Saved by the Box

Dropbox cartoon

When I posted on LinkedIn that I was looking for subjects for this week’s Backup Reminder, David Battino pointed me to a blog post over on O’Reilly Digital Media. The post dates back to January of this year and recounts the hard drive failure the author, Darwin Grosse, suffered at Christmas—whereupon he discovered his most recent backup was four months old.


Since that time, Darwin decided to save himself from himself by using Dropbox. I’d used Dropbox only once before, in the course of co-hosting the For Immediate Release podcast back in May, so I thought of it mostly as a file-sharing tool, a way to synchronize documents across computers. This is certainly handy, but synchronization is not, by itself, backup.

But it turns out that Dropbox does backup, too. “It stores two months of revisions online,” David said, “So when a file went corrupt, I could backtrack. And backing up takes zero effort. You save your current projects in your Dropbox folder on your PC and they get uploaded automatically.”

In order to see how this worked, I downloaded Dropbox for myself and installed it both on Enna (my main laptop) and Mena (my netbook). Once you install it, Dropbox creates a “My Dropbox” folder that automatically copies any files you put in it first onto your Dropbox account (free for up to 2 GB storage, with plans starting at $4.99 month thereafter) and then onto any other computer you install the program on.

I can see how this will save me from crushed-USB-stick syndrome as long as I create and store any notes I take on Mena in the My Dropbox folder, and that’s great.

I’m learning, however, that instantaneous/continuous/copy-even-as-you-create-the-file backup is not a particularly good idea for all kinds of files. For instance, don’t try to make a backup of a Skype recording while you’re recording it. Bad things will happen. (In my case, it froze up my entire machine after about 15 minutes. If you have more RAM than I do, it might take longer for that to happen. Or not.) Create the recording first, save it, and then put it into the Dropbox. If you’re using something like Memeo Instant Backup that doesn’t restrict itself to one folder, turn it off or pause it until you’re making the recording.

But back to Dropbox and its backup-specific tools. Once you’ve installed Dropbox and put some files into your My Dropbox folder, you’ll notice their icons are overlaid with little green checkmarks. This appears to mean they have been successfully uploaded and synced. When you right-click on an item in the Dropbox, you see a new option, “Dropbox,” which gives you the option to see previous versions of the file. If you click on the link, it takes you to the web interface, where you can choose to either preview or restore earlier versions of the file.

On the plus side, Dropbox is easy to use and has multiple applications. It’s instantaneous as long as you’re connected to the Internet; if you aren’t, it will sync as soon as you have a connection again. And it really does provide for backup as well as synchronization, because, although it replicates changes across all the computers you have connected to it, it saves those previous versions.

On the minus side, only files in the “My Dropbox” folder get backed up. I suppose you could tell Outlook to store your .pst file in there…but I’m not sure you’d like the results, given what I said earlier about the potential negative effects of attempting to back things up while they’re in the process of changing. Outlook’s .pst file is one of those that doesn’t take well to being copied while it’s open. So if you want to use Dropbox for e-mail backups, you probably have to do it manually, and it’s not going to provide true e-mail synchronization anyway. Likewise, you’re going to need to remember to put certain other kinds of files into the Dropbox in order to get them backed up.  You’re probably safe enough letting things like Office docs just live there.

I don’t know that I would recommend Dropbox as a replacement for a dedicated online backup solution. I think too much is likely to get left out, and at least some of the online backup providers can handle backing up your e-mail. But I definitely recommend Dropbox for people who want to share and sync files and provide themselves with some extra backup redundancy in the process.

Finally, Dropbox hired CommonCraft to make their “tour” video, and I can’t resist including it here even though it doesn’t really address the backup features of the product.

P.S. If you use this link to sign up for Dropbox, you and I both get an extra 250 MB free storage space. It’s part of their campaign to get more users. I don’t know whether that quite counts as an affiliate link, but I’m pretty sure the arrangement is something the FTC would want me to disclose under their new rules.

I can’t see that anyone loses by it, though. I genuinely like Dropbox and think it’s going to be helpful for me. If you need to keep documents synchronized between computers or in a workgroup, you’ll probably find it useful, too.

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