A friend of mine is finishing his PhD and had a heart-in-mouth moment this week. He had been doing all of his work on a laptop and the hard drive temporarily died on him. He was able to restore everything except the very extensive bibliography, which he is now having to rewrite from scratch. Lucky for him, he does keep paper notes too, but his handwriting is appalling and he’s still going to have a few sleepless nights.
After giving him the standard lecture about not keeping important files on laptops because they are always writing to the hard drive, I suggested backing up his files with Dropbox. Dropbox is a cross-platform file sychroniser that allows you to backup your files to a linked online account. The free version offers up to 2GB of storage and you can also share files amongst colleagues and friends.
Dropbox is “first time using a computer” easy to use: after downloading the 15MB setup file, installing it gives you a system tray icon and a MyDropbox folder. If you don’t have an online account already, the setup will also register your computer and email address for you and you’re good to go. Sending files for online backup is as simple as dragging and dropping them into the Dropbox folder and away they go.
If you’re working on files offline, Dropbox will sync them with the online folder the next time you’re connected to the internet. Even better, for files that you have amended, only the portions of the files that have changed will be altered, saving you time and hassle. Dropbox can also be configured to minimise the amount of bandwidgth used, so you don’t have to fret about it hogging your connection while you upload or download your important files.
The beauty of having a linked online account means that you can work on your Dropbox files from any computer, and from web-enabled mobile devices. Online, you can manipulate the files, set up different folders to put them in and set permissions for people you invite to share them. Should any of the invitees make any changes to the files, you can track these and revert to previous versions from the past 30 days should you wish to do so.
Previously, I had used Mediafire for online backup and Google Docs for collaboration. The problem with them was that Mediafire needed a new upload for every file backup, and Google Docs can only handle certain file types. Dropbox accepts any file format or any size (within the account limit), and has the added advantage of having consistent links to files no matter how often I edit them.
External drives are all very well, but they too can fail. If you’d like the added security of having an online backup of your important data without the hassle of remembering to do an HTTP or FTP upload every time you amend a file, this is the program for you. Dropbox is unobtrusive, light and simple, with all the features that a casual to mid-level user could desire.