Working smarter with Dropbox

FOLKS who follow this column know that Dropbox (www.dropbox.com) is one of my favorite utilities. On the simplest level, it provides two gigabytes of free online storage, but it’s much more than that. The ability to synchronize those files across multiple computers is what makes this combination utility and Web service so useful.

In my work, I use Dropbox daily to make sure important files are with me anywhere I work – on my Linux home PC, my Macbook Air or on my office Windows 7 machine. You can sign up for the basic account (2GB) for free, or buy extra storage if you need it. For my needs, 2GB has been more than enough – though the company offers you several ways to earn more free storage. One of the easiest ways to do this is to tell your friends about Dropbox. You get 500 megabytes of extra storage for every person you sign up – for a maximum of 18GB free.

Dropbox is easy to use because after you’ve installed it (available in Linux, Mac and Windows), it works with very little intervention. Everything you put in a specially created Dropbox folder on your computer is automatically and seamlessly synchronized in the background with Dropbox servers over the Internet. This folder is then replicated on every machine on which you have Dropbox installed.

At the most basic, a good practice is to change your default work directory to the Dropbox folder or a folder within it. This way, your most commonly used files will be automatically available to you, wherever you are working. For example, I’ve set up my LibreOffice applications to save all my documents to a “Documents” folder inside my Dropbox folder (LibreOffice > Preferences > Paths > My Documents > Edit). You can do the same thing with your other favorite applications.

For example, if you use a password manager like KeePassX to help you remember all your passwords, you can save the database file to a folder within Dropbox, so that you can jog your memory from any of your Dropbox-registered computers.

You can also use Dropbox in conjunction with a program like Calibre to make all your electronic books available on all your machines.

But Dropbox isn’t only about sharing files with yourself; you can use it to conveniently share files with others, too. One particularly useful application is to quickly share photos with your friends and family. To do this, simply create a folder within the “Photos” folder of your Dropbox directory and copy all the images that you wish to share into the new folder. Then, from your file manager (Finder on the Mac or Nautilus in Ubuntu Linux), right-click on the folder you wish to share, find the “Dropbox” menu, and choose “Copy Public Gallery Link.” Now you’re ready to paste the link into an e-mail message that you can send to your friends with whom you wish to share the photos. Dropbox even creates an attractive gallery of your shared photos that your friends and contacts can view and download. Here’s an example of my shared folder of wallpapers (http://bit.ly/chins_wallpapers). Of course, you can use Dropbox to share other types of data as well, and you can even set up a folder that you and your colleagues can share for collaborative work.

You can also use Dropbox to install software on multiple machines without having to bring a USB drive around with you. Simply download and save the installation file to your Dropbox folder, then access it from other machines by logging on to your Dropbox Web site through any browser.

If you accidentally delete a file from your Dropbox folder, don’t worry. Log on to your Dropbox page and click on the icon for “Show Deleted Files.” Choose the deleted file and click on the “Restore” button to get it back. This suggests you can also use Dropbox as a quick-and-dirty online backup solution. Just copy the files you wish to backup into the Dropbox folder.

Another neat trick you can do from the Dropbox Web site is to find out the IP address of each registered machine you have. Just go to the Settings menu and choose My Computers, and mouse-over your connected machines to discover the IP addresses they use.

These tips are pretty basic, and you can find many more creative ways to tap Dropbox’s excellent synchronization capabilities. If you’re a Chrome or Firefox user, there extensions that make it easy to upload files to your Dropbox folder straight from the browser. Other hacks combine Dropbox with other Web-based applications with interesting results. The uses are limited only by your imagination – and your storage quota.

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