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Issue 9.1



Issue: 9.1 (November/December 2010)
Author: Marc Zeedar
Article Description: No description available.
Article Length (in bytes): 6,959
Starting Page Number: 12
Article Number: 9102
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Why had I heard of Dropbox for years and never tried it? It sounded like a strange concept—cloud storage—and I wasn't sure I needed it. For back ups, 2GB seemed uselessly small, and I had little need for its other uses. But then I heard of someone using it as a way to pass files between computers. Since I have several computers that I use for different tasks and syncing files between them is a pain, I decided to give Dropbox a try and I swear, it's now on my list of absolutely essential services.

Describing what Dropbox is, is difficult. At its simplest level, it is mere disk space in the sky. But what makes Dropbox far more powerful is its automatic syncing ability. You install software on all your computers (Mac or Windows) and you get a Dropbox folder on each. This is a real local folder, but the software sits in the background and watches whatever you do to that folder: add or remove or change a file, and it promptly uploads those changes to your Dropbox in the sky. Then, all your other computers (if they are on) automatically receive the changes. For me, this is a lifesaver. I can now edit an article on my writing computer (laptop) and by the time I walk into the other room where my desktop is sitting, the file is already there!

One of my favorite uses for Dropbox is automatic syncing of my REALbasic library: I have collections of common classes and routines I use in lots of programs, but in the past it's been a pain keeping those libraries in sync between different computers I develop on. Say I'm working on my laptop and I discover a bug in one of my library routines or classes: I'd like that bug fixed in my library on my other machine also, so that any projects on that computer would inherit the fixed routine. Now I just store my library on Dropbox and it's synced between all my computers automatically (regardless of platform, too). Now I'm free to develop on whatever machine I want!

Have you ever been on a trip and realized you left that critical file on a different computer? Or perhaps all you have with you is your iPad or smartphone? With Dropbox, that's no a problem: just store all the files you need universal access to in your Dropbox folder: with free Dropbox apps for your smartphone and computers, all your data is instantly available on any device! If you have an iPad, Dropbox is the best way to get things in and out wirelessly: while the Dropbox app is limited (it doesn't let you rename files or move files around), third party apps such as the awesome GoodReader (reviewed in RBD 8.4), offer built-in support for Dropbox so you can read and write files right into your cloud storage.

As for back up, while I thought 2GB seemed small, it is great for critical files. For instance, I've long been aware that I need an offsite back up of data such as the magazine's subscriber list. (I'd be out of business really quick if I lost that!) Sure, I can burn the occasional CD and leave it at my mom's house, but that's a hassle and the database changes constantly as people renew their subscriptions, change emails, or new subscribers are added. With Dropbox, however, I now have an instant and convenient way to back up that data. All I need is a script that copies the database daily to my Dropbox folder and I'm all set!

The scary part is I've only just scratched the surface of what Dropbox can do! There are other useful features, such as the ability to share certain folders or files with the public. That's great for sharing photos with family members or files with colleagues. There's also supposed to be a built-in Time Machine-style archive of old files within Dropbox, though I haven't yet explored that (apparently whenever you save a new version of a file, the service automatically saves a backup of the original for you). I've also heard there's a way to use it for collaboration, which sounds great for group projects, though I haven't tried that yet.

Is Dropbox perfect? Not quite: I found one flaw that affects Mac users: Applications don't sync properly across Dropbox (it can't handle the bundle format). This means your app will function on the local computer in its Dropbox folder, but when you go to other computers the app will show up as a folder. Since I do software development and move apps around freely for testing on different computers, this is a serious flaw. However, it is simple enough to just compress the file into a Zip archive before copying it to Dropbox and then decompress it on the target computer.

Dropbox is awesome, and most amazing of all, it is utterly free! There seems to be no restrictions on use except for the 2GB storage limit (you can pay for additional storage if you need it). I can't figure out how they do it or if they'll start charging eventually, but I'm delighted by the service. While I've just been using the free account, it is already so useful to me I'm tempted to pay for additional storage just to thank them for the terrific product (though the leap to a paid account is a steep $120/year—I wish they had a $50/year option). Definitely give Dropbox a try. It's free, incredibly easy to use (I loved that the sign-up process takes seconds, not minutes), and there are clients for every platform. Depending on your situation, I'm sure there's something useful in Dropbox for you: as cloud back up, file sharing, or syncing.

End of article.