More powerful email, including server-based rules; greatly improved Calendar syncing and web application; easy iDisk file sharing
No searching of email contents via the MobileMe website; performance issues when syncing iDisk files in the Finder; limited web hosting features
The last time we reviewed MobileMe was in July 2008, shortly after the service made the transition from .Mac. Since then, Apple’s suite of internet services has undergone numerous additional changes, but has it has kept up with the competition?
I’ll look first at the three core features – email, syncing, and iDisk – and move on to the remaining parts of the service, with an emphasis on what has changed since 2008.
Apple completely overhauled MobileMe Mail earlier this year, although most of the changes are visible only on the MobileMe web site. The service now offers server-based rules for filtering incoming mail, automatic message retrieval from multiple POP accounts, the option to use the From address from one or more third-party accounts, and an improved web user interface.
These changes are welcome, but MobileMe still lags behind competitors such as Gmail and Yahoo! Mail in some respects. For example, server-based rules are far more limited than what OS X Mail or Gmail offer. And when viewing your email on the MobileMe site, you can search only message headers, not their contents – a frustrating limitation.
MobileMe can sync data between your Macs, Windows PCs, and iOS devices. For calendars, contacts, and Safari bookmarks, MobileMe offers near-instantaneous push sync. You can also sync certain files (such as keychains and preferences) between Macs, though not with other devices. Setting up syncing couldn’t be easier: on each device, you enter your MobileMe credentials and select the types of data you want to sync. (Setting up comparable capabilities with Google’s free products is more involved.) You can view and edit your calendar and contact data using either a Mac or Windows application or the MobileMe website.
Syncing is largely unchanged since 2008‚ except for MobileMe’s new, dramatically better Calendar, which now uses the more-reliable, industry-standard CalDAV protocol to sync calendars amongst iCal, your iOS devices, and Apple’s servers. You can share a calendar publicly or privately, optionally granting read and write access – a huge improvement over the one-way, publish-and-subscribe method Apple used earlier. The web-based Calendar app is also much spiffier now.
The new MobileMe Calendar looks and acts like the Calendar app on an iPad. Behind the scenes it uses CalDAV to sync much more effectively.
For the time being, the upgraded Calendar is optional, and the process of converting your data and devices to use the new system may involve a fair number of steps depending on your setup. But after completing those steps myself, the syncing problems I previously had disappeared.
iDisk is 20GB of online storage (shared with email), which you can use for backups, file sharing, and other activities. (You can upgrade to as much as 60GB for an additional annual fee.) Your iDisk can sync with your Mac, giving you a local copy of all your files, which you can use even without internet access.
In casual use, syncing files between my local iDisk and Apple’s servers felt slow and finicky compared to Dropbox. However, my tests yielded surprising results. Transferring a 10MB file took almost exactly the same amount of time with each service (56 seconds to send the file to Dropbox, with upload rate set to maximum, and 50 seconds to sync the file to the iDisk server). But a 7.8MB folder containing a couple of hundred files took 15 minutes to sync with iDisk but less than a minute with Dropbox. So iDisk’s performance depends on what you store on it.
MobileMe now lets you share individual files on your iDisk with others either publicly or privately. The feature works as advertised, but would be more convenient if you could share files directly from the Finder. OS X 10.6.5 added support for SSL encryption when transferring files to and from your iDisk in the Finder; this makes it safer to use your iDisk while connected to public networks.
Web hosting is essentially unchanged; it works fine for basic sites, but you’re limited to serving static files, whereas most other providers let you run server-side code such as PHP scripts and MySQL databases.
MobileMe has numerous other components, too, all of which have seen only minor changes since 2008: Gallery (for uploading and sharing photos and videos on the Web); Find My iPhone (for locating wayward iOS devices); Back to My Mac (for file and screen sharing while on a remote network); and Backup (a no-frills backup application). Of these, the only real standout is Find My iPhone, but since Apple has now made the feature freely available to anyone with an iPhone 4, iPad, or a fourth-generation iPod touch, it’s no longer a reason for owners of those devices to purchase MobileMe.
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On the whole, the current version of MobileMe is an improvement over what was available two years ago, although it’s of uneven quality. But then, not all MobileMe features are equally important to all users. If you plan to use only email and web hosting, for example, it’s hard to justify spending $119 on the service. However, if you use most of its features or don’t want to register for, install, learn, and configure products from a variety of vendors to get most of the same features, MobileMe is a bargain. (It’s even more of a bargain if you find a discounted copy online – which can also be used for renewals.)