Accessing the same set of files from an iPad and a Mac is commonplace now, thanks to file-syncing services. Dropbox and iCloud may be the best known, but they are just two of a growing range of options. Here’s my take on some of the better-known alternatives. Keep in mind that as I was doing the comparison, even more options were surfacing. Among the newest are Google Drive, an updated version of Microsoft’s SkyDrive app, Quickoffice Connect, and Cubby.
When you first install Dropbox on your Mac, it creates a Dropbox folder with 2GB of free storage (5.0/5.0; macworld.com/a/1156705). Files and folders you drag into the Dropbox folder are automatically uploaded to Dropbox and stored on your Mac. Connect other computers to your Dropbox account, and your files automatically sync with those systems as well. And a universal Dropbox iOS app lets you access your Dropbox-stored files from your iPad.
If you need more storage, Dropbox offers paid options: You can spend $10 per month ($99 per year) for 50GB, or $20 per month ($199 a year) for 100GB.
Getting files into Dropbox from your Mac is dead simple—you literally just save them to Dropbox or move them to the right folder. Getting at those files on your iPad with the iOS app isn’t hard either: On the left, there’s a sidebar showing your files, along with four tabs: your Dropbox folder, Favorites, Uploads, and Settings. The larger right pane can show previews of document formats that iOS handles natively, like music and video files, Microsoft Office and Pages documents, PDFs, and images. If you have apps installed that can open or edit the files in your Dropbox folder, the Dropbox app offers an option to open your files in those apps.
Mark a file as a Favorite and it’s cached locally on your device, meaning that you can access it even when you’re offline. The Dropbox app tries to ensure that the latest version possible is cached, but some manual policing is involved; tap an Update All button within the app before you head out if you know you’ll be without an Internet connection and will need access to your Favorites. The Uploads tab lets you sync photos and videos from your iPad’s Camera Roll to Dropbox. Settings include options to choose image and video upload quality, a passcode lock for added security, and the maximum amount of local storage the app can consume.
You can share files from within the app by selecting them and tapping the appropriate button; you get options to copy a shareable URL to the clipboard or compose an email with that URL in it.
Oodles of apps offer built-in Dropbox integration—you’d be hard-pressed to find a text editor for the iPad that doesn’t.
Box (box.com) overlaps somewhat with Dropbox’s basic offering, though in some ways, Box is demonstrably superior—for example, the service includes 5GB of free storage space, compared with Dropbox’s 2GB. But Box’s primary focus is on business customers; if you sign up for a free account, you must agree to use it only for personal data.
A free Box account is subject to several limitations: You can’t upload files larger than 25MB (Dropbox has no individual file size limit). And there’s no free option to create a Dropbox-style folder on your Mac that syncs your data to Box automatically; instead, you have to upload files by dragging them into Box’s Web interface or clicking an Upload button. You can’t drag entire folders into Box, only individual files.
If you’re willing to pony up some cash, you can pay $10 per month (or $100 per year) for 25GB of storage, or $20 per month for 50GB; each of those two plans has a maximum file size of 1GB. That pricing isn’t as good as Dropbox’s. To gain Dropbox-style desktop syncing, you need to upgrade to a business plan, which costs $15 per user per month (with a minimum of three users) and includes 1000GB of storage with a 2GB maximum file size.
YOU’D BE HARD-PRESSED TO FIND A TEXT EDITOR FOR THE IPAD THAT DOESN’T OFFER BUILT-IN DROPBOX INTEGRATION.
So, how’s the iOS app? Actually, it’s very much like Dropbox’s—the same two-paned layout with files on the left and previews on the right, the same notion of Favorites for caching files on your iPad, and the same option to use a passcode lock for added security. As with the Dropbox app, you can use the Box app to upload photos and videos, as well as open compatible files in other iOS apps. The Box app also includes an option to save comments with your files; you can see those comments in the app and on the Web.
Pull down on your list of files and release to refresh it. A separate Updates tab offers a quick view of your most recently added or updated files, giving the Box app a leg up for users who frequently manipulate files.
While far fewer apps offer Box integration compared to the number that work with Dropbox, you’ll still find plenty of Box-friendly options (including Quickoffice Pro HD, Documents To Go, and NetSuite; see www.box.com/apps for more).
SugarSync is a bit more like Dropbox than it is like Box—and it offers some clever advantages over each (sugarsync.com). First, let’s talk pricing. A free SugarSync account offers 5GB of storage. Paid options include $5 per month ($50 per year) for 30GB, $10 per month ($100 per year) for 60GB, $15 per month ($150 per year) for 100GB, $25 per month ($250 per year) for 250GB, and $40 per month ($400 per year) for 500GB.
When you install SugarSync Manager on your Mac, you can choose which folders from other computers it syncs to your local machine. As is also the case with Dropbox, file icons update to indicate when they’re syncing or completely synced, and a menu-bar utility lets you keep tabs on what’s happening. Here SugarSync has an advantage over Dropbox: It lets you choose specific folders to sync from anywhere on your Mac. That means you can selectively sync, say, your Documents folder or your Photo Booth photos without needing to move those files into a single location.
If you prefer the Dropbox model, fear not: SugarSync also includes a folder called the Magic Briefcase, which behaves just like the Dropbox folder. It’s a single place to store files and folders that you’d like to ensure get synced to all your devices.
The SugarSync app, like those of Dropbox and Box, sports a two-paned interface. Despite that visual similarity, the app offers several unique features. Its sidebar lists multiple devices—each device on which you’ve installed SugarSync—so that you can easily navigate files stored on, say, your desktop Mac, your laptop, and the iPad itself. Like its competitors, SugarSync offers options to sync or back up your iPad’s photos and videos. The left pane gives you quick access to your Magic Briefcase, Web Archive, and Recent Documents.
It’s worth noting that SugarSync’s iPad app was the only one I tested that crashed regularly, especially when I relaunched it shortly after I had used it.
Apple’s own cloud-storage solution is called iCloud, and it’s a very different beast from the other solutions we’ve discussed. There’s no stand-alone iCloud app to launch on your Mac or iPad. The service doesn’t create a user-accessible iCloud folder on your desktop where you can drop files for syncing. (Though you can access an iCloud folder on your Mac, Apple warns that doing so is unsupported and may result in data loss.)
iCloud is free with 5GB of storage; for $20 per year you get 15GB, $40 per year gets you 25GB, and $100 per year gets you 55GB.
iCloud is, in fact, a hodgepodge of features and syncing technologies under one name: You can use iCloud to sync email, reminders, calendars, and contacts between Macs and iOS devices. You can use it to back up your iPad’s data. And you can use the service in tandem with Apple’s $25 a year iTunes Match music-syncing service. Those are features none of the other services covered here provides.
But iCloud does offer its own take on document syncing, most easily demonstrated by Apple’s iWork apps—Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. On the iPad, working with iCloud-hosted files in those apps is seamless. On the Mac, it’s pretty clunky. We’ll deal with the bad news first.
The Mac versions of the iWork suite currently cannot access iCloud-stored files directly. That may change over the next few months. Mountain Lion, the new version of OS X coming out this summer, will reportedly allow you to access documents in the cloud via an interface similar to the old Open dialog box familiar to Mac users.
For now, the only way to open or save iWork documents in iCloud on your Mac is by visiting the iCloud website (icloud.com). When you go to the site, you can see any existing iCloud-stored documents for each of the three iWork apps; download, duplicate, and delete files; and upload new ones. If you download a Pages document from iCloud.com and edit it on your Mac, you then need to upload your edited version to the website again.
The situation is better on the iPad. When you fire up an iWork app on the iPad, you see an overview of all your iCloud-stored documents (provided, of course, that you’ve enabled iCloud syncing; if you’re not sure you’ve done so, go to the Settings app, scroll down to the iWork app in question, and verify that the Use iCloud option is turned on). When you edit your documents on the iPad, the iWork app automatically saves your changes and syncs them back to iCloud.
iCloud differs from the other file-syncing services in one important respect: Let’s say you have a couple of text editors on your iPad that can sync with Dropbox. Each of those editors can open any of the text files you’ve stored there. That can’t happen in iCloud. Instead, each application gets its own dedicated virtual file space. In other words, you can’t open a Pages document stored on iCloud in any other text-editing app.
So, which service should you choose? That’s the million-dollar question, right? Actually, it’s not. The nice thing is that you don’t necessarily have to choose at all: You can use these services in tandem. And you probably should, because none of them is a perfect solution. iCloud within iWork apps has the best-integrated iPad experience but isn’t as convenient on the Mac. Dropbox works well on the Mac, and the iPad app is capable and can send documents over to Pages (and many other apps), but—unless you’re using an iPad app with Dropbox integration—there’s no easy way to sync the updated document with Dropbox again.
I use a combination of Dropbox, SugarSync, and iCloud. (I don’t use Box because I find its lack of a free desktop-syncing option too frustrating.) Between those free services, I have more than enough room to sync the data I need to sync, and I can choose the best option for the data at hand.