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A Brief Overview of Dropbox

Dropbox is one of several applications that I install shortly after
setting up the basics of any new machine or rebuilding an existing one.

In this video created for an Ask Leo! webinar,
I’ll walk you through some of Dropbox’s features and functionality.


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Hello, everyone! This is Leo

Today I’m going to talk about one of the pieces of software that I install
first on almost every machine and that’s Dropbox.

Dropbox is an interesting file sharing utility that has a tremendous amount
of value if you are attempting to share files between multiple people or on
multiple machines. Get Dropbox from We’ll go ahead and download
Dropbox; I’m going to go ahead and run it. We do want to allow Dropbox to make
changes to our computer. We’ll start the Dropbox setup program and now Dropbox
is running; in fact, you can see the icon down here in the lower right.

At this point, if you don’t have a Dropbox account, you will want to create
one. That is the identifier that tells you or tells Dropbox which set of files
that you want to have shared across all of your machines. In my case, as you
might expect, I already have a Dropbox account so I’m going to go ahead and
login with that.

Dropbox is free. The first 2GB worth of storage are free. As you can see
there are options to allow you to get more storage for a fee. However, a great
deal of utility can be had simply with that 2 GB free service.

We’re going to go ahead and walk through Advanced because I want to make
sure there aren’t any hidden options that we don’t understand. You can choose
where to put your Dropbox folders. In my case, I am going to go ahead and allow
it to put it in the default location in the C:\User\LeoN folder. I do want all
of the folders in my Dropbox to be synced. You can configure Dropbox to ignore
certain folders but to me that’s beside the point. There is a tour and I would
encourage you to take it just as a walk through. In our case, we’re going to
skip it. And we’re done.

Now, the interesting thing about Dropbox is that in a sense, it really has
no user interface. All that it’s done is it has opened the folder
C:\Users\LeoN\Dropbox on my Dropbox. What you can see here then are all the
folders that exist within my Dropbox. As we speak the files that are in those
folders are being copied to this machine. In my case, I have several gigabytes
worth of information so that’s actually going to take a little bit of time.
Fortunately, Dropbox can and will use computer-to-computer communication if
computers running Dropbox happen to be on the same local network. By that I
mean if I have two machines running Dropbox on my local network, Dropbox may
not necessarily go out to the internet to get the master copies of the files.
Copying between machines will probably be a lot quicker than trying to download
over your slower internet connection.

The thing to note about Dropbox as it works is that it has added a small
little icon to each of the folders that you see here. Some of the icons are a
little green checkmark, that implies that the contents of that folder are
completely synchronized with the master copies of those files. The little blue
arrow chasing its tail icon indicates that this folder contains files that are
not yet synchronized and are not up-to-date with respect to the rest of your
Dropbox. So what do I mean by up-to-date? Dropbox works very simply. On the
internet at, are your master copies of your files. When you make a
change to a file on your PC, that file is automatically uploaded to your master
copy. On another computer running Dropbox logged into that same account, it
will be notified that the master copy of that file has been updated and it will
then begin to download the file. The net result is as soon as you change a file
on machine ‘A’, within a few seconds depending on the size of the file and your
internet connection, the file is also changed on machine ‘B’.

First, I want to go ahead and take a look at the master copy. We got Dropbox
from but instead, what we can do is go back to’s
homepage and login with the same user account that we created. Immediately,
Dropbox takes us to a user interface on the web that allows us to access all of
our files. What this means is that even without a computer, you have the
ability to access the files that you have stored in your Dropbox from any other
computer from which you can safely login. This does represent the, what I call
the master copy of your files that’s replicated to your machine or to other
machines that are logged in to this same Dropbox account.

While Dropbox continues to download some of my files, let’s take a look at
one possible use. You’ll notice here I have one folder called Reading. In
Reading, are a number of files and sub-folders; you’ll notice they are mostly
PDF files. The way I use Dropbox in this particular case, is when I have a file
that I know that I going to want to read but may not want to read right away,
I’ll throw it into this Dropbox so that the file is available on all of my
machines that have Dropbox installed. As I said, you can have Dropbox installed
on multiple computers. So for example, these files are present on my laptop and
on my desktop so that if I were to add a file to either it would show up on the
other. That’s convenient for when I’m away from home and traveling I know that
I have all the documents I need with me. These files are available on all of
the machines I have that happen to have Dropbox installed on. That includes my
phone and my tablet. Dropbox is available for iPhone and for Android based
devices and as such that means that any device I happen to have PDF reader on,
for example, I can use to read these files even without my computer, just using
my phone. By placing them in Dropbox they become immediately available on all
of those devices. Another example of this is the Mp3 folder that I have or my
Music folder.

What I have here are downloaded copies of podcasts that I listen to
regularly. But since I don’t know exactly where I’ll be when I want to listen
to them, I make them available across all devices so my phone can be my Mp3
player if that’s all I have with me or I can use my Notepad, my laptop or even
listen to them on my desktop.

Dropbox’s basic file sharing model uses your Dropbox account to indicate
which files should be available on which machines. When you installed Dropbox
as you saw earlier, you include the account that you use with Dropbox and as a
result of that account, those are the files or folders that then get copied on
to that machine. Dropbox can also be used to share files and folders with other
people, as you can see here at the top, I have a couple of folders that are
listed as Andrea-Leo and Connie-Leo. Andrea is my personal assistant; Connie is
my technical assistant who will actually be editing this video. So what I do is
I’ll eventually drop the raw video for this video segment into this folder and
after some amount of time depending on the speed of my internet connection and
her internet connection, these files will show up on her machine. She can then
do the work she needs to do to create the finalized video, she places them back
in this folder and again, after some amount of time, depending on our internet
speeds, those files show up magically on all of my machines.

How do you share? Well, the easiest way is from the web interface. And you
can see here that the shared folders actually have a slightly different icon,
so for example, if I want to share the dot folder, I would just click on the
checkbox next to the dot folder in the web interface, and click on ‘Share
folder’. You specify the email address of the person you want to share with and
they can either use that email address to create a new Dropbox account or they
could use their existing Dropbox account to gain access to simply that one
folder, no more, no less. So in, for example, Connie’s Dropbox installation,
she would see this Connie-Leo folder along with her other folders but none of
my other folders.

Finally, you’ll notice that there’s one folder here labeled Public. In that
folder I have an image; an image of my coffee cup as a matter of fact. That
image is available publicly on the internet. On the Dropbox menu item that
appears on Dropbox enlisted folders, you can see there is an item that says
‘Copy public link’. If I copy that link and go to web browser, (I’ll open up a
new tab here) paste in that link which I’ll leave here so that you can see it
as well; I’m going to leave the image up there. If I then go to that, that file
is downloaded to my computer and in this particular case, viewed in Internet
Explorer. This is a very convenient way to quickly and easily make files
publicly available or available to anyone who doesn’t have a Dropbox

One final word, there’s been a little bit of controversy with respect to
Dropbox and whether or not the staff at Dropbox can access your files. The
short answer is, they absolutely can and this is true for any service that
allows you a web interface or an interface that allows you to retrieve your
password if you lose it. Basically what it boils down to is if you can login to
the web to access your files, then they can access your files on the web.
There’s nothing special about this; it’s actually true for almost all online
services including even services like Gmail or Google Docs or any of the online
services that as I said, allow you to reset your password. The administrators
on a service like that can absolutely, if needed go in and see your files.
Normally, we trust them not to; the only other case where they may be required
to access your files is in response to a court order.

So, if you want to keep something private, completely private the only
solution is to encrypt it yourself before placing it in your Dropbox. Now
you’ll see in this particular case, I have a folder I call Crypt. Inside of
Crypt would normally be a TrueCrypt volume, Now, that file can be
accessed by a Dropbox employee if under court order. However, since the
contents of that file are encrypted, they cannot access the contents of that
file. All they can see is the random data that represents the encrypted file.
Without my passphrase, that file is secure in anybody’s hands. The bottom line
is when placing data in any online storage service be it email, file storage or
anything else, be cognizant of the fact that under certain circumstances those
services can access your data and you may need to take steps to protect your
before placing it in such a service or simply choose not put your data on those
service in the first place. So that’s Dropbox in a nutshell. It’s a very useful
file sharing service; specifically for sharing files across multiple machines
automatically; for sharing files with individuals in a controlled fashion and
sharing files with the public, anybody, using the Public folder.

I’m Leo Notenboom for

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17 comments on “A Brief Overview of Dropbox”

  1. What is the difference between Dropbox and Evernote? Do you use both or do you see different uses for each? Or do you just use one and if so, which on as of now, 11/1/11?

    I hope you’ll respond to this one because others may be confused also by your two ‘webinars’.

    They’re often confused, I know. Check out A brief overview of Evernote as well.

  2. I have just read the script and strongly agree with all you say.

    However, you do not mention the horrors of conflicted copies. While these may not be difficult to resolve in simple cases, they can easily arise if a TrueCrypt volume is mounted on more than one computer, and in such a case they can be quite messy to sort out – I speak from experience.

    I’m sure you know as well as I do that TrueCrypt containers don’t get synchronized until they are dismounted. But potential users need to be told, or they’re likely to find out the hard way.

  3. I’m dying to try Dropbox, but when I tell the recipient (friends and family) they all balk at having to add the program to their computers. Even after I provide them with copies and links to your site, to the Dropbox site etc, they hem and haw. Quite frustrating.

  4. The Copy Public Link feature for files in the Public folder is really cool, I think. What a great way to share files w/o having to email them as attachments. And graphic files show up right in people’s browsers when you provide the links to them. So easy, so cool.

  5. Well done Leo, Dropbox is an answer to ‘sending’ large volume of Photos to multiple locations. Well presented, keep up the good work. pb/Montreal

  6. How are you able to see what has updated in Dropbox from all others that you are connected with if you aren’t at your device when the item is actually updated or without going into each individual file and seeing when it was last modified?

  7. I like that Dropbox detects colliding modifications to files, made by different users simultaneously.

    I dislike that Dropbox allows only one “Dropbox” folder per client username, associated with a particular Dropbox user on the Dropbox server.
    So when I run the Dropbox client software, it manages a particular local folder, and I cannot tell it to switch to a different Dropbox user account, with a different local Dropbox folder. Is there an alternative to Dropbox that will allow more than one account for a single client user?

  8. @Robert
    I’m not sure if there are any that allow you to do that. Bust as a workaround, you can use a different cloud service for each account, eg a Skydrive, a Google Docs etc.

  9. I have 3 computers all have dropbox – when I put pics on 1 it goes on all the others however I have got an mp3 file on 1 but it won’t show on the others – can you tell me why please

    Not really much to go on here, but I’d make sure that DropBox is actually running on all machines, that you’ve given it enough time for the file to transfer (mp3’s are typically larger and hence take more time), and speaking of space, make sure you haven’t bumped into whatever space limit you have with your DropBox account. I’d login to the DropBox web site to see if the file has even been uploaded yet.

  10. Hi. I am in school and I use dropbox very much and love it. But with a lot of teamworks I want to put all the groups in a same place. Can people see my files if i put my shared dropbox in a normal folder?


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