Dropping Dropbox: Exploring alternatives

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By Christopher Breen, Macworld.com | July 7th, 2014

For purely personal reasons I’ve chosen to abandon Dropbox. But that doesn’t mean my desire to share files with others has likewise vanished. I need an alternative that includes many of the things offered by Dropbox.

Of course that includes free storage as well as the ability to share files with others. And then there’s the extent to which the service is supported by apps and platforms. One of Dropbox’s clear advantages is that a large number of iOS apps hook directly into it. If an app has file sharing capabilities, there’s a good chance that Dropbox is one of its share options.

Thankfully, Dropbox, though popular, isn’t the only game in town. Microsoft’s OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), Google Drive, SugarSync, and Box.com also offer free storage and file sharing features. I took a gander at each one to compare not only the kind of storage offered for free, but the ease with which you can share files with others. This is the story of my search for a replacement.

Is OneDrive enough?

A free OneDrive account provides you with 15 GB of storage (13 GB more than Dropbox’s free account). As with Dropbox you can add more free storage by automatically syncing your photos with the service and referring others to it. If you’d like to add even more storage, prices are a great deal less than what Dropbox charges–an additional 100 GB for $25, or 200 GB for $50 per year. If you subscribe to an Office 365 plan, you get 1 TB of storage with your account at no additional charge. You do have a limit on the size of files that you can send, but at 2 GB per file, that limit is hardly onerous.

Regrettably, unlike with Dropbox, Google Drive, SugarSync, and Box.com you don’t have the option to create a sharing link directly within the Finder. Instead, after moving items into your local OneDrive folder you must log into your account via a web browser, select files or a folder, and then right-click on an item and choose a Share command. You can then choose who you’d like to share with via an email address or ask OneDrive to generate a link to the file for you, which you can then pass along to those you want to share the item with. Dropbox does the same kind of thing when you access it from a browser, but the ability to instead generate a link within the Finder is far easier.

OneDrive also goes beyond mere file previewing. With it you, and the people you share editable Office files with, can edit those files using the free Office Online web apps (you can also open files in local versions of the Office apps if you have them). While they may not be full-blown copies of desktop Office apps, they offer a lot of editing power.

OneDrive is left wanting in its support within other apps. Good.iWare’s GoodReader and Readdle’s Documents 5 allow importing and exporting files with OneDrive but many other apps don’t. Microsoft lags in security as well. In July the company intends to encrypt files on its servers (termed “at rest”) for those accounts enrolled in its business plans but there’s been no word of how the data for free accounts will be treated. Other services encrypt data in transit and at rest.

Google Drive: So much storage

Before Microsoft lowered its OneDrive prices and increased its free storage limit, Google Drive was the original low-cost leader in terms of free and paid storage. Currently, Google Drive provides you with 15 GB of storage for free. though this storage is shared among Google Drive, Gmail, and Google+ Photos. You can purchase an additional 100 GB for $25 a year and a terabyte of storage costs $120 a year.

Unlike with OneDrive you can open the Google Drive folder on your Mac and, with a command from the contextual menu, share a file or folder. To do so, just add email addresses to the Invite People field and click Send. By default those you share with can edit items, but you can restrict their interaction with them to viewing only.

As with other services, when the recipient receives a message indicating that they’ve been added to a shared item, they click on the link to the item, their default web browser opens, and they can then download the item. If the file is compatible with Google Docs the recipient can open and edit it within their browser. Support for native editing of Microsoft Office documents within Google Drive is being rolled out, but that feature hasn’t been rolled my way yet.

Attractive though Google’s offering may be, when considering any of the company’s services you must give a thought to privacy. Google’s existence relies on advertising, and the more it knows about you (and the contents of your data) the more valuable your information is to the advertisers that are its primary customers. You can take steps to encrypt your data before trusting it to Google Drive, but doing so can be a cumbersome process.

SugarSync can be sweet–for a price

At one time SugarSync was another “me too” cloud service. Sign on and you could have 5 GB of cloud storage for free. Those days are now over. (SugarSync offers a 5 GB trial, but it’s good only for 90 days.) To use the service today you must pay a minimum of $7.50 a month (or $75 a year) for 60 GB of storage. 100 GB costs $10 a month or $100 a year and storage amounts and prices go up from there.

SugarSync’s main claim to fame is that it allows you to sync any folders on your computer. Other services create folders that you’re asked to move your stuff into when you want to back it up or sync it. This can be a more convenient way to organize files that you want to share with others–create one folder to share with your friends and another for your workmates, for example.

The SugarSync app is nicely laid out and easy to work with. And you can select files within one of your folders and share them via a contextual menu or share the entire folder, publicly or privately. But, like OneDrive, it’s not as widely supported as Dropbox, Google Drive, and Box.com.

Boxed in by Box.com

Box.com’s free plan, at 10 GB, provides five times the storage of Dropbox but with that free plan comes a file size limitation–you’re restricted to sharing files no larger than 250 MB. For many tasks this isn’t a terrible burden, but if you attempt to share lengthy uncompressed audio files or even a shortish movie with decent resolution, you’ll find your way barred. That said, the free plan does let you share files via a Finder contextual menu command and the preview services on Box’s website are good.

If you want more from Box, its prices are, again, better than Dropbox’s. For $5 a month/$60 a year you can have 100 GB of storage and a file size limit of 2 GB. The business plan at $15 a month offers unlimited storage and a limit of 5 GB per file. Box.com encrypts data in transit and at rest.

And the winner is…

At the end of my investigation it dawned on me that I’d stuck with Dropbox largely out of habit. In truth, it’s one of the worst storage values around–every other service I looked at provides greater storage for less (or no) money. But none of them precisely match Dropbox’s offerings.

OneDrive is attractive for its free storage and integration with Microsoft Office but it needs to be integrated into more apps and it should offer encryption to all of its customers–even freeloaders like me. Google offers the same amount of free storage and better encryption. However, oversensitive to privacy though I may be, I simply don’t trust Google to keep its nose out of my data. SugarSync can’t be had for free and, like OneDrive, is under-supported in apps. And Box.com has the file-size limitation.

And so, for me, there is no single winner. Rather, I’ve chosen a Solomon-like solution. For most of my file sharing needs I use Box.com, as I rarely need to share files over 250 MB. It’s supported by a lot of apps so I know that people I share files with can access them (and they can just as easily share their files with me).

In those cases where I do have large files–and I’m not sharing government secrets–I turn to OneDrive. It’s tough to argue with a free 15 GB of storage (though, apparently it is for me when that 15 GB is Google’s and I’m suspicious of its motives). While file sharing from the Finder would be welcome, sending a share link from my web browser isn’t a terrible inconvenience.