We hear a lot about cloud computing these days. One very important use of cloud computing is file storage, sharing, and accessibility from anywhere or any device, enabling people to upload and download their own files so they can share with others, share between their own different devices or just for backup.
Dropbox is a service that synchronises files between computers or other devices and the ‘cloud’. Dropbox describes itself as a service that:
“lets you bring all your photos, docs, and videos anywhere. This means that any file you save to your Dropbox will automatically save to all your computers, phones and even the Dropbox website. Dropbox also makes it super easy to share with others, whether you’re a student or professional, parent or grandparent. Even if you accidentally spill a latte on your laptop, have no fear! You can relax knowing that Dropbox always has you covered, and none of your stuff will ever be lost”.
Basically, any file you save to Dropbox also saves to your computers, phones, and the Dropbox website – so you have that file wherever you are.
Here’s an example of how it can be used…
I write a document on my desktop computer which has Dropbox installed, and save it somewhere in my Dropbox folder. Later on, I’m working on my laptop which also has Dropbox installed, and I can just open up the same document on there that I saved earlier and carry on working on it. That evening I need to quickly show somebody else the document; I’ve only got my iPhone with me but that’s no problem – I fire up the Dropbox app and open my file from the cloud where it’s also stored and synced. If I like I can even save it as a favourite on my iPhone so it’s available locally without having to download it again. Finally, at work the next day, I need to get my document. I don’t have Dropbox installed at work but that’s no problem – I just go to the Dropbox website, login and download my file.
The Dropbox app on my iPad
In comparison there is Live Mesh which is another file sharing system. We had been using Live Mesh for a year or so before moving to Dropbox so it’s a good comparison for us to make.
Live Mesh can sync any folder on a PC and syncs to other devices without the need to store online – so there is no storage space quota for sharing between devices apart from the size of your hard disk. You can still store your files in the ‘cloud’ though, and the online part of it gives you a 5GB limit, which is nice and large, and it also offers a LAN sync so if you’re on a local network it’ll sync files automatically without you having to start the process off. Live Mesh also includes the remote control of devices should you want to do something on your home computer when you are away.
It is a bit clunky however, and you can’t throttle the bandwidth usage which means when it is syncing (which starts automatically) it may well take over your broadband meaning other online tasks might be slow. Live Mesh, being a Microsoft product, only runs on Windows which means it might not be as useful if you run a PC and a Mac and wish to share files between the two. Oh and Microsoft keeps changing the name, client and website which makes it difficult to keep on top of how everything is working.
With Dropbox you get 2GB space straight away but can get extra free storage space by referring people, and even more if you have a .ac.uk email address. You also get a bit more to start with if you sign up from a referral link like this one http://db.tt/2nxPfi1, and the person that referred you gets more too – it’s definitely worth signing up via one of these links. Unlike Live Mesh, Dropbox has clients for iOS, Windows, Linux, Mac, Android and Blackberry – it really is a cross-platform and device system that means you can really get your files whereever you are and whatever device you are carrying (providing you have downloaded the relevant client or app). You can throttle your bandwidth if you want to, and there are APIs that developers can use to connect with the service to provide other ways into it, and that’s exactly what GoodReader have done in their iOS app, which I use on my iPad (see separate review coming soon!).
Like Live Mesh, Dropbox does offer LAN sync, so if for example you have a laptop and desktop PC on the same network, it doesn’t need to upload the file to Dropbox over the internet from one and then download it from Dropbox over the internet. Instead, it uploads to Dropbox over the internet and transfers to the other device over the LAN – so it only uses your bandwidth once.
One of the downsides of Dropbox is that you can only sync to a single allocated Dropbox folder (unless you use workarounds like symbolic links, but there is no native support for that and it can get messy). You can create as many sub-folders as you like, so you can still organise your files, and to be honest it’s nowhere near as much of an irritation as I thought it might be. There is a “watching folder” on the list they want to introduce, but it’s been waiting a long time and there’s no sign of when that will be available.
Having used both Dropbox and Live Mesh, I have to say I much prefer Dropbox. I’ve had no problems with it whatsoever – it’s simple to use and it just works. Live Mesh always seemed more complicated to set up and quite often needed a bit of intervention to keep it going properly.
If you are really stuck for space and haven’t got anyone left to refer you can buy extra space, but it does seem a bit pricey – the lowest price for more space is $9.99 per month, but you do get 50GB for that. If at some point Dropbox reaches a critical mass where they decide to start charging for all accounts, I’d certainly be prepared to pay, for example £10 a year to use it.
If you fancy giving Dropbox a go you can use this referral link http://db.tt/2nxPfi1 – and by using this link you get an extra 250MB when you sign up and I’ll get some extra space too. Once you’ve got an account, you can refer other people too and build up your own extra free space.