Why we (still) use Dropbox

Lex Friedman
5 November, 2013
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Users have lots of ways to sync files with an iPad. Here’s why we haven’t switched.

Odds are good that you already use Dropbox on your Mac for syncing and sharing files. (If you don’t, you should; get started at dropbox.com.) Dropbox on the iPad isn’t quite as full-featured as the Mac version, largely because the iPad eschews a traditional Finder-style file system. Even so, Dropbox represents the best way to sync files between your desktop and your iPad, as well as the best way to share files from your iPad with other people.

First, even if you use your iPad for work, you – or your colleagues – likely still use other computers, too. And since you save and sync so much business material via Dropbox already, it only makes sense to rely on the Dropbox iOS app as well.

You can find plenty of alternatives to Dropbox (see below), but the most prominent one is iCloud. Even so, iCloud’s sharing really can’t compete with Dropbox’s: iCloud files are limited to the apps in which they are created, and to the user who created them. And of course, you can’t use iCloud from your iPad to open a Microsoft Word file that you created on your Mac.

The Dropbox app

The Dropbox app shows you everything that your Dropbox folder contains, including any shared folders you’ve joined. Your files and folders sit in a sidebar at the left, and the right side shows more details about the individual files you select.

Some common file formats – text, Office and iWork documents, audio files, videos, photos – are viewable within the Dropbox app. You may not be able to preview less common file types within the Dropbox app, but not to worry: Dropbox lets you open your documents in any compatible app installed on your iPad.

And even if you can’t (or don’t need to) open a document, and you merely want to share the item with someone else, you can do that too. Dropbox offers sharing options via email, text message, Facebook message, Facebook post or tweet. All of those sharing options rely on your sending a link to your file on Dropbox, from which your recipient must then download the file in question. (You can also copy the link to the Clipboard to share it in another way.)

Don’t fear that you’ll need to be online for the Dropbox app to function. The app cleverly offers a simple mechanism by which you can cache files locally on your iPad. While you’re online, find those files and tap the star icon; from that moment on, each file will remain available for you to access within the Dropbox app even if your iPad has no internet connection.

Writing apps

There’s more to Dropbox on the iPad than just the Dropbox app. A slew of other third-party apps ably integrate Dropbox, so you can use them to create and work with all kinds of documents and files that you sync with the service.

Dropbox-enabled text editors are very popular in the App Store. Our favourite is iA Writer; other well-loved offerings include ByWord, Elements, Nebulous Notes, Pear Note, Textastic, Write, WriteRoom and Writing Kit. Such apps have a variety of features for writing and note taking – including modified versions of the iPad keyboard, with extra keys for common punctuation, symbols and cursor navigation. But more important, they all sync tightly with Dropbox.

The edits you make to text files in those apps can save to Dropbox as you work, automatically. That makes managing, syncing and sharing such files much less of a hassle. This arrangement is far better than the email dance (in which you need to confirm that you have the latest version of a file in your inbox before editing, and then have to make sure your colleagues all work from the version with your additional changes).

Compare that to the process with an app such as Pages. When you use the Dropbox app to open a document in Apple’s word processor for iOS, your changes save in Pages, but don’t automatically save back to Dropbox again. You need to save the file in Pages, and then select the file in the documents viewer and tap the Send To button. Next you tap the Open in Another App button, choose a file format (Pages, PDF, or Word), wait while the file is generated, tap Choose App, and finally tap Open in Dropbox.

You can see why text editors with direct Dropbox integration are far more appealing to so many business users.

Many, many other apps

Assorted other apps – focused on productivity, security and the like – also offer Dropbox integration. For example, Phraseology developer Agile Tortoise also makes a popular app called Drafts, which is designed for quick note taking: The app’s goal is to launch quickly, ready in an instant to accept the notes you need to jot down. It then lets you perform an array of actions with those pieces of text, with robust Dropbox syncing as a core element – not only can the app save notes to Dropbox, but it can also append new notes to existing files in Dropbox, making quick work of adding data to work logs.

Heavy-duty typists often rely on Smile Software’s TextExpander on the Mac, and it syncs via Dropbox to the company’s iOS app of the same name. The typing shortcuts you create on your Mac can automatically sync to the app, and those shortcuts in turn become accessible in many third-party typing apps.

If you frequently work with PDFs, you’ve probably decided that the iPad’s built-in PDF preview functionality is insufficient. Apps such as Readdle’s PDF Expert and Smile’s PDFpenPro let you access PDFs from your Dropbox folder, and allow you to save changes – including annotation, edits and signatures – back to Dropbox again.

Readdle’s Scanner Pro lets you scan documents by photographing them with the iPad’s built-in camera, and all those scanned images can be pushed to your Dropbox folder, too.

It just works

Thanks to the vibrant developer support for Dropbox, it’s frequently the right service for iPad-toting professionals. When it comes to making documents easy to share and sync, ubiquity is important, and Dropbox offers that.

Free Dropbox accounts provide 2GB of storage; paid individual plans offer 100GB ($109.99 per year via an in-app purchase or US$99 direct from Dropbox), 200GB (US$199 per year), or 500GB (US$499 per year). Dropbox for Business plans start at US$795 per year with five team members and essentially limitless storage.

Alternatives to Dropbox

Maybe Dropbox isn’t for you. And even if you do rely on Dropbox for some syncing, that doesn’t preclude you from enjoying the benefits of competitive services when it makes sense to do so. Here are your main options.

iCloud. If you exclusively use Apple’s iWork apps for your business documents, iCloud is unquestionably easier to work with than Dropbox. Instead of doing the ‘Open in…’ manoeuvre, you can open files from iCloud as if they were right there on your iPad.

Google Drive. Many companies depend on Google Drive for collaboration. Though comparatively few apps integrate with the service versus Dropbox, Google’s own official app gives you quick access to all your documents. The app includes editing options, and it lets you easily add other users to share your documents.

SkyDrive, SugarSync and Box. These three services all offer Dropbox-style takes on cloud sharing. Like Google Drive, none can rival Dropbox’s popularity among third-party app developers. Each cloud company’s iPad app, however, is very similar to Drop- box’s: You can get links to share your files, open files from the cloud by sending them to other apps, and move and rename documents as you desire.

by Lex Friedman, Macworld


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