“Dropbox” is a new file storage online service that combines web storage, file synching, and file sharing. This is not a new concept. The business community has been doing something similar for quite a while with tools like Microsoft SharePoint.

Unfortunately, such tools are mostly limited to large corporations with the money to buy such expensive software and the hardware infrastructure to set up such a wide network. What makes Dropbox stand out is that this service is now available to anyone in the world free – and their tools are much, much easier to use than the infamously complicated SharePoint.

Ease of use

Dropbox file storage online is extremely simple and easy to use, and the interface is clearly designed for non-techies. When you install it on your computer, it sets up a special “Dropbox” folder on your desktop. This folder works just like any other-if you can point-and-click and drag-and-drop, you can use Dropbox.

The only difference between the Dropbox folder and any other is that any files placed inside are synchronized with the files in your Dropbox file storage online account on their web servers. Dropbox also automatically synchronizes these files with any other computer you’ve installed Dropbox on-for example, your home PC, laptop, and office computer. A green checkmark appears on every file once synchronization is complete.

Dropbox, however, goes one step further. Synchronizing files between computers has always been a messy job when done manually. It is easy to lose track of which computer has the most recently updated file, and accidentally overwrite the newer file with the older one, losing your updates in the progress. Dropbox file storage online has two strategies for avoiding this. First of all, it synchronizes only the files you specify (by putting them in the Dropbox folder). The synchronization occurs instantly, automatically, and universally on all your computers, assuming they’re turned on-and if not, they’ll synchronize automatically when next turned on. This saves you the trouble of remembering which computer has the most recent file – they all do. Second, Dropbox keeps track of every change you make to any and all files, and saves a copy of each version. So even if you do accidentally overwrite or erase a file, Dropbox allows you to easily un-delete a file, or restore it to a previous copy.

Dropbox file storage online is designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. It runs quietly in the background of your computer, using few system resources. It avoids interfering with your internet surfing in two ways. First, when synchronizing your files over the internet, it limits itself to 70% of your available bandwidth, guaranteeing that you will always have enough left for internet browsing. Second, it uses “smart synching”- instead of copying then entire updated file, it compare the old file to the updated one, and only transfers the piece of the file that has changed. This makes transferring big files, such as PowerPoint or Photoshop documents, incredibly fast.

Access Anywhere

Your Dropbox file storage online account can be accessed from any computer with an internet connection in the world-so you can access your files even if you don’t have your laptop or memory stick with you. Any new files you add to your Dropbox account through the web interface will, of course, automatically be copied to your other home computers. Your privacy is ensured – files are transferred using the secure SSL protocol, and stored on the Dropbox servers using AES-256 encryption. At the moment, your Dropbox cannot be accessed from PDAs or cell phones (with the exception of the iPhone), but their website promises they’re currently developing web interfaces for such mobile devices.

And, since your files are already stored and available online, Dropbox file storage online has added file-sharing functionality to them. You can specify sub-folders within you Dropbox folder as private, shared, or public. Private folders can only be viewed by you. Shared folders can be accessed by other Dropbox users that you specify. Any changes they make to those files are automatically copied to all other folder user’s PCs, including yours. Unfortunately, you can’t set file privileges for individual users-for example, that Bob can view, edit, and delete files, but John can only view them. Despite this limitation, Dropbox is still ideal for professional, academic, or hobbyist group projects, such as music or video editing.

Public folders can be viewed by anyone, including non-Dropbox users … sort of. It’s a bit complicated, and perhaps one of Dropbox’s few weak points. Any files you put in a Public folder will be given a link, which you can then copy through a right-click shell interface and paste into emails, IMs, blog posts, etc. Not ideal, but it works.

Correctly anticipating that many Dropbox users will want to use its file-sharing features to share photos with friends and family, the Dropbox team has built in special functionality for this. There is a special Photos sub-folder within your Dropbox file storage online folder. Files here are displayed in a clean, simple photo album format. You can create new, separate photo albums simply by sorting your photos into sub-folders within your Photos folder.

A free Dropbox account comes with 2 gigabytes of storage space, and you can always check your quota via the web interface. Fifty GB of storage can be purchased for $9.99/month, or $99.00/year. File transfers are limited to 350 MB in size, but that should be big enough for almost everyone. Dropbox installs quickly and easily, and is available for Windows (32 64-bit XP Vista), Mac OSX, several versions of Linux, and Ubuntu 7.10 +. The web interface works on Internet Explorer, FireFox, and Safari (although it also works on other browser like Netscape and Opera, they are not “officially” supported).

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