|Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
|Volume 3 Issue 7
If you've struggled to find an easier way to move files between two computers than using email or disks, here's an easy-to-use service you might find useful.
|A Tale of Two Computers
A few weeks ago my client Gail Harris called me with an interesting problem. She was working on her second book (see http://www.yourheartknows.com
for her first book), and was in the process of recording interviews onto both a tape recorder and a digital recorder at the same time. She needed an easy way to send the recordings to her transcriptionist, who would then send back a Word document with the text of the interview. As we talked about it, various issues came up:
- She didn't want to send tapes by mail and then have to get them back.
- The digital recordings were MP3 files, 100 to 200mb (megabytes) each, far too large to send via email. (Many email systems limit attachments to about 8mb per message.)
- She didn't want to burn the MP3s onto CDs and mail them.
- Although she already had a web site, which meant that she had online storage that probably had plenty of extra room, she didn't want to involve her web designer nor wrestle with the special software required to upload her digital recordings to her "ftp site."
- I checked my favorite file-transfer service, YouSendIt (http://www.yousendit.com), which handles uploading, storage, and downloading of files very smoothly, but I found that while it lets you send files up to 100mb for free, it charges $9.99/month to send larger files, up to 2G (gigabytes).
Gail was certainly willing to consider paying a fee if necessary, but I continued searching and eventually found a terrific solution: Dropbox (http://www.getdropbox.com
), which gave Gail the easy-to-use solution she needed, in her case for free!
Setting up Dropbox
Here's what was involved to set Gail up with Dropbox:
Smooth file transfer using Dropbox
- Gail went to the http://www.getdropbox.com web site.
- She downloaded the free software; it supports Windows (XP and Vista), Macintosh (OS X Tiger 10.4 and Leopard 10.5), and Linux.
- She installed the software, which prompted her to create a free Dropbox account using her email address as the account name, plus a new password of her choice.
- The software created a Dropbox folder on Gail's hard drive. On Windows this folder is called "My Dropbox" and is placed inside the "My Documents" folder; on Macintosh it's called "Dropbox" and is located in the user's folder, next to Documents. Gail could also have chosen to put the folder elsewhere, for example on her Desktop.
- In order to give her transcriptionist access to her audio files, inside her Dropbox folder she created a subfolder called "Transcription Files." Then she told Dropbox to make it a "shared folder" and to send an "invitation" to her transcriptionist via email to become a "Collaborator" of that subfolder.
- Gail's transcriptionist then created his own separate Dropbox account and accepted the invitation to join Gail's shared folder.
So now, whenever Gail wants to send a file to her transcriptionist:
- She simply moves the MP3 file from her book folder to the "Transcription Files" subfolder of her Dropbox folder by clicking and dragging. Dropbox immediately uploads a copy of the file over the internet to Gail's storage area on the Dropbox server.
- She lets her transcriptionist know that a new file is waiting to be transcribed, either via email or phone. (Technically this isn't necessary, since by default Dropbox displays a notice on the other person's screen that a change has occurred. This can also be turned off if it becomes annoying.)
- Her transcriptionist turns on his computer, and as soon as it's connected to the internet Dropbox downloads a copy of the new file from the server to the Dropbox folder on his hard drive.
- He can then get to work, and can either email Gail the resulting Word file, or put it in the Dropbox for Gail to find.
- Gail then moves the MP3 file out of her Dropbox, back to her book folder, and Dropbox then removes it from the server, and also from the shared subfolder inside her transcriptionist's computer's Dropbox folder.
In other words, whenever Gail's computer is connected to the internet, Dropbox does the following in real time:
- It watches the Dropbox folder (and its subfolders) on her hard drive for any files she might add, remove, or change, and immediately uploads those changes to the server.
- It watches her Dropbox folder (and its subfolders) on the server, and immediately downloads any changes to the Dropbox folder on her hard drive.
- It does the same for anyone with whom Gail has shared a Dropbox subfolder, like her transcriptionist.
- And if Gail's computer is offline when any changes occur, as soon as the internet connection comes back Dropbox compares the Dropbox folder on her hard drive with the server and then immediately uploads and downloads the changes until the two folders are synchronized.
Also, while Gail happens to be working with large files, Dropbox works great with small files, too.
Using Dropbox to work collaboratively on the same file
While Gail was sending an MP3 file and getting back a Word file, Dropbox is also useful if, say, you're working with someone else on a project:
Using Dropbox with two computers owned by the same person
- You could create "Great American Novel.doc" and save it in a shared subfolder inside your Dropbox folder. Your writing partner (also on Dropbox) could open that file, make changes, and save it back into that shared folder. When you next open it, you'll see their changes, etc.
- You could create "Novel draft 1.doc" and save it in a shared subfolder inside your Dropbox folder. Your writing partner (also on Dropbox) could open that file, make changes, and create "Novel draft 2.doc" in that shared folder. When you next look in that folder, you'll see draft 2 and can then create draft 3, etc.
I've suggested Dropbox to another client of mine who owns two computers, a desktop machine at home and a laptop she travels with. To use Dropbox, she could:
- Download the free Dropbox software to her desktop machine, create a Dropbox account, and create a Dropbox folder on her desktop's hard drive.
- Download the free Dropbox software to her laptop, sign into her existing Dropbox account, and create a Dropbox folder on her laptop's hard drive.
- On her desktop machine, move any files or folders she might want to "send" to her laptop from their regular folders into her desktop's Dropbox folder.
- On her laptop, move any files or folders she might want to "send home" from their regular folders into her laptop's Dropbox folder.
- As soon as either machine connects to the internet, Dropbox synchronizes the changes, transferring copies of her files between her two computers in both directions with no more effort on her part than clicking and dragging.
Note that it doesn't matter whether her laptop is in her house or anywhere else in the world. If you're a Star Trek fan, you might call this her own "personal wormhole."
I've also used Dropbox to transfer files between my computers, especially when "file sharing" on my local network isn't working and I don't have time to Restart the misbehaving machine.
Using Dropbox for small-scale backup
Since Dropbox always uploads copies of your files from your Dropbox folder to the server, you could consider the server to contain a backup of those files, even if you only have one computer.
Other features of Dropbox
Dropbox has many more features, including:
Other services similar to Dropbox
- You can access previous "revisions" of each file.
- If a file was deleted from the server (usually because it was moved out of your Dropbox folder), you can "undelete" it.
- If you're using someone else's computer (and you can't install the Dropbox software), you can operate Dropbox via http://www.getdropbox.com using their web interface.
- Dropbox also provides a special Photos folder for sharing pictures.
The closest competitor I've seen to Dropbox is Syncplicity ("sync" + "simplicity" http://www.syncplicity.com
). Here's a brief comparison:
Where to go from here
- Dropbox lets you synchronize up to 2G across multiple computers for free; upgrade to 50G for $9.99/mo or $99/yr. Syncplicity lets you synchronize up to 2G across two computers for free; upgrade to 50G and an unlimited number of computers for the same cost.
- Dropbox can only synchronize one top-level folder (the Dropbox folder plus subfolders); support for multiple folders is pending. Syncplicity already synchronizes multiple top-level folders.
- Dropbox works on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Syncplicity works on Windows, a Macintosh version is pending.
- Dropbox shared folders give every Collaborator complete "read/write" access. Syncplicity lets you choose whether to grant "read/write" or "read-only" access.
If you know someone who might find this helpful, please feel free to forward it.
If you have any comments about this article, send me a reply!
If you have a topic that you'd like me to write about, I'd love to hear about it!
How to contact me:
phone: (617) 484-6657
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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.
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