Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Working in the Cloud, Part 1: Dropbox

I use multiple cloud services, primarily Dropbox, Google Drive, and Evernote. This has been my setup for the past year or so, whereas before that, I used Dropbox exclusively. In this series of posts, I’d like to explore what I like and dislike about each service, and how I have divided my work amongst them. Please note that I am not attempting to be comprehensive, but rather to capture what I have found helps or hinders my own workflow.

Part 1: Dropbox

I discovered Dropbox a few years ago. Before that, I transported important files between work and home using a flash drive. However, I occasionally forgot the drive at home and had to improvise, either by having someone at home email me a file, or by re-creating work, or simply not working on a project that day at the office. Dropbox solves this problem by letting me access files from anywhere. Dropbox is, in part, a special file folder on my computer. If I designate a computer to have Dropbox installed, then all of the files that are in my Dropbox folder will be uploaded and synced to Dropbox, so that the files automatically update between, for instance, my desktop computer at home and my desktop at work. I can also access the files on my iPad, iPod, Samsung tablet, etc. On tablets and phones, Dropbox does not store most of the files on the hard drive by default; instead, it downloads whichever one I want to open when I want it. However, I am also able to designate favorites, which means Dropbox stores a copy locally on the tablet/phone drive. In this way, Dropbox has worked well. 

In addition, there are a few ways to collaborate and share files with others. I can share a link to a file or folder, or I can create a shared folder. A link to a file allows someone else with the file link to view and download the file. A shared folder lets me share an entire folder with another person, with shared editing rights. I have used these options often when I am running a workshop, and I want participants to have access to multiple files that will be used during the workshop. 

One difficulty with shared folders is that edits made by one person affect everyone. This is especially noticeable when one person drags a file from the Dropbox folder to another location on their hard drive. The person is effectively deleting the file from the Dropbox shared folder, and as a result, deleting the copy of it from everyone else’s shared folder as well. I have learned that shared folders are difficult to manage for this reason.

Another limitation of Dropbox is that it is not designed for simultaneous editing on multiple devices. If I leave a file open on one computer, and then I edit it on another device, I will get two copies of the file as a result. Edits are not integrated into an open copy on another machine.

Also note that as with all cloud storage systems, there is a storage limit. If you have a shared folder, the entire folder counts against your limit. Thus, last year, when someone wanted to share a very large folder with me, by choosing to share in that folder, I overran my free space. So I either had to un-join the shared folder, or begin a paid Dropbox plan (I chose the latter).

Another limitation for Dropbox is that there is no native editor. This is not a major limitation, but it can be a nuisance to have to open files with particular apps, especially on a tablet. This can lead to formatting errors when files edited in one app on the desktop are edited with a different app on the tablet.

Dropbox Use Summary:

+Files are stored locally on the hard drives of my desktops and laptop.
+Files can be designated for local storage on tablets and phones.
+Files can be shared for download by others.
+Shared work folders enable collaboration and shared editing.

-Files removed from shared folders are removed from all devices.
-A single file cannot be edited by multiple users simultaneously. The file will be split into copies.
-Shared folders count against the storage limit of all participants.
-There is no native ability to edit files of any sort.

Next time, I will describe how I use Google Drive.

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