Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Synchronizing computers and other devices:
Dropbox et al., et al., et al.

[A straightforward summary and update of previous posts (now deleted) without any shaggy dog stories, rants, or parenthetical journeys.]

The Problem: You have two or more computer or other devices with files and folders you wish to keep synchronized (or synced).

The Solution: There are too many solutions! Hence, this post. If your needs are modest, you can get a free 2 to 5 GB account. No credit card required. All you need is an email address. Even a throwaway address will do. Providers hope to transform you or your company into paying customers when your needs outstrip what you can get for free.

Services that provided only backup have introduced syncing to the point where there is only one backup service (Jottacloud) and it to is promising that syncing is comeing "real soon".

Each service is either

  • single folder, where the files and folders to be backed up or synchronized are moved into a special folder created by the service, or
  • multiple folder, where the user gets to specify the folders that are to be synchronized. (I don't know of any multiple folder backup services.)


Synchronization is backup plus more. Files are not only backed up automatically, but they are also synchronized. That is, when a file is added, deleted, or modified, these changes are automatically propagated to every computer connected to the account. Peer-to-peer sites synchronize files without backing them up on the site's servers.

There has been an explosion of synchronization sites.

Single folder sites include:

  • Dropbox, the granddaddy of them all. It has a highly polished feel to it. The user interface is straightforward, for the most part. Dropbox was my first exposure to this service. It became indispensable the moment I installed it. It offers only 2 GB of free online storage compared to the 5 GB of most other services.
  • Mozy has been around for a few years. Their Stash is yet another single folder synchronization service.
  • Google Drive (Google) and Sky Drive (Microsoft) are sinilar services offered by Google and Microsoft, respectively.
  • Perhaps it's premature to list them bu Jottacloud is a backup only service that had been promising synchronization "real soon now". It is based in Norway, where privacy laws are strict. As a new company, it is sometimes amusing to see webpages that ought to be in English sometimes show up in Norwegian. [Update 2013-03-22: Yesterday, I received an email saying that syncing is imminent. This gives me a lot more assurance than a comment on a website.] I'm not sure whether this will turn out to be single folder or multiple folder.
  • And how could I have forgotten Box.com? Where Dropbox is the granddaddy of all synchronization services, Box is the grandaddy of backup sites. Box has now introduced "Box Sync". It is another case where all time stamps are changed to the current date whenever files are transferred to another computer. This is a fundamental mistake that would cost at least a letter grade in an intro computer science course! Avoid this service until this is fixed. I will not be monitoring the situation, tho, as I don't get paid for this and life is too short to begin with. You'll have to check for yourself, if you care. If someone sends me an update, I'll note it here.

Multiple folder sites include:

  • Cubby. Cubby was not terribly responsive to users during its beta stage. It alienated a lot of beta users, myself included. Things got so bad that I demanded a refund and received it. However, as time goes on, fixes get implemented. The technical problem that caused me to leave has finally been repaired. Cubby's user interface continues to make it a strong contender. It may be difficult to find how to use certain features, but this is true of every site. However, Cubby shines in telling users how files on various devices are linked together. With other multiple folder sites, it may not be clear whether adding a folder on an additional computer will merge the contents or delete all but what is in the latest file.

    There is a mystery surrounding Cubby. It is always doing something. While Dropbox is sitting there doing nothing, Cubby, with just as little to do, is constantly using 3 to 7% of my CPU. I don't think it's evil. It's just using resources for no apparent reason.

  • SugarSync behaves like Cubby. While it has been around since 2004, it has issues that would be surprising for a new entrant to the field. On 2013-03-18, I tried using it in place of Cubby to manage two folders on three computers. Since Cubby had been managing them, hey were already synced. Not only did SugarSync change the date on every directory to yesterday, but also it failed to recognize that the folders on one machine were the same as the others. All of its files were copies to the other machines. Since the names were the same, SugarSync added (from [other machine]) to the file name. Then, to top it off, seeing these "new" files on the other machines (new names), it copied them back to the original machine! As of now, definitely a program to AVOID.
  • Spider Oak probably doesn't get as much press as it should. Its primary claim to fame is security. Every(?) site encrypts their stored data. However, it is possible for site personnel to decrypt files if it were necessary, say, under a court order. Not so with Spider Oak. A great place to store documents you send to WikiLeaks. However, if you forget your password, there is no way to recover the files regardless of its value or importance.
  • I'm not sure how to classify Copy. It's a single folder service that has a way to sync folders outside of Copy's Copy folder. I don't care for it, tho', because it's hard to remember what is synchronized with what. With user friendly sites like SugarSync and Cubby, Copy's procedure for linking folders outside of its own Copy folder is unnecessarily convoluted. It is not for someone who thinks computers should be the ones doing the work.
  • Bitcasa is yet another service. It claims to sync, but it does not sync computers. All of the computers link to the same file on the Bitcasa site. Such files are not available offline as is the case for a true syncing program.

Then, there are the peer-to-peer (P2P) services. They synchronize files with no online backup! The problem with P2P is that if a file (or folder) is accidentally deleted from one device, it's deleted from every device. If the second computer is a backup for the first, well...not anymore.

  • Cubby has this feature as part of its paid Pro service.
  • AeroFS is a free single folder P2P service. (I want to be careful here. It is P2P in that your computers can sync each other without having to store the data on AFS's servers. It does NOT make your computers part of a distributed network that services other users, too.) It is in beta release, so there may still be serious issues to be uncovered and resolved. However, it keeps chugging along and the staff is good about responding to posts in the support section of their website. Their latest goodie is the ability to wipe computers remotely, a very good thing if a laptop is lost, stolen, or strayed.
  • GoodSync is listed here for completeness. I don't know much about it. Where other sites offer free 2 to 5 GB accounts with full-featured access, GoodSync's free accounts "...can have 3 or less jobs...and 100 or less files and folders in each job", whatever that means. GoodSync is also unique in requiring a separate license for each computer.
  • I'm not sure where to put Syncbox (or iSyncbox, as the company is called), so I'll put it here. Syncbox lets you set up your own cloud storage.for free! A portable hard drive can be plugged into a computer (or router; I haven't tried it with a router, yet) to serve the same function as other services' cloud storage. I tried the simple experiment of erasing a file from my Syncbox and it disappeared everywhere. However, when I checked Events under the software I installed as part of Syncbox, I could click on that event and restore the file.

    Syncbox, like Dropbox and most other services, is a single folder solution. The files being synchronized have to be in a folder called Syncbox. At the moment, I find that the Syncbox (the program that lets a computer connect to your cloud) client has unpredictable effects on my system. I started with less than 1 GB to get a sense of it. There were no ill effects on my home network, but when I gave access to it from a computer at my office, the computer all but ground to a halt. I suspect this will be fixed in future updates but, for the moment, I'm not using it.

What I'm Doing

[Remember, this is the guy who thought Cubby was a great program...until it changed every time stamp it touched so that they were all the same!]

  • I'm using Dropbox to synchronize my smaller personal files (song lyrics, photos, and the like).
  • I'd been using Cubby to synchronize files between work and home, but I'm puzzled why Cubby is always running. I'll likely go back to it if the problem is ever resolved, but for the moment, after flipping a coin, I decided to use Copy (rather than Mozy Stash) instead. [Tried both Copy and Stash. Their problems are worse that Cubby's, so I'm back with Cubby. I will likely check out Jottacloud, when syncing comes becomes available, as well as Box.]
  • I'm using AeroFS to synchronize 121 GB of music files on my desktop and laptop. AeroFS is still being beta tested, so I'm backing up the files onto an external drive every so often. Because AeroFS is in still in beta with possibly unpredictable behavior, it is available by invitation only. If you're eager to try it and understand the risks, I'll be happy to send you an invitation...but only if you appreciate the risks and back things up properly.

A Small Request

IF, I say "if", after investigating some of these sites with their respective strengths and weaknesses, you decide to try

It gains me extra space for each referral. I'll remove the links once I've maxed out. Thanks!


  1. Hello, is it possible that you can send my a invite for AeroFS, it will be very very nice. Thank you

    1. If I had your email address, I'd be happy to. AFS needs an email address to send the invite to. It does not have to be the address that responds. For example, you could give me a throwaway address forward it to your "real" email and reply from there.

  2. Syncing files from one or two personal computers is a breeze with our advancement in technology now. With a vast array of online storage as your disposal, I suggest you consider getting the most secure one. A lot of cases with lost files and corruption have arisen at the height of these storage programs.

    Williams Data Management