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Dropbox is a file sharing tool that can make keeping files on multiple machines and sharing them with others very easy. I'll show some of its features.

Dropbox is one of several applications that I install shortly after setting up the basics of any new machine or rebuilding an existing one.

In this video created for an Ask Leo! webinar, I'll walk you through some of Dropbox's features and functionality.

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Hello, everyone! This is Leo Notenboom for

Today I'm going to talk about one of the pieces of software that I install first on almost every machine and that's Dropbox.

Dropbox is an interesting file sharing utility that has a tremendous amount of value if you are attempting to share files between multiple people or on multiple machines. Get Dropbox from We'll go ahead and download Dropbox; I'm going to go ahead and run it. We do want to allow Dropbox to make changes to our computer. We'll start the Dropbox setup program and now Dropbox is running; in fact, you can see the icon down here in the lower right.

At this point, if you don't have a Dropbox account, you will want to create one. That is the identifier that tells you or tells Dropbox which set of files that you want to have shared across all of your machines. In my case, as you might expect, I already have a Dropbox account so I'm going to go ahead and login with that.

Dropbox is free. The first 2GB worth of storage are free. As you can see there are options to allow you to get more storage for a fee. However, a great deal of utility can be had simply with that 2 GB free service.

We're going to go ahead and walk through Advanced because I want to make sure there aren't any hidden options that we don't understand. You can choose where to put your Dropbox folders. In my case, I am going to go ahead and allow it to put it in the default location in the C:\User\LeoN folder. I do want all of the folders in my Dropbox to be synced. You can configure Dropbox to ignore certain folders but to me that's beside the point. There is a tour and I would encourage you to take it just as a walk through. In our case, we're going to skip it. And we're done.

Now, the interesting thing about Dropbox is that in a sense, it really has no user interface. All that it's done is it has opened the folder C:\Users\LeoN\Dropbox on my Dropbox. What you can see here then are all the folders that exist within my Dropbox. As we speak the files that are in those folders are being copied to this machine. In my case, I have several gigabytes worth of information so that's actually going to take a little bit of time. Fortunately, Dropbox can and will use computer-to-computer communication if computers running Dropbox happen to be on the same local network. By that I mean if I have two machines running Dropbox on my local network, Dropbox may not necessarily go out to the internet to get the master copies of the files. Copying between machines will probably be a lot quicker than trying to download over your slower internet connection.

The thing to note about Dropbox as it works is that it has added a small little icon to each of the folders that you see here. Some of the icons are a little green checkmark, that implies that the contents of that folder are completely synchronized with the master copies of those files. The little blue arrow chasing its tail icon indicates that this folder contains files that are not yet synchronized and are not up-to-date with respect to the rest of your Dropbox. So what do I mean by up-to-date? Dropbox works very simply. On the internet at, are your master copies of your files. When you make a change to a file on your PC, that file is automatically uploaded to your master copy. On another computer running Dropbox logged into that same account, it will be notified that the master copy of that file has been updated and it will then begin to download the file. The net result is as soon as you change a file on machine 'A', within a few seconds depending on the size of the file and your internet connection, the file is also changed on machine 'B'.

First, I want to go ahead and take a look at the master copy. We got Dropbox from but instead, what we can do is go back to's homepage and login with the same user account that we created. Immediately, Dropbox takes us to a user interface on the web that allows us to access all of our files. What this means is that even without a computer, you have the ability to access the files that you have stored in your Dropbox from any other computer from which you can safely login. This does represent the, what I call the master copy of your files that's replicated to your machine or to other machines that are logged in to this same Dropbox account.

While Dropbox continues to download some of my files, let's take a look at one possible use. You'll notice here I have one folder called Reading. In Reading, are a number of files and sub-folders; you'll notice they are mostly PDF files. The way I use Dropbox in this particular case, is when I have a file that I know that I going to want to read but may not want to read right away, I'll throw it into this Dropbox so that the file is available on all of my machines that have Dropbox installed. As I said, you can have Dropbox installed on multiple computers. So for example, these files are present on my laptop and on my desktop so that if I were to add a file to either it would show up on the other. That's convenient for when I'm away from home and traveling I know that I have all the documents I need with me. These files are available on all of the machines I have that happen to have Dropbox installed on. That includes my phone and my tablet. Dropbox is available for iPhone and for Android based devices and as such that means that any device I happen to have PDF reader on, for example, I can use to read these files even without my computer, just using my phone. By placing them in Dropbox they become immediately available on all of those devices. Another example of this is the Mp3 folder that I have or my Music folder.

What I have here are downloaded copies of podcasts that I listen to regularly. But since I don't know exactly where I'll be when I want to listen to them, I make them available across all devices so my phone can be my Mp3 player if that's all I have with me or I can use my Notepad, my laptop or even listen to them on my desktop.

Dropbox's basic file sharing model uses your Dropbox account to indicate which files should be available on which machines. When you installed Dropbox as you saw earlier, you include the account that you use with Dropbox and as a result of that account, those are the files or folders that then get copied on to that machine. Dropbox can also be used to share files and folders with other people, as you can see here at the top, I have a couple of folders that are listed as Andrea-Leo and Connie-Leo. Andrea is my personal assistant; Connie is my technical assistant who will actually be editing this video. So what I do is I'll eventually drop the raw video for this video segment into this folder and after some amount of time depending on the speed of my internet connection and her internet connection, these files will show up on her machine. She can then do the work she needs to do to create the finalized video, she places them back in this folder and again, after some amount of time, depending on our internet speeds, those files show up magically on all of my machines.

How do you share? Well, the easiest way is from the web interface. And you can see here that the shared folders actually have a slightly different icon, so for example, if I want to share the dot folder, I would just click on the checkbox next to the dot folder in the web interface, and click on 'Share folder'. You specify the email address of the person you want to share with and they can either use that email address to create a new Dropbox account or they could use their existing Dropbox account to gain access to simply that one folder, no more, no less. So in, for example, Connie's Dropbox installation, she would see this Connie-Leo folder along with her other folders but none of my other folders.

Finally, you'll notice that there's one folder here labeled Public. In that folder I have an image; an image of my coffee cup as a matter of fact. That image is available publicly on the internet. On the Dropbox menu item that appears on Dropbox enlisted folders, you can see there is an item that says 'Copy public link'. If I copy that link and go to web browser, (I'll open up a new tab here) paste in that link which I'll leave here so that you can see it as well; I'm going to leave the image up there. If I then go to that, that file is downloaded to my computer and in this particular case, viewed in Internet Explorer. This is a very convenient way to quickly and easily make files publicly available or available to anyone who doesn't have a Dropbox account.

One final word, there's been a little bit of controversy with respect to Dropbox and whether or not the staff at Dropbox can access your files. The short answer is, they absolutely can and this is true for any service that allows you a web interface or an interface that allows you to retrieve your password if you lose it. Basically what it boils down to is if you can login to the web to access your files, then they can access your files on the web. There's nothing special about this; it's actually true for almost all online services including even services like Gmail or Google Docs or any of the online services that as I said, allow you to reset your password. The administrators on a service like that can absolutely, if needed go in and see your files. Normally, we trust them not to; the only other case where they may be required to access your files is in response to a court order.

So, if you want to keep something private, completely private the only solution is to encrypt it yourself before placing it in your Dropbox. Now you'll see in this particular case, I have a folder I call Crypt. Inside of Crypt would normally be a TrueCrypt volume, Now, that file can be accessed by a Dropbox employee if under court order. However, since the contents of that file are encrypted, they cannot access the contents of that file. All they can see is the random data that represents the encrypted file. Without my passphrase, that file is secure in anybody's hands. The bottom line is when placing data in any online storage service be it email, file storage or anything else, be cognizant of the fact that under certain circumstances those services can access your data and you may need to take steps to protect your before placing it in such a service or simply choose not put your data on those service in the first place. So that's Dropbox in a nutshell. It's a very useful file sharing service; specifically for sharing files across multiple machines automatically; for sharing files with individuals in a controlled fashion and sharing files with the public, anybody, using the Public folder.

I'm Leo Notenboom for

Article C4966 - October 27, 2011 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Cathleen Caffrey
November 1, 2011 11:34 AM

What is the difference between Dropbox and Evernote? Do you use both or do you see different uses for each? Or do you just use one and if so, which on as of now, 11/1/11?

I hope you'll respond to this one because others may be confused also by your two 'webinars'.

They're often confused, I know. Check out A brief overview of Evernote as well.
Chris W
November 1, 2011 1:13 PM

Thanks, Leo. Very well done. We are beginning to use Dropbox and this video was very helpful.

Mark J
November 1, 2011 3:36 PM

Here's an article on Ask Leo about Evernote.
A brief overview of Evernote

November 2, 2011 5:18 AM

I have just read the script and strongly agree with all you say.

However, you do not mention the horrors of conflicted copies. While these may not be difficult to resolve in simple cases, they can easily arise if a TrueCrypt volume is mounted on more than one computer, and in such a case they can be quite messy to sort out - I speak from experience.

I'm sure you know as well as I do that TrueCrypt containers don't get synchronized until they are dismounted. But potential users need to be told, or they're likely to find out the hard way.

November 3, 2011 4:16 AM

Dear Leo,
thanks, that is a good tip. I have installed it on Linux and Windows machines. Makes my work much easier.

November 3, 2011 9:05 PM

I'm dying to try Dropbox, but when I tell the recipient (friends and family) they all balk at having to add the program to their computers. Even after I provide them with copies and links to your site, to the Dropbox site etc, they hem and haw. Quite frustrating.

Mark J
November 4, 2011 1:03 AM

You can still use DropBox to send large files to them which they can download without having to have DropBox installed. Maybe after they see how well it works, they might change their mind.

November 4, 2011 2:20 PM

ADrive give you 50GB free --
using it for years

Joe L.
November 16, 2011 7:51 PM

The Public folder feature is pretty cool. No more large attachments to emails. Just an email with a link!

November 21, 2011 6:28 PM

The Copy Public Link feature for files in the Public folder is really cool, I think. What a great way to share files w/o having to email them as attachments. And graphic files show up right in people's browsers when you provide the links to them. So easy, so cool.

Mr. Bee
December 20, 2011 10:57 AM

Well done Leo, Dropbox is an answer to 'sending' large volume of Photos to multiple locations. Well presented, keep up the good work. pb/Montreal

March 29, 2012 11:50 AM

How are you able to see what has updated in Dropbox from all others that you are connected with if you aren't at your device when the item is actually updated or without going into each individual file and seeing when it was last modified?

Mark J
March 29, 2012 12:30 PM

In the DropBox icon in the system notification area there are 2 rotating arrows in a blue circle indicating that sync is in progress and a green check mark when all the files have been synchronized.

Robert DiGrazia
May 17, 2012 4:10 PM

I like that Dropbox detects colliding modifications to files, made by different users simultaneously.

I dislike that Dropbox allows only one "Dropbox" folder per client username, associated with a particular Dropbox user on the Dropbox server.
So when I run the Dropbox client software, it manages a particular local folder, and I cannot tell it to switch to a different Dropbox user account, with a different local Dropbox folder. Is there an alternative to Dropbox that will allow more than one account for a single client user?

Mark J
May 18, 2012 12:21 AM

I'm not sure if there are any that allow you to do that. Bust as a workaround, you can use a different cloud service for each account, eg a Skydrive, a Google Docs etc.

November 29, 2012 3:17 PM

I have 3 computers all have dropbox - when I put pics on 1 it goes on all the others however I have got an mp3 file on 1 but it won't show on the others - can you tell me why please

Not really much to go on here, but I'd make sure that DropBox is actually running on all machines, that you've given it enough time for the file to transfer (mp3's are typically larger and hence take more time), and speaking of space, make sure you haven't bumped into whatever space limit you have with your DropBox account. I'd login to the DropBox web site to see if the file has even been uploaded yet.

April 19, 2013 10:25 AM

Hi. I am in school and I use dropbox very much and love it. But with a lot of teamworks I want to put all the groups in a same place. Can people see my files if i put my shared dropbox in a normal folder?

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