Dropbox offers easy file synchronisation and sharing

Just out of beta, Dropbox fits the bill, finds Rich Ericson

Are you looking to share files online, back up your own data or transfer files between Windows, Mac and Linux systems? Take a look at Dropbox (getdropbox.com), a terrific online service that just came out of beta mode which combines file and folder mirroring/synchronisation with an easy-to-use online interface that's efficient and well-designed. You can set up the service on any of your systems.

Installation is simple; you download a 14MB executable which sets up the synchronisation software that runs in the background (it launches automatically when you boot up and puts an icon in your Windows System Tray). During installation you specify the location of your Dropbox folder; by default, the sub-folder is added to your My Documents folder, but it's easily changed — for example, I created it in my root directory.

Once you've created the folder on your hard drive, you can drag files or folders into it and Dropbox immediately and automatically starts to copy them using Amazon's S3 storage. In Windows, a green check box in the System Tray icon indicates all transfers are complete. Changes will be automatically and quickly synced to Dropbox s storage. With any Dropbox account, the first 2GB of storage is free. Dropbox has yet to add a paid storage service offering more capacity.

Synchronisation is smooth and virtually instantaneous. For example, adding 10MB worth of data across five files took less than 15 seconds; a 300MB video file took about a minute to appear on the service (your speed will, of course, depend on how you're connected to the internet). After the initial upload, changes to the file occur even faster because Dropbox updates just the changed bytes using block-level transfers — and because it offers incremental backups so you can go back to any point in time to retrieve data.

Other file activity besides saves will trigger synchronisation. For example, if you rename a file in your hard drive's Dropbox folder, the file is renamed on the service automatically (and vice versa). Likewise, delete a file from your hard drive and it's hidden from view (though not permanently deleted) from the service — in case you need to restore the file later. (You use the "purge" command to permanently delete a file from the Dropbox server.) Use the "delete" command on a file on the Dropbox server shown in the file list of the web interface and it's automatically erased from your hard drive.

Synchronising files in a folder isn't the only way to get your documents to the Dropbox server. You can also upload files using the web interface. I had a problem with this, however, when I tried to upload a single file using the "advanced interface", the status bar displayed "Error" in red but gave no explanation. Dropbox suggested using the basic interface, which is designed to upload single files, and that worked perfectly, displaying a message when the file update was complete.

Dropbox is ideal for those who use more than one computer. I installed the software on two systems: my laptop and my desktop. I saved files to the Dropbox folder on my desktop during the day. At night, when I wanted to work on those same files from home, I just fired up my laptop and the files were automatically transferred to that system's Dropbox file. I edited the files, saving them back to the Dropbox folder, and they were ready for me on my desktop at work the next day. It's just that simple.

Share and share alike

Synchronising files between two machines is just one method to share files. You can also share a folder on the Dropbox server with as many users as you like. You add the folder to your hard drive and mark it as "Shared" from the web interface, providing the email addresses of the people you want to share it with. For example, to share a folder with everyone on your team, you'd provide each person's email address, and then each person is sent an email message with a link to a sign-up page.

If your teammate is already a Dropbox member, the service adds a message to his or her inbox so when they log on to the service they can open the message, click a button, and the folder is added to their Files list. Once teammates accept the shared folder, they can add, replace, or delete any file in that shared folder.

When any change is detected to this shared folder, a message pops up from the icon in the Windows System Tray for everyone sharing the folder. (If your team mate isn't already a Dropbox member, a message in their regular email inbox takes them to the signup page.)

To share an individual file without requiring a Dropbox account, you also use the web interface. You simply find the file and pick the "Copy Public Link" command, and then send the URL displayed to any recipient. When that person clicks on the link you've provided, the file is downloaded to his/her system.

You can likewise access your files from any web-enabled machine — just log on to the service, enter your user id and password, and you have instant access to your files.

Dropbox can work as an online storage bin for files you want stored offsite, just like Xdrive. In fact, if you don't want to synchronise files or share them with others, there's no need to install the Dropbox software on your system; you can simply log on to the web site and use the web interface to store and retrieve your files, as with many other services (such as Xdrive).

If you want to share graphics files with less web-savvy users, the service creates a separate Photo folder on your hard drive. Files copied to it are easily shared with friends and family in a gallery. that has a unique URL (no Dropbox registration is required for access).

There are other nice features in the web interface. You can drag and drop files between folders and create new folders, though it's not as fast as performing a similar operation with files on your hard drive using Windows Explorer.

There are some limitations, but the company's forums give a list of upcoming features (such as adding any folder as a "watch" folder, and multi-file drag-and-drop). The company's forum also notes there are plans to make additional storage available for a fee, but no formal announcements had been made at press time.

In summary, it seems to me that fast and easy synchronisation between computers — along with file sharing with friends and colleagues — has never been easier or faster. I highly recommend trying this one out.

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