Ask LH: Are There Cheaper Alternatives To Dropbox?

Ask LH: Are There Cheaper Alternatives To Dropbox?

Dear Lifehacker, I recently bought a MacBook air and I love it but I find it very frustrating trying to keep files in sync with my iMac all the time. I have tried Dropbox but $120 a year is too much to pay. I need to sync about 40GB of files. What can you suggest? Thanks, Out Of SyncDear Out Of Sync,

While we’ve offered guidance on tactics for getting more space in a free Dropbox account, there’s no way that will get you anywhere near 40GB. The Pro 50 account which offers 50GB costs $9.99 a month; you can make a minor saving by paying for a year in advance, but you’ll still be out $US99.

While there are a number of Dropbox alternatives, the stark reality is that for the volume of storage you’re looking at, very little is going to be cheaper. Disk space and bandwidth are cheap, but they’re not free — nor, more signficantly, are the software smarts needed to make them work across multiple platforms.

If you really don’t want to pay for sync options, one potential cheap alternative is to use an external drive or USB stick to store all your documents, and sync between the two machines by the simple expedient of connecting to whatever you’re working on at the time. That doesn’t offer online backup, but it doesn’t involve any cost beyond the initial purchase of the drive, and it will work even if you can’t get Internet connectivity. It wouldn’t be my preferred solution, but it’s better than nothing.

The other method to consider is to sign up to multiple free online storage services, and use each one for a specific type of data. We’ve outlined this approach in the past, and it’s also a possibility, but it requires you to be very disciplined in where you store everything, which means you can’t necessarily take advantage of the default Mac storage arrangements for photos, music and the like. Relatively few free storage services offer syncing, so you’ll also have to be comfortable with some data being largely cloud-resident rather than on both drives to adopt this approach.

Readers: any other approaches you’d consider before paying? Tell us in the comments.


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  • The questioner’s mileage may vary but I use rsync to keep my macbook’s files synced to my home server. My home server is accessible from the interwebs so I can access my files from wherever I can get a net connection.

    In my case, a nightly run of rsync meets my needs, but it can definitely be scheduled to run more often.

    Best bit is that rsync is already built right into OSX so there’s nothing else to install! (Though it does require some configuration… You’ll also need a static IP or dyndns-type account if you want to rsync from outside your home network.)

  • Got a friend or family member with a broadband connection? Just set up rsync over ssh with them (bi-directional, then you can both take advantage of physical and geographical redundancy for your data).

    Depending on how much stuff you are syncing the initial sync will probably take a while, but after that the incremental updates should be reasonably fast and non-intrusive.

    Best of all, it’s almost free.

    • It’s now “Windows Live Mesh 2011”

      If you used Live Mesh beta, Windows Live Toolbar, or Windows Live Sync (all discontinued on March 31, 2011) they are all now called “Windows Live Mesh 2011”

      My partner just said “Microsoft have a product called Windows Live Meh?”

      +1, Baby 😉

  • It doesn’t sync, but for a cheap online storage alternative you could try adrive

    They give you 50Gb for free, but the tools are fairly basic.
    $69.50 (or $6.95 per month) gives you more tools (FTP, Webdav, basckup and more) but still the 50Gb storage.

    Its the largest free storage amount the I’ve seen.

  • I echo the comments about ssh/rsync – but you will need some smarts to make that happen.

    If you think US$100 a year is too expensive, consider this: If your HD died and you didn’t have a backup, how much would you pay to have the data recovered? (I can tell you that it won’t cost you any less than AU$1000)

    At this point, some people will realise how good $100 a year is, considering that it’s not just a backup. But that depends on how much you value your data and the ability to access it from different computers.

  • Crashplan is a good backup option with unlimited storage for 1 user at $3 per month, or friends and family for $6 per month. You can also get 10GB for $1.50 per month.

    I use the linux client which backs up over 50GB from my computer, plus data from my partners computer on the family plan.

    You can also backup files to locations on your network or other drives as well as to crashplan servers.

  • I would suggest registering for a paid web hosting – you can get ones with unlimited space and bandwidth for not that much, or you can get a limited space and bandwidth for less than dropbox anyways with nearly all of them!

    Im not sure how well Macs would work with FTP, but you could then use that to update it, or you could install a web-ftp application onto your new website, and buy a domain name, so you really could access it anywhere – just like dropbox!

  • It’s not automatic and both machines have to be able to talk to each other but I use always sync on Windows machines. Not sure if they support MAC and can’t easily check from my phone but it should be easy to look up…..

  • Very old article, but its funny these days with Google Drive just released, that Dropbox is now the expensive one, and there are a handful of much cheaper alternatives..

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