Online Backups and Storage

Recently somebody asked me about online backup systems and file storage. Well what I don’t know about them is …well…pretty much everything. I’ve never used either. Time for a bit of research. To the cloud!

Dropbox (http://www.dropbox.com)

This seems like the most commonly used one. I’ve asked my followers on Twitter about online file storage before, and the answer was unanimously in favour of Dropbox. I’ve Googled for reviews of these types of systems, and found that Dropbox is mentioned every time, and almost always favourable.

Pros:

It’s a very short/easy sign-up process, the app seems to work reliably, and sharing files is very easy. You add something to the Dropbox folder, and it syncs it. You can then right click the folder/file you want to share, dropbox, copy public link. You can then paste that anywhere you like.

Dropbox's simple options

For a bit of testing, I uploaded an audio file – a radio sketch that is still in the ideas stages – and shared it with Stephen Gardner. Worked great. It uploaded fast, and was hassle free. There’s very little that the app does visually, on your computer. Aside from there being a Dropbox folder that wasn’t there before, the options are minimal, and there’s not a lot that needs changing/setting.

I like the way it keeps different versions of files for a month, so that you can revert to an earlier one if you should be working on a long document, make an ill-informed change, and save it by accident. The website seems to be a good layout too. Simple, with all the options I need, available quite easily.

Dropbox's web version - accessible from any browser

Cons:

There is only 2gb of space for free. You can increase it a little though, by watching the tutorials they have provided.

The bigger issue I have is that you can seemingly only share/backup/save what is in the Dropbox folder. This is great if you want to share files, but a bit crap if you wanted a way of selecting a few files/folders to backup. I’ve Googled and discovered ways of hacking this, but anything that involves a command prompt and unofficial workarounds isn’t my thing.
I tend to have folders within folders within folders. The audio file I saved above would normally be saved another 4 folders levels deeper than the Dropbox folder, in a folder named appropriately.
And because of the 2gb limit, and the inability to say “don’t sync this bit” I can’t move my entire “Documents” folder contents inside the Dropbox folder.

It’s going to be fiddly to use for backup, but very handy for sharing files, definitely. Not sure what I’ll use it for on a regular basis though.

Windows Live Mesh SkyDrive thing (http://explore.live.com/windows-live-essentials)

I got a bit confused with what this is called. Windows Live Essentials?
The application I download to use it, seems to be called “Windows Live Mesh”, but when I try and backup something, it calls a 5gb area of space “SkyDrive”.
This page – http://www.windowslive.co.uk/skydrive – says you get 25gb of free online storage, so how come I only get 5gb of SkyDrive synced storage? Do I have 25gb, but can only use 5gb of it for sync’d things? Is there 20gb of space separate from this, accessible some other way? A bit confusing.

You need a Windows Live ID to use this service, but the beauty is that if you have ever had a Hotmail account or used MSN Messenger, you’ll have one already. Sadly it’s been so long since I logged into MSN Messenger, it takes me a lot of attempts to get my password right.

Maybe their site just doesn’t like Google Chrome, but I seem to have to refresh pages, and keep getting bizarre error messages saying things like “Error 101 (net::ERR_CONNECTION_RESET): Unknown error”. Maybe it’s a one-off problem?

I install the application, and it seems to be working well. I pick a folder from my hard drive and add it. As a test, I pick the “public” folder from inside the Dropbox installation, to sync. Sadly, it just shows up as “Public”, which could possibly get confusing if you had a lot of folders named “share” or “output”, for sharing with different clients/colleagues. There’s a file in there to start with, I add a second file, and sure enough – Windows Live Mesh starts syncing the new file. Handy. A slight downside is that the contents of the folder are not shown – just the name.

Possibly a bit vague

That done, I thought I’d try and share one of the files with someone. Sadly, sharing seems to be per-folder. That’s a bit annoying if I just want to share one file with somebody. It also presumably means I couldn’t just backup the entire Documents folder, and then share a lower “sketches” folder with Stephen at a later date, without giving him access to my old job applications and all the other stuff in there.
I can’t right-click and get a link to the folder either – it opens a browser and insists I enter an email address of someone to share it with.

Eugh. Really? That's my only option?

Can’t you just tell me what the link is that you’re going to email? It’s a bit annoying if I want to just quickly send it via a Twitter DM or paste it into an instant messenger window. I don’t even know email addresses from memory, and I don’t use Hotmail so it doesn’t know my contact addresses either. Sure, I can email the notification to myself, then copy/paste that link to the other person, but this seems like more effort than it needs to be.

The bigger problem is that although the application says it has sync’d two files, when I log into the online version, it tells me it has sync’d a folder called “public”, but that it is empty. I’ve removed and re-added several files, re-sync’d a few times, and it still says the folder is empty.

Fail.

This might be fixable, but this seems like a lot more work than is really necessary. Skydrive/Live Mesh doesn’t do version history either, so if I mangle my local file, it’ll back it up online for me and overwrite my working one. It’s not a great product in my opinion, and doesn’t seem very user friendly at all.

SugarSync (http://www.sugarsync.com)

When I first installed Dropbox and went to their help section to see if you can sync folders other than the “Dropbox” one, several people commented on a product called SugarSync that worked like Dropbox, but added the option to select other folders. I’ve been to the website, signed up, and downloaded the Mac application.

The application is quite big for some reason.
Windows Live Mesh download was 8.9mb.
Dropbox 17.6mb download.
SugarSync manager is 49.2mb, and expands to over 100mb, upon installation.
It does versioning (keeps up to the last 5 versions of files), and is accessible online through a browser. Well done.

The syncing status icon for SugarSync is so similar to Windows Live Mesh, there’s probably a lawsuit pending.

(Left to right: SugarSync, Windows Live Mesh, Dropbox)

After it syncs, it changes to this:

Sync complete.

Sharing a file or folder is relatively easy. Click icon, sugarsync file manager, right click something (folder or individual file), “get public link”. It copies it to the clipboard for you to do what you like with it.

Relatively easy

The software syncs quickly, and the public link successfully downloaded the file I wanted. Dropbox is slightly easier to do so, but only by a tiny amount.

SugarSync email you, and before you can access files through the browser, you must verify your email address. For some reason the first two times I tried this, it failed, and gave me an error message.

Verification fail.

I sync’d some files with the application, then tried the verification email again, and this time it worked. Not sure if there’s an odd delay, or it has an issue with Google Chrome, but that was slightly awkward.

You get 5gb for free, but like with Dropbox, you can earn a bit of extra storage space, by watching the tutorials on how to do things.

Sharing a file with the web browser gives you more options than most would need, including a copy/paste link, an “email a link to your friends” box, and even the option to share directly via Twitter or Facebook.

SugarSync online sharing options

Summary

Of the three I’ve tested, I think SugarSync is my favourite, as it lets me select any folders I want to backup, and I don’t have to rearrange my hard drive or copy everything into one place.

It does pretty much everything Dropbox does, almost as simply, and I prefer SugarSync’s method of keeping the last 5 versions of a file, rather than Dropbox’s of just keeping the last month’s file modifications.

None of these products are a replacement for a proper regular backup of your entire system. They don’t back up enough, and – even if they did – to restore 500gb would take forever, but there is something to be said for having select folders kept offsite (the main reason I was asked about this in the first place).

Side notes

I’ve tested the Mac versions of all three products. These products are all available for both Mac and Windows, although some of the features vary between systems.

Dropbox and SugarSync both have a free iPhone and iPad apps, both with an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 in the App Store. They also both have apps for Android or Blackberry handsets. I haven’t tested any of these mobile apps.

LiveMesh doesn’t seem to have an iPhone/iPad/Android app, but there are other (non-free) unofficial apps that claim to be able to access it.

One thought on “Online Backups and Storage”

  1. Ben:

    Good write review of these services. I haven’t covered LiveMesh myself but I will soon.

    I agree with your summary. Of the two – Dropbox and SugarSync – I like SugarSync better as well. It’s just more of a seamless process than Dropbox.

    I wish SugarSync had better pricing, though, as I’d like to backup more with them. Right now I use Carbonite as my dedicated online backup provider for EVERYTHING because of their flat pricing on unlimited backup but I use SugarSync for files I need to work with outside of my office and other files I want “on the go.”

    Travis

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