Time to drop Dropbox?

Nothing has changed the way I use computers in the last few years more than Dropbox. The ability to get at my files from anywhere has made a huge difference. But it’s the cloud -- not Dropbox specifically -- that has made the difference. Any cloud storage service that also supported all the platforms I need would do as well… wouldn’t it?

There are a few biggies in the market, but Dropbox is the biggest, best-known name. My opinion is that it got this good reputation for a simple reason: It has the best software. I’ve tried a bunch of these services in the past: Box, Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive. There are others, like SugarSync, but I’ve never paid much attention to them.

About a year ago I gave Box and Google Drive serious attempts. I thought Box’s software was awful. Google Drive was OK as was SkyDrive, but at the time Dropbox seemed the best deal because the software was drop-dead simple and many of the people I was working with already used it. I have a 200GB Dropbox account, the subscription for which expires in October, so I thought I would re-evaluate things.

Out of the alternatives I’ve had my eye mostly on SkyDrive. I’ve been using more Microsoft services lately; Office 365 and Windows 8.1 make it easy to use SkyDrive, although with any service that maps to the file system it’s not especially hard.

This, by the way, is the real key to these services. I know a lot of people use them only through the web interface, but that’s lame. To use these services effectively you have to install their client software (Windows, Mac, various mobile operating systems). The program creates a subfolder in your user folder (e.g. on my Windows system I have c:\users\larry\dropbox and c:\users\larry\skydrive). Each of these maps to the remote storage and the client software replicates changes between the client and server. There can be time delays, maybe a few minutes for small files, but it’s a small price to pay.

I have been keeping all my working files on my Dropbox. That way, no matter what computer I go to, I have the same access to those files. I even install certain programs there, like the Sysinternals utilities, so that I only have to keep one location up to date.

But the basics of all these systems are such that all of them meet my basic needs. That leaves other features and pricing as the big factors (assuming they are all as reliable as each other; I don’t know if they are, but I don’t have any data on it or a way to test, so I can’t pass judgment.)

It’s also worth mentioning that many people instinctively think of Apple’s iCloud for such comparisons, but iCloud isn’t really a cloud service in the same way as this. Think of iCloud more as a set of synchronization protocols, along with some specialized feature backup, and you’ll understand it better.

Let’s go to the pricing. I’m not going to include Box because a) I hated its software that much and b) while it does have a free 5GB account, it seems to be targeting its services purely for business users.

Here are some pricing tables and links to where I got them:

SkyDrive (*not* SkyDrive Pro)
Storage (GB) $ monthly $/GB monthly $ annual $/GB annual

7

N/A

N/A

$0.00

$0.00

27

N/A

N/A

$10.00

$0.37

57

N/A

N/A

$25.00

$0.44

107

N/A

N/A

$50.00

$0.47

Dropbox (ignoring its business plans)
Storage (GB) $ monthly $/GB monthly $ annual $/GB annual
2GB, 500MB/referral up to 18GB

$0.00

$0.00

$0.00

$0.00

100

$9.99

$0.10

$99

$0.99

200

$19.99

$0.10

$199

$1.00

500

$49.99

$0.10

$499

$1.00

"Packrat" unlimited undo history +$39.00/year (you’d think Packrat cost should go up with storage, but it’s fixed)
Google Drive
Storage (GB) $ monthly $/GB monthly $ annual $/GB annual

15

$0.00

$0.00

$0.00

$0.00

100

$4.99

0.05

$59.88

0.60

200

$9.99

0.05

$119.88

0.60

400

$19.99

0.05

$239.88

0.60

1000

$49.99

0.05

$599.88

0.60

2000

$99.99

0.05

$1,199.88

0.60

4000

$199.99

0.05

$2,399.88

0.60

8000

$399.99

0.05

$4,799.88

0.60

16000

$799.99

0.05

$9,599.88

0.60

SugarSync
Storage (GB) $ monthly $/GB monthly $ annual $/GB annual

5

$0.00

$0.00

$0.00

$0.00

60

$7.49

0.12

$74.99

1.25

100

$9.99

0.10

$99.99

1.00

250

$24.99

0.10

$249.99

1.00

1000

$55.00

0.06

$550.00

0.55

1000GB (1TB) plan is a “business” plan for 3 to 10 users

SugarSync and Dropbox both sell to consumers at what seems to be the premium market price of $1/GB/year. Is Dropbox really worth that much more? Is SugarSync? As I’ll explain below, the differences which may have justified a premium price for Dropbox in the past just aren’t there anymore. SugarSync, on the other hand, is definitely a premium service.

On the free (as in beer) front, the best deal is either Google (15GB), unless you come close to maxing out your Dropbox referrals (as much as 18GB).  Microsoft offers 7GB and SugarSync 5GB, and if you don’t get with the referral program you only get 2GB from Dropbox; you’d need 32 referrals to get to the max. (If you want to be a cheap jerk you can create 32 Gmail accounts and accept Dropbox referrals from all of them.)

Overall, Microsoft is the cheapest per GB, but its plans and pricing are also the most inflexible: it offers only annual payment and only 3 amounts of storage: 20 GB, 50 GB and 100 GB. Beyond that, presumably it refers you to SkyDrive Pro, but this is not a reasonable alternative. Unlike the other services which have a "business" plan, SkyDrive Pro is really a completely separate service, part of Office 365. It uses different client software, different servers, and you can’t even use the same login credentials!  This is because the Windows Live and Office 365 authentication databases are separate and incompatible. It’s the source of many problems unrelated to the ones discussed here.

The disconnect between SkyDrive and SkyDrive Pro, especially in light of the low maximum storage in SkyDrive, has to be the biggest weakness in SkyDrive. As I wrote in an article in InfoWorld on my migration to Office 365, SkyDrive Pro is actually a relabeling of the old SharePoint MySites service. This isn’t the first time Microsoft has confused things by using the same name for two different, incompatible products or services. All sorts of little problems emerge from this dichotomy; for instance, the mobile OneNote app can read from the consumer SkyDrive, but not from SkyDrive Pro. Go figure.

If you know you can keep yourself within 107GB then it’s not a problem. I’m pretty sure I’ve never gone up that high on my Dropbox account, but if you wanted to use the service as a photo or video archive, SkyDrive could easily be inadequate.

On an annual basis, the next-cheapest service is Google Drive which, in terms of plan flexibility, is definitely the un-SkyDrive. Including the free plan it has 9 levels of service, moving up in pseudo-powers of 2 from 100 GB to 16 TB. When you round to the penny, these plans are all the same price per GB: 5 cents/month or 60 cents/year.

In fact, I was surprised to see that the cost per GB generally stays the same as you buy larger blocks of storage. SkyDrive prices actually increase, from $0.37 to $0.44 to $0.47 for its plans. The only exception is SugarSync’s Pro/Business plan which has 1 TB of storage and is designed for 3 to 10 users, so the comparison to consumer plans is not a very good one.

Another pricing point worth mentioning: Dropbox, Google Drive and SugarSync have versioning and the ability to restore deleted files. Dropbox charges an extra $39 per year for this service (which it calls Packrat) which makes it more expensive than SugarSync if you use this feature. SkyDrive doesn’t have versioning or backup at all.

You’d think the cost of the service would vary with the amount of storage you buy, but it appears to be a fixed cost on any plan. Something about that doesn’t make sense to me.

A final point about pricing is that if you’re also using Google Apps, i.e. Docs, Sheets or Slides, your files in those services don’t count against your Google Drive budget.

I must confess I had never even tried SugarSync prior to writing this. I heard good things about it some time back and, from a features standpoint, it compares very favorably to the field.  Here’s SugarSync’s feature chart comparison of it vs. the competition in this story, plus Box and iCloud (iCloud barely registers on the chart). The only features it claims that none of the others in this story have are:

  • The ability to set any folder on the hard disk -- and any number of them -- for cloud-replication
  • Upload and sync files via e-mail (Box also does this)
  • Microsoft Outlook for Windows Plugin

That last bullet may seem a little strange -- what would an Outlook plugin do? Turns out it’s a really cool feature. It allows Outlook users who send attachments to send links to a file on SugarSync instead. Here’s a video of how it works.

For a business concerned with conserving bandwidth from remote users this could be a cool feature. It also takes some attachment scanning burden off the email gateway (and puts it on some other gateway or the client scanner, but that still may be desirable). It’s sort of like Hightail (formerly YouSendIt), but I like the synergy with the cloud service.

The SugarSync feature chart does have some self-serving elements in it; for instance, in the platform support section it lists everything SugarSync supports, but not the platforms it doesn't (like Windows Phone). As for the rest of feature chart, the other differences that matter (to me at least) revolve around more flexibility in choosing which files to sync with the cloud. I suppose this is nice and I’d like to have it, but it’s not a deal-killer.

And the chart may be out of date to a degree. Microsoft recently announced a new and very useful feature in SkyDrive on Windows 8.1: placeholders and smart thumbnails, which allow you to keep alias versions of large files instead of the actual file, in order to save space on your mobile device. A smart thumbnail is a lower-resolution version of an image; Windows pre-fetches smart thumbnails so scrolling will be fast. With these, you can keep easy access to all your files on your mobile device without using up all the space. You can perform some file operations (like move or delete) on the small versions and the full copy is only retrieved if you need it, such as to edit.

Speaking of storing your images in the cloud, SugarSync and Dropbox can be set up to backup photos you take on a device automatically to your cloud storage. Of course iCloud does this too. Personally, to me this sounds like a bad idea. I treat the storage constraints of my phone as a tool to force me to manage my photo collection now and then. And if you use this feature, make sure to configure it only to use Wi-Fi.

I haven’t talked much about Google Drive, but it would seem to be the winner based purely on specs and price, the dot in the top-right if this were a Gartner Magic Quadrant. I’m especially impressed that it has a very high free storage number and very high ends for storage purchase. The feature set is good, if not tops. It seems a given that if you’re a user of the Google ecosystem, particularly of those (like Apps and Picasa) which require cloud storage, that Google Drive is the way to go.

If not, Google Drive is still a good choice. If your storage needs are modest meaning 107 GB or less, and that’s a lot of storage for most people, then you can save money on SkyDrive and it works well enough.

Microsoft is attempting to put SkyDrive in your face with its new generation of products. As I said, Windows 8.1 has some new features for it. In fact, it’s pre-installed on Windows 8.1 and for Metro/Modern UI apps it will likely always be easy to access, whereas other services will need to be accessed through the file system. The conventional Windows programs in Office 2013 make SkyDrive or SkyDrive Pro an easy option for file access.

I’ve been falling in love with OneNote 2013 lately, shifting over to it after losing patience with all the bugs in Evernote (another story at another time). The mobile app versions of OneNote, or at least the Android and iOS versions, can only access notebooks on the consumer SkyDrive. This is a bizarre set of circumstances for Office 365 users who would normally put their notebooks on SkyDrive Pro. It’s another sign that Microsoft is confused about the distinction between the two services. Perhaps the recent reorg at the company will help straighten some of this nonsense out.

One implication of it is that I’ll have to hold on to SkyDrive if I want to keep using OneNote. I can keep notebooks elsewhere, SkyDrive Pro included, but they won’t be visible on mobile devices.

The one I definitely want to buy is SugarSync. I’ve only used the free service so far, but I’m impressed. Unfortunately, compared to SkyDrive and Google Drive, the price is kind of steep, especially north of 100GB. I’ll have to see how free I feel about money when my Dropbox account expires.

But the one thing I’m sure I’ll do is move from Dropbox. For the top dollar that it charges, it doesn't offer much that’s special. Its software is still really good, but all the others are at least close now. It’s time to move on.

Photo Credit: dencg/Shutterstock

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