4th December, 2008

Why I use Dropbox, and how it enables killer scrapbooking

I think the chaps in the office reckon I’m on some sort of commission from Dropbox, so evangelical have I become about the web-based storage system recently. Well, I’m certainly not, nor has anyone asked me to write about it here today. I simply wanted to share with you why it has radically improved my efficiency, helped me manage files across two Macs, and also how I use it for killer “scrapbooking”.

What is Dropbox?

Basically, Dropbox allows you to manage files across several computers. Yes, various syncing tools have tried to do this in the past, but not successfully in my view. Dropbox creates a folder on each machine that you simply drag or copy/paste files and folder into, and then syncs these to their storage servers. You can instantly view syncing progress with the blue “in progress” icons on each file, or the green “synced successfully” icon. Instant access, and instant backups.

At the end of a day in the office, I’ll sync files I’ll be needing at home using my iMac, wait for them to successfully upload, and then when I open the laptop later at home, Dropbox will instantly sync them to that machine, ready for use. That’s a very basic overview. Below I’ll share a few more cool things such as sharing files, and how I use the photos folders for scrapbooking.

Account set-up

By default, you get 2gb of storage with a free account. I should be clear that I have upgraded to a 50gb storage account for $99 per year, now that I can clearly see how beneficial the service is to me. Using the Dropbox web interface I can check my quota usage at any time:

Dropbox quotaFigure 1: Dropbox quota.

I can also do that using the little menu bar icon:

Dropbox menu iconFigure 2: Dropbox menu icon.

Its also easy to add and manage new computers at any time:

Dropbox manage computersFigure 3: Manage your computers.

Once you’ve downloaded the Dropbox software to each machine, your Dropbox folder and alias will be set up, and the default Dropbox folders created for you. Its then a case of adding the files you will need on each machine as you go along.

Shared folders

I’m finding the sharing of Dropbox folders particularly useful. For example, I have a folder called “Colly and Greg”. Our Greg is also a Dropbox user, so I created a folder and then invited him to use it. Upon accepting, the folder was automatically created in his Dropbox alias. He and I can now share work, music and movies by dragging them to that folder. Here’s that folder as seen in the web interface:

Dropbox shared folderFigure 4: Shared folders.

I can share a folder with anyone, simply by navigating to that folder, and bringing up the finder menu. You’ll see below that one of the Dropbox options is to “Share…” the folder. That will take me to the web interface where I can enter email addresses for anyone I’d like to have access for downloading, adding or deleting files.

Dropbox share using finder optionsFigure 5: Share files using Finder.

My next plan is to get everyone using Dropbox, so that I can have a similar folder for each person. Its then a case of casually saying “Yeah, just drop it in our folder mate” and picking files up from there at any time, on any machine.

Sharing files with people who don’t use Dropbox

I also have a “Public” folder, and if I use the finder to bring up Dropbox options for anything in there, I get the option to “Copy public link”, which does exactly that, ready for me to paste that link into an email or whatever. Very tidy, and beats FTPing or DropSending any day.

Restoring deleted files

I’ve already recovered several vital folders or files thanks to this feature. When managing files in my Dropbox finder alias, I might drag stuff to the trash and empty it, as we all do. Then I might go into a massive panic, realising I need those files on the machine I’m working on. Disaster.

Well, no. All I need to do is go to the Dropbox web interface, and request to show all deleted files. From there, I can simply restore any deleted files, as they will still reside on the Dropbox servers:

Dropbox restore deleted filesFigure 6: Restore deleted files.

So above, I could restore the movie This Is England with one click and a short wait whilst it syncs back to my computer. Genius.

Storing images and photos

When you install Dropbox, it automatically creates a folder called “Photos”. Now, any folder you drag into there will become a gallery (named after the folder), and its contents will be browsable as usual via finder and good old Quicklook etc.

The cool thing here is that Dropbox will also create a set of galleries via it’s web interface too. So, I’ve archived loads of stuff old and new and have a smart menu of galleries at my disposal:

Dropbox photo galleriesFigure 7: Photo galleries with Dropbox.

I can then select any gallery to view it’s contents via the web interface, or of course using finder and Quicklook on any machine. All my photos in one place. Good.

Scrapbooking using Dropbox

As a designer, I like to collect screengrabs and random images, especially of good user interface design or inspirational ideas. I’m not alone in this, with many people using Flickr sets or iPhoto. Friends such as Jon Hicks have spoken about being a creative sponge by smartly using scrapbooking techniques, and Andy Clarke recognises the importance of collecting images in his Transcending CSS book.

With Dropbox, I’ve started by simply creating a new photos folder called “scrapbooking”. As I trawl the web finding interesting ideas or images I can easily drag them directly to that folder in my finder’s Dropbox alias. Or, I can screengrab an interesting idea and throw that in there too.

Dropbox scrapbooking folderFigure 8: Scrapbooking folder.

This takes seconds, and encourages me to keep scrapbooking. The beauty is that my scrapbook will be synced to all the computers I use, so the stuff I collect at home is also in my finder at work:

Dropbox srapbook in finderFigure 9: Scrapbooking with Finder.

Dropbox also allows me to share any photo folder, and provides the public link with each gallery I view. So, all my colleagues can, if I desire it, have access to my scrapbook and download any images I have collected whenever they wish.

Smart iPhone interface too

I almost forgot that Dropbox has one of the best iPhone sites currently available, meaning I can access most of my Dropboxed files on there too. I can’t download or view all file types of course, but images, PDFs and so on are all a touch away. As you can see below, I can access my scrapbook with ease:

Dropbox iPhoneFigure 10: iPhone version of Dropbox.

Dropbox have provided a neat little “home icon” if you save the site, so all in all its a very tidy solution. Good work.

To conclude

So, that is how I’m currently using Dropbox. To summarise, the key thing here is that all my important files are synced seamlessly across my computers. I’ve already stopped carrying around an external hard drive - I just don’t need it any more. I also feel more confident with my files, knowing that a deleted design iteration can be restored if I need it. Couple all of that with the smart use of photo folders, sharing stuff, and the intuitive options available via my finder, and I reckon its a pretty strong case.

Of course, Dropbox is quite new, and there are one or two minor things that bug me, but I’d say they’re more to do with using the web interface intuitively, or are purely aesthetic. Above all my data is not compromised and is safe. You might also quibble at paying $99 per year, but I wouldn’t.

I’m still learning the best ways to make use of Dropbox, so do share any ideas or tips you might have. Oh, and just to reiterate, nobody has asked me to write this overview. I simply wanted to share the ways in which I use it, and hopefully encourage my colleagues to all jump on the bandwagon so we can gorge ourselves in a super-easy inter-office syncing orgy. Or something like that.

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