Dropbox (free; premium subscription account available) remains one of the best known names in the file-syncing game. For many computer users, the word “Dropbox” is synonymous with file syncing and sharing. It’s been in the arena a long time, and it’s a great tool for giving yourself and your collaborators access to files of all kinds, from music to videos to spreadsheets. If you’re an existing Dropbox user, there’s no doubt you’ll want the free Dropbox mobile apps—Dropbox for iPad, (Dropbox for Android, and the iPhone app reviewed here.
If you’re in the market to pick up a file-syncing solution from scratch, or are considering migrating from another service, the Dropbox iPhone app might not be Dropbox’s strongest selling point, depending on your needs. It does an excellent job of making your most important files accessible to you, helping you share large files from virtually anywhere, and uploading your iPhone photos automatically. It also supports an enormous number of other apps and services, making it a great service to use as part of an overall strategy (e.g., storing all your documents in Dropbox and editing them with an office suite app). That’s hugely important to Dropbox’s continued strength in the market.
Basic capabilities largely mirror what you can do in the Dropbox desktop app and Web portal. You can share a file via email, text message, Facebook, Twitter, or by copying the link to the clipboard and pasting it where you like. You can save a photo to your photo library, copy it to the clipboard, or print it. You can delete files, although it took me a minute to figure out that I needed to tap an ellipsis at the top of the app and select “edit” first to get to the delete option. A search bar works well for finding files and folders. All standard stuff.
But once you get into the nitty gritty, a few competitors offer little extras in their mobile apps that make them slightly more useful to certain kinds of users. For example, Bitcasa has a slightly more intuitive interface for people using file syncing for videos and music, and SugarSync’s iPhone app gives you more control over the quality of images uploaded to your account, in case you want to upload smaller images faster and deal with the full resolution ones on a case-by-case basis.But it largely depends on your use case. Dropbox’s iPhone app has a wonderfully simple interface, clear options in the settings, and has been reliable in my use of the service over several years. I wouldn’t give up the Dropbox iPhone app for the world—I think it’s one of the 50 best free iPhone apps available—but that also doesn’t mean it’s the only file-syncing app I use, either.
Dropbox iPhone App Navigation and Capabilities
The Dropbox iPhone app has an extremely simple and straightforward user interface. Four points of navigation run across the bottom of the screen. The first is a Dropbox icon, which takes you to your main Dropbox folder. The second looks like a Polaroid icon, representing photos. Tap it, and you’ll see thumbnails of all your images saved in Dropbox, regardless of which folder they’re in. The third icon is a star, which brings up any files you’ve marked as favorites. And the last—my favorite icon—is a cog for settings. I always find valuable stuff hiding in the settings—more on that in a moment.
If you’re a highly organized person (as I am) and keep your Dropbox folders clearly labeled and logically nested, the app is no fuss, no muss. You can get to the files you need in a snap. If you’re less organized, the Bitcasa iPhone app may have a slightly more appealing user interface, because it shows areas for music, videos, documents, photos, and favorites. Similar to Bitcasa, IDrive for iPhone shows your files by content type and includes a music player for music files (as does Bitcasa and Dropbox, though Dropbox’s is much slower at streaming in my experience, even over Wi-Fi).
If you prefer to find your data by content type, Bitcasa or IDrive may seem a little easier to navigate than Dropbox. All three have great search functions, though, so you can always find what you need by keyword if all else fails. In those much-loved settings I mentioned, you can turn on a feature called Camera Upload, which automatically uploads (not “syncs”) all your mobile photos and videos to Dropbox. The difference between “upload” and “sync” here means that if you delete images from your iPhone, they will not be deleted from Dropbox. One good option included in the instant upload feature is the choice between uploading only when Wi-Fi is available, or anytime Wi-Fi or cell data (i.e., 3G, 4G, LTE) is available. This feature isn’t unique to Dropbox, but it’s handy for helping you back up your photos without taxing your data connection nonetheless.
Two other important features hiding in the settings: a readout of how much space you’re using (percent used shown next to total GB in account) and an option to turn on a passcode lock. I should point out, though, that even though these features are excellent, they are also quite standard, appearing in the iPhone apps for SugarSync, Bitcasa, and Box, too. All four services offer a four-digit PIN lock only; I’d love to see one of these players step up and offer a more secure option for super secure users, such as always requiring the user to log into the service itself upon app launch.
When I’m out and about and unexpectedly need access to a piece of writing I have in progress, I usually want to edit it, and the lack of native editing capabilities in the Dropbox iPhone app (and really most mobile versions of file-syncing services) is the number one thing holding me back from using the app more. I very often keep working drafts of articles in Evernote instead for this very reason. Evernote is a very different kind of tool than Dropbox, of course, but there are times when I wish Dropbox had Evernote’s capabilities wrapped into it. Luckily, Dropbox works very well with other apps, including Microsoft’s Office Mobile, giving you the option to edit the file. Sometimes the power of the integration is misleading, though. I found out the hard way by opening a Dropbox .doc file in Evernote only to realize that Evernote treated the file as an attachment, which I could not edit. Drat.
If you want native editing, and collaborative editing, you want Google Drive (formerly Google Docs). But there’s a problem. There is no Google Drive iPhone app, only a slightly disappointing iPad app for Google Drive. On an iPad you can use mobile Safari to access the full Google Drive site, but iPhone users still have it slightly rough.
Die-hard Apple fans might opt for Apple’s iWork office suite, which is now rolled into iCloud to give them direct and simple access to their work files, as well as the editing tools needed to update them. Even with a new Apple iWork for iCloud (beta) service, iWork and iCloud together still don’t totally replicate a complete file-syncing service, however. iCloud, iTunes, and Photo Stream are all separate channels for different kinds of content that you can sync through Apple. With a more traditional file-syncing service, all your content can be hosted together and organized how you want.
A minor setting missing from Dropbox’s iPhone app is the ability to clear the cache from the app itself and otherwise do a little maintenance—features offered in Bitcasa, SugarSync, and Box.
Keep It Simple
If you’re already a Dropbox user and are quite happy with the service, the iPhone app should be an integral part of your file-syncing landscape. I’ve been a Dropbox user for years, and I really appreciate the iPhone app’s simplicity (see my five tips for using Dropbox for organization for a little more insight into how I use the app). Dropbox’s overall reliability and stability are a huge reason it’s an Editors’ Choice, among both file-syncing services at large and iPhone apps more specifically.
There are a few features I’d like to see added at some point—nothing worth crying over, really—and certain kinds of users might prefer another service that arranges content differently. But Dropbox remains one of the best free iPhone apps you can download because overall, it offers a wonderful service.
For more file-syncing comparisons, see “The Best Cloud Storage Solutions.”
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc