Google Sync Part Two: Contacts with iOS and Address Book

As we mentioned in our Google Calendars article, we’re covering three ways to replace MobileMe with the free syncing alternatives from Google.  In this article, we demonstrate contact syncing from your Gmail contacts, to your computer’s Address Book, to your iOS device and back.  This process will allow you to wirelessly sync contacts just like MobileMe… but for free.

Don’t get ahead of us as you could easily do something that will nuke your contacts during this process.  Make sure you sync your iPhone to your computer one last time before we do this so you know that your Address Book contacts are up to date.  Fair warning: this is a completely clean way of syncing contacts with Google, you could very easily just turn on syncing and see what you get, but this guide will make your life a lot easier.  If you have a lot of contacts, you may want to set aside a couple hours for this project as it’s very in-depth and definitely not for someone in a hurry.  Please continue reading the article for the full instructions.  Soon, we’ll be including pictures to help make the process easier and more entertaining.

First, backup your Address Book on your Mac.  Click the “All Contacts” group on the left and then select all of the entries in the list (click a contact and the press command+a).  Click “File” in the top menu bar, then “Export,” then “Export VCard…”  Save that file to your desktop, or some other place where it will be easily accessible.  Now we can start preparing for the Google setup.

We need to make sure that all of our contacts are properly organized in a way that will play nice with Google Sync.  For example, if you have a contact record that has “Bill & Mary” as the first name and “Smith” as the last name, you’ll need to separate that record into two individual records or just Make it “Bill Smith” and put “Spouse: Mary” in the notes.  Why do we need to do that?  Well, there’s a bug — or it could just be a limitation of how Google Sync works – that duplicates any records with multiple names, extra symbols or other weird characters each time you sync.  Since Google Sync works in the background on your computer, you may not notice it until you end up with 15 different records for one contact.  Sure, you can go to Gmail and run the “Merge Duplicates” utility they provide, but it will be easier (in the long run) to just fix your contacts ahead of time.

You’ll also want to remove any strange custom labels you’ve added in Address Book because your iOS devices won’t know how to parse that information when sync’d with Google.  For example: phone numbers that you’ve labeled “Josh’s Cell,” or possibly “iPhone,” may not sync to your iOS device from Google.  Custom labels sync just fine between the Mac and Google, but the information may not make it to your iOS device (at least in our testing on 4.2.1).  That should be all of the necessary contact preparation… we can move onto the Google setup.

You can use your existing “[email protected]” address, you can use your Google Apps address ([email protected]) or you can create a new account specifically for contact syncing.  It’s completely up to you but we’re assuming you’re logged into a Gmail account and ready to work.  Here you can do things a few different ways: organize your Gmail contacts, delete them and rely on your Address Book Contacts, or just import your Address Book contacts and deal with the organization later.  I chose to dump my Gmail contacts because there wasn’t anything of importance.  Once you have that done, go back to Address Book and export your contacts one more time (since you theoretically just re-organized them).  Then, in Gmail, click “Contacts.”  On the left hand side click “Import Contacts.”  Select your newly exported VCard that has your organized contacts inside and let Google import them.  That should get all of your contacts into your Gmail account.  Now we can start connecting your other devices to Google Sync.

We know it may sound strange, but you’ll want to delete everything from Address Book once you’ve verified your contacts are correct on Google.  That’s because we’ll pull the new set of contacts directly from Google in order to avoid any potential sync conflicts.  Once you delete the contacts from Address Book, go to the app’s preferences panel.  Click the “Accounts” tab.  Check the box next to “Synchronize with Google.”  Sign into your Google Account.  In a matter of seconds, you’ll see your Google contacts show up in Address Book.  This process also adds the Mac OS Sync Services arrows to your top menu bar (it’s near your clock).  You can force the computer to sync if you’ve just made a lot of changes, or you can just let it sync as scheduled.  By default the arrows reference MobileMe, but they’re responsible for Google Sync as well.

Let’s switch gears to the iOS devices.  We’re actually going to use Google’s Exchange implementation to sync contacts to iOS.  To do this, tap the “Settings” app and then tap “Mail, Contacts, Calendars.”  Tap “Add Account…” and choose “Microsoft Exchange.”  Once there, enter your Google account info but leave “Domain” blank.  Fill out all of the information, tap “Next” and then enter “m.google.com” into the server field that appears.  Tap “Next” again and it will verify your account information.

If you’re new to Google Sync and haven’t read our whole walkthrough, you may feel tempted to just turn on Mail, Contacts and Calendars right from this next screen… we’d strongly discourage you from doing so because you’ll lose a lot of functionality by using the Exchange option.  We actually want to turn on Contacts and make sure that Calendars and Mail are off.

Quick side-note: if you setup Google Mail through the Exchange option you’ll lose the ability to transfer messages to folders with other accounts.  We store all of our email in Google folders even if the messages didn’t originate in Google Mail.  In our testing, we could not move mail from non-Gmail accounts into the Google folders (or labels if you think of it that way).  If you don’t move messages between accounts, you can go ahead and turn on Mail from the Exchange Account, but we didn’t like how it worked.

Once you turn the contact syncing on, you’ll notice that your phone wants to know if it should delete all of your old contacts.  If you’ve followed every step of this guide, you should be free to do that without any hesitation.  If you didn’t follow the guide… we wish you luck.  Tell it to delete all of the old contacts.  Now go to your contacts and watch them sync from Google onto your phone.  Again, if you had custom labels on phone numbers or other important fields, you may not see that information sync to your phone.  We’re not sure why, but we’re guessing it’s something on Apple’s end since custom labels sync fine with Address Book on the Mac.

You should be syncing your Gmail contacts with Address Book and your iOS device.  We’ve outlined any issues we’ve found (odd characters and custom labels) but if you find any more, we’d love to hear about them in the comments.  If you have any questions about these articles don’t be afraid to ask.  We’ll do our best to help you find a solution.