Should you pay for Dropbox or use its free version? If the storage differences between the free and paid versions of the popular cloud-storage service don’t make up your mind, there are plenty of useful features — some added as recently as June — that might seal the deal.
For basic use, the free version of Dropbox gets you 2GB of storage space that syncs across a maximum of three devices, as well as access to the (relatively new) Dropbox Paper module for collaboration. Of course, that’s not a lot of storage if you plan to use the service to archive tons of files, photos, or videos.
Plunking down a monthly fee for Dropbox gets you more storage and features. For $18 per month, the Plus level of service gets you 2TB of storage plus a few more valuable features, like access to Smart Sync and remote-wiping of your devices. Breaking the bank with a $30 monthly subscription moves you to the Professional plan: 3TB of storage, access to Dropbox Showcase (see below) and even more options for collaboration.
That’s the overview, at least. In this guide, we’re going to take an in-depth look at Dropbox’s most noteworthy features to help you decide whether you should consider ponying up a monthly fee — even the priciest tier — for what it offers.
All versions of Dropbox, including the free version, have access to the desktop app — you’ll get the same basic file-synchronisation features whether you’re paying for Dropbox or not.
After signing up for a Dropbox account, you’ll want to download the desktop version of the software. This will create a folder on your computer named “Dropbox” and it will place a Dropbox icon in either your menu bar if you’re a Mac user or your system tray if you use Windows.
Once the folder is created, anything you place in it will automatically sync to the Dropbox cloud. So if you want all of your documents to sync, for example, it would be a good idea to drag that folder into the Dropbox folder to keep it continuously backed up.
Dropbox always works in the background to ensure the most recent changes are synced to the cloud as long as you’re online, and if you don’t have an Internet connection, it will sync as soon as you reconnect.
Selective sync and smart sync
You have two options for keeping the files on your computer and the files in your Dropbox cloud account synchronised. All Dropbox accounts — including the free version — come with selective sync, which allows you to designate certain files that will only be stored in the cloud, not on your local computer.
Setting up this feature can allow you to free up hard drive space, but you will no longer see the files on your computer and will have to log into the Dropbox app to access them.
If you join the service at one of the higher membership levels, Plus or Professional, smart sync will let you choose which files to remove from your computer and store only in the cloud, but you’ll still be able to see and access them from within your desktop Dropbox folder.
To activate either service, click the Dropbox icon on your computer, choose the three menu dots in the upper right-hand corner, click on preferences and choose the sync option. You will see areas to set up either selective or smart sync based on your subscription.
Permissions, quick actions and rewind
Right-clicking on a folder or file in your desktop Dropbox folder will open a quick-action menu that will allow to share files via email, copy the link to the file on the Dropbox server, follow a link to the file on the web, and set up your smart sync permissions if you have that level of membership.
The quick-action menu will also allow you to activate the “rewind” feature if you have either the Plus or Professional subscription, which lets you access a previous version of a file. Plus members can go back up to any version from the last 30 days, while Premium members can access 180 days’ worth of files.
Clicking “share” will bring up a window that allows you to enter the email address of the person to whom you’d like to send the file, and it also lets you choose the file permissions. Choose “Can Edit,” and the folder or files can be edited, deleted, added to another Dropbox folder or downloaded by anyone you share them with. If you share the files with another Dropbox user, they will also be able to comment on the file.
Choose “Can View” and the editing and deleting functions will be blocked, as will the ability to add the file to another Dropbox folder.
You can also access permissions and rewind options via Dropbox’s website. To do so, find the folder you’re interested in working with and choose the “share” button that appears after you hover over it. Use the pull down menu to choose the proper permissions.
To activate the rewind function at the Plus and Premium levels, click on the three dots to the right of share button and choose that option from the drop-down menu. This menu also allows you to download the file, star it (to mark it as important), or rename, move, copy or delete it.
When you hover over a file in your Dropbox web interface, you’ll also see an additional menu option called “Open With.” This allows you to open your document on a variety of platforms thanks to certain third-party integrations with Dropbox.
You can open documents with a desktop editor like Pages or Word, online programs like Google Docs or Microsoft Word Online or you can send it with Gmail. You can also use programs including HelloSign, Adobe Sign or DocuSign to send your document for a signature or HelloFax to send it as a fax. These features are available at all levels of Dropbox, including the free version.
When you open a file in your Dropbox account, you, along with any other Dropbox user to whom you’ve given access, can post comments. To do so, open the file and either select the text you want to comment upon or write an overall comment in the box at the right of the screen. If you want to address your comment to a particular person, simply use the “@” symbol and begin typing a name. If you’ve granted access, the name will appear and can be selected.
Once a comment has been addressed, click the “Resolve” button in the upper right-hand corner of the box to remove it. Alternatively, you can reply to the comment in the same box. This feature is also available at all levels of a Dropbox subscription, including the free version.
As part of the new iteration of Dropbox, a feature called “Paper” is now included — and comes with the free version of the software as well as all other subscription levels. It can be accessed in the left-hand column of the home screen online or through the menu on the mobile app.
Paper is basically a workspace where multiple people can collaborate and add text, images, music and other files. To get started, either click on the “Show templates” button on the main Paper screen and choose a Brainstorming, Meeting Notes, or project plan, or create your own template.
Next, choose which members you want to add to the document by clicking the blue “Invite” button at the top of the screen. You can add files using a selection from the black menu bar that pops up when you click in any field in the template. From this menu, you can choose to add images; media files from apps including YouTube, Pinterest, Spotify, Trello and more; files from Dropbox; tables; timelines; to-do lists and more.
Once you’ve created a Paper document, you can publish it by clicking the link at the top of the page.
Mobile offline mode
The mobile version of Dropbox is set to let you see the files you have synced to the cloud, but those files are not automatically downloaded to your phone. However, you can always click the three-dotted menu icon either next to a file in a list (or once inside a file) to toggle the switch that will grant you access when you are offline. This functionality can be found across all versions of Dropbox.
Another feature that is available in the free as well as paid versions of Dropbox is the ability to request large files from other people.
To request a file from someone, first choose “Files” from the menu on the left of the main screen, then choose the “File request” option. Click on “Create a file request” and walk through the steps to set up the folder that will receive the files. At the end of the process, you’ll be given a link to send to anyone from whom you’d like to request a transfer.
One option that’s reserved exclusively for Professional-level subscribers is Dropbox Showcase. This feature is a bit like getting an instant webpage that you can share with clients or collaborators. It has a simple drag-and-drop interface that lets you add your logo plus photos, videos and animations in an eye-pleasing format. Files can be uploaded from Dropbox or your own device.
Another feature reserved only for Plus and Premium members is Drobpox’s remote wipe. This means that if you lose a device containing Dropbox files, you can log into the Dropbox website and delete the app so that no unauthorised user can access it. Dropbox will wipe the files the next time the device connects to the internet.
Should you pay for Dropbox?
That depends on your needs. If you’re simply looking for online storage that syncs across your devices, you might be better off going with a free service such as Google Drive, which gives you 15GB of storage at no charge; pCloud, which offers 10GB free; or Sync.com, which offers 5GB.
All of these services also beat Dropbox in terms of paid storage. Google Drive will give you 100GB of storage for $3 per month (or $30 per year); pCloud offers 500GB for $6 per month (or $70 per year); and Sync.com offers 500GB for $6 per month or 2 TB for $12 monthly.
These services all trounce Dropbox for their price-to-storage ratios and compete well on a feature-to-feature basis. So, unless you need to do some heavy-duty collaboration with Paper or turn out slick-looking showcases of your work with Showcase, we’d recommend giving one of them a try until Dropbox’s pricing gets more competitive.
Its features are nice for subscribers, but they probably aren’t enough to justify paying a higher price for less storage.