Online storage face-off: Google Drive vs. Dropbox

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Dropbox separates out private and public sharing. Files and folders may be selected to share. Click a link icon to the right of any file or folder, and Dropbox creates a public link that can be used by any recipient or discovered that includes a view-only preview for many document and media types. Click the Sharing icon at the top of the file view to walk through an assistant to pick a folder (not single files) to share. Only Dropbox accountholders can access shared folders, and the contents of folders are always modifiable by all invitees.

But, wait, Google has landed punches on Dropbox in the storage plexus. That’s gotta hurt. Google opted to exclude the size of shared files folders from your total storage quota. Dropbox, in contrast, adds the full size of all folders shared to the rest of your storage. It’s strange, because those files are only stored once, as Dropbox uses de-duplication on its servers, keeping a single master copy (plus backups) even for files that occur a million times in user folders and across non-shared accounts.

After the bell: Google landed body blows in this round, and Dropbox is staggering, but still on its feet.

Round 4: Old versions and deleted files

Another advantage of saving to a folder that syncs all changes back to a central warehouse is that such a service can keep every update as a separately retrievable version. Such “version control” or “version tracking” can be useful when you need to scroll back through time and recover lost changes or even a lost file.

Right-click on a file (not a folder) in Dropbox, and choose Previous Versions. A list of versions in reverse chronological order, with the name of the person who edited a file (useful for shared files) as well as the ID of the computer on which that revision was made. You can click a Preview icon (magnifying glass) to download an earlier version, or click the radio button and then the Restore button to have the item in all sync folders replaced by the selected version.

Dropbox starts doing a little close work here, chopping away at Google’s defense, in that Google Drive stores revisions, but has two separate ways to access them based on file type, and doesn’t allow a simple restore. Control-click a file and select Manage Revisions for a file that’s not using Google Docs. A display shows revisions, but you have to click an earlier version to download it: you can’t automatically replace the version in your sync folder with a previous revision. For a Google Docs file, click the file, and then from the menu, choose See Reversion History, which allows you to compare visually different revisions in the document window.

Google stores 30 days of versions and up to 100 revisions per file, counting storage against your quota, while Dropbox keeps unlimited revisions for up to 30 days and doesn’t calculate their size. (Revisions are only the incremental differences between two files, and may be tiny for text files and other documents.) Dropbox also offers Pack Rat, which stores unlimited versions forever, but only for paid individual (must be turned on) and business accounts (always on).

Oh, and Dropbox snuck in under Google’s guard, and got in two uppercuts over deleted files. First blow is that Google uses a Trash folder to manage deleted files, and counts them against your storage quota. And another to the chin: when the trash is emptied in Google Drive, the file is gone for good. Dropbox doesn’t count deleted files, and you can restore any deleted file from the previous 30 days with a free account. Pack Rat for paid accounts allows permanent retention of deleted files. (There's no way to delete a file from Dropbox forever, which is a separate concern.)

After the bell: Dropbox came back in slugging, and managing to stagger Google, which is looking like the fight is nearly gone before the final round.

Round 5: Mobile apps

Ringside pundits were expecting a K.O. by the final round, but Google managed to refresh itself between rounds—the company has a new iOS version of Google Drive alongside its existing Android one. Dropbox has long offered an iOS app, and has Android and BlackBerry versions as well. Both apps can view formats native on the iOS, like Word and PDF, and send files to other apps to view or edit.

But Dropbox lands blows against Google Drive, with its evolution of the app from a hard-to-use browser of files to one that allows the display of photo gallery, a simple tap to store locally, a single screen Open In option, and straightforward uploading methods for photos and videos from an iPhone. Google allows viewing and modifying settings for existing users of shared folders, but Dropbox offers a single tap way to create a public link for sharing.

After the bell: Judges award the bout to Dropbox on points. Google slumps in its corner saying, “I could have been a container.”

The decision

Google Drive has only two advantages over Dropbox: a greater variety of sharing options, and online editing of its own document types and previews of many others. But for core syncing and version control features, Dropbox comes out on top as the current all-round champion.

Glenn Fleishman never lived on the waterfront, but pursues the sweet science of writing as a senior contributor to Macworld, an editor and programmer for TidBits, and one of the writers of the Economist’s Babbage blog.

This story, "Online storage face-off: Google Drive vs. Dropbox" was originally published by Macworld.

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