Dropbox: File synching and sharing made easy

Michael lasky By Michael Lasky

There’s no shortage of services offering file sharing, synching, and collaboration through the Internet.

But one service stands out from the rest. Dropbox is one of those simple applications that, once installed, quickly become an indispensable part of your computing process.

Having seen hundreds of PC products come and go over the years, we’re not easily impressed here at Windows Secrets. But every once in a while some product — or service in this case — comes along that we soon find we can’t live without. Dropbox, an online file-backup, -sharing, and -synchronization service, fits that category. We use it in the office for managing our production files, and many of us use it for our personal computing.

File synching evolves with changes in computing

Keeping files synched between PCs has always been a bit of a drag — not as in drag-and-drop, but as in multistep tedium. A few breakthrough apps made the task easier. Remember LapLink? That was a product no laptop user could live without. Remember Microsoft’s Briefcase? (Yes, it’s still around, but how many people actually use it?) Microsoft had a great idea building its synching applet into Windows. But, ultimately, it proved too cumbersome to use.

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Now that nearly every PC user has access to the Internet, file sharing has moved into the cloud — and added collaboration and file backup as new services. There is a horde of these sites — several of which I discussed in my June 24 Top Story, “SkyDrive takes on the online-storage arena.” Alas, most involve signing onto a password-protected entry site to accomplish anything.

But not Dropbox — a small application that saves you immense amounts of time and effort. Once set up, Dropbox becomes just another folder on your PC — or your Mac, iPad, smartphone, or other computing device that can display documents. Your files are stored both locally in your Dropbox folder and online on the service’s servers. Dropbox lets you back up, share, and sync any file merely by dragging the file into the Dropbox folder on your desktop. Any changes made to files in Dropbox are automatically updated in all other linked Dropbox folders in other devices, as long as you are connected (or when you reconnect) to the Internet.

One feature I particularly liked: Dropbox let me transfer photos from my iPhone to my PC without the hassle of connecting the phone to the computer.

Dropbox works with all versions of Windows, but interestingly its folder retains the classic Windows XP Explorer look. (And its help screens default to Windows XP instructions.)

The free Dropbox Basic lets you store up to 2GB of data in the cloud. Dropbox Pro50 provides 50GB of storage for U.S. $10 per month or $99 per year, and Pro100 is $20 per month or $199 per year.

Moving beyond simple file transfer and sync

Dropbox’s charm lies in its simplicity. But simple does not mean limited — the service has a broad menu of features that make it an invaluable tool for managing files. For example, connecting to the Dropbox Web site gives you access to your files from any Web-connected computer and any Web browser. And when you edit a file, it’s updated on all of your devices that have a Dropbox folder.

It’s a snap (or should I say, a click) to share files from the Dropbox Web site as well. (See Figure 1.) You simply move files into the preset Public folder. Mouse over a file, and a down-arrow appears to the right of the file name.

Click the arrow and select Copy public link. Dropbox displays a custom link, which you can copy or have Dropbox paste to your Clipboard.

Link too long for you? A Shorten Link option creates one for you that’s similar to the bit.ly links you see in Twitter messages. Paste the link into an e-mail, and recipients gain quick access to that folder or file.

Dropbox web-based file manager
Figure 1. You can use Dropbox’s intuitive, Web-based interface to access, share, and otherwise manage files in your Dropbox folder.

Within the Dropbox Web-site view, highlighting a file or folder and clicking the down-arrow also gives quick access to other file-management tasks. These include recalling previous versions and downloading the file to your local device plus moving, renaming, copying to, and deleting the file or folder.

If you want to share a folder with friends or colleagues, all they need to do is install a small Dropbox app. You use the Share Folder option and enter their e-mail address into a dialog box. Once they’ve received a Dropbox message, that folder — with its contents — appears in their Dropbox folder. Dropbox secures all data with AES256 encryption as it’s moved over the Internet and also encrypts the data on its servers.

There are a couple of important points to remember when using Dropbox sharing. Copies of shared folders are stored in each member’s account. So if you are going to share a large folder (say, 20GB), the person you want to share with must have sufficient storage space in his or her account.

You can get around that limitation by putting all of your files into the Public folder, but then anyone who can find or guess the URL for that folder has access to everything, and that’s extremely insecure.

Dropbox lets you use one account on as many PCs as you like, but you can use only one account at a time on each machine. To switch accounts, you have to sign out of one and into another. I’d like it better if you could have a business Dropbox and a personal Dropbox open at the same time. If you have multiple user accounts on a PC, each account can have its own Dropbox.

Reeling back through your versions history

One of Dropbox’s most useful features is that it automatically saves previous versions of files — and even deleted files. With the free version of Dropbox, previous file versions are saved for 30 days; both the Pro50 and Pro100 will save prior file versions indefinitely, if you add the free Pack-Rat add on.

The Dropbox system tray icon keeps you informed (with small colored symbols) that files are fully synched, currently synching, or unable to sync — either because of a connection problem or because you’ve met your storage allowance. Left- or right-click the tray icon to see how much storage you’ve used or to view recently changed files. (See Figure 2.)

Dropbox system tray tools
Figure 2. Dropbox’s System Tray app gives quick access to recently changed files.

Another useful Dropbox tool is its Events tab, which gives you a blow-by-blow account of your file activity. It’s handy when you accidentally misplace a file or want to jump quickly to its version history.

What truly separates Dropbox from any other cloud storage, sharing, or synching services is its integration of 90 add-on or supported apps and its ability to let you view files even when you don’t have the application that created them. That’s how I was able to open music, videos, and documents on my iPad, even though the native apps don’t reside on the tablet.

Those add-on apps include Documents to Go, Quickoffice (see Figure 3), GoodReader, XPenseTracker, 1Password, and DocScanner. Some of the add-ons — Quickoffice, for example — for iPad, iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Web, and even Windows Mobile (oh, my) work independently of Dropbox. But they let you save files to a Dropbox folder — either on the device or to the Web. In both cases, the files are synched to your other Dropbox clients. (For the full list of add-ons, check out the Dropbox App Directory page.)

Dropbox tool in quickoffice
Figure 3. Dropbox’s App Directory lists over 90 associated apps, such as Quickoffice for the iPhone.

So whether you need to share files and folders between your desktop and notebook PCs or mobile devices, Dropbox has got you covered. Sharing files with collaborators can be quickly and easily accomplished with e-mail links or by equal access to a group folder in Dropbox. And the impressive list of add-on mobile and Web apps makes this service indispensable for both business and personal use.

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praises, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

WS contributing editor Michael Lasky is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California, who has 20 years of computer-magazine experience, most recently as senior editor at PC World.
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Michael Lasky

About Michael Lasky

WS contributing editor Michael Lasky is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California, who has 20 years of computer-magazine experience, most recently as senior editor at PC World.