Online Storage with Dropbox

I have a few computers at home. Some are for practical use, others I’ve peiced together for experimental gadgetry. They’re generally used by different people (my wife, my daughter and myself). Right now I don’t have a common shared storage location among all of the computers, and my main computer (which doubles as my gaming rig) is where most of the working data resides. Yes I back up that data several ways, so I don’t need that lecture. What I’m talking about is if I want to work on a file that resides on the main system, and my lovely wife is either updating her blog, recording her podcast, or most likely enthralled in Facebook or Twitter, I can’t easily get to that file to work on it unless I kick her off of that system. If I do, I can copy the file(s) to a portable drive and sneaker it over to my laptop, or I can email it to myself and get it on the laptop, or, or, or. Get it? It’s kind of clunky.

So what I started looking for is some storage in the cloud. The cloud? That’s the Internets, baby! A bunch of companies have been offering free or paid storage where you can upload your files to be able to retrieve from anywhere. People have been wanting these things for a long time, and years ago there was even a plugin that worked with the large amount of space that Google offers for GMail users. It allowed you to store files essentially in email messages. Microsoft has SkyDrive for their Hotmail and Live users. They offer 25 gigabytes of storage, which is huge, but in playing with it, it seemed kind of slow, and if you want to share anything, that person has to have a Hotmail/Live account. AOL (remember them?) had Xdrive, but it was closed down last year. Box offers three tiers of storage and collaboration, but the lowest tier (5 GB of storage) is $7.95 per month. There’s also ElephantDrive (aimed at small businesses and online backup), Mozy (again, focusing on online backup), and FlipDrive (online backup and other services), which all offer their services for a monthly charge (in fairness, Mozy does have a free 2GB plan, though). There are more, but are you seeing a pattern here? I haven’t tried them all, but I’ve done some reading on the various costs and offerings by a bunch of these services. I just wanted something that would let me easily access files from any computer that I may be on… something simple, not a full-service backup and life-altering solution, and free!

dropbox_logoThen I was listening to my friend Paul Muller’s podcast, Caffination, and he mentioned that he’s loving the online storage Dropbox. I looked into it myself and found that it was exactly what I was seeking. They offer 2GB of storage right off the bat, for free. Cool thing is, if you refer someone else, you AND the person signing up gets an additional 250MB of space. So yeah, if you click my referral here, you and I both get more space for free. There’s a few ways of accessing the files, with the simplest being that you go to the website and sign in. Your folders and files are there right on the screen. Folders? Yes, you can create folders to organize your files just like you can on your computer. From the website you upload files from your computer. Need to share one of those files? Copy any of them to the supplied “Public” folder, and it will create an individual web address that you can send to others, and the file will open right in their browser. Damn convenient feature.
Keeping with sharing, you can share any of the folders that you create, simply by clicking on a dropdown ‘Share Folder’ link. You then enter email addresses of other Dropbox users, thus forming a collaboration tool. Need a backup .zip file of the contents of one of the folders? It’s there with a click. What else? You can also undelete files by showing any deleted files in a folder. There is also what amounts to an audit trail called “Recent Events”, which will list what events occurred, when, on what computers, and by whom. Convenient when you want to know who to blame for adding “Buy a Vespa” to your BucketList.doc file.

There is a “Photos” folder, where, if you upload a bunch of pics of your kids, dogs, alpaca fur collection or places you’ve visited in your own home, you can create a view of the pics right from the site. Next time you visit Granny, log in with her computer that she’s been pirating all those movies and music with, and proudly show her all of your pretend girlfriends (Jessica and Angelina will love you for it).

So that’s what the web site has. But one of the most powerful aspects of the service is the synchronization tool. You download an executable (14MB in size for the Windows version) that you install on your computer. The download is available for Windows, Linux or Mac systems. During setup, you fill in your account credentials, and where you want the shared folder to appear on your local hard drive. Once installed, anything in this folder is synchronized with your online Dropbox. They appear just like any other folder on your hard drive, with an exception: you have the ability from your computer’s file manager to share, create new folders, move files around, etc. just like a local file location. That is exactly what it has become, a local file location on your own hard drive. When you installed this utility on your computer, your files synchronized locally, direct from the Dropbox servers. The icons on your local view have a check mark placed over them when they are fully synchronized. So my collection of political figures throughout the ages that I’m Photoshopping myself in with? I can now do that from my gaming rig, my laptop or the kids’ computer, without interrupting my wife from seeing the latest rumors on Justin Timberlake.

If you’re a real tech-head looking to get the most out of a service like this and do some crazy stuff, there’s a wiki with some awesome tips and tricks. They also plan on more enhancements in the future, with an iPhone app, performance improvements and more. If you find it a great service, and need more space than the free account offers you, then they have two paid tiers of 50GB and 100GB, with both monthly and discounted yearly costs.

Now, not all is perfect, and I’d be remiss if I did not include my negative experience with Dropbox. My problem was unique to my setup, but the online community was there to help me fix it. My laptop is running Vista, and I have a “Standard” user account that I use for everything, which is the more secure way of running anything in Windows, instead of using an “Administrator” account. The Dropbox installation hiccuped because of Vista’s permissions settings, and there is not graceful way of getting out of it, getting not-so-happy “Access is Denied” messages. You have to install as the Administrator (like most Windows software), but because of other folders being involved, Vista limited access to that location, even with specific user permissions being set in Vista for the folders. I went to the Dropbox forum boards, searched existing issues,  and posted about my problem. From responses, it appeared that Dropbox developers were not aware of the problem, but other users experienced the similar issue. One user stepped up and offered the workaround, and it worked for me, and I haven’t looked back. To my knowledge this only happens with Vista, and only if you’re running from an account that is NOT an administrator on the system.

The convenience is there, it’s free (unless you need some serious online space), and it offers the simplicity of file synchronization without the need of the overhead complexity of a full backup solution. I’m happy with this solution.

Are you using another solution? Let me know. Have the same Vista setup and want to know where the exact solution is? Let me know, I’ll point you there. What’s that? You want the link so you and I can get that extra 250MB of space? Well, here it is.