Google’s new file-syncing service is finally available, and it looks pretty great. But how does it stack up against the current king of file syncing, Dropbox? Here’s where each app shines (and falls short).
The Desktop Clients
Google’s desktop client is very similar to Dropbox’s — in fact, certain parts just seem copied exactly from Dropbox’s interface. When you install it, you can choose where to put your Google Drive folder, as well as choose which folders you actually want synced to your desktop. You can choose to sync Google Docs files or not sync them, your choice.
Once it downloads all your files, you’ll see them in your Google Drive folder, just like Dropbox. Each has a green checkmark if it’s synced, or a blue refresh icon if it’s currently syncing. Items created in Google Docs have their own special icons, and can only be opened in Google Docs. If you double-click on them, they’ll open up in a new browesr tab. This is fine if you want to use Google Docs, and it works well with Google Docs’ offline viewing, but it’s really annoying if you want to be able to tweak docs in your favourite desktop word processor — you actually have to go to the Drive web app, export them as an Office-compatible file, then open that copy up instead. I get that Google Docs is integrated, but I wish I had a choice in the matter. Other, non-Google Docs files will show up normally and open with their default programs.
The Web Apps
Google Drive’s web app is where it really shines. You’re probably pretty familiar with it already: it looks exactly like Google Docs, except you have two views: a list view (like the one in Docs) and a thumbnail view, that will show you previews of all your documents, images and other files. The web app has a search bar at the top and, just like other Google products, it’s pretty powerful — you can search by document type, owner and other advanced filters. Dropbox has an advanced search, but it isn’t quite as good — you can only search for “all these words” “any of these words” “this exact phrase”, or “none of these words”. It’ll suffice for most things, but those of us that have gotten used to Gmail’s awesome search powers will really love Drive.
Drive’s search also hooks into Google’s Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and Google Images database, to find images and uneditable document scans using text search terms. So, if you’ve scanned a document, it’ll scan it and you’ll be able to find it by searching for words in the document. Similarly, if Google can tell what your pictures are of, you can search by subject — for example, searching “Eiffel Tower” will bring up your photos of the Eiffel Tower from your recent holiday. Dropbox can’t do any of that.
Lastly, like Dropbox, Drive’s web app also has built-in viewers for tons of different file types, including images, videos and even Adobe files. You won’t be able to edit them all from the web, of course, but it’s nice to be able to view them without downloading them or installing any extra software. Dropbox, from what we can tell, has just about the same feature set when it comes to previewing files — though Drive has the added advantage of making Docs files editable in Google Docs, as you would expect.
File Sharing and Collaboration
Both apps do pretty well at sharing files, they just work in slightly different ways. Dropbox lets you share files by right-clicking on them in Windows Explorer or the Finder and getting a link to share with your friends. Google Drive forces you to go the web app, and has a slightly confusing method of sharing files — if you check a file and go to More > Share, you can send it as an email attachment with Gmail or Share with other people. When you click Share, you either type in the names of other Google users to add it to their Google Drive, or click “Change” next to “Who Has Access” to share it with “anyone that has the link” or “public on the web”. It’s a bit more convoluted, and we wish there was better desktop integration, but at least the feature is there. Both services also let you share entire folders with other people, for easy collaboration.
Google Drive, however, has an edge in the collaboration department. Not only can you share folders, but it also has all of Google Docs’ built-in collaboration features that we love so much. By sharing a document with another Docs user, they can edit the file, make comments, and so on. That way, you don’t just see the edited file, you see what they’ve done and can chat with them in real time as they do it.
We tested syncing a 50MB file with both programs, with interesting results. By default, Dropbox is significantly slower, because it automatically throttles your upload speeds. However, this is all tweakable in Dropbox’s preferences. You can change how fast it uploads and downloads files, which is great if you don’t want it to steal bandwidth from other important things (like video chatting, games or BitTorrent). Google Drive doesn’t give you these options, which is kind of annoying. With Dropbox set to “Don’t Limit”, it uploaded files at the same speed as Google Drive in our tests.
However, Dropbox also has LAN sync, which means transferring files to another computer on your network is going to be a lot faster than Google Drive, which will download it from the servers instead of the other computer. After uploading our 50MB file to Dropbox, it took less than a minute to show up on our other machine, while Google Drive took about 3 more minutes.
Drive is also really annoying in the sense that it doesn’t give you any information about how fast it’s syncing or when it’s done. Dropbox’s system tray icon will not only show you when it’s uploading or downloading just by looking at the icon, but if you hover over it, it’ll also show you how fast it’s going and how long it thinks the transfer will take. It’ll also notify you when new files are added. Drive doesn’t do any of these things. To see if it’s syncing, you have to right-click on it, and it’ll only tell you that it’s syncing — now how fast it’s going or how long it’ll take. It doesn’t have any notifications, so the only way to see when it’s done is to right-click on it compulsively, reload your Drive folder in Windows explorer, or visit the web interface. Dropbox wins this section by a mile.
Both services offer revision control, although for normal, non-Google Docs files, Dropbox does it a little better. In Google Drive, you can see revisions by opening a file and going to File > See Revision History. If it’s a Google Docs file, you’ll be able to see the revisions in detail, but for other files, you just have a choice of downloading old revisions to your desktop, which kind of sucks. Dropbox, on the other hand, will let you restore old versions of a file right from the web interface, which is much more friendly. So, each has their own advantages depending on what kind of file you’re looking at, but the bottom line is that you can always revert to an older version of a file if you need to.
Lastly, each gives you different amounts of space for different prices. Dropbox only gives you 2GB for free, while Drive gives you 5GB — although it’s very easy to get more Dropbox space for free, and you can get well beyond 5GB. However, if you need more than, say 50GB of space, you’ll need to pony up some cash. Drive is significantly cheaper than Dropbox, offering 25GB for $US2.49 a month, 100GB for $US4.99/month, and even 1TB for $US49.99 a month (with a few other tiers in between, and going all the way up to 16TB). Dropbox, on the other hand, gives you 50GB for $US9.99/month (or $US99 a year), 100GB for $US19.99 a month (or $US199 a year), and anything above that requires a pretty expensive Dropbox Teams account, starting at $US795. If you’re looking to save cash, Drive is the clear winner.
Drive is actually pretty solid for something that just launched, but they’re also super late to the game, and it’s a little disappointing that they’re only most of the way there after all this time. If you’re a heavy Google Docs user, you’ll probably love Drive, but Dropbox still has the edge in most of our minds — especially because its desktop app is just so much better than Google’s. Have you tried out Google Drive? What do you think of its feature set and how it compares to Dropbox (and, the big question: Will you be switching)? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.