Gmail, MobileMe, Address Book synced contacts sanity

Latest: Over the air sync options between iPhone & Mac + Google

When Gmail first opened its perpetual beta email service, I realized that having contacts automatically added to my address book was a huge advantage. When it came time to compose a new message, the TO: field provided quick access to hundreds of contacts with no more than a few keystrokes.

That collection of a few hundred had grown to an unwieldy number. I still had quick access to contacts while composing emails, but a large percentage of the contacts list turned into pure junk. Randomized emails, newsletters, anonymous craigslist replies for listed items… Fortunately, Google implemented some logic with My Contacts, Most Contacted, and Suggested Contacts to help gain some control of the mess. I took a few minutes during down time each day to trim my contacts list down.

Separate contacts list with Address Book

To make managing contacts even more of a headache, my desktop Address Book had grown its own database of contacts primarily from my mobile phone. I lost count of the number of times I would compose an email only to realize the contact info was in somewhere else.

The contacts list mothership

Harmony was achieved using Address Book as the core contacts list manager. The setup involved a little manual clean-up but the end result is one that allows me to have access to the same contact info via Gmail, Apple Mail, the iPhone, or any of the other computers I use on a regular basis.

Gmail Address Book Apple

Address Book now supports synchronization with Exchange, Yahoo, and Google. You’ll want to enable Google syncing – entering your Google Account credentials when requested. (Check these instructions on how to properly backup your Address Book – just in case)

Address Book Google sync feature

Address Book find DuplicatesOnce Address Book successfully retrieves all of your contacts from Gmail, you’re ready for even more manual cleanup. You may immediately notice duplicate contact entries. No worries, select ‘Card > Look for Duplicates…’ in the Address Book menu.

What duplicates are found can be easily merged together from the menu bar ‘Card > Merge Selected Cards’. Chances are the merge will combine info for your contacts into the wrong fields. Edit as needed.

Fortunately, any changes you make locally on your computer via Address Book will be synchronized with your Gmail contacts list

It’s smooth sailing after getting your Gmail contacts synced with Address Book. The same can be done with your Yahoo contacts if you’re using that service on a daily basis.

Contact synchronization with the iPhone and Address Book is done with MobileMe. A yearly subscription will set you back $70.

If I was not using some of the other "cloud" features offered – like OTA iCal updates and picture / video sharing – I would probably make use of free alternatives for syncing just the Address Book between computers (see below).

See Address Book updates immediately

Create a new Smart Group

Recent smart groupGmail will continue to add contacts to your address book automatically. If you want to quickly identify which contacts are being updated in your Address Book, you can do so with a simple ‘Smart Group’. Open Address Book and go to ‘File > New Smart Group…’ or Option + CMD + N.

  • Smart Group Name: Recent
  • Match the following: Card, has changed in, 3, days
  • Check ‘Highlight group when updated’ and then ‘Ok’.

With the Smart Group created, any time you open Address Book, the ‘Recent’ group in the sidebar will be highlighted signifying that changes have been made to your contacts list.

Synchronize contacts between machines for free

No iPhone? No need for OTA contact syncing? Looking for basic contact syncing between multiple computers? You’re already setup. If you are using Gmail or Yahoo, simply setup synchronization on your other computers and marvel at the magic of free contacts syncing.

If you’re not a fan of using Gmail or Yahoo to sync your Address Book, you can use one of my favorites – Dropbox. Referencing the wiki, you can sync files or folders outside of the standard ‘My Dropbox’ folder. Using this technique, synchronize your Address Book file in /Users/[yourusername]/Library/Application Support/AddressBook.


  • If you haven’t already caught wind of this update, Gmail now supports offline mode. You know, just like a desktop email client. Read more info on the update then hit up the Settings > Labs section of your account to enable the feature.
  • Credit for Gmail, iMac, iPhone 3G, and MacBook icons.

Discuss - 67 Comments

  1. Stephen P says:

    Pfff. Having the “Sync” command under an entirely different application entirely threw me off the scent.

    So now I know how to do it, what’s with the not being able to edit or approve changes to the Mac Address book! That’s just wrong!

    I will look and see about the other applications mentioned, at least for this initial sync… Nothing like having 347 additional and 47 modified contacts without having a good handle as to what the original was. (And yes, I already backed everything up on both sides.)

    Thanks for reading my vent on this!

    • Derek says:

      The only times that I’ve been prompted to edit or approve sync items was when conflicts were detected. I just setup a new computer – moving all of my syncing services to Google. Surprisingly, the only contacts synced to Address Book for me were those under the "My Contacts" group in Google Contacts. Was the 347 contacts you synced a high figure because ALL contacts were synced – not limited to My Contacts?

  2. Stephen P says:

    No, the boss has over 800 contacts in his Mac Address Book, and we did a sync in a round-about way via the BackBerry App and the Google Blackberry Sync Applet. In the end I didn’t do the sync because there’d have been waaay too much editing.

    Instead I found which fits the bill nicely and lets me see what’s going on. Soocial is free and works with everything I need it to right now. I may revert back to the Mac Sync once everything is under control, but we shall see.

    The update of the GMail “Contact List” only is a new feature in Snow Leopard.

    Thanks for the quick response, though!


  3. Hayden says:

    Nice Post.

    Just want to confirm something.

    So, contacts sync from mac to google requires the following:
    *iphone – to get the checkbox available in address book
    *mobileme – to actually sync the information from your mac to google

    This is how it looks to me, as when i uncheck “sync with mobile me” contact sync is no longer in effect.

    Thanks for the info.


    • Derek says:

      This may very well be the case for 10.5 Leopard users. I did not test without an iPhone before upgrading to 10.6 Snow Leopard. I can confirm that 10.6 users do not have to have a iPhone or iPod Touch for syncing.

  4. Ben says:

    I notice when I make a change to a contact on Address Book, my iPhone contact changes as well, and so does Google …

    However, when I make a change on Google, my iPhone and Address Book don’t experience the same changes. What’s the problem?

    • Derek says:

      Maybe try enabling / disabling Google Contacts sync from within Address Book? Occasionally I see some strange or delayed syncs and toggling services on / off either locally or on the phone seems to work things out.

  5. LarryMcJ says:

    Here’s an oddity I can’t figure out. As we all know, synching between Apple Address Book and Google Contacts (if enabled in Address Book preferences) should use Google Contacts as the primary since the sync forces Google entries to the Address Book. Also known is that Google Contacts “Birthday” and “Anniversary” (Other…Date) won’t sync with Address Book.

    So, I add a new contact to Google and do a sync and it comes to my Address Book just fine. But if I add Birthday and/or Anniversary to the Google Contact and do a sync it will ignore that contact and it resides only in Google Contacts. What gives with this?

    • Derek says:

      Unfortunately Google Contacts sync with Address Book is not perfect. To answer your questions regarding special dates like birthdays not syncing, see the Google documentation here:

      • People’s names and job titles
      • Company names
      • Email and postal addresses
      • Phone numbers
      • IM names, including the type of service
      • Notes
      • Photos (on Mac OS X 10.6 only)
  6. LarryMcJ says:

    I knew this already…I may not have explained my problem correctly. Try this:

    – Create a new contact in Google with whatever info you want but DO NOT add the Birthday and Anniversary dates (in Google). Do a Sync from your Mac and that contact will be added to your Apple Address Book, as it should. Delete that contact from your Apple Address Book.

    – Go back to Google Contacts and add in a Birthday and Anniversary to that same contact. Then from your Mac do a sync…the contact will NOT be added to your Address Book. This fact is NOT documented in Google’s limitations of the sync.

    So All I’m saying is by virtue of adding two fields in Google (not the AB) that contact will not sync. Something is not right here.

    • Derek says:

      Ah, what you’ve explained definitely sounds like a sync bug. Sorry for misunderstanding. I actually think I saw a related issue brought up in the Google Contacts / Chat support group:

    • LarryMcJ says:

      Thanks for the link…some interesting stuff in the Help forum for Contacts/Sync. I especially like the one about “Verizon rep deleted all my Google contacts” 🙂 I was getting a new Android phone at Verizon the other day and the rep kept asking for my email address and I told him that I’d take care of setting it up. He insisted but after I said…OK…cancel the sale…he relented and let me set it up 🙂 Been an IT guy way too long I guess.

  7. LarryMcJ says:

    I don’t care if the Birthday and Anniversary dates don’t sync, but the fact they’re included in the Google contact should not preclude the synching of that contact.

  8. LarryMcJ says:

    OK…this has started driving me insane…and it only happens sometimes (well, most of the time). I’ve had Google Contacts synched to my Apple Address Book since there was Google Contacts. By now, you’d think the bugs would be worked out.

    I have Address Book properly setup with Google in Prefs so I add a new contact to Address Book and do a Sync…nothing happens…it’s not added to Google. So I go to Google Contacts and add a new contact and then do a sync…nothing.

    Yet sometimes I’ll make a change to a contact in Google, phone number, etc. and within minutes I get the tutorial that a change will be made to an Address Book contact (I have it set to notify me of ANY changes to Address Book.

    Any ideas

  9. Andrey says:

    Have you noticed that when you have address book sync to google contacts, it will sync to My Contacts only in google. So if you are missing a contact in the address book, make sure that that contact is in My Contacts in gmail.
    I wish there would be a setting that lets you choose which contact list in google to sync with. Arg…. So aggravating sometimes.

  10. Nick Peterson says:

    @LarryMcJ: I’m having the same problem. Have you found a fix? I try syncing over and over, and some most addresses actually sync, but some don’t.

    @Chinesebob: how do you force sync?


    • larrymcj says:

      Nope. I gave up and stopped the sync between Address Book and Google. Now, once a week I do the following and it works fine:

      – Highlight all the contacts in Address Book
      – Export them to a file on my desktop
      – Open Gmail – Contacts, click on “All Contact” then DELETE them.
      – Next, delete any “other” contacts Google has that weren’t in your list (support@ etc.)
      – At this point you should have ZERO contacts in Google.
      – Import the vCards file from your desktop
      – That’s it…all new contacts that match your address book perfectly.

      This might sound like a lot to do…but it takes me less than a minute…I’ve timed it. If your contacts chance often in Address Book…just do the procedure more often.

  11. Nick Peterson says:


    • larrymcj says:

      Sounds a lot worse than it is…and it does give me a “perfect” sync from AB to Google. The problem is not the AB…it’s Google.

    • Nick Peterson says:

      I hear ya, thanks. I guess I’m frustrated that syncing just doesn’t work that well, and I end up having to do it manually. But hey, as they say, “First World problem.”

  12. Yosef says:

    Thanks for posting this.

    I am trying to set up a complected echo system, and would love to get some help.

    First here is what i am using:
    MobileMe for email, idisk and contacts and calendar It is syncing with my mac at home, as well as my iphone 3GS running 3.1.3
    Gmail for email…as well as Google voice tied my gmail addresses

    I have a macbook pro at home and a pc desktop with outlook at work (My work IT guy will only let me use google sync and not mobile me, don’t ask me why)

    I like the idea posted here it is as close as i have gotten to a solution but could use some help setting this up so it all syncs. I think that starting with google syncing with address book only is a good solution but i am missing the PC steps. Also have no clue how to do the calendar part of it.

    • Strunes says:

      I have the same questions but only related to iCal. I want to have outlook talk to mobleme but since I’m using exchange server. Unfortunately, when I went to set up MobileMe (on a Vista box), the option to sync Outlook (now connected to an Exchange server) was grayed out. There is a note in the dialog that says “Syncing of contacts and calendars with Microsoft Outlook is not available while Microsoft Outlook is configured to use Microsoft Exchange Server. You may still directly access your data from Exchange over the air using your iPhone or iPod touch.”.

      I’d love to know if anyone has found a work-around

    • Nick Peterson says:

      @LarryMcJ (or anyone else who knows): I finally did what you recommended – I deleted my Google Contacts, and then exported my contacts from Address Book to a vCard file and imported that file into Google Contacts. Everything worked fine except for one thing: any notes that I have for contacts in AB did not survive the import into Google Contacts. How do I ensure that the notes don’t get cut? Thanks.

    • larrymcj says:

      @Nick Peterson: When I was synching to my BlackBerry I got the notes info…not sure why you’re not. But with all the other problems between Google and RIM I finally gave up and switched to an Android phone. Now at least I have 100% constant OTA synch between all things Google and my phone…life is good!

  13. Nick says:

    So my company uses Google Apps for email services. At work I run a Windows machine and use Outlook in conjunction with Google Sync to access and manage email, contacts, and calendar. It syncs over-the-air to my iPhone by simply using iPhone mail (exchange). I just bought a macbook for home use and I want to basically have a third “terminal” from which to access mail, contacts, and calendar. is this possible? will Address Book, Mail, and iCal play nicely with what I’ve already set up?

  14. Sid says:

    Like Google Contacts + GMail + GCal + Apple Address Book + IPhone

    The challenge is to overcome the limitation in Google Contacts not to exceed 10,000 contacts.

    a) How do I remove a Group from Address book which is not for daily use and put it away thus reducing the total number to less than 10,000
    b) Add new contacts in Address Book Group and ensure it goes into Google Group
    c) Add new contacts in Google Group and ensure it goes into Address Book Group

    Do I then need Mobile Me if I have IMac at home and MacBook at Work

    Would appreciate input on above scenarios.

  15. Courtney says:

    I’ve been trying to get the address sync thing working for awhile…not sure the time spent justifies the efficiency improvements yet!

    I’ve got the Google Contacts-Mac Address Book syncing working, but am still trying to find a (free) way to sync changes on my iPhone with the already syncing Google Contacts-Mac Address Book.

    I can select the ‘sync’ option in iTunes, but that creates two sets of contacts on my iPhone (on ‘on this phone’, and one synced to Google-Address Book). Does anyone know of a way for changes to contacts made on my iPhone transfer across to my Google Contacts/Mac Address Book without buying MobileMe?

    Thanks so much for all the tips so far—it has been most helpful.


  16. bradley says:

    Was able to export my entire address book from Apple Mail to Google Contacts, but no NOTES came through. Help! I have tons of notes..