Dropbox: Sync, Share and Backup Your Files

Dropbox - Secure backup, sync and sharing made easy.Dropbox has proven to be one of this year’s best utilities.  In my increasingly hectic life, I’ve found that I need access to certain information whether I’m at home, at a shared computer, or on the road.  Thanks to the Android phone, I have access to all of my email and messaging, and with Dropbox I am now able to have important files of mine available for access anywhere I go.

Dropbox is an online service that gives you a small but usable amount of storage space to store your computer files.  You can purchase a larger account that holds up to 10GB of files, but even with a basic free account, you can earn additional storage space for referrals, or other tasks such as installing Dropbox on additional computers.  Even if they began charting a small amount for their basic account, it would be money well spent.

So, how exactly does Dropbox work?  And what can you do to make the most of it?  Read on…

Word, Excel and Access documents, PDF files, program files, or anything else you can imagine are stored in a special folder (directory) on your computer, and this folder is automatically synced to your Dropbox account once you install their small software package.  The real magic happens when you install Dropbox on another computer–that computer’s Dropbox folder also syncs to your account, and you always have the most current set of files available to you.  Install an application for your smartphone, and you can access these same synced files for downloading remotely.  Finally, if you are at a shared computer, log in to your Dropbox account and you can download or upload files via a web interface.  (If your computer is on back at home, your uploaded files will be waiting for you there when you get home!)  Syncing is fast–I can save a Word document, and the changes are uploaded to Dropbox within seconds.

There are a couple of small issues that some users have wanted a solution for.  First of all, the Android app (and possibly the apps for other smartphones) do not offer any type of automatic sync folder.  Files must be uploaded manually to Dropbox even if you are on a phone, although a few selected applications on the phones use their “share” feature to send the file to Dropbox directly from the app.

Another issue is that you are stuck with the folder’s name and location on your computer.  You need to specify a folder in which to place your My Dropbox folder, so it’s not like you can arbitrarily name and choose your own folder on your computer.  I did find a good workaround, though, a bit awkward but it ensures my Dropbox always has my important files on hand where I need them.

I have a folder of files with homework and other files for my current semester.  Since only “real” files are detected in the Dropbox folder, I realized that symbolic links (symlinks) would do the trick.  But, I would have to give up keeping my homework files inside of my structured My Documents folder in Windows 7.  My Dropbox uses My Documents as its root.  I moved my current semester’s homework folder over to the My Dropbox folder.  Back in My Documents, I created a symbolic link under My Documents that replicates the entire homework folder.

In Word, now, I can open, edit or even create new files in my usual place, and the symbolic link takes care of saving the actual file in my Dropbox folder.  Within seconds, I check my online Dropbox, and the edits and new files appear there within seconds.  Slick!

The one drawback is that, in Windows Vista/Windows 7, you need to use a command line utility to create the symlinks.  One recommendation I can make is to download the following add-on (Hard Link Shell Extension) to Explorer, which will give you right-click context-sensitive access to choosing a file or folder to create a symbolic link to, and then “dropping” that link wherever you want it.  The symlink works far better than the lame “shortcuts” that have been a part of Windows for ages; in fact, it works about the same as what you’d find in any Unix-based operating system.

Here’s the add-on:  http://schinagl.priv.at/nt/hardlinkshellext/hardlinkshellext.html

This should be built into Explorer.  It’s very handy!  What’s nice is that in Vista and Windows 7, you can apparently use links across volumes and network shares.

For Dropbox use, it’s perfect.  In a nutshell:  1) create your folder hierarchy in your My Dropbox folder and move your files over to it; 2) drop a symlink from the main folder of the hierarchy you just created into whatever other folder you wish.

As a comparison, I hooked up with a Windows Live Mesh account, but was not impressed…especially since there was no Android application to access my files with.  That may come in future versions, so it will be a good service to keep an eye on as it is improved.

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