All computer users that routinely accesses more than one computer in the course of their normal routine share the same pain. Keeping all of the files we need available to us at all times is nothing short of maddening. I might have a spreadsheet I was working on all afternoon on my desktop computer, but when I grab my laptop and run out the door to meet a client I only have access to a version that is 2 days old. Or I might have a series of files on my laptop that I need to work on. But when I left my laptop at the office, there is no way I can access them from home.
A great solution called DropBox plans to make these craze inducing nightmares a thing of the past. The user just installs DropBox on each individual system and links that computer to the DropBox account. DropBox then uses the internet (often referred to as “the cloud”) to keep all of the data in sync.
As long as all of the data is stored in the DropBox directory on my Mac, and as long as I have an internet connection, DropBox does all of the work. Say I have a spreadsheet that I updated on my workstation. As soon as I save the update, that file is instantly transmitted to each of my other computers. So, if I grab my laptop and run out to meet with a client, I can be confident that the most recent copy of that spreadsheet will also be sitting on my MacBook. As long as all of my computers are connected to the internet, I’ll have up to date access to all of the data in my DropBox directory.
So what happens if one of the computers doesn’t have access to the cloud for a period of time? DropBox will run its sync routine as soon as internet access is restored. If the same file has been modified in 2 locations, the software simply produces 2 copies of the same file making it fairly easy and obvious to the user that they have an issue to sort out.
Sound almost like magic. I don’t believe in magic, so lets take a look at how DropBox works. First of all, the software must be installed on each computer involved in the sync. Next, each of those computers must be registered with the same DropBox account. This is pretty easy. Just enter your username and password in the preferences and its done. The real trick is in how DropBox keeps inventory of all of the files. For this, DropBox uses its own web site as a central data repository.
All of the files in the DropBox directory of each computer are also stored in a “secure” part of the DropBox web site. So each computer essentially syncs its data with the web site and the web site then delegates the synchronization of files between itself and all of the other computers registered on the DropBox account. Make a change to one of the files on one of the computers and the DropBox client instantly sends the new version to the cloud. The cloud the disperses the modified file to all of the other computers by notifying each install of DropBox that a change has been made.
Ok, it all sounds logical, but it also sounds like major stain on bandwidth. In fact that is the case in some situations. But DropBox does things to optimize internet usage by only syncing delta data whenever possible. So if its possible to update just a part of a larger file, only the part is synchronized.
The real question is how long it actually takes to sync these files. And in my tests, not long at all. DropBox is incredibly responsive. It almost every case, the software was immediately on top of any change I made to files located in its home directory. In a few rare cases, it took a few extra seconds before it transmitted the change to the cloud.
Obviously the bigger the file, the longer it takes to sync it. Small files like Word documents and spreadsheets are amazingly fast. Larger files like MP3’s or video files just take a little longer. At some point you have to consider the size of the file and the bandwidth limitations involved in moving it.
So how do you know when your files are updated? DropBox has a great way to make this instantly obvious. It simply changes the files icon to reflect its sync state. If the file is up to date with the other copies, a small green check mark is imposed on the files icon. If the file is currently being synchronized, that check is replaced by a small blue circular arrow. Once the file has been synced, the arrow turns to a green check and you are set!
DropBox currently limits users to 2GB of storage. Since all data in the DropBox directory is also in sync with the cloud, this limitation ultimately limits the usefulness of DropBox. If you want more storage space, its no problem. For $99 per year, DropBox will provide 50GB of storage. $199 per year will get you 100Gb of storage.
There was one striking oddity that I found during the course of my testing. For example, I tossed a simple Mac application in the sync directory as an easy and lazy way to get it installed on all of my Macs. But, as it turned out, that application could not launch on the other computers once the sync was complete. I have not contacted the developers to try and resolve the issue. Since DropBox works on the Mac, Windows, and Linux, it was safe to say that some compromises would be made.
DropBox also has some great additional features that I would like to get review on another post. Some are incredibly useful and powerful features that will only appeal so a subset of the main user base, but they show that the developers are really thinking outside of the box (pardon the euphemism).
Try DropBox for free at http://getdropbox.com. That includes 2GB of storage space. Seeing is believing with an application like this. It truly does live up to its promises.