Q-Review: Synching up with Dropbox

dropbox.jpg Last week, after seeming to see mentions of Dropbox everywhere I went on the Internet, I finally gave in and signed up for the service. I downloaded and installed the client and was ready to go. It creates a folder on your computer called “Dropbox” and anything you stick in there will be synced to the Dropbox servers. In order to sync these files to another computer, you just point Dropbox to your account, and it pulls down everything in the Dropbox folder. Setup is very simple.

And the actual syncing is done automatically as you make changes:

Dropbox keeps track of every change made to any of its contents. Any changes are instantly and automatically sent to any other computer linked to your Dropbox.

Dropbox is also smart with how it tracks changes to files. Every time you make a change, Dropbox only transfers the piece of the file that changed (also known as block-level or delta sync), making it easy to work with big files like Photoshop or Powerpoint documents.

Dropbox is also cross-platform, available for Mac, Windows, and Linux, and you can get to and share files via a web interface, so you can get to your stuff whenever and wherever you have a connection.

The “I need…” section

Fiddling with my file synchronization applications has become one of the biggest wastes of my time in the last few months. I’ve tried many options for syncing files across a network over the years (Synchronize! Pro, Chronosync, rsync, File Synchronizer, and on and on). Here’s a list of what I need in a file synchronization solution:

I need the solution to be cheap. Cheap-ass cheap. My new software budget has nearly disappeared, so $20 or less is the cap. The problem is that syncing is hard. Software that solves hard problems AND is easy to use tends to be very expensive. Like a hundred dollars expensive.

I need the tool to be fast and easy to use. Since I’m most often heading out of the house at 6:30 in the morning after a night of less than the optimal amount of sleep, I need a syncing tool that is as simple as possible. This means a tool with just one button to click, and that requires little to no attention to fine details like created on and modified on dates. As bleary-eyed and stumbly as I am in this state, I can’t do detail work like that.

I need foolproof syncing. I do most of my work using applications (Scrivener, MindNode, OmniOutliner) that save files as packages, a bundles of files that look and act like a single file in most ways. In many ways, this is great. It simplifies things for the user…except where file syncing is concerned. Too many times have I arrived at the coffee shop only to discover that I don’t have the most current version of the file with me.

I need true synchronization. I don’t want to have to set one machine as the “master” and have all others sync against it. Too often this results in new files being deleted from the other machine because they don’t exist on the master, or deleted files being restored against my will.

I’ve spend too much time trying to find a new solution and fixing the messes that the old ones leave behind. I need help. Let’s see how Dropbox stacks up to my needs:

The “I get…” section

I get a solution on the cheap. Dropbox is free for 2GB of storage. Free…that’s less than $20, right? Luckily, my synced data is a paltry 600MB, so I’m good for awhile.

I get a tool that’s fast and easy to use. After I put my files in the Dropbox folder, it took about 30 minutes to upload everything to their servers. Then I pointed my laptop to my account, and in just a few minutes, I had two perfectly syncronized folders. I opened a Scrivener file on my desktop, typed a bit and saved. Immediately, the changes were uploaded to the servers. I quickly opened the file on my laptop, and the changes were already there! Fast! Easy! Awesome!

I almost get foolproof syncing. This is where the system fell down a bit. While my Scrivener file synced perfectly, I had trouble with my MindNode file. I’m not sure where the problem lies. There are some troubles with packages mentioned in the Dropbox forums, so it seems to be a common problem, but I’ve got an email in to Markus, the developer of MindNode to see if he can tell what the problem is and if it’s possible to fix it. So, I guess I’ll be using an alternative brainstorming tool in the interim, but that’s a small price to pay for the effortless syncing that Dropbox brings to the table. Also, the feature of multiple versions of files, like your own mini-Subversion, is a nice safety net, too.

I get true synchronization. Because all changes made are uploaded to the server and then pushed out to all linked computers, there’s no “master” to worry about. The server is now the master.

The biggest drawback

Aside from dealing with Mac OS X packages, a problem that they seem to be working on, the biggest problem that Dropbox has is its reliance on access to the web. You simply must be connected in order to benefit from it. It is what it is, and if you don’t have frequent access to a fast connection, then Dropbox isn’t the answer for you.

The Verdict: Dropbox is a great option for file synchronization

Dropbox meets nearly all of my file syncing needs. It has quickly become a crucial part of my workflow. While not perfect, it’s still better than any of the software that I’ve used up to this point, cheaper, easier, faster, more reliable. Dropbox is my favorite solution to file synchronization and my new best friend.