How To Make The Most Of Dropbox (Part 1)

10/16/2012 9:04:55 AM

Dropbox isn’t the only cloud storage and syncing service, but it is one of the most popular. The ease with which it shares files across OSes and hardware makes it valuable to businesses with workers spread across a large geographic area - and for individuals who don’t want to be tied to a single device, as Windows PCs, Macs, Android phones, iOS devices and even BlackBerrys are supported. It’s easy-to-use exterior masks a sophisticated back-end that’s capable of some very clever tricks. Not bad for a service that is, in its basic form, completely free.

Description: How To Make The Most Of Dropbox

The basics

If you’re not already using Dropbox, it’s simple to get started. Sign up for a free account at and you’ll immediately receive a generous 2GB of storage. When you install the software, a folder will be created on your PC that will henceforth sync with Dropbox’s servers - and with the Dropbox folders on any other computers on which you install the software.

It’s easy to determine the state of synchronisation. Files and folders that have been successfully synced are marked by a green tick overlaid onto their icon; ones in the process of uploading or downloading have a blue icon; those files that, for some reason, can’t be synced get a red cross. The Dropbox icon in the system tray also shows these overlays as an at-a-glance status indicator. If you’re using a particular computer only temporarily, and don’t wish to install the software, you can also access Dropbox through a web browser, as we’ll demonstrate later.

Description: The Dropbox icon in the system tray also shows these overlays as an at-a-glance status indicator.

The Dropbox icon in the system tray also shows these overlays as an at-a-glance status indicator.

Dropbox makes it easy to share files as well as sync. To share a folder within your Dropbox with a colleague, simply right-click it and choose “Dropbox I Share this folder…“ This will take you to the Dropbox website where you can enter the email address of the person with whom you want to share the folder. Once they accept your invitation, a copy of your folder will appear inside the Dropbox folder on their computer, with a special icon to indicate it’s shared.

How it works

Under the bonnet, Dropbox works in a similar way to most other cloud synchronisation services. Every time you put a file into your Dropbox folder, it’s automatically uploaded to Dropbox’s servers - or, to be strictly accurate, to Amazon’s S3 servers, since it’s these that provide Dropbox’s storage. The speed at which files upload and download varies depending on your network speed; if you don’t want Dropbox to monopolise your internet connection, you can set bandwidth restrictions. To do this, right-click on the Dropbox icon in the system tray, select Preferences and click on the Bandwidth tab in the window that opens.

Dropbox runs fully in the background, so when a file in your Dropbox is edited on another machine, the file will be updated in your folder automatically. If you rename, delete or move a file, that too will be synchronised. If you delete a file from your Dropbox folder on one PC, it will vanish from all your other devices - and, if the folder is shared, from everyone else’s device as well. For this reason, you shouldn’t think of Dropbox as a backup service; however, as we’ll see below, it could save the day if you accidentally delete or overwrite an important file.

Deleted files and previous versions

The most convenient way to use Dropbox is via the synchronised folder on your computer. However, the website is absolutely stacked with powerful touches, and you’re missing out if you don’t use it. For example, you can upload files to your Dropbox account from an unsynchronised computer by simply dragging them into your browser. Dropbox will even detect which folder you’ve dropped a file into.

Description: Enter Dropbox’s life-saving version management powers.

Enter Dropbox’s life-saving version management powers.

Dropbox’s website also acts as a kind of always-on Recycle Bin. Any files you delete will remain accessible here for 30 days after you’ve removed them, giving you ample time to find and recover data. Restoring a deleted file is simple, just click the Bin icon that sits immediately next to Dropbox’s search box: deleted files appear in grey. A right-click gives you the option to restore the file to both your own and everyone else’s Dropbox.

Just as files get moved around and deleted during a project, they also get changed, especially in shared projects. People dip in and out of Word documents, adding sentences and excising paragraphs - or they attack PowerPoint documents, moving things around and deleting slides. Sooner or later, someone is bound to make a change that takes some time to correct - or might even be impossible to undo.

Enter Dropbox’s life-saving version management powers. Right-click any file in your Dropbox folder and click “Dropbox I View previous versions”: you’ll be taken to a web view showing every different version of your file from the past 30 days. Radio buttons next to each version allow you to restore any one of these revisions with a single click.

If 30 days isn’t long enough, the Pack-Rat add-on saves deleted files and old versions indefinitely. It’s only available to users with a paid-for Dropbox Pro account, however, and it adds another charge to your annual Dropbox Pro bill.

The only limitation to version control arises when multiple people are working on a shared file at the same time. This creates two (or more) conflicting versions of the file. In this case, Dropbox keeps both files, and appends “(Conflicted copy)” to the filename of whichever file finishes uploading second. This ensures that there’s no data loss - although the job of merging the contents of the two files and resolving conflicts is left in your hands.

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