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How to access your files from anywhere – with Dropbox
Mac Tip #462, 10 November 2010

Dropbox is an online service that synchronises the files you add to a particular folder. That means files in that folder are available to you from your Mac, via a web page, or on any device where you install the free software. That could be a Windows computer, another Mac, an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad. Here’s how to use Dropbox.

Dropbox isn’t Drop Box

I discovered recently that a friend was having trouble using her Dropbox because she was confusing it with a similarly named folder on her Mac.

Look in your Mac’s Home folder. On my Mac I’m a user called miraz and so that’s the name of my Home folder. Your Home folder may be called Jo, or bill or business Mac or anything else. There’s no way I can know what your Home folder is called.

My Home folder has both Dropbox, the free service, and Public - Drop Box, the folder installed by the OS.

My Home folder has both Dropbox, the free service, and Public – Drop Box, the folder installed by the OS.

In your Home folder you should see several folders called things like Desktop, Documents, Library, Movies, Music and Photos. You may have other folders and files in there too.

One folder is named Public, and inside that is a folder called Drop Box. Notice the space between the words, and that both words start with capital letters.

That folder is created by the Macintosh Operating System. If you have your computer set up to allow it, others can connect to your Mac and drop files into that Drop Box for you to use.

That Drop Box is not the one set up by the free online service named Dropbox. The Dropbox this Tip is about is written as one single word, with one single capital letter. In my screenshot you see it listed just below the Downloads folder.

Install Dropbox

Download and install the Dropbox software, and sign up for a free account. When you install the software there is a step where you can choose where to put the Dropbox folder. I recommend you accept the default location which is inside your Home folder, as mine is.

Choose items to store in Dropbox

A few of my files in my Dropbox folder.

A few of my files in my Dropbox folder.

Provided you have a live Internet connection, any items you add to your Dropbox folder will be copied to the online part of the service.

In some places there are no limits to how much data you can transfer to or from the Internet.

In other places, such as New Zealand, Internet plans generally limit how much data you can transfer. For example, the cheapest Telecom broadband plan at this time gives you 3Gb per month.

That means you should choose carefully exactly which files and folders to store in your Dropbox. Refer to this now rather old Tip for information on how to find the size of a file or folder: Get Info, MacTip #53, 01 May 2002.

In general I keep items in my Dropbox that form part of current projects, or that I use at least once per week or month. Once I’ve finished a project I move its files to my Documents folder for storage. I make sure to store movies, photos and music in their respective OS-assigned folders inside my Home folder, except for individual files I need to refer to frequently.

Move some files to your Dropbox

My file online at the Dropbox website.

My file online at the Dropbox website.

Now move some files from their existing storage place on your hard drive into the Dropbox folder. Make sure you have a working Internet connection and wait a few minutes. Before long Dropbox will automatically upload your files to their servers.

Now you can access those files both on your Mac and from the secure website. For example, as you can see in my screenshot I have a file named panui-tips-for-November-2010.txt. If I log in to the Dropbox website I can see that file listed in my Dropbox.

My screenshot shows the file listed in my online site. If I hover over the right-hand end of the line it also shows a menu of actions I can take with that file, such as to Download or Rename it.

If I choose to rename it, for example, via the website then after a few moments the file in the folder on my Mac will reflect the name change.

Access Dropbox items

I access an image through the Dropbox web page.

I access an image through the Dropbox web page.

The identical file now exists in 2 places: in the Dropbox folder on my Mac and in the Dropbox online folder (behind a secure login).

That means that I could now download that file from any computer connected to the Internet, provided I could supply my login details.

If I set up Dropbox on another machine — perhaps a computer at my workplace — then the file would automatically be copied to that computer too and would exist in 3 places.

If I make a change to the file in any one place, that change is reflected in all the places where it exists, once you’ve allowed time for the update to take place via the Internet.

You could also go ahead and install Dropbox on your iPad, iphone or iPod touch and have access from those devices too.

Access isn’t the same as use

My screenshot shows I’ve clicked on the link for an image file contained in my Dropbox. This type of image is able to be displayed by a web browser, so I can see it with Safari.

I can’t make changes to it though, because that’s not something you can easily do through a web browser.

If I were to open that image on one of my computers that use Dropbox, then I’d be able to edit it with an appropriate application such as Photoshop or Acorn.

While you can readily access any files in your Dropbox from any device that allows you to see the contents of your Dropbox, you may not be able to display or edit them.

For example, I often use the software OmniOutliner, and have numerous files in my Dropbox created with that program. I could download such a file to a Windows computer, but as OmniOutliner doesn’t run under Windows I wouldn’t be able to work with or display the file on that machine.

I could however save the file to a thumb drive, copy it to another Mac with the right software and then edit it.

One of the very interesting features of Dropbox is its version control. But that’s a topic for another Tip.

Tell us in the Comments about how you’ve used Dropbox.

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