Syncing multiple iCloud data with a family Mac

Q: My wife and I share a ‘family’ iMac that we like to keep signed in under one user account for convenience. We each have an iPhone and an iPad. Since updating OS X to 10.9 Mavericks, I am no longer able to sync my iPhone Contacts to my iMac Contacts through iTunes. I have not used iCloud previously.

We’d love to continue to share our iTunes purchases, music, and apps, but wish to keep our e-mail, contacts, and to lesser extent calendars separate, but backed up to the central iMac.

I understand that we can have only one iCloud ID per iMac User, and that we can still share our iTunes Apple ID, but was wondering if there is a viable workaround to maintain the central desktop iMac to keep our devices synced while still maintaining separate individual information that doesn’t get shared between our devices—namely contacts, e-mail, and calendars—as she uses her devices for personal use, while I maintain my peripheral devices for work. Thank you in advance for any help you can provide.

– Nick

A: Unfortunately, you’re correct that OS X 10.9 removes the ability to sync information directly to your iOS device via iTunes.

This is basically related to the elimination of the core OS X Sync Services, and clearly Apple expects users to now rely on iCloud.

The good news is that it’s not actually not all that difficult to sync this information via iCloud, even if you are using a shared account on a family Mac. While you’ll obviously have some shared data on the Mac, this isn’t really any different in concept from syncing multiple devices to your data using iTunes on a single Mac account.

Firstly, note that your email accounts are irrelevant to the iTunes/iCloud sync configuration. Prior to Mavericks, iTunes could sync your account settings to your devices via iTunes, but the mail itself was still transferred directly between your device and the mail server using standard POP or IMAP mail protocols. This doesn’t change in an iCloud world, and in fact iCloud simply uses the same email protocols as whatever other accounts you’re using. This also applies to the iOS Notes app, which simply synchronizes your notes with a “Notes” folder in your email account; this is an iCloud account if you’re using a or email address, but can be a folder in any third-party IMAP account you may be using.

Contacts and Calendars can be handled in a couple of different ways depending on how you want to deal with other iCloud data.

The key point to remember is that you can have multiple iCloud accounts configured on a single Mac or iOS device, but secondary accounts can only be used for Calendars, Contacts, Reminders, Email and Notes. Other features like Photo Stream, Documents and Data, Find My iPhone, and iCloud Backups are restricted to being used with the primary account only, although this primary account doesn’t have to be the same on each device.

For most users, the simplest configuration when using a shared family Mac is to create a separate “family” iCloud account and configure that as your primary account on ALL devices. You can then configure your own personal iCloud accounts as secondary accounts, with both of them set up on the iMac, and each set up individually as secondary iCloud accounts on your respective iOS devices. On your iMac, you should see both accounts listed separate in the Contacts and Calendar apps, and can manage your respective data simply by selecting the appropriate contact or calendar lists.

This configuration will allow you to share iCloud services such as Photo Stream to have all of your photos delivered wirelessly to a common library, and use a single account for features like “Find My iPhone” and “Find My Mac.” You can also use this as a way to share a common “family” address book—simply enable Contacts on the primary account and any contacts added to that account will automatically be shared between both of your devices.

The downside is that since iCloud backups for your iOS devices will be stored in this account, the free 5GB may not be sufficient to backup both of your iPhones and iPads, possibly making it necessary to purchase additional iCloud storage. Also, since you’ll be sharing iCloud Documents and Data, if you have share apps that sync data via iCloud, you may end up inadvertently sharing that data.