be the killer app: seamless and trouble-free syncing.

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