We have been looking at several different types of file sharing and online storage tools here at Productivity 501. Each one has useful features that make it stand out. The same principle continues with this review of Dropbox, an online utility that works on computers running Mac OS, Windows or even Linux.
One of the neatest things Dropbox can do is that it will sync files from one platform to the next. For example, if the user wants files from his or her Mac synced with those of their PC, it is no problem for the product to move between operating systems. Any changes are synced with all enabled computers through the web. One neat thing is that the program shows the user which files have been updated with changes on the other computers. It does this by placing a green check mark beside the files that are updated. If they are in the process of syncing, two arrows on a blue background indicate the work being done.
Another helpful feature of Dropbox is that it saves all files to the web interface. If the user accidentally deletes files and remembers that he or she will need them later, there is an option to “undelete” the files from the web. This is a handy backup feature that could save a lot of time and worry. In addition, when files are updated, Dropbox also saves the previous version of the file as a back up. That way, the original is available for use if it is needed.
Dropbox gives you a single folder to sync. This means you can’t pick and choose existing folders to sync with Dropbox without moving them to the Dropbox folder. You can still make it work by reworking your directory structure, but you can’t simply pick a folder where it is and tell Dropbox to back it up. On the other hand, this makes it really easy to know exactly what is being backed up and cuts down on confusion.
Public File Sharing with Dropbox
The file sharing aspect of Dropbox is one of the simplest and most efficient that I have seen, yet. All the user must do is drag files to be shared into the “public” folder. Each file has a specific URL associated with it for access by the intended party. This method is for individual files; however, Dropbox also makes it possible to share entire folders. All the user must do is right click any folder, choose “Dropbox” and then “Share”, and finally enter the email addresses of the people that will be accessing the files. Multiple addresses can be entered at one time.
From your operating system file system, you can click on any shared file and it will copy a link to the public URL to your clipboard. You can then share the file with someone, by emailing them the link.
Private File Sharing with Dropbox
In addition to public file sharing, you can share directories with specific members of Dropbox. Not only do they have access to read the files, but they can change and modify the files as well. You can’t share access to your public folder or photos folder, but you can share access to their subfolders.
If two people open and modify the same file at the same time, Dropbox will create two versions of the file to make sure that data isn’t accidentally overwritten. You are responsible for handling the merging of data manually.
There is one slight oddity that makes Dropbox much less useful for teams that need to share a lot of data. Joining someone’s shared folder counts against your data quota. So if you have a free account, the maximum amount of data anyone can share with you is 2 Gb. If you have a 50Gb account and someone shares 25 Gb with you, you’ll only have 25 Gb remaining for your use. So if you have a team of 10 people each sharing 5 Gb of data with each other using the 50Gb plan, no one will be able to add any files because their quota will be full–even though each person is only using 10% of their allocated storage. Even Dropbox seems to think this is a bit weird because they say they will be re-evaluating the policy.
Photo Sharing on Dropbox
Dropbox also allows the user to share many types of data. Files, photos, music or any other kind of file can be shared through the use of this tool. However, there is an especially easy way to share photos with Dropbox. The photo gallery for this tool is “tightly integrated into the desktop,” according to the website. All the user has to do is drag any folders containing photos into the special Dropbox folder entitled “Photos,” and when that user refreshes the photo gallery, Dropbox creates a photo album with the same name. All of the albums have their own URL link that can be shared with others.
The photo gallery gives you the ability to download files and view them as a slideshow while presenting everything in a nice visual interface with good thumbnails.
Encryption on Dropbox
On thing Dropbox doesn’t offer directly is a way to securely encrypt your data. If they did, the web interface to access your files would be much less useful because you wouldn’t be able to view or download your files directly. Encryption would also make it much more complicated to share files with other people. Still, anytime you are keeping your files on someone else’s server, encryption is a good option to have. For example, with JungleDisk and Amazon S3, your data can be encrypted so even someone at Amazon can’t read your data. There are ways to encrypt our data before placing it in Dropbox, but this makes things quite a bit more complicated for the average user.
Dropbox appears to be a great system for sharing and syncing files that are somewhat public. The lack of encryption would make me a bit hesitant to use it as a full blown cloud backup solution for sensitive data. For example Dropbox seems very well suited for doing a shared school project, sharing documents with clients and keeping your photos/music synched between several computers. I would be a bit more hesitant to use it to backup a bunch of sensitive financial data or sync confidential data between several computers.
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