Dropbox Cloud Storage - Pricing And Features Overview
[Editor's Note: After we finished testing and this article was being finalized, Dropbox announced some changes to the service, especially around pricing, but also with new functionality. We detail some of those changes under the subheading "Update" at the end of this page.]
Dropbox was initially a “magic folder” targeted at consumers, but it is now embraced by more than 300 million users, including universities, healthcare systems and other corporations. Dropbox was a pioneer in extending local PC content to the cloud for file sharing. While it is expensive – especially compared to Google’s 2014 pricing – its bit-level replication, ability to recover deleted files and unlimited version control through Packrat make for an award-winning tool.
Memory footprint is also something Dropbox users should be aware of. In our testing on a mix of machines with 8-16GB of RAM, the Dropbox client consumed between 70 and 160MB (the second-largest behind Windows SVCHOST).
Once installed, adding files through the browser interface is as easy as dragging and dropping them. Creating folders is also very easy, as is sharing those folders with others. We found that full sharing can only be controlled at root-level directories. This makes for an often top-weighted directory structure.
Two unique benefits of Dropbox: the service is intelligent enough to identify when multiple Dropbox-synced computers are on a local network, and the ability to re-build the Dropbox file index based on files that are already located on the local disk. The former feature allows for fast localized sync of files without having to go to the Dropbox cloud. The second feature comes into play if you install Dropbox on a brand new PC. You can copy your entire Dropbox directory structure – and files – and Dropbox will automatically re-build the index without having to re-download files from the cloud. These two features save bandwidth and time, while recognizing all of the file and folder security and sharing controls previously set.
Because it is a consumer-oriented service at its core, Dropbox makes purchase, setup, download and initial file sync very easy. For casual users, the Web interface is simple yet feature-rich, and has some unique capabilities unavailable in other interfaces, like browsing file creation, deletion and update events. While Dropbox lacks true workflow, I used event viewing to see changes by other users in shared folders and as a means to perform multi-user version control.
Backing up, sharing and syncing files are the core uses of cloud storage service, and Dropbox does this well. All clients work consistently, and syncs are generally quick. Starting up Windows and Mac clients (upon resume-from-sleep or initial boot) can take between 15 seconds and five minutes, presumably while the client is loading the cache and comparing the file list with the cloud. Initial start-up and sync time has become slower over the past two years. With desktop client version 2.8.2, it was not unusual to see the first sync 5-10 minutes into a Windows session.
Dropbox has a unique feature called "selective sync," which let each of our environments inherit a different persona. The feature allows users to turn on or off top-level directories on a per-machine basis, which minimizes the storage footprint and file clutter across PCs. For those using Dropbox on multiple computers running on a network (small business or family household), Dropbox provides the option to sync locally instead of going back to the cloud. If the same file is saved by multiple PCs or users, Dropbox will append the computer name and “Conflicted Copy” to the file, rather than reconciling changes (Microsoft OneDrive does a much better job of multi-user editing).
What shouldn’t be missed is Dropbox’s incremental (block- or bit-level) replication. Instead of synchronizing entire files, Dropbox only needs to update the pieces of the files that are actually changed, greatly minimizing bandwidth and sync times. This is a very high-end document management feature now available to the masses. It also conserves bandwidth.
Version control is supplemented by Packrat, which is Dropbox’s name for maintaining revision history over an unlimited time horizon (30-day file history is standard). This feature has saved us a couple of times, but you can only review versions via a Web browser. Dropbox, in response to customer feedback, has updated Packrat’s Restore function to work like enterprise document management systems (the restored version becomes the newest iteration). This is very powerful. However, moving directories eliminates all version history of files within the folders. Moving folders back to the original location shows the version history including when files were “deleted” and “added.” Version history needs some work to become folder independent.
Any good software platform has a rich set of third-party participants, and Dropbox is no exception. Dropbox has two major categories of extensions: drop-ins and three categories of Dropbox APIs.
Drop-ins are a simple way to add the two most common Dropbox functions to existing apps via prebuilt code: Chooser (or "Choose From") and Saver ("Save To"). While simple in nature, it is powerful in execution, because apps that use lots of structured content (but would value from unstructured documents and images) can leverage the Dropbox infrastructure with very little coding and QA.
In the formal API category, Dropbox has long promoted its platform to developers, who can add the ability view, create or edit rich documents. One of my favorite examples is the Microsoft Office editor CloudOn. Since editing remotely-stored files requires strong security, the newer value-added API includes security/encryption software. There are also integration modules for multi-platform mobile apps and Dropbox storage for pure structured data. The final API type is designed for smaller developers who wish to save "game state" and those who value conflict resolution through advanced data and file locking rules.
With greater corporate interest comes the need for additional hooks into the service and a management console. The API set is rich, but lags Box on real-world adoption and internal promotion (Box has right-click send-to Docusign and Chatter out of the box, for example). Dropbox is currently promoting “over 300,000 apps on the Dropbox platform,” but it is difficult to discern what exactly an app is and the level of integration.
Dropbox doesn’t have built-in encryption, but is quick to refer users and organizations to various options supported through the Dropbox developer network.
One note for security-conscious users: those who synchronize files with their PCs are inherently able to take content with them, and since Dropbox uses PC/Mac sync as a core selling point, you should be aware that in our testing we found that “unsharing” folders still left files in our Dropbox cache directory, or allowed us to recover deleted files that weren’t really permanently deleted. The solution is simple: don’t install the desktop client. But of course that removes a key benefit.
One additional security worry surfaced in recent months – hackers are spreading malware through public Dropbox links (dl.dropbox.com). This is a security hole Dropbox needs to fix quickly.
Summer 2014 Updates
Dropbox made some recent changes to the service to reflect customer requirements and to gain parity in a few key areas. The most obvious change is the "Pro" tier, which includes 1TB of storage for the same price as the previous 100GB tier of storage. However, there is a lot more to the Pro service, particularly around security. Dropbox now has Remote Wipe, a feature that will let you remove Dropbox files on a device that is lost or stolen. We did not have an opportunity to test this, but previously found that files removed from unshared folders lingered on PCs in the .dropbox.cache folder.
Second, Dropbox allows the expiration of shared links and specific view/edit permissions on shared folders. This feature already exists in other services like Box, so Dropbox is playing catch-up. Finally, Pro comes with extended version history of up to one year, replacing the need for Packrat for many users. Dropbox is not offering Packrat to new users, and is actively promoting the change in version history policy as of November 1, 2014.