Review: Apple MobileMe iDisk
Though Apple's MobileMe - a web-based mail, contact, calendar, photo, and now video storage and synchronization service - launched with a series of significant performance problems, the company has spent the last year trying to remedy them, add new features, and placate disenchanted customers. This week, Apple released MobileMe iDisk, a free application for the iPhone and iPod touch, which offers users the ability to access up to 10 Gigabytes of files that were transferred from their computers to Apple's "cloud-based, available anywhere" servers, as well as access to publicly-shared files from their contacts. As with many first-generation MobileMe features, the MobileMe iDisk app has its hiccups, but it does take another step in expanding the service's appeal.
Mac subscribers to MobileMe find iDisk as just another one of the “Devices” on the left side of their Finder windows, initially sitting empty but for a collection of folders with labels such as “Documents,” “Music,” “Pictures,” and “Software.” Drag a file from one folder on your Mac over to either the iDisk icon or one of its sub-folders and, assuming you have a connection to the Internet, you’ll generally see the file transfer over to Apple’s server via that Internet connection. Do this with as many files as you’d like until you reach the limits of iDisk’s storage capacity, and if they’re iPod or iPhone supported movies or videos, iWork, Microsoft Office, or PDF files, you’ll be able to use the MobileMe iDisk app to play them on your iPhone or iPod touch wherever you can get access to the Internet. Most of our files transferred fairly quickly, but we did have a full-on Finder lockup when trying to transfer an PDF file directly from iTunes to iDisk, a real rarity by Mac standards. The same file transferred fine when the machine was rebooted and the file started on the desktop rather than in iTunes.
After entering your MobileMe account information into the application, you’ll be presented with a screen-filling list of your files and folders, complete with circular icons that indicate whether individual files are being publicly shared with people or not; anything you drop in the Public folder gets shared with everyone by default, and anything else can be shown to individuals only. Just click on the circular icon and an e-mail window pops up, sending people via e-mail a direct link to the file, which can be viewed with their web browsers. Public folders for your contacts or non-contact individuals can be accessed via a tab at the bottom of the screen, and a list of recently viewed files is maintained for your reference.
Under ideal circumstances, which we’ve found to be generally the case for music, video, photo, and document files, the only thing you’ll need to be concerned about when using MobileMe iDisk is transfer time. Because the iPhone and iPod touch are wirelessly fetching files from the Internet, Megabyte and multi-Megabyte files may take a minute or so to load, depending on the manner that you’re connecting to MobileMe’s “cloud.” Wi-Fi and iPhone 3GS cellular connections are pretty speedy, generally, but we’ve seen hiccups: one of us was able to get a 17MB PDF file to load quickly over Wi-Fi, but the other had it fail multiple times mid-load, succeeding only on attempt #4 when we monitored the Wi-Fi iPhone 3GS for the 8-minute duration of the load, and prevented its screen from shutting off mid-transfer.
Notably, the application also has an interesting and smart little feature: caching. Using a slider, you can allocate “Local Storage” to the app, enabling it to hold between 50 and 200MB of non-audio, non-video files in its own cache so that you needn’t reload everything when you return to view something a second time. For obvious reasons, this increases the app’s footprint on your device to the extent that files have previously been loaded, but you have control over how much or how little you want to keep around.
Almost everything we tried to play back through the MobileMe iDisk application worked, and smoothly if not beautifully. Music files with embedded album artwork played in a generic QuickTime video player without any visual accompaniment, and video files used the same QuickTime player but obviously performed both video and audio. Notably, the video was not degraded when on a cellular connection, preserving the same quality as the original version rather than introducing artifacted, lower-resolution images as alternatives.
PDF performance wasn’t quite as impressive. In addition to the loading times, we had mixed results with getting PDFs to render properly; some looked perfect, others had glitches such as missing images. And some files, such as contact cards, showed up as nice-looking icons but wouldn’t open.
As a free application for MobileMe users, MobileMe iDisk is a nice little program, enabling web-based access to content that you want to share or just not stuff into your iPod’s or iPhone’s limited storage capacity. Apple still has some work left to be done to make the MobileMe environment more reliable on the desktop side, and the performance better on the pocket device side, but what’s here is a good start.