Low End Mac Round Table

How We Choose and Use Cloud Storage Options

Low End Mac Staff - 2012.07.27

Apple has its iCloud service, but only if you use OS X 10.7 Lion (and soon 10.8 Mountain Lion). Dropbox covers all the Mac bases back to OS X 10.4 Tiger on PowerPC hardware. Some cloud services do a great job syncing files between devices. Other are better as a way to share files with others. And some are better suited for backup.

Dropbox logoThis week our staff shares how they use various cloud services - primarily Dropbox.

Dan Knight (Mac Musings): Although I have signed up for accounts with several other services, Dropbox is the only one I use. I use it to keep a set of files for Low End Mac synced between three different Macs, and it hasn't let me down. Best of all, when your Macs are on the same network, Dropbox can sync files without uploading them to the cloud and then downloading them to the other computers. It can do that over ethernet or WiFi, which is a lot faster.

Dropbox Preferences
Dropbox lets you sync files on your local area network (LAN) as well as online.

I would like to backup my iTunes and iPhoto libraries for free, but each is about 15 GB in size, and most of the free cloud services offer 5 GB for free with only paid options to get more space.

Dan Bashur (Apple, Tech, and Gaming): I never used a dedicated cloud-based service until Dan Knight introduced me and several other Low End Mac staffers to Dropbox. It truly is one of the very best services you could imagine using for moving files between systems and/or sharing them. The fact that it can be used across PowerPC and Intel Macs makes it truly one of the best services for the Mac.

Since I've never used other cloud dedicated backup/syncing services yet, I can't vouch for them, but the dawn of webmail (such as Yahoo!) in a way has always provided cloud storage to a degree (albeit quite limited in it's early years - I think Yahoo! gave 25 MB of storage before 2000 or so).

Being able to read your email anywhere from any device that accesses the Web has been something that we may take for granted today, since these tools have been available in web-based form to the general public free of cost for more than 15 years. In addition to reading email itself, you can also download email attachments that you can access on any computer that can access Web. Sending yourself an email attachment is an easy way to not take a piece of paper or a USB thumb drive with you when you just need to access a few items (accessing these attachments at a company computer can prove troublesome since most data security policies at companies are stringent on opening attachments not created within the company system).

At any rate, email attachments are one of the greatest transmittal mediums of .pdf formatted documents used around the world for quite some time. Without this free and available cloud storage that our web-based mail servers provide, sending documents back and forth may have been a much different process for us today.

Charles Moore (several columns): I'm with the Dans in my admiration and appreciation of Dropbox, which has to be the model of how cloud synchronization should work. The fact that its software supports OS X 10.4 Tiger is icing on the proverbial cake, and indeed makes eating the cake possible for low-enders like me who still have older PPC Macs in service. Apple, of course, hasn't even troubled itself to make iCloud compatible with anything but very recent or current Macs and iDevices (Lion and iOS 5 respectively). Without Dropbox, keeping my iPad and Aluminum MacBook in sync with my two ancient Pismo PowerBooks would be a major pain. With Dropbox, you hardly have to think about it.

However, beyond syncing current work-in-progress, I'm not sold on cloud computing, and for backups of data, I still depend primarily local hardware media, as I noted in a recent Round Table on that topic. I did sign up for a free 50 GB Box.com account promotion a while back, but I have used it mainly for archived file backups.

Alan Zisman (Zis Mac): A big advantage to Dropbox (at least to me) over some of its competitors - and I have accounts at Box.com, Microsoft SkyDrive, and Google Drive - is that it's integrated into a number of iOS apps that I use, such as the very good ($5) GoodReader.

A downside of Dropbox has been the relatively small amounts of free storage provided - 2 GB plus 250 MB (recently increased to 500 MB with free accounts) for each person who signs up for the service to access your shared folders. By comparison, Box.com and Google Drive both offer 5 GB for free accounts, and SkyDrive formerly gave 25 GB but now gives 7 GB to new free users.

An annoyance with Dropbox - they've recently added a photo uploading/sharing feature, which may be useful but seems a bit too aggressive to my taste; for instance, I found that when I connected a digital camera (or an iPad) to my Mac, suddenly rather than opening iPhoto or Image Capture, it was opening a Dropbox utility - I don't remember ever agreeing to that!

Austin Leeds (Apple Everywhere): Pretty sure there's a way to switch it back to something else in iPhoto.

Alan Zisman: I was able to reset it using the 3rd-party Camera preference pane.

Charles Moore: A couple of other text cruncher iOS apps I like that feature Dropbox integration are the generically-named Plain Text and Nebulous Notes - both of which offer free (ad-supported) versions.

Also worth considering if you need more word processing features are the German Infovole TextKraft and SchreibKraft - 8 dollars and 3 dollars respectively.

Robert Alpizar:I really only use a couple of cloud services, and very lazily at that. Dropbox is my main go-to for random file drops that I don't want to archive properly. I have about 8 gigs worth there from random free adds, and I keep all my working files in there, but honestly, it's a total mess. I have my entire iTunes library (music, anyway) uploaded to Google Play so that I can stream it from anywhere. I have the requisite Box 50 gig and SkyDrive 25 gig accounts, but I just can't find a reason to use them. Aside from work, I don't live in a Microsoft-centric environment, and Box is just too damn hard to use as-is.

Alan Zisman: One thing to watch out for with the various cloud storage services is maximum file size - having 25 GB on a service won't help you post a video file there if there's a 100 MB file size maximum. (SkyDrive recently upped its maximum to 300 MB from 100 MB; Google Drive claims - by contrast - to support video files up to 10 GB. Dropbox says there is no maximum file size for files uploaded using the desktop application, but files added through the website are limited to a maximum of 300 MB.)

Austin Leeds: I've loved Dropbox even before LEM, but I'm looking forward to AeroFS (file sync without servers with or without the cloud), as I have plenty of spare storage space that just needs to be utilized effectively.

Allison Payne (The Budget Mac): I'm a huge fan of Dropbox, and I'm developing a healthy respect for the enterprise version of Box.com's service.

Still, I'm first and foremost a Dropbox user. I try to keep the things I'd really hate to lose in my Dropbox, but I tend to just archive those to DVD already. It's the sharing and instant-availability-across-devices that I value.

I use it most extensively for:

  1. Sharing files across my Macs and office computer
  2. Auto-saving notes with the previously-mentioned Dropbox-enabled PlainText for iOS (I can't sing its praises highly enough, and I use it hourly, every day of the week)
  3. Sharing fun images and music with my friends across the globe. Sort of like sending little "thinking of you's" in the snail-mail days.

My favorite "How I use Dropbox" story so far, though, has to be from my friend, who hosts his website from a Dropbox account. 

Dan Knight: I've heard of that (see Further Reading links at the end of this article for more information)! I don't archive Photoshop files and the like, but the archive files for Low End Mac weigh in at just 478.6 MB for 15 years of content (including images and a few downloads). For a small business that doesn't need its own domain and the expense of hosting it, Dropbox publishing sounds like a great idea!

Further Reading on Dropbox Website Hosting

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