Your iOS device is a killer pocketable computer; your desktop is more powerful with a bigger screen. They need to play better together. Here's how to break down the barrier between the two and shuttle text, files, media and more seamlessly between your desktop and iPhone.
It's a common annoyance if you're a smartphone user: You're looking at something on your desktop, and you want to move it to your iOS device. Or vice versa. Below, we've pulled together the best tools for doing just that: quickly shuttling data between your desktop and iPhone for a more seamless, harmonious smartphone experience.
Two-Way Tools: iPhone to Desktop to iPhone
The following tools push information and data in both directions — back and forth between your desktop and iOS device.
Downloading and creating files on your iPhone used to mean they were stuck there; when it was first released, the only good way to get a file from your desktop to your iPhone was to email it to yourself. Fortunately, a couple of iOS apps elegantly solve the problem of file transfer, helping you move various files you need between your iPhone and your desktop.
We love file-syncing utility Dropbox on the desktop, but it's also a great tool for moving files between your iPhone and your desktop computer. Currently, you can only create folders and directly upload pictures or videos from the Dropbox iPhone app, but many third-party apps integrate with Dropbox to allow you to do a bit more. For example, previously mentioned Plain Text will let you create text files in iOS that sync to Dropbox, and Scanner Pro will scan documents and upload the results to Dropbox. There are tons of Dropbox-compatible apps for iPhone, many of which are listed in the Dropbox App Directory. [Free, iTunes App Store]
While Dropbox helps you add files to your Dropbox, you don't necessarily want to put everything in there. Plus, the Dropbox app still isn't much of a file manager — it can't read every kind of file (like ZIP archives, for example). Air Sharing solves both problems by reading many file formats and letting you copy files to and from your iPhone wirelessly by turning your iPhone into a WebDAV disk. Air Sharing is $4 and definitely worth it (here are some quick setup instructions for Windows users), but if you'd prefer a free alternative and don't mind copying files over USB (with an iPhone sync cable), USB Disk is a good alternative. [$4, iTunes App Store]
Next time you're eyeball-deep in an article on your desktop or iPhone and want to finish up on the other, turn to these tools.
Instapaper and Read It Later
Popular read-later tools Instapaper and Read It Later provide dead simple tools for archiving a web link so you can read the text later in a stripped-down, ad-free environment. Both tools offer browser bookmarklets to save links for later, while Read It Later has extensions for nearly any browser you'd like. Instapper is more of the minimalist's friend, while Read It Later provides a larger feature list. Both download articles so you can read them offline on your iOS device. [Instapaper (iTunes App Store); Read It Later (iTunes App Store)]
If you're looking to do a bit more long-form reading, look no further than Amazon's popular Kindle reader. Named for the eponymous eReader, Kindle is also available as an iOS app and desktop application. The best part: Kindle syncs your last read position between any device. [iTunes App Store]
Notes, URLs, Phone Numbers, Other Small Bits of Data
Sometimes the most frustrating aspect of the smartphone/desktop wall comes when you want to move short piece of information between the two. When the iPhone was first introduced (before copy and paste), often your best (tedious and most annoying option) option required you to manually transcribe text off the iPhone's screen or off your desktop — not terribly efficient on a software keyboard. Now plenty of applications are great at transferring little pieces of data, such as URLs or text files, between your computer and your iPhone. (For more feature-rich one-way tools, jump down to the desktop-to-iPhone section below.)
In terms of quick plain-text note creation, our favourite tool for the job is Simplenote. It's fast and you can quickly input or paste text into Simplenote in a few seconds. Any note you add (from your desktop or iOS device) will instantly sync to the web, to desktop note-taking applications like Notes (Windows) and Notational Velocity, and to Simplenote on your iPhone. [Free, iTunes App Store]
When you need more than just plain text, Evernote's got you covered. Like Simplenote, it syncs notes between the Evernote desktop and iOS apps, but you can also add photos and voice memos to your notes, and Evernote's service will perform optical character recognition (OCR) on your photos so you can search the text within them &mdash a great tool when paired with your iPhone's camera. For example, if you take a series of photos of book covers that interest you, you can search for one of the titles you remember when you get home and Evernote will recognise the title of the book even though it's part of a photo. If you're looking to expand Evernote even further and are willing to shell out a few bucks ($6 to be exact), Awesome Note syncs with both Evernote and Google Docs. It'll let you draw your notes too, all of which is synced back to a computer-accessible location. [Free, iTunes App Store]
Contacts, Tasks, Calendar Items
Some of the most important data moving between your phone and your desktop is the information you use to communicate and get things done. Here are a couple of ways, from free to pay, to keep your calendar and contacts in sync between your phone and your computer.
Google Sync for iPhone syncs your contacts, mail and calendars between your iPhone and the web and to your desktop. While it's going to your Google account and not the desktop directly, if you've got your syncing with Google on your desktop (which you can do), it's basically the same thing. As an added bonus, it's a nice access point for all your Google stuff. [Free, Setup Instructions]
MobileMe / Mail2Web
MobileMe is Apple's $119 per year premium service for computers and iOS devices that syncs all sorts of data, but the biggest draw is push sync of your contacts, tasks and calendar items. If you're away from work or home and get someone's contact information, MobileMe will make sure it's back on your desktop by the time you need it. MobileMe is really a service that ought to be free for iPhone users, but it's not. The upside is that you can set up much of the same push syncing you get with MobileMe with a free service called Mail2Web. It doesn't come with every feature MobileMe offers, but it'll get you push contacts, calendars and email. [$119/year MobileMe]
Newsreaders aggregate your reading material into one place, which is great if you only have one device you use for reading. If you have multiple, it gets really annoying when you've read an article on one device, but it still shows as new on the other. Here are a few options to keep your mobile reading in sync with the desktop.
You don't necessarily need an app on your iPhone to manage your RSS feeds. Using an iPhone browser — preferably one like Atomic Browser that supports true tabbed browsing — the Google Reader web app does the job perfectly well. For Google devotees, just save a homescreen bookmark and make Google Reader your newsfeed "app" instead. [Google Reader]
NetNewsWire, NewsRack, Reeder
NetNewsWire has been the king of newsfeed synchronising on the Mac for a long time, back before Google purchased NewsGator and the application switched to sync with Google Reader. It wasn't long before they created an app for iOS and became one of the better news readers available. Since it's free, it's really hard to pass up. Then again, apps like NewsRack and Reeder will cost you a little money, but they provide alternative interfaces and additional features. NetNewsWire should get the job done just fine on the iPhone, but NewsRack and Reeder tend to shine a bit more on the iPad. If you've got both an iPad and an iPhone, they're worth a look. [NetNewsWire (Free) / NewsRack ($6) / Reeder ($4); iTunes App Store]
One Way Tools: Desktop to iPhone
Not every tool in this toolkit works both ways. Here are some of the best tools that work specifically to shuttle information from your desktop straight to your iPhone.
Your Current Browser Window or Session
Nothing's more annoying that staring a link in the face on your desktop but still needing to either manually search for it or type it in on your tiny software keyboard. These tools make it easy to push a page or session from your desktop browser to your iPhone.
Chrome to iPhone/Firefox Home
If you're a Chrome user, you don't need to look any further than the dead-simple Chrome to iPhone browser extension. After following the simple setup, you can click a button in Chrome (or right-click -> Send page to iOS device), and then open a bookmark on your iPhone that'll take you straight to that link — no typing required.
If you're a Firefox user, look no further than Firefox Home, an extension that gives you instant access to any of the tabs you have open in your current browser session.
Last but not least, AirLink is a bookmarklet that works with any browser, so it doesn't require an extension installation on your desktop or an app installation on your iOS device. It's just a desktop bookmarklet and an iOS bookmark.
Access Your Music, Movies and Photos on iOS
Your iPhone's storage isn't bad, but it's still nowhere close to fitting all the media on your desktop. But as long as you've got a wireless connection, you don't need to.
For starters, there's the catch-all app ZumoCast. Install it on your desktop, then on your iPhone, and you can set it up to stream any of your music, movies or photographs (and, well, even documents and other files) to your iPhone. (Read more.)
If video is all you need, look no further than the excellent Air Video ($4). Like ZumoCast, you install a server application on your desktop (Windows or Mac), and it'll transcode the video on-the-fly so you can stream it directly to your iPhone. (Read more.)
Finally, if you prefer a dedicated app for streaming music from your desktop to your iPhone, then there's the one-two punch of ServeToMe, a free music server app for Windows and Mac, and StreamToMe, a $4 iPhone app that shines at streaming audio on the go. (It does video as well, but we still prefer the above options for that.)
Sync Passwords to iOS
You're using great passwords on your desktop, but they're not always easy to remember or type out on your software keyboard. Couple the 1Password iPhone app with the 1Password desktop app (Mac only), and you've got a pretty great password solution with one big catch: at $US40 for the Mac app and $13 for the iPhone app, it ain't cheap. For a cheaper, cross-platform solution, there's LastPass, an app that automatically logs you into websites on your iPhone using our favourite cross-platform password manager, LastPass, to bring your passwords to your iPhone. The app's free, but to work you'll need to sign up for LastPass' $US1/month premium service.
Get Desktop Notifications on iOS
If you use a desktop notification application like Growl for Mac or its spinoff Growl for Windows, you can push notifications from either desktop app to your iOS device by setting it up with Howl, a $4 app that works with both the Windows and Mac Growls. (Other tools, like Prowl, also do this, but Howl looks like the best current solution.)
Push Your Clipboard, Make Phone Calls, Write Text Messages and More
myPhoneDesktop for iPhone ($6) and its companion desktop app allows you to send any data from your clipboard to your iPhone. By default, hit Ctrl+C+C [Windows]or Cmd+C+C [Mac]and it'll automatically push the clipboard to your iPhone and, depending on what it is, automatically launch your browser (which it does for links), make a phone call (for numbers), or share images. Not a bad start, but it gets even better. You can use the desktop app to compose entire SMS messages, which it shuttles to your iPhone with a the contact and text already filled in. The app's really, really good, but if you're not ready to spend the money, consider the free alternative, Pastefire (homepage). It's not quite as good, but it's free, and it works.
One Way Tools: iPhone to Desktop
Most use cases for iPhone/desktop communication are covered in the two-way section above. The one remaining: remote controlling your desktop from your iPhone.
Remote Desktop Control
When partial measures won't do and you need full access to your home or work computer, you'll need an iPhone app capable of VNC or RDP (both are common protocols for remote controlling desktops like you're sitting in front of them). These tend to be pretty expensive, but you do have some options.
Mocha VNC Lite
If you're aiming for free, you're looking at Mocha VNC Lite. It'll get the job done, for the most part. It seems to be better than it once was, but memory errors were pretty common when I first started using it. It's not terribly feature-rich but it does work if you've got a VNC server running on your desktop machine. If you're OK with setting up a VNC server yourself (which is pretty easy), it's a good option for occasional remote access. [Free, iTunes App Store]
VNC for the Wealthy
If you're willing to shell out some cash — we weren't — the two highest rated VNC apps on the iTunes App Store are iTeleport ($30) and LogMeIn Ignition ($37). Both come with native apps for both the iPhone and iPad, so that makes the cost seem mildly more reasonable, but it's a tough decision to sink $30-$40 into an app you can't even try first. Nonetheless, both have rave reviews outside of the app store as well. If you've used either and have some thoughts, be sure to share them in the comments.
For the niche group looking to connect to their virtualised Windows environment running in the new Parallels 6, Parallels Mobile is a free app (that requires Parallels 6) that'll let you do just that from your iPhone. It takes care of all the networking stuff for you and works surprisingly well. If you already own Parallels 6 and remoting in to your virtual Windows PC is all you need, it's a great, free alternative to picking up a pricier or poorer VNC app. [Free, iTunes App Store]
Got a tool you count on to break down the barrier and shuttle information back and forth between your desktop and iOS device? Whether we mentioned it or not, feel free to sing its praises in the comments.