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Spymac's Wheel vs. Dot Mac for Easy Web Services

by Christopher Roach
02/08/2005

A while back I was putting the finishing touches on my very first article for MacDevCenter.com that involved over a month's worth of work. Before I could proofread my article one last time, I accidentally zapped my system by deleting my user account. In a single moment, every little adjustment and tweak I had made to my system over the past year was gone and I was going to have to go back and customize the entire thing again.

Then it hit me. Not only would I have to reconfigure my Mac, but my entire article had been erased in one single moment, and worst of all — I had no backups.

To cut a long story short, after trying to recover my important documents with some data recovery software and failing, I eventually had to give in and do a full rewrite. During this time I decided to investigate an online service to help me stay organized and protected. After some research I narrowed my choices to Apple's .Mac service and Spymac's Wheel.

I think both of these services have an interesting menu of features, and I've done my best to compare them for you. Of course, you could always "roll your own" for online backup, email, picture sharing, etc., but if you want to add a bit of convenience to your busy life, one of these might be right for you.

What Each Has to Offer

I wanted to start my shopper's comparison of these two web services by first summing up what each of the two has to offer. To do so I've provided a table below outlining the services that both Apple and Spymac currently have in their system.

Service Wheel .Mac
Backups Yes (WheelGuard) Yes (Backup)
Email Yes (3GB of storage, web accessible, and works with Apple Mail as well as other email clients). Yes (Up to 133MB can be allocated to email, also web accessible, and works with Apple Mail as well as other email clients).
Address Book Yes (Syncs with Microsoft Outlook) Yes (Syncs with Apple's Address Book)
Bookmarks No Yes (iSync)
Website hosting Yes (All webpages must be created by hand and loaded onto the system through WheelDrive.) Yes (Easy template-based webpage creation through Homepage, or create and upload custom HTML by hand through iDisk.)
Disk Storage Yes (WheelDrive, 250MB) Yes (iDisk, up to 235MB can be allocated to iDisk.)
iCards No Yes
Syncing Yes (Mainly just synchronizes your local WheelDrive with your online WheelDrive.) Yes (Address Book, bookmarks, local iDisk are synchronized through iSync)
Virus Protection No Yes (Virex)
iCal Publishing Yes (Through iCal) Yes (Through iCal)
Blog Yes (Online interface) Yes (But you must use some third-party software such as iBlog.)
Forums Yes No
Photo Gallery Yes No

Now that you have a good overview of each company's services, you'll want to take a look at each of these features in detail to decide which company provides the better service. The rest of this article will do exactly that, starting with a comparison of each of the web services' major features and then moving on to an analysis of the extras that each provides. My hope is that, by the end of this piece, you'll not only know which product is best for you, but also whether either of the products is actually worth their asking price.

Backups

Both web services offer users a way to backup their important data to an online drive. Until recently, the Spymac version (WheelDrive), offered more space to its users, however, toward the end of last year, Apple finally stepped up to the plate and raised its drive space (iDisk) to 250MB to match the size offered by Spymac. However, Spymac still offers more space overall since it provides a separate 3GB of storage for email and Apple uses the 250MB drive space to store the users email as well.

.Mac's Backup application .Mac's Backup application.
WheelGuard—Wheel's backup application WheelGuard — Wheel's backup application.

Both companies' backup software offers the option of backing up to the online drive, CD/DVD, or another (peripheral) drive; however, Spymac's WheelGuard also offers the option to backup to a Zip drive as well. Also, both backup applications come with pre-selected groups of files that can be chosen for backup (e.g., Address book contacts, iTunes Library, and iPhoto Library). Apple's Backup program refers to these as Backup QuickPick's.

After these similarities, Apple's Backup program pulls ahead. First, WheelGuard allows the user to add folders to the list of items awaiting backup; however, they only allow the user to choose folders and not individual files for backup. This is a real hindrance when all you have is 250MB of storage. I found myself constantly trying to backup a folder on WheelGuard whose contents were too large for the drive. With Apple's Backup I could descend into each folder and choose only the most important files inside for backup. With WheelGuard my only solution was to move vital files to another folder that I then included in my Backup list.

Another really nice feature of Apple's Backup application is the included progress bar that shows available iDisk space—on the fly. When choosing the folders you wanted to backup in WheelGuard, you either had to do the math in your head, or choose the folder, cross your fingers, and hope that it wasn't too large to fit onto the drive. Backing up folders in WheelGuard could very easily end up being a time-consuming game of trial and error, and honestly, I can think of so many more things I would rather be doing than backing up my data for a few hours. With Apple's Backup program, each new file or folder I added to the backup list would adjust the progress meter to immediately let me know if I needed to go through and weed out the unimportant documents.

Online Storage

The previous section mentioned several times the concept of online drive space. If you'll remember from the last section, each of the web services offers 250MB of online drive space. Also, both Spymac's WheelDrive and Apple's iDisk use WebDav technology to allow their online storage to act just like a part of the local file system. So, files can be moved and copied to and from the drive by ordinary methods such as drag-and-drop.

.Mac's preference pane for its online storage space (iDisk). .Mac's preference pane for its online storage space (iDisk).
Wheel's online drive (WheelDrive) preference pane. Wheel's online drive (WheelDrive) preference pane.

Also, both services offer the option to create a local copy of the drive and have it updated (synchronized) constantly rather than directly accessing the drive. This feature can come in very handy for anyone suffering from extreme impatience since there is a small lag when copying and saving files over the network, even with a high-speed connection. Thus, this feature is especially useful to anyone with a dial-up connection.

Earlier I stated that both services offer online storage space of up to 250MB as their standard allocation. However, as I mentioned in the previous section, the storage space supplied to Apple's customers is split between their iDisk online drive and their email account. So, technically, Spymac does supply their users with a larger online drive since their email storage is a separate 3GB account.

One great feature of having an online drive is the ability to transfer, and work on, documents between multiple computers (Windows or Mac) without using any external media to transfer the files between machines. Apple's .Mac users do this through a downloadable program that makes their iDisk available to them on Windows. Thus, I could easily work on documents at home on my Mac, or at work on my Windows-box, without using some type of physical medium to transfer the files to and from. WheelDrive also has this option, but it took an email to Spymac's helpdesk to find out where they were hiding the software to allow me to access my WheelDrive from Windows.

All in all, I would have to vote for Apple in this area. Though Spymac technically offered more storage space, I just found Apple's iDisk better integrated with the system, and, of course, it was much easier to get iDisk up and running on Windows since the Spymac website is not the most intuitive. (It even took me a little bit of time to figure out that the "Enter" link actually meant "login to Wheel." Really, would it have been so hard to put a login link on the main Wheel page?)

Creating a Website

Related Reading

Inside .Mac
By Chuck Toporek

This is one area in which Apple is the clear winner. Both Wheel and .Mac offer space to create and host your own website. However, .Mac goes one step further by providing Homepage — an online tool for creating simple, template-based webpages — to aid the user in the creation of their site. Thus, anyone can create a website using Homepage even if the only knowledge the user has is of how to surf the web.

On the other side, Wheel simply provides the disk space for the user to store handcrafted webpages. Thus, creating a website on Wheel follows a much more traditional process. To create a website on your Wheel account, you must create your webpages by hand using whatever tools you have available on your own computer. Once you've created your website locally, you can upload the webpages to your WheelDrive either by using an FTP application or by placing the files directly into the HTML folder of your WheelDrive.

Using Apple's .Mac service, you can also create your webpages by hand and upload them to your iDisk drive for publication, should you choose to forgo Apple's wonderful Homepage feature. You do so either through the Homepage online interface or by directly adding the files to the Public directory on your iDisk. Apple also makes it very simple to add photos and movies to your website through their Homepage service and its integration with applications like iPhoto.

Though I found Apple's .Mac service to be the clear winner in this category, I do have one bone to pick with both companies. The only capability the user has in creating a website on .Mac or Wheel is simple HTML. Neither service provides Python, Perl, Ruby, or any other type of scripting capability. So, you can forget about adding any CGI scripts to your site — at least for the time being.

Email

At first view, I think I would actually give this one to Spymac's Wheel service, considering its humongous amount of email storage. However, with further consideration, I find reasons for recommending Apple's .Mac service as well. So, let's take a look at what each service has to offer its users in the realm of email.

First, both products offer very similar benefits. For example, both can be accessed via the web, both can be used with Apple's Mail program (as well as many other third-party email clients), and both offer good service. Even though I have seen posts on different forums stating that Spymac's email service is a little slow, personally I haven't experienced any problems.

The major difference between these two services is the size of the storage space that they offer. Spymac's Wheel offers a whopping 3GB of storage. That's bigger than any Gmail account! Not only is Apple's offering a paltry 250MB, but it must be split between your iDisk drive and your email account, and with Apple's memory allocation scheme, the most you could ever allocate to your email would be 133MB.

Considering the difference in space that each service offers, I would say that Wheel comes out the clear winner in this category. However, as I stated in the introduction to this section, upon further exploration of each service, I found one very convincing reason to go with Apple's .Mac service over Spymac's Wheel. That reason is .Mac's integration with the Address Book application.

Both services offer some sort of address-book capability with their email services, making the task of memorizing email addresses unnecessary. However, only Apple's service fully integrates its online address book with its own Address Book software that comes bundled with OS X. What this means is that you can update your Address Book through either the standalone application or through its web-based interface in .Mac. Then, through the magic of iSync, both will stay constantly synchronized. Wheel's address book, on the other hand, only synchronizes with Microsoft Outlook. This means that, as of right now, Windows users will be the only ones capable of syncing their email, calendar, and address-book contacts when using Wheel.

Bottom line, if you're an Outlook fan, working mostly on Windows, who requires a huge amount of space for email, then Wheel pulls away as the clear winner in this category. If, however, you keep your inbox relatively clean, and need only a small amount of space for your email, and you use Apple's Address Book to organize your contact list, then .Mac is definitely the way to go in this category.

iCal

Another handy .Mac feature is the ability to share your iCal calendar with friends, family, and coworkers — even if they don't have a Mac. All you have to do is select the calendar you want to share, go to Calendar -> Publish, and choose the options that are available. After a few brief moments, iCal will provide you with an .ics address for other .Mac members to subscribe to, and a web URL to enable non-subscribers to view your calendar in their browsers. The web interface is quite attractive and provides non-Mac users with a peek at how beautiful our world is.

Like their .Mac couterparts, Wheel subscribers are also able to publish their iCal calendars directly to the web from the iCal application. The process is nearly identical to what is described above for .Mac users. The only drawback is that viewing iCal calendars published to your Wheel account is web-based only. In other words, other Mac users cannot subscribe to your published calendars and view them from their iCal application. Nevertheless, you do have the option to make your calendars either public or private, which helps to make up for the loss of iCal subscriptions a bit.

One of the clever options I want to mention here before moving on, is the ability to publish your appointments without subjects. This is handy for work situations when you want to let people know your availability, but not necessarily that the occupied Friday afternoon slot is for skipping out of the office to attend a ballgame. I haven't tried this out on my Wheel account yet, so I can't say for sure if this is a feature of both services or just .Mac, but I'll post an update as soon as I give it a try.

One point to make here is that if you have access to a WebDAV server, you don't even need a .Mac account or Wheel account to publish calendars on the Web. For that matter, most — if not all — of the features that both services provide can be created at home with a modest amount of effort and perhaps a small initial monetary outlay. But, I have to tell you, the .Mac option, just like some of the other features I've discussed, is just so very easy.

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