Sites offering online storage and file sharing are not new. My all-time favorite such site, Visto, offered a free email account along with a desktop client that would sync your Outlook contacts, calendar and tasks between computers. The software even offered limited (250MB) file synchronization between computers. The whole thing was called the “Visto Desktop” and it was really cool… when I started using it… back in 1998! Sadly, Visto stopped offering their services to the public in 2002 so that they could focus on licensing their synchronization tech to cell phone companies and large corporations.
A lot has changed since then. But since I work from one computer at home, I haven’t had much need for such services. This changed this past Christmas, when I got a netbook and a smartphone. Suddenly, I had a desire (if not a need) to share data between devices. And although there are several sites out there offering such services, the hands-down favorite with the geek crowd is Dropbox.
Dropbox offers 2GB of storage space for free, with 50GB and 100GB accounts available for $9.99/month and $19.99/month respectively. You sign up, then download and install the client. It creates a folder called “Dropbox” in your user profile, and any files copied to that folder are automatically synced between that computer and Dropbox, and any additional computers you install the client on.
There are also two subfolders inside the Dropbox folder, “Public” and “Photos”. Files copied to the “Public” folder can be viewed by anyone on the Internet, which is handy for sharing documents with colleagues. A helpful context menu in Windows Explorer even copies the public URL to your clipboard for easy pasting to an email or IM conversation. You can use the “Photos” folder to create instant photo galleries: just create a new folder inside the Photos folder (“Ashley’s Birthday”) and copy pictures to the new folder. You can then send a link to your friends, who can view the pictures even if they don’t have a Dropbox account.
But what really separates Dropbox from the rest of the crowd is the desktop client and its mobile support.
Dropbox has clients for Windows, Mac and Linux. Thus, you can easily share files between your Windows computer at work, and your Mac desktop and Linux netbook at home. I can only speak for the Windows client here, but it’s solid. It’s small, unobtrusive, easy on system resources, seems error-free, and gracefully handles offline situations on my netbook. In fact, I can’t think of a single improvement I’d make to the software.
Dropbox also has clients for Android, BlackBerry, iPhone and iPad. I can only speak for the Droid client here, but it works really well. Dropbox adds shortcuts to the “Sharing” menus in Droid, so uploading pictures is a snap. And for those of you worried about bandwidth, the Dropbox Mobile client only maintains a list of files in your Dropbox, and downloads files to your phone only if you expressly tell it to do so.
But there’s far more to Dropbox than simple file sharing. Thanks to its legions of geeky fans, dozens of great tweaks have been developed for Dropbox. Here are a few of my favorites:
Automatically starting torrents – Most Bittorrent clients support “watch folders”, where they scan a folder and automatically load any .TORRENT files found there. You can easily set up uTorrent to watch your Dropbox folder, so any torrent file synced there from your work computer or mobile phone will automatically start downloading on your home computer. Here’s how.
Remote printing – Ever work from home and need to print a Word doc or Excel spreadsheet for someone at the office? Thanks to a Visual Basic script, you can do just that. Basically, you create a new folder in Dropbox, edit a VBS file, and any files copied to that folder are printed on the default printer on a remote computer. Here’s how.
Encrypt your files – If you have a desktop and a laptop, you might be wary of using Dropbox on the laptop in case it should get lost or stolen. However, using a free program called TrueCrypt you can create an encrypted “container” which can be mounted as a drive in Windows. Simply install TrueCrypt (it’s free) on all your computers, then create a container in your Dropbox folder. Here’s how.
Instantly create photo galleries – Eye-Fi memory cards are standard SD memory cards with built-in Wi-Fi adapters. If you have a supported camera, you can automatically copy pictures from the camera to your desktop computer by simply turning the camera on. But if you set the destination folder on the desktop PC to your Dropbox folder, you can instantly create online photo galleries!
Use portable apps – Portable apps were designed for flash drives. They’re entirely “self-contained” in that they don’t write anything to the Windows computer they’re running on. But guess what? They don’t have to be installed to USB sticks. You can install them to a folder in your Dropbox directory, so you can have Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin and OpenOffice on as many computers as you like!
Use non-portable apps – Related to the previous tip, not every Windows application needs to write to the Registry. There are plenty of programs out there where all you do is unzip the downloaded file and run an EXE. You could, for instance, unzip the password manager KeePass to your Dropbox folder and enjoy synchronized password management across all your computers!
Synchronizing iTunes libraries – If you have multiple computers, it can be a pain to keep iTunes in sync between them. But it’s easy to do it with Dropbox! Make sure that iTunes is closed on the “main” computer, then move the iTunes folder from your “Music” (or, in XP, “My Music”) folder to a Dropbox folder. Then start iTunes by holding down the SHIFT key and clicking an iTunes icon. You will be asked if you want to start a new library or if you want to choose a library. Just select “Choose library” and navigate to your previous library in the Dropbox folder. Repeat the process on your other computers, and they’re all in sync! Note that you’ll probably need a paid Dropbox account for this, unless you have a small library.
Symbolic links everywhere! – Symbolic links (“symlinks”) are a long-time Unix feature that has been built-in to Windows Vista and Windows 7 (and are also available as “junctions” for earlier versions of NT via the Resource Kit). Symlinks are kind of a “super shortcut” that tricks software and the operating system into thinking that files and folders are in one place when they are actually in another place. For example, in Windows Vista, Microsoft changed the location of the user’s documents folder from
c:\Documents and Settings\[username]\My Documents
There’s a ton of older software out there that is unaware of this change, so Microsoft created symlinks to the new folders. So if you install Widget 1.0, and it wants to create a folder in your documents folder, the symlink will seamlessly allow the installer to think it’s creating folders in the old location, when it’s actually creating them in the new location.
Here’s another example: say you get on a nostalgia kick and want to install an old game on your computer. However, the game installer will only allow you to install the software in the c:\Program Files\[game] directory. You’d prefer to install it on your D: drive, as it has much more free space. You could let the game install normally, then move the [game] folder to your D: drive and create a symlink to it in the Program Files folder. The game will think that it’s installed in the “proper” place, even though you’ve moved it.
The potential for neat stuff using symlinks and Dropbox is almost limitless:
– You could copy your Firefox profile folder to your Dropbox folder and create a symlink to it on all your computers… and all your computers would be using the exact same profile!
– It’s easy to move your Documents (or “My Documents”) folder to Dropbox (just right-click the desktop icon and Properties > “Move”). But if that folder is already redirected (many businesses move the user’s documents folder to a server, so it can be backed up), you could create a symlink to the server path in your Dropbox folder, thus making the data available on all your computers!
– If you use some kind of application that has a constantly changing set of log files or settings files or plug-ins, you could copy the necessary folders to Dropbox and create symlinks to their original locations, keeping the software synchronized across desktops and laptops.
Symlinks aren’t for everyone. You have to be really careful when using them, as bad things can happen. For instance, unlike regular shortcuts, if you delete a symlink using Windows Explorer, you’ll delete the actual files themselves, not just the shortcut. If you’re intrigued by the idea of symlinks but have never heard of them before, you might want to check out Dropbox Folder Sync, a free app which creates symlinks behind the scenes by adding a simple “sync with Dropbox” entry to Windows’ context menu.