Dropbox is the most widely used and simplest file-synchronization systemworldwide not attached to a major technology company. Every machineon which you install Dropbox and use the same account has all thecontents synchronized among them by default. Make a change on onemachine in the Dropbox folder remove a file, add one, reorganizeitems into folders, or save changes and that change is instantlypropagated to every other synced machine. That s the point of suchservices, and Dropbox consistently accomplishes this in a nearlyinvisible manner. |
Install the software, and an anointed folder is the hub of Dropboxactivity. The software offers support for desktop folder sync inMac OS X, Windows, Linux, and allows mobile access for viewing andfor uploading files, images, and video under Android, BlackBerry,and iOS platforms. However, by keeping it minimal and avoiding a full-fledgedclient it s just a menu with a few options Dropbox requiresheavy use of its Web interface for even basic tasks. That s a mildcomplaint, because the Web site works quite well, includingallowing drag-and-drop copying from the Finder into the browser anddragging to organize items into folders.
Still, better desktopintegration would remove the remaining friction. Sharing and collaboration Sharing Options: When someone visits a read-only sharing pageyou've created, they can opt to download files, or create or loginto a Dropbox account to copy those files directly. Beyond syncing across your computers and creating backup copies ofyour own files, Dropbox has several features that take storage andsync further. These include collaborative sharing with others,read-only sharing, accessing older versions of files, restoringdeleted files, and uploading images from attached cameras andphones.
A mobile app allows limited tools away from a desktop. The collaborative sharing feature is one that brought me to Dropboxand keeps me there. Any folder may be shared with any other user(if they don t have an account, they can sign up at no cost andstore at least 2GB). A shared folder is synced among all users whojoin it, until they remove themselves or the owner kicks them out.The contents of a shared folder count towards an account s quota.What s missing is the option to set read-only folders, somethingthat could be tricky on the desktop (as it would involve settingfile locks on particular users files), but would aid in sharingmaterial.
Read Only: A new read-only sharing option offers previews in abrowser and the ability to download an image with a click. Dropbox recently upgraded a second form of sharing, which providesread-only links to individual files or entire folders. Any item maybe selected (Control-click or right-click the file in the Finderand in the contextual menu select Dropbox - Get Link, or clicka link icon in the Web view), and a Web page opens with a customlink and a preview of the files. Dropbox can preview many commonmedia and document formats.
Files and folder contents can bedownloaded, or copied to a recipient s Dropbox folder. Dropboxonly allows folders to be copied as a whole to its directories; fordownload, items must be selected one at a time. Links can berevoked, but unlike the option at the nearly-gone iDisk and otherservices, you can t set an expiration date and time for a link,which seems like a mistake. (Dropbox previously had a limited,no-preview link option that this essentially replaces.) Versioning A powerful aspect of central, continuously updated storage for yourfiles is versioning, or the storage of multiple renditions of thesame file.
Dropbox keeps an unlimited number of versions that youcan use a somewhat clunky, if informative, Web interface to chooseamong. Each version shows the time and date, person who saved it(useful for shared folders), and the machine on which it was saved(the Bonjour name on a Mac). You can also choose to show deletedfiles, and restore them. Deleted files and older versions can berestored to the Desktop with just a few clicks, replacing thelatest version or restoring the file to its last location. Unfortunately, there s no useful way to see the quantity or typesof changes between revisions, and you can t preview changed files,only download them.
Dropbox could provide a better way to scrollthrough revisions, and even track the percentage changed. Fortext-based files and common productivity formats (like Word), it sconceivable it could provide an online difference viewer, too,given that such a feature is common in desktop software. Dropbox doesn t count older versions (which are stored just as thedifferences between successive revisions saved) nor deleted filestowards one s storage limit. For free accounts, Dropbox keepsdeleted files for 30 days, as well as a version history going backthat far. Paid individual accounts can choose to enable Pack Rat,which preserves all deleted files and versions.
The businessoffering always uses the Pack Rat setting. Syncing files Throttle Control: Dropbox lets you force a maximum download andupload speed for sync; it can also figure out an appropriate uploadrate automatically, although the firm doesn't offer details abouthow that works. Like other syncing services, Dropbox tries to minimize networkbandwidth use by examining files for differences between thecurrent and most recently stored version. It breaks files intopieces and creates a kind of shorthand on your computer that itcompares against the same shorthand stored remotely.
Only changedsections are uploaded or downloaded. Dropbox can identify files already synced on the same network, andcopy such changes locally, which is a boon. (This can be disabled,too.) You can also opt set a hard limit for download and uploadthroughput, which can be throttled separately. Uploads can beautomatically throttled, too, although the details aren texplained. But these techniques only reduce bandwidth use or throttlethroughput.
Dropbox doesn t provide network awareness when you reon a network with either a low-bandwidth connection or a meteredone, such as when you re using a mobile broadband USB adapter on alaptop or connecting using tethering via an iPhone, iPad, orcellular router. CrashPlan recently added a way to pick which Wi-Finetworks over which it should perform backups. Dropbox should addsome smarts here to keep you from flooding other networks orburning up bandwidth charges. (There is a Pause option in theDropbox menu, but that has to be chosen manually.) Selective Sync: You can opt to sync only specific folders on agiven computer, or even subfolders when you click Switch toAdvanced View.
Another way Dropbox tries to let you control use is via SelectiveSync, a selection dialog in its preferences that allows the choiceof which folders to include on a given machine. It s useful, butthe interface provides too little sophistication. You can t chooseto uncheck or check every folder s box. Dropbox doesn t allowpreventing new folders from being added to the computer.
Everythingin the top level of the Dropbox folder is always synced, as well.Since this feature is already designed for advanced users, it couldbe reworked for better selection and even filtering. Other features Dropbox s free mobile app allows browsing all available files, and storing locally any fileyou choose. The app displays any natively-readable file types iniOS, like images, documents, video, and text, but can store otherfiles to be transferred to other iOS apps via the Open In option.Dropbox is also a target in iOS apps Open In menu to accept andupload files. The app has the direct ability to upload images andvideo. A recent update to Dropbox added camera uploads via USB, whetherfrom a camera connected via USB, an iOS device, or a memory card ina card reader.
Dropbox can be set to import new imagesautomatically, which is useful, but might be excessive if youdon t want every photo you ever take stored and then having tolater cull them. But it also provides a hands-free automatic backupjust by plugging in. Dropbox has a relatively strong security model in protecting datain transit and in storage, using strong encryption between itsdesktop client and its servers and then encrypting that data on itssystems. However, you don t control any of that encryption, andDropbox has access to all the files you store that aren t layeredwith an additional form of encryption.
That is problematic should agovernment demand your files (Dropbox might refuse some kinds ofrequests, but can be compelled in some cases) or a civil lawsuitrequires Dropbox to provide files under subpoena (see its privacy policies for more). Only one directly competing service, SpiderOak , creates keys in its client software and retains no ability todecrypt any user data (or even file names) on its servers. (We llbe reviewing SpiderOak soon.) CrashPlan , a backup service, also has an option for user-owned and evenuser-created encryption keys. Dropbox has a business reason to avoid this.
The firmde-deduplicates files, meaning that it stores a single copy of afile across all its servers (plus backups, obviously) even if amillion users have a copy in their individual Dropbox folder.De-deduplication can t work when files are encrypted, as all filesappear as unique data. Service comes in individual and business plans. A free accountincludes 2GB of storage, but Dropbox adds 500MB the first time youupload media from a camera, and expands that up to 3GB as youcontinue add images and video. You can also get 500MB added foreach new person you refer to sign up, even for free accounts, to amaximum combined total of 18GB. Paid service is $10 per month for50GB and $20 per month for 100GB, with discounts for prepaying fora year.
Paid accounts can add up to 32GB through referrals, but notimage uploads. Paid service, called Dropbox for Teams, starts at$795 per year for five users and 1TB of combined storage. Macworld s buying advice Dropbox was an early offering in the sync field, was reportedly under consider for purchase by Apple (the founders say theydeclined), and remains a strong and constantly evolving service.Its weakest feature at present is the small amount of free storageavailable without uploading images compared to Google Drive (5GB) and Microsoft SkyDrive (7GB). The company needs to consider a lightweight but more extensiveinterface on the desktop to remove the friction of using Web appsfor basic features, providing user-controlled encryption, andimproving bandwidth use by venue. Those quibbles aside, you canrely on Dropbox to deliver the simplicity of always having files upto date everywhere.
[ Glenn Fleishman, a senior contributor to Macworld, writes abouttechnology and culture at the Economist s Babbage blog, and appears regularly on public radio programs. ].
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