One of the must-have applications for any self-respecting PDA is somewhere to safely store all your passwords and other sensitive, but regularly used information. I’ve had such applications in the past for both the Palm and SonyEricsson P900; and as my work life becomes increasingly fractured across different locations and desktop environments this kind of functionality is even more important. These days I have over 250 different passwords for websites; email; system logons; database users etc etc.
It turns out that there are lots of applications that will store this sort of data for you on the iPhone. But as of right now, only two1 will synchronise to MacOSX desktop application versions, which to my mind is an essential feature. These are SplashID and 1Password (there’s a third, eWallet, but it only synchronises with Windows at the moment, which rules it out for me).
Before I go any further in comparing these two applications I have to mention the one BIG assumption I’ve had to make with them: that they are actually as secure as they say they are. 1Password’s desktop version is based on Apple’s Keychain, which at least gives it a good basis to work from. However this says little about the security of their iPhone version, and indeed both versions of the SplashID application remain the same security mystery. I’ve no reason to believe any application is insecure, but there’s no independent information that I’ve seen so far on this. Right… onward!
I was initially convinced I should go for SplashID because of its ability to sync across both MacOSX and Windows desktops. I had a couple good interactions with their helpdesk staff, from whom I discovered that the one license can be used on both Mac and Windows versions of their desktop software. This meant that the cost of a solution to synchronise cross-platform was US$30: $10 for the iPhone application and $20 for the desktops. So I bought both the iPhone version and a desktop license.
Initial setup on the iPhone was pretty straightforward: I just needed to set a master password and I was away. Setting up the desktop was a little trickier, as I needed to import my existing passwords.
Recently I’ve been using PasswordSafe, an open-source application for which there are file-compatible versions for most operating systems (but unfortunately not the iPhone). By exporting my password file as a CSV, and then massaging the results in Excel, I was able to obtain a file that could be imported into SplashID desktop. It wasn’t a lot of fun… but hey – it only had to be done once.
But about then I realised that over WiFi is the ONLY way these applications can synchronise with the desktop. This was a major problem for me in my quest for syncing to my work Windows desktops, as typically these don’t have wireless (but luckily fine for my Mac at home). And it also about then that some of the other SplashID annoyances started to become obvious: the crashing; the slow and clumsy user interface of the iPhone application; the confusing array of categories for inputting data; my imperfect data import which meant that nothing was in the application’s correct categories; the (to my mind) clunky user interfaces in both versions (and the fuzzy-edged font used throughout the iPhone version).
I decided to try the alternative, hoping that it would be crap and that I could stop feeling irritated about the money I spent on SplashID.
I’d been aware of the desktop version of 1Password previously, but as I was never very interested in its form-filling capabilities and couldn’t quite see what it added over Keychain, I’d left it alone. But now they had an iPhone version.
So, at the moment their iPhone version is free from the Application Store; and the desktop version may be downloaded as a 30-day trial. I grabbed both. Setup was pretty easy (there was a nice dual password system using a four digit PIN for initial access, and a full alphanumeric one for more sensitive entries); and there were clear instructions on how to set up wi-fi syncing with the desktop version.
Next job was importing my existing set of passwords. This was just as problematical as it was for SplashID. Although 1Password has an import script for PasswordSafe export files, the script bombed out on some of the characters in the file I gave it, and once again, a bit of file massage was required.
However the result, once in the iPhone, was a lot cleaner and easier on the eye than in SplashID; while the 1Password desktop application just felt more Mac-like. I was a lot more at home in there, and spent a couple hours tidying up the database a little, adding URLs for all the websites so that I could use 1Password’s nifty auto-fill function on the iPhone. That’s right! Auto-fill on the iPhone! But before you get too excited, it’s only in a web browser within 1Password itself; but even so, that has proved quite useful from time to time.
Initially it seemed that 1Password had fewer built-in categories for storing information. It’s quite good for web logins – which I have a lot of – but I couldn’t figure out where all the other information went until I discovered their “wallet” category, which can take, in some detail, most of the other types of secure data you might want to store like email and system passwords. There’s also a free-form secure notes feature as well.
Then I discovered that 1Password’s desktop version integrated with both Firefox and Safari, enabling me to import any and all passwords stored in those applications as well; as well as offering quite a full-on form-filling service. I’m still not convinced about getting an application to fill out complicated web forms, but nevertheless I have the plugin installed in Firefox where it now makes sure that the password for any new website I sign up for ends up in the 1Password database and eventually synced across to the iPhone. This is all good.
The Bottom Line
Just to re-iterate: one important point to note with the synchronisation process is that it relies on having a WiFi network. We can thank Apple for this limitation I suspect – unlike most PDAs and phones these days it seems only Apple’s applications are allowed to synchronise over the cable (and no-one can use Bluetooth). Gee thanks, Apple.
SplashID ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆2
$9.95 USD (iPhone) + $19.95 USD (Desktop)
- the license for the desktop version is per person, so that one licence for the desktop will work on as many Macs and PCs as you may have.
- you can trial the desktop version for 30 days (I wish I had!)
- includes a password generator (also available separately, for free, on the iTunes application Store);
- synchronises with both Macs and PCs – but only over WiFi.
- it feels a little clunky, and is quite slow compared to 1Password
- importing existing passwords is not always straightforward;
- user interface is not pretty, with the fonts lacking readability
- seems unstable at times (though I haven’t had a crash with iPhone 2.1)
- all those built in categories and types seem over the top and distracting
- the desktop version looks very ugly.
If you already use SplashID desktop or the mobile version on another platform, you’ll be at home with SplashID for iPhone. But unless you have a strict budget or a Windows machine you absolutely must sync with, go for 1Password instead.
1Password ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
$0.00 USD (iPhone) + $39.95 USD (Desktop)
- the iPhone version is free; you can trial the desktop version for 30 days;
- the dual password idea is great, and really speeds up the experience;
- very fast on the iPhone;
- both versions look great, and fit well within their respective platforms in terms of look and feel;
- plugins for all major MacOSX desktop web browsers provide enhanced form-filling capabilities.
- no Windows version of the Desktop (and unlikely to be – 1Password is tightly integrated with Apple’s keychain technology);
- importing existing passwords isn’t always straightforward (though the import from your MacOSX web browsers just work);
- not all of the built-in types of storage can be added on the iPhone version;
- $40 US is a lot of money (especially outside the US!);
- the iPhone version has no built-in password generation tool.
I ended up liking 1Password a lot more than I wanted to; and the form-filling plugins for the desktop web browsers offer significant extra value over the competition. Even though I had already purchased SplashID (ouch!), I also bought, and now use exclusively, 1Password. If you have a MacOSX desktop you need to sync to, or if you don’t need to sync at all regardless of your desktop platform, then 1Password is really your best choice.
1 Update 2008-09-27: I’ve since discovered another one: Secretbook, whose US $25 MacOSX desktop and US $10 iPhone versions sync to each other. I know nothing more about the application than this though.
2 Update 2008-09-22: I’ve revised this star rating for SplashID from 2 to 3 stars – two seemed a little unfair – after all, it is quite functional.