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Dropbox (PC, Mac)

I don't want to alarm you, but if you have a computer, something bad could happen to it.

Your computer might get stolen (happened to one of my clients recently) or lost (happens all the time). It may simply develop a  fault or get damaged in a house fire, water leak or electricity surge... Of course, simple human error could also cause an  important document to be deleted or damaged. You get the picture. Your computer is vulnerable.

Clearly, you need a backup system, and there's no shortage of solutions. The troubleis that most of them require money and effort on your part. At its simplest, you may plug a USB drive into your computer and copy some documents to it. Alternatively, you could have a sophisticated system which updates a 'backup set' at given times, but even then, chances are that it will offer only a partial  solution. If you back up daily, for example, you may lose up to a a day's work. If your document  is damaged, you may not be able to find a good version because that one was erased by the latest backup, etc. Even if your backup is perfect in other respects, you have to keep it in a separate location to protect it from the water spill/fire/thief scenarios, and this would make you less likely to back up regularly.

The solution

If you are anything like me, what you want is a backup system which is continuous, stored a good distance away from your computer and costs you nothing! Well, solutions like this do exist, and my favourite one is called Dropbox, an internet backup solution which is incredibly easy to use, and offers several additional features to boot. Dropbox works with Windows (XP or later), Mac OS X (10.4 or later), Linux and there are also several versions for smartphones!

The free version of Dropbox offers limited storage, but more on that below. First, let's see how it works.  Dropbox comes in three parts:
  1. There is the internet site, where your data is stored. 
  2. A piece of software ('the Dropbox client') which you install on your computer
  3. A folder called 'My Dropbox' which is stored on your computer.
The client software runs all the time, and monitors the 'My Dropbox' folder for any changes. Any files that are saved in the folder, are copied onto the internet site immediately. Normally, your first action after getting a dropbox account would be to move all your important data to the dropbox folder, and uploading it will take some time (hours, or perhaps even days). Thereafter, however, as you save individual documents or save changes in existing ones, the backup will be done instantaneously. You don't need to do anything!

To use Dropbox, you need an account. If you click HERE to create one, I will get a slight increase to my storage quota for the referral! Dropbox uses your email and password to identify you and keep the documents secure.

Limitations and options

The free account entitles you to 2 gigabytes of storage While this is ample for written documents and spreadsheets (indeed, you would need several lifetimes to fill up the quota with this kind of documents), 2GB is not particularly generous when it comes to multimedia materials. Here's a rough estimate of what you could store within such a quota:

Text documents:  lots (about half a billion characters)
Photos: 300-1000 images
Music (MP3): about 30 hours
Video: perhaps a couple of hours (this is difficult to estimate, as video material varies greatly in quality and compression)

If you need more storage space, you can subscribe to the 'Pro 50' plan, which gives you 50GB at $9.99 per month, or  to the 'Pro 100' plan which offers 100GB for $19.99 per month. If you are considering the 'Pro' plans, make sure you read the section about alternatives, below, before making any decision.

One other thing top bear in mind is that your broadband connection's speed is likely to make your initial backup slow, and restoring lost data will take a long time too. Restoring 100GB, for example, may take so long that you would give up on it after a few days!

Things to do with Dropbox

Data recovery 
The most obvious thing to do with dropbox, apart from backing up data, is to recover lost data! If you lost all your data through computer failure or theft, or even if you are just moving to a new computer, all you need to do is install the client software, log on, and wait for the client to synchronise the data (see definition below). If you have mistakenly deleted or damaged a small number of files/folders , you can go onto the web site and choose to 'show deleted files' or 'show previous versions' in order to carry out the relevant recovery operation. Dropbox keeps deleted files and old versions for 30 days.

Synchronising data: to ensure that two storage locations contain the same data. At the most basic level, this is done  copying the latest version of each document from one location to to the other.

Syncronisation


Having read about synchronisation, and how easy it is to move a new PC, you may well be wondering if you can use the same techniqueto keep two computers 'in sync', e.g. your desktop computer and your laptop. The answer is a resounding yes! All you need to do is install the client software on each of your computers and let them run. You are not limited to two computers either. If you have more, install the software on all of them, and now you can see why a smartphone version is available too (although I should mention here that this version is a little different due to storage and bandwith limitations on such phones).

Sharing folders

It gets better. You can 'invite' other people to share a particular folder in within the dropbox folder, and if they accept the invitation, they will find the folder added to their 'My Dropbox' folder, and any changes on one computer will immediately be reflected on all other machines sharing that folder. Even if they don't use Dropbox themselves, they'll be able to download the data from the web site.  This is terrific for collaboration, and also for simple sharing of things like photos amongst family members (but read on for that particular scenario).

Public folder

When you first install Dropbox, you will notice a few extra items in the 'My Dropbox' folder. One of them is a folder called 'Public'.  Anything you place in this folder will be copied to Dropbox's internet site and you can obtain a web address for the document or documents, and send it to other people who will be able to download them from that location. Unlike other folders in My dropbox, there's no password protection on the contents, so anyone who has the address can read them (you are still the only person who can modify or delete the file, however). It's even possible to set up a whole website by placing web pages in the public folder.

Photos folder

This is similar to the Public folder discussed above, but designed specifically for publishing collections of photographs. To do so, simply put all the relevant photos into a folder, and drag the folder into the Photos folder. You can then send the web address of said folder, and viewers will be presented with a nice 'photo gallery' similar to those on Flickr and other photo sites. Although it is not strictly private (you do not need a password or another identifier to access it), only people who have the web address can see the gallery, so this is a good way to share photos with friends and family.

If you are interested in installing Dropbox, and want to know more about it, I  recommend  the 'video tour' on Dropbox's website.

Other things to do with Dropbox

As you can probably appreciate by now, there is a lot more to Dropbox than simply backing up your data. New uses for it are being found all the time, and features are being added to it all the time either by the program writers themselves, or by third parties, who add 'extensions' to it. 

Here are a few links to places where you can find more information on additional features and uses of Dropbox:
Alternatives to Dropbox
As great as Dropbox is, the 'Pro' subscription plans are rather expensive, especially if you don't need the full 50GB or 100GB. Also,not everyone needs the wonderful flexibility of the product. One way to keep the costs down is to save only your important and changing documents in the dropbox, and to back up other data using traditional media (CD, DVD, hard disc or USB drive). Listed below are some well-known products which offer online backup like Dropbox, and are cheaper.

SugarSync is a similar product to Dropbox. There are a few differences between the packages which may make one package better than the other for specific users, but you would need to compare features and try both to see which one is better for you. The free space allocation on Sugarsync is 5GB, and a number of plans are available, starting at $4.99 per Month for 30 GB.

Livedrive  Backup is an online backup program which offers unlimited storage for £3.95 per month. Livedrive Backup & Briefcase adds a 'briefcase' to the package, making it similar in features to Dropbox, although perhaps less user frriendly. It costs £9.95 per month. Livedrive works with Windows PCs, and a Mac version is forthcoming (it can be downloaded at present as a 'Tech Preview' version). Iphones and iPads will also be supported.

Wuala is an innovative product from Switzerland. Its functionality is broadly similar to the other products mentioned above, although it is geared more towards timed backup and less towards immediate synching (which can be done). It is not as easy to use as the above packages, but what makes it truly  different from the other products, is that backups are kept very securely on other people's PCs! Under the free plan, you only get 1GB storage, but if you want to upgrade, you can either buy extra storage, or trade free space on your hard disc! For people who leave their computer on for many hours a day and require a high storage quota, this can be a very appealing package.

Mozy is the grandaddy of all online backup programs. It is focused only on backup, which it does in a 'near continuous' manner (that is, it backs up files shortly after they are saved). The free plan offers 2GB, which, considering its narrow range of features makes it a poor sustitute for Dropbox or Sugarsync. However, for £4.99 per month you get unlimited storage, making Mozy excellent backup product for your entire computer (Mac or PC).

There are many other products on the market, and many more will surely be developed in the near future. If you would like to find out more, try googling online backup or cloud storage.
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