Dropbox, a pioneer among cloud storage and syncing services, offers synced desktop folders for anywhere-access. Though it’s comparatively pricey, unique tools like its Paper, Showcase, and HelloSign digital signature features distinguish Dropbox. Despite those benefits, PCMag Editors’ Choices Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive beat it out for value, OS integration, and online editing, which we judge to be more important than Dropbox’s extras. In general, with cloud services available directly from within Apple, Google, and Microsoft’s platforms, we’re skeptical about the need for third-party cloud storage, since the built-in options are so simple to use and tightly integrated into the operating systems. Dropbox is still an excellent choice for online storage, however, especially for those who’d rather not put all their data eggs into the dominant tech players’ baskets.
The company is continually adding new services. Recently announced features in private-beta include a password management service called Dropbox Passwords, the PIN-protected Dropbox Vault, and HelloSign digital signatures. A limited computer backup feature is available as a beta release for all users, and a Family Plan with 2GB shared among six users has been announced, but pricing isn’t yet available. We’ll update this review as the features become available to all users.
Price, Storage Allotment, and Upload Limits
This review focuses on Dropbox for personal use. For the corporate audience, PCMag has a separate Dropbox for Business review.
All the Dropbox apps are free to download, and there are plenty of them, but storage is limited if you don’t pay. The free Basic account starts you out with a meager 2GB—and you won’t find it on Dropbox’s site unless you get there via a specific web search or navigate directly to dropbox.com/basic. You can earn more space through referrals (an additional 500MB for every friend who joins, up to 16GB) and other actions, such as contributing to the user forum. By comparison, several other file-syncing and storage programs give you much more than 2GB to start. For example, Box gives you 10GB free—five times as much as Dropbox.
For those who need more than the free account offers, Dropbox has two account levels for individuals and two for businesses. The Plus account costs $11.99 per month or $119.88 per year, which gets you 2TB of storage. Plus also adds offline file access, remote device wipe, Smart Sync (like OneDrive Files on Demand), and priority email support. The next level up, Professional ($19.99 per month or $199 per year) gets you 3TB, Smart Sync (like OneDrive Files On Demand), a Showcase feature to present and track your work, shared link controls, full-text search, watermarking, 120-day version history, and live chat support.
For comparison, SugarSync has a $9.99 per month plan, too, but it only gives you 250GB of space. For the most bang for your buck storage-wise, IDrive offers a truly whopping 5TB for just $69.50 per year. Microsoft OneDrive’s 1TB account goes for just $6.99 per month, or $69.99 per year—but that also gets you a subscription to installable and online Microsoft Office 365 programs. And a $99-per-year OneDrive Family account gives six users each 1TB along with the Office apps. Google Drive’s 2TB account is $9.99 per month, the same price as Apple iCloud.
As mentioned, you get more free space—10GB—with Box. Be aware, however, that Box limits uploaded files to 250MB each for non-paying members. For $10 per month, you can increase your Box storage allotment to 100GB, and a $15-per-month Business Box plan gets you unlimited storage. Both paid account levels increase the maximum file upload size to 5GB (still smaller than Dropbox).
In terms of free accounts, OneDrive offers 5GB of free space for U.S. users, which is more than double Dropbox’s offering. Google Drive gives you 15GB to start, but the math gets tricky with Google Drive. That 15GB is spread across Google Drive, Gmail (including spam), and Google Photos, so you might eat up the space quickly. Not all files count against your limit, however. Anything you created with Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides (what most people call Google Docs) doesn’t count. Photos don’t count if you choose High Quality (which tops out at 16 megapixels) rather than Original quality. See Google’s help page on Drive storage limits for even more confusing details.
With Dropbox, there is no file-size limit for files uploaded via the desktop application or mobile apps, provided your account has enough room. Files uploaded via the website, however, are capped at 50GB.
The price for Business Dropbox accounts varies based on the number of employees. Pricing starts at $15 per month per user, with a minimum of 3 users. Business accounts include a lot of additional features and services, such as multiple team management, and audit log, and granular sharing permissions.
Supported Apps and Compatibility
Dropbox has been in the file-syncing and storage game for years, and its maturity shows. There are Dropbox apps for Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone, iPad, Android, Kindle Fire, BlackBerry, and Windows tablets (as a UWP store app). In a pinch, there’s a web app that works well, too.
When installed on a laptop or desktop computer, Dropbox works almost invisibly, appearing and working more like a part of your operating system than a separate app. It looks different from other cloud syncing services, such as SugarSync, which has a complete app interface even on the desktop. But OneDrive, iCloud, and Google Drive blend with the operating system even more tightly.
One huge perk to using Dropbox is that it integrates with practically every other app and web service out there. Say you have a mobile email client that can integrate with cloud storage services. Dropbox is almost definitely going to be among them. Dropbox is also a supported app on IFTTT and Zapier. Compatibility with other services is rarely a problem for Dropbox users.
How to Get Dropbox, and the Basics
Dropbox is available as a download for desktop installation from the company’s website, and for mobile devices from their respective app stores. The site makes it easy for new users to install Dropbox, detecting their operating system and automatically suggesting the right program.
When you download and install the client, you create a Dropbox account or sign in to an existing one. You can sign in with Apple or Google’s sign-in services or use your own email and password. Next, the program creates a folder on your computer called Dropbox. You can choose where to install it, or you can accept the default location (you can always move it later).
Once installation finishes, an icon appears in the top menu bar in Mac or system tray in Windows that lets you open your Dropbox folder with just one click. From this same icon, you can also reach your Preferences and Settings to adjust, for example, the folder’s location or upload and download speeds. Soon after installation, a message appeared in the tray icon popup told us we had to reinstall Dropbox to fix its syncing icons.
To use Dropbox, you simply put files in the Dropbox folder and leave them there. Everything else is automatic. Like most other file-syncing and storage services, Dropbox automatically syncs your files everywhere, so they’re available on any internet-connected machine where you’ve installed Dropbox or that has a web browser. Files you save at home automatically show up on your office computer. Photos you upload from the Dropbox iPhone app show up on your laptop at home, and so forth.
Unfortunately, if you don’t want Dropbox to take up space on your computer’s local hard drive, you have to spring for a Professional paid account. The online-only option thus afforded shows files stored in the cloud, downloading them only when you try to open them. OneDrive’s Files On Demand option does this for all accounts, and Google File Stream does it for G Suite—but not personal Google Drive—accounts. Dropbox does let you select folders you don’t want synced locally, but the filenames won’t be visible in your desktop Dropbox folder.
Though file syncing services are not the same as online backup services, like OneDrive, Dropbox can back up a few folders that do not live inside the service’s master folder: Documents, Desktop, and Downloads (OneDrive’s backup option adds Pictures to those). Note that if you’re already using another service to back up these folders, the Dropbox setup for backing them up will fail. As you can see above, the feature is in beta currently. Once you’ve set it up, you can use the folders normally, and any files stored in them will be available on the web and in the mobile apps.
If you delete files from your Dropbox folder on your computer, they will also be deleted from all the other devices on which you have Dropbox installed and from your online Dropbox account. IDrive and SOS Online Backup keep locally deleted files in the cloud forever (in what’s called archiving), just in case you deleted them by accident. Dropbox does offer a sort of grace period, according to its documentation: “If you have a Dropbox Basic (free) or Plus account, you can recover any file or folder deleted in the last 30 days. If you have a Dropbox Professional or Business account, you have 180 days to recover deleted files.”
Security and Privacy
Dropbox uses standard SSL/TLS for transferring files, and data at rest is encrypted using 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). You can choose two-factor authentication using either SMS text messages or an authenticator app like Microsoft Authenticator. In terms of Privacy, Dropbox’s relevant help doc says,
“Like most major online services, we have a small number of employees who must be able to access user data when legally required to do so. That’s the exception—not the rule. We have strict policy and technical access controls that prohibit employee access except in these rare circumstances. In addition, we use a number of physical and electronic security measures to protect user information from unauthorized access.”
Dropbox offers a few ways to share files with others and collaborate. The newest is a suite of collaboration tools collectively known as Dropbox Paper. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the disastrous Google Wave project of several years ago—free-form documents that grew unwieldy and disorganized as collaborators all chimed in. Luckily, Dropbox Paper is far more elegantly implemented than that was. From right within the Dropbox web app, you can create new Paper documents, to which collaborators can add videos, images, tables, as well as emojis and stickers.
Dropbox Paper is only available in a web browser and in its own mobile apps. You won’t, however, see your Paper docs in the Dropbox folder on your computer, but a link from the system icon has a link to open Paper in your browser. It includes commenting tools nearly everywhere, and nearly all its features can be used collaboratively just by adding an @ symbol and the name of the collaborator in question. For example, there’s a to-do list option that lets you jot down tasks you need to complete, or tasks for a group of people, where you’d use @name to make the assignments clear.
One specific and cool collaboration option is to comment on a specific point in an image. You can even add Dropbox-stored files to a Paper doc. Comments resemble those in word processors, with balloons in the margin, which collaborators can react to with emoji or mark resolved. When you share a Paper with someone, they can view it without having a Dropbox account, but must have one in order to edit—standard in office collaboration products.
You can convert any Paper doc into a template—handy if you need multiple instances of a doc with a set layout of text, tables, and images, for example. Paper also offers a Meeting Note for keeping track of agenda items that can hook into your calendar and become associated with a meeting that’s on your schedule. A generic brainstorming document gives you and others a place to dream up new ideas.
When you collaborate on a Dropbox Paper document, you don’t see the flags showing who’s typing; you do see initials and a different-color insertion point for each collaborator, however, as you do in Office Online. A Paper document can be exported to Word, PDF, or markdown (.md) file format. Paper is a modern take on office collaboration, but don’t confuse it with a full-scale project management app like Asana.
In addition to Paper, Dropbox offers other ways to collaborate. One is by connecting with Microsoft Office. I was able to use Office Online with a free Dropbox account without even having an Office Online account—Dropbox created one on the fly. The web address remains that of Dropbox, rather than Office, and you can’t choose Word account settings or add-ins the way you can with Microsoft-hosted Word Online. In action, it looks the same as any other collaborative editing in Office Online, only the file is saved in your Dropbox account instead of to OneDrive.
You can create a new Office file directly in the Dropbox site, and you see the document on-screen and color-coded flags for each contributor as they edit. As you and your collaborators edit, everyone sees the changes appear as they happen. But using Dropbox for this adds an unnecessary extra layer of complexity over just using OneDrive.
New since the last time we looked at Dropbox is the ability to create, edit, and collaborate with Google Docs as well. Note that it only works if you turn off tracking protection in your browser, since it relies on its own third-party cookies. To be honest, I can’t think of a good reason you wouldn’t just want to use and collaborate in Office 365 or Google Docs with their native online storage services, which are both more streamlined and directly integrated. Google Drive and OneDrive have supported real-time collaboration for longer.
Dropbox now has its own web-based App Center, where you’ll find other new integrations, including for Slack, Trello, Zoom, and Atlassian services.
Digital Signing With HelloSign
Dropbox now lets you attach secure digital signatures. I can see this feature being especially useful for law offices, among other businesses, and if you’re sharing documents with Dropbox, having the capability built-in makes a lot of sense. Unlimited use of HelloSign requires a separate subscription ($13 per month), but I was able to use the integrated service in a free Dropbox account without such a subscription. A Dropbox contact informed me that all users can get three signatures per month for free, which is perfect for the amount I use them.
The other, more basic way to collaborate in Dropbox is to share files. The service discontinued support for Public folders, which used to be automatically created at setup. Now you have to share files and folders to specific contacts. You can share any file or folder in Dropbox. Just tap the Share button next to the folder or file. You get choices of Can Edit and Can View, but only Dropbox Professional and Business users get sharing options like restricting link access to specified users, link expiration, and password protection. OneDrive does all this for free.
Another option when you right-click any folder lets you share it more quickly. Choose Share Dropbox Link, and after you choose copies to your clipboard without you having to visit the Dropbox website.
One of our favorite features is that when you share files, Dropbox notifies you when someone accesses it, comments on it, or it has other activity. You get an email that says who did what, and if you have the Windows UWP app installed, you get a system notification saying what happened.
Another worthy collaboration feature, called File Request, lets you set up a folder and request that people put stuff into it. Imagine a professor who wants students to upload assignments, rather than delivering them by email. It would also be a convenient way to collect documents from job candidates. Other services, including Google Drive, also let you share folders, but the permissions work differently. With Google Drive, a collaborator can either have view-only access or editing access. In either case, the person can see all the content in the folder, even if someone else uploaded it. The beauty of the File Request feature is that the collaborators can’t see what’s in the folder. They can only blindly drop files into it, which is a necessity in many cases.
Finally, Dropbox offers Showcase in Dropbox Professional accounts. This offers a way to present documents using a drag-and-drop page designer. You add text blocks, images, links, documents, sections, and titles. A nice touch is the option for a background image faded behind your title. Video links that you include will play right on the page. You can then keep tabs on who’s viewed or downloaded your Showcase. It’s similar to what you can do with Microsoft Sway or Adobe Spark. Unlike those, however, Dropbox requires viewers to have an account to comment on Showcases, though not to just view them.
Simple Syncing, With a Dash of Collaboration
Veteran online file syncing service Dropbox offers easy setup along with a deep feature set and seemingly endless web service integrations. Its lightweight Paper collaboration, Showcase tool for web presentations, and HelloSign digital signatures distinguish the cloud-syncing service. Those and support for document co-editing make it a useful tool for teams. Editors’ Choices Microsoft OneDrive and Google Drive are more competitive price-wise, however, and both also include excellent built-in document collaboration and easy online file sharing.
|Emphasis||Simplicity, Ease of Use|
|File Size Limit||2GB|
|Free Storage||2 GB|