ESSENTIALS: Software to improve your life - Dropbox

As our digital footprints grow, so do our collections of files and the number of different access terminals we use to organise, edit and store them. If you've lost track of where the most up to date copy of your CV is or the final edit of your holiday snap collection or the tax return you've been working on and, if you're sick and tired transferring them via USB stick or e-mailing them to yourself, then if you haven't already discovered it, we have the perfect solution for you.

Name
Dropbox

Type
File transfer & cloud storage system

Developer
Dropbox Inc

Platform
Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone

Price
Free



In a nutshell, Dropbox synchs, shares and stores your files and folders for you. There are other services that offer similar ideas but what makes this one different is how wonderfully simple and convenient it is. It's primarily a web based application with a desktop twist, but we'll get to that in a second. First things, first. Go and sign up for it. Go on. It's free. Pick a user name and password and bingo you've got yourself 2GB of free cloud storage.

If you don't think that'll be enough for you, then you can pay $9.99 per month (or $99 per year) for the Pro 50 account and the 50GB of space you get with it. One step up and you've got the Pro 100 for 100GB and that comes in at a similar $19.99 per month (or $199 per year). Incidentally, you can also send invitations for your friends to join the service and, for each one that does, you receive a bonus 250MB, but you can only do that four times with the basic account to offer a free maximum of 3GB.

Now that you've got your filing system in the cloud, you can send people links to certain folders, giving them permission to view and download the documents, images an videos etc. inside. That saves hassle on two fronts. First of all, it means that you don't have to spend time a) choosing, b) finding, c) attaching and d) mailing the specific files to your friends and family and, secondly, it means you don't have to worry about whether your recipient's mail service can handle the huge files you're trying to send. Of course, if you'd rather not send links at all, then you can simply put things in your "public" folder which is open for all to view. All very nice but that's not the clever part.

The real joy of Dropbox is the desktop side of this service. You can download the application to as many of your computers as you like - your work one, your desktop at home, your laptop and even your iPhone as well if you happen to have one (Android likely to follow soon). What that gives you is a folder on your desktop called "Dropbox". This folder acts like a magic pocket. Whatever you put into it on one of your machines, you can pull out of another. This is all possible because the moment you drag and drop an item into it, it automatically uploads it to a "Dropbox" folder in your cloud space.

Once in the cloud, it's in a dedicated folder which will automatically synch the files you put inside it with every other copy of those files on all your machines. So, you can be writing a novel, finish chapters 1,2 and 3 on your laptop computer and then stick them in the "Dropbox" folder on your machine. You can then access your novel with the first three chapters all done and as you left them on your iPhone, write chapter 4 and then save it. The edited document will now appear up to date in the cloud, on both your laptop and your iPhone and on any other machine you happen to have that has the Dropbox application on it. It's a little abstract to get your head around, but start using it and you'll get a better picture.

The good news is that Dropbox uses a technique known as delta encoding which means that each of your machines won't have to download and upload an entire copy of the file you synch each time you make a change to it. Handy if it happens to be an enormous video project you're working on. It effectively splits the files into chunks and only synchs the parts that have been modified rather than the entire thing. So that saves you some time and maybe some ISP money too.

Just in case you make some changes to a file that you're not happy with, the system also keeps a 30-day version history giving you full access to older copies of each file for 1 month. You can extend this to an unlimited period if you opt for one of the premium packages. And, on top of all that, all your data is encrypted for security.

So that's Dropbox, that's how it works, now go and try it for yourself. That said, it is just one of many different storage and synching services but if there's a better one out there you'd like to recommend, then do let us know in the comments below. Happy filing.