Technology Untangled: Dropbox offers simple file storage and sharing

February 2, 2011

Technology UntangledThese days many of us have a work desktop, a laptop, a home computer, a smartphone and a tablet computer. It is getting more difficult to keep track of which files are stored on which device. If you find that you are often having to e-mail files to yourself or are constantly transferring files via USB drive, then Dropbox online file storage and syncing may be for you.

Dropbox (dropbox.com) is software that links all of your devices together by providing a single shared repository for important files. It keeps all versions of your files synced across all your computers and it acts as a convenient backup drive for your critical data. Dropbox allows you to store up to 2GB of data for free. That is a substantial size for a free service. 2GB allows for hundreds of photos or several hours of video. A paid subscription is available for larger data storage needs.

Your Dropbox storage repository does more than act as a simple networked storage drive or a remote thumb drive. My first concern was: What happens if the Internet goes down when I need to access a file? Your files always remain stored on your own computer within your Dropbox folder, which acts just like any other folder on your hard drive. Meanwhile, identical copies of the files are uploaded to the online storage folder. So as you work on a document and save the changes, those changes are automatically uploaded to your online Dropbox.

Say you are working on a document and break for lunch. You can then access and review your work on your smartphone, as well as make additional edits during lunch. When you return from your break and re-open the document at work, those new edits will be seen in the freshly synchronized version of the document on your work computer. Dropbox also retains a copy of each previous version of a file every time you save. This allows you to revert to an older version of a document if necessary. These saved older versions do not count against your 2GB quota.

Dropbox also makes it easy to transfer and share files of large size with others. This allows you to bypass the send/receive attachment size restrictions of many e-mail systems. For large individual files, you can easily e-mail a Web link to a client that allows them to download the file from the Internet. For entire folders of data, you can invite other Dropbox users to share a folder online, either in a private fashion or a public manner. An example of a publicly shared folder might be the photo folder you share with the grandparents. An example of a private folder would be a set of legal documents for an individual client. For project collaboration within your team, a shared Dropbox folder can be created to keep all project items organized in one convenient, synchronized master folder.

I am finding Dropbox to be a very convenient method for transferring files and photos to my smartphone. There is no thumb drive port on it, and e-mailing attachments to the phone is tedious. I simply access the Dropbox folder on the phone and my transferred files appear. It is also useful for smoothly uploading and sharing photos and videos taken with the phone. You can take a new photo and send a copy to the Dropbox folder. Transferring files to/from an iPod or iPad is similarly easy.

How secure is Dropbox? Dropbox says that all files besides your public folders are very private and only accessible to you. All transmission of data occurs over an encrypted channel (SSL). All your files are encrypted and inaccessible without your password, so even Dropbox employees aren’t able to access them. No one can see your private files unless you deliberately invite them. My understanding is that your online folder is as secure as any Internet service that works with credit card and financial data.

Dropbox is reasonably fast, but not as instantaneous as writing to a local hard drive. When you update and save a file, the syncing process does have a few seconds of lag time. Uploading a new file takes noticeably longer. Internet files typically take longer to upload than to download. One clever way they use to reduce upload time is to upload only the changes that have been made to a file, and not re-upload the entire file at each revision. Dropbox does allow some ability to adjust the speeds of uploads and downloads, but the default settings are tuned to try not to interfere with your normal Internet activity.

In summary, try Dropbox and never e-mail yourself a file again, keep your files synced between computers, automatically backup important files, and share those files easily with others.•


Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD, and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.


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