With the Mac community currently caught up in the seemingly endless hype and speculation surrounding the iPhone, it is easy to forget that there are other smartphones out there that have been providing all the same functionality that the iPhone provides, and a whole lot more, for the last few years.
Aside from the always-exquisite Apple industrial design and the slick multitouch interface, the iPhone's dirty little secret is that it offers nothing new over phones available three or four years earlier - Symbian-based smartphones such as the Sony Ericsson P910i, or a plethora of Windows Mobile based devices.
Currently, anyone who wants a 3G wireless connection, or true GPS, or the ability to connect to a wide range of Bluetooth peripherals, or to run third party software without hacking their phone must look to other devices, many of which run some variant of the Windows Mobile OS, currently at version 6.
And so we come to an anomaly.
Apple has included iSync with OS X since version 10.2, allowing the synchronisation of contacts and appointments between Address Book / iCal on your Mac and the personal information management (PIM) software on a whole host of different phones. However, despite the relative popularity of Windows Mobile based devices since the heady days of iSync’s introduction in January 2003, iSync has never supported syncing to these devices.
Why this should be the case is unclear. It has meant that Mac users with Windows Mobile based phones have not been able to rely on a built in solution. Instead we have to rely on third party workarounds, most notably Missing Sync from Mark/Space, which I for one have found to be frustratingly unstable.
Now we have an alternative in the form of SyncMate, and as a Mac user with a Windows Mobile based phone I could not be more pleased.
SyncMate is available as both a free solution which is capable of synchronising contact and calendar information, and an 'Expert' version for $39.95 which adds in a number of extra features including the ability to sync folders between Mac and WM devices, iTunes music and videos, iPhoto images and log text messages and the applications installed on the device.
I've been living with the Expert edition for the past couple of weeks, and so far I'm impressed. Even more so because during that time active development has been fully in evidence - the software has auto-magically downloaded bug-squashing updates twice.
Installation has been the trickiest part of using SyncMate, but I suspect this may be more the fault of the notoriously flaky Windows Mobile rather than SyncMate. It took me three attempts to get the first connection between my MacBook Pro and my HTC TYTN, but the first of these failures was due to me having skipped the obligatory restart of the Mac after installation of SyncMate, and the second was due to the phone having crashed (again!).
SyncMate installs a small helper application on to the WM device that manages communication between the device and the SyncMate software running on the host Mac. This is in contrast toMissing Sync, which appears to emulate Microsoft's ActiveSync protocols, making the WM device think it is connected to a Windows PC running ActiveSync.
One of the long-standing issues I have had with the Microsoft ActiveSync approach is that the WM device can only be synced with two PCs at any given time - presumably this is meant to be a work PC and a home machine. Being blessed (burdened?) with anunfeasiblylarge number of computers, I havefrequentlybumped up against this barrier - and have been regularly forced to delete an existing pairing in order to sync my contacts from the phone onto the next machine I wish to use. The approach taken by MissingSync only serves to compound this problem, as Macs synced using MissingSync also take up one of the two precious sync slots available on the WM device.
Thankfully SyncMate's use of a helper application completely negates this problem, meaning that my Macs will no longer take up a precious sync slot on the WM device. This alone would be enough for me to recommend SyncMate over alternative solutions, but on to the meatier features.
The SyncMate driver adds an icon in the bottom right of the Today screen on your WM device.
SyncMate's raison d'etre is to synchronise contacts from your Mac to your WM device. So far it seems to allow synchronisation with the built-in Address Book and iCal apps - so users of other PIM software (most notably Microsoft's Entourage) are out of luck for the moment.
I always used USB to connect my phone to my Mac, but SyncMate can use a WiFi connection as an alternative.
I started off with a fairly simple test - I bravely deleted all the contacts and calendar info from my phone and (after having carefully backed up my iCal and Address Book on the Mac just in case!) set SyncMate to place all the material from my Mac onto the phone. A couple of minutes later and I had a phone full of contacts and appointments and everything on both Mac and Phone was in perfect harmony.
Next I tested transfers the other way - deleting my Address Book and iCal information and recreating it from the phone. Again, a couple of minutes later and my contacts and calendar on the Mac were repopulated. SyncMate will even manage the multiple calendars that iCal allows, and, in my testing, did so better than alternative solutions.
Finally the crunch test, I modified various contacts and calendar entries on the phone and on the Mac and synced the device with the conflict resolver set to 'ask me'.
In the cases where I had modified a contact only on the Mac or only on the phone the process worked well, but for the couple of records where I had modified an entry on both the Mac and phone between syncs I had to choose one or the other, I could not see a way to 'merge' the two modified records.
I have no idea if it is technically possible to analyse the records on a field-by-field basis and determine which fields represent the most recent edit to create a merged record, but this would be a useful addition.
One quick note - when I first ran these tests with an early version of the software I did get a few duplicate entries. but an update appeared to cure that issue and the current version doesn't appear to suffer from that bug.
SyncMate Expert Edition allows the synchronisation of music and videos from iTunes (non-DRM'd files only, so no iTunes purchases I'm afraid) and synchronisation of photos from iPhoto.
The iTunes music syncing is pretty straightforward - choose an audio playlist in iTunes or a folder full of audio content on the Mac and a folder on the WM device to copy the music files to and SyncMate does the rest. I had no issues with this whatsoever, and was listening to my BBC podcasts on the phone in a matter of minutes.
The video syncing is more involved, as SyncMate allows videos from iTunes or a folder on the Mac to be synced to the WM device either in their original format or with conversion at the time of copying. In order to test this I put a new 2Gb MicroSD card into my HTC TYTN and tried copying Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom across from iTunes both without conversion (meaning the full 1.3 Gb 640 x 360 pixel, 25 fps H.264 file was copied to the phone) and with SyncMate converting the file to a 320 x 240 pixel, 15 fps MP4-Improved profile file. The SyncMate conversion resulted in a 315 Mb file after approximately three hours of conversion time on a MacBook Pro Core2Duo 2.4 GHz.
The phone really struggled with the unconverted H.264 original of Indiana Jones. The standard Windows Media Player application would not open the file at all. TCPMP (a free media player – think of it as a VLC equivalent on WM devices) opened the file, but plated it at a rate of 1 frame every 2 seconds or so. Until phone processor speeds improve this is not a viable option at present.
The file as converted by SyncMate played perfectly in both Windows Media player and TCPMP, but I could not get the conversion process to properly letterbox or crop the movie (despite options in the encoder profile being selected), resulting in a weird anamorphic distortion in the converted file.
As a final comparative test I tried using VisualHub to convert the file to a cropped 320x240 15fps MP4, then copying that file to the phone. The VisualHub conversion was much quicker than the SyncMate conversion (to be expected from a special purpose video conversion application) and the resulting file was smaller, subjectively better quality and did not suffer any anamorphic distortion. Therefore, a top tip for putting video on your WM device is to convert it using a specialist video converter and only use SyncMate to copy it to your device.
SyncMate can copy audio and video files from the WM device to your Mac, but will only allow this to be done to a folder and not directly to ITunes playlists.
I could happily copy photos from the WM device to my Mac, but no matter what I tried I could not get SyncMate to recognise my iPhoto libraries. I have several libraries and they are stored on external drives, so perhaps my non-standard configuration was at the root of this problem.
There are several plug-ins allowing you to:
These all worked as advertised and proved very useful additions to the package.
SyncMate is an invaluable tool for anyone looking to use a WM device with his or her Mac. In a way it is a pity that this software didn't arrive a couple of years earlier, as at that time it would have had serious potential to drive adoption of WM devices amongst the Mac faithful. However, with Apple having splashed down into the mobile device space, and with the second-generation iPhone just around the corner , SyncMate may be catering to a dwindling user base.
If so this would be a real shame, as the software is, for anyone who uses the built in OS X apps, the best WM sync software available.
SyncMate is still only at version 1.2 and under active development. Bugs seem to be getting squashed pretty quickly, and I'm sure that the feature set will be expanded rapidly. I think that Entourage support is a hole to be filled at present, as user of Microsoft-based phones may also be more likely to use Microsoft's PIM on their Mac. I'd also like to see the iPhoto sync bug that I experienced to be cured.
For my money, I think that the Expert Edition is well worth the $39 asking price.