Saturday, April 28, 2012

Writer's Review: Dropbox vs Google Drive

If you're anything like me, you worry about backing up your writing. All sorts of things can burn you: hard drive failures, lost notebooks, actual fires, the dog ate my manuscript... anything, really.

Cloud storage is getting to be the backup solution of choice for a lot of people. Put your stuff on the Internet and you can download it anywhere! Never worry about losing your work because it's living on a gajillion servers!

I've been using Dropbox for months to backup my work. It's simple: You have a folder on your computer. You put your writing into it. If you're connected to the Internet, your work gets uploaded. Done. As long as you don't have more than 2 gigabytes of files to upload, you don't even have to pay for anything.

Then this week Google released Google Drive, which is Dropbox by Google. It works on the same principle (see folder: drop files in), but it integrates with Google Docs and comes with a whopping 5 gigabytes of storage, free. So if you're a writer, is there a good reason to switch?


It's hard to argue with 5 gigs of free storage compared to Dropbox's 2. Granted, it's very easy to get a lot of additional Dropbox storage, free, especially if you have a smartphone. And if you're just using these programs for writing, well, it's fairly hard to fill up 2 gigs of space with only text files and Word documents.

With that said, Google Drive unquestionably has more storage, cheaper, right out of the gate. And if you do get to the point where you need to pay for additional storage, Google sells it for about half the price Dropbox does.

Advantage: Google Drive


Dropbox and Google Drive sync files in fairly different ways. The basic idea is the same - file changes are uploaded to your cloud storage from one computer, then downloaded from the cloud to any other computers you've got the program installed on. But Dropbox has a feature called LAN sync, which lets you sync files across Dropbox-equipped computers on your personal LAN (i.e. your home wireless network) without reaching out to the Internet. This means you get much faster syncing if you have multiple computers at home. Google Drive doesn't do this at all: everything has to upload to and download from Google directly.

Another issue comes with resolving conflicts, where you try to save two different copies of the same file to the cloud. Say you edit a document on one computer while you're offline, then edit that same document on a different computer while you're online. When you connect that first computer to the Internet, the two files will be different, and you'll need to resolve the conflicts to make sure you've got the right version of the file saved.

Dropbox handles this by renaming the conflicted file, identifying it as conflicted and adding the name of the problem computer to the filename. This makes it very easy to figure out what happened, and to clear up the conflict.

Google Drive, on the other hand, just uploads both files and saves them in the cloud with the same filename ( but different timestamps). The duplicate files get downloaded to all computers as copies, renamed using whatever native scheme the operating system uses (i.e. test.txt and test (1).txt). The problem with this is that you can easily end up losing track of which file is which. Here's an example:

- I create a file test.txt on my laptop while I'm offline. It says "Hello".

- I then create the same test.txt file, with different text in it, on my desktop while it's offline. It says "World".

- I connect both systems to the Internet and sync with Google Drive.

- I check my laptop. There's a file called test.txt that contains "Hello", and a file called test (1).txt that contains "World".

- I check my desktop. There's a file called test.txt that contains "World", and a file called test (1).txt that contains "Hello".

- This happens:

You can see how that could be a problem.

Advantage: Dropbox


Both Google Drive and Dropbox have file versioning features. Basically if you edit a file, you can retrieve the previous version from your cloud storage for a fixed period of time.

Google Drive seems to keep your revisions pretty much forever, which is extremely handy. Dropbox can do the same thing, but only if you use a paid storage plan. If you only use the free storage, you only keep your revisions for 30 days. On the other hand, Google Drive only keeps revisions for files that you haven't deleted. If you delete a file and empty your trash, it's gone forever. Dropbox will let you reclaim your deleted files, but only for the times noted above.

Advantage: Google Drive - but only the free version

Writing Tools

I use Scrivener for most of my manuscripts these days, so it's important that my cloud backup system can cope with Scrivener's file format (really a bunch of folders containing text files and RTFs) well. On the surface, both Google Drive and Dropbox don't have any problem handling it. It's all files, after all.

Google Drive does have big one gotcha, however, which is that it wants to convert any RTF files you upload into Google Docs format, and store them like that. This is a huge no-no if you want Scrivener to keep working. A Google Doc is not an RTF, and you can't edit it like one, even if you have Google Docs offline set up. Fortunately it's very easy to disable this "feature". Dropbox doesn't have an equivalent cloud file format, so it's a non-issue.

There's also the syncing issue I mentioned above. A conflicted Scrivener file is a pain in the ass no matter what program you're using, but Google Drive has the potential to be a much bigger pain in the ass than Dropbox.

On the other hand, Google Drive does let you edit your files directly in the cloud using the well-developed Google Docs interface. If you're don't want to pay for Scrivener or Microsoft Office, this is a very good rich text editor (not as good as LibreOffice, mind, which is free). Also, Google Docs don't count towards your storage limits. Again, Dropbox has nothing comparable to this.

Advantage: Tie - it really depends on how you want to work


I haven't collaborated on my writing online, so I really can't speak to this from personal experience. However, Google Drive lets you collaborate on a per-file basis, where Dropbox limits you to collaborating by sharing entire folders with other people. This makes Google Drive easily a much more collaboration-friendly solution, giving you a greater amount of granularity in how you share files with much less hassle than Dropbox.

Advantage: Google Drive


Overall I'd say that either solution is very useful as a backup solution, if nothing else. Which one you choose is largely going to depend on how you like to work.

Google Drive gives you more space than Dropbox for less money. It has a robust collaborative editing system, and gives you the ability to create and edit files directly on the cloud. For somebody who wants to store a lot of files, or wants to work in a team environment frequently, Google Drive takes the crown.

On the other hand, Dropbox beats the pants off of Google Drive when it comes to syncing, both in speed and conflict resolution. It's also a bit nicer about recovering files you deleted, if only for 30 days, and Dropbox's storage space limitations can be overcome (and exceed Google Drive's limits by 11 gigabytes, if you work at it) without too much trouble. If you don't collaborate, and you work across multiple computers in your own house, Dropbox is the preferable solution.

I will probably end up sticking with Dropbox for now, if only because I'm already familiar with the program, and I value the syncing benefits Dropbox has over Google Drive's collaboration tools. If Google Drive improves over time, I might well consider switching later.

P.S. If you want to give Dropbox a try, please use this link to sign up. I could use the extra space.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mea Culpa

Yesterday I posted a rant about how I couldn't get my Kindle eBook covers to display properly in the Kindle for Android app. Today I found out how to fix the problem. Oops.

The trick is simply this: Download the Send to Kindle application for your PC, then send each one of your problem MOBI files to the Kindle cloud. After that, you can download your books to your Android device and the covers will show up properly. This doesn't do anything for PDFs and your file has to have a cover in the first place, but it does do a brilliant job with Black Library's eBooks.

This is neither a quick nor easy fix (especially if you have over 150 eBooks, as I do), but it does work well, and it's an added layer of backup for my Kindle books.

So, Amazon: My apologies for flying off the handle. I'll be updating my application review shortly with a higher rating. But with that said, please make the cover display a little more robust? Not having a problem is still preferable to having a workaround for a problem.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Little Rant About Kindle for Android

I apologize for the lack of updates lately... actually no, I don't, because I've been packing and moving and unpacking and fighting off swarms of killer bees. On my time off. I'll get back to irregular blogging, but you'll have to bear with me.

Right now I'm checking in to rant a little bit about Kindle on Android.

It's a brilliant idea on Amazon's part - Your phone is a Kindle! Buy books from us! - and for the most part it works fine. Great, in fact. It's an excellent backlit backup for my normal Kindle, when I'm in low light conditions or if I just want to pick up a book on the go. It even syncs between my devices so I can keep track of what page I'm up to.

If that was it: Superb. Fantastic. A five-star app for sure.

But there's more.

The Kindle only syncs books I buy through Amazon. If I buy through somebody else? No go. I have to use Calibre to convert them into a Kindle-sync-friendly format. But hey! My fault! No harm, no foul. Still a great app.

But it goes south with the covers.

A Kindle book on my phone consists of three files: the book, the cover image (JPEG format), and a little .opf file. All have the same name except for the extension. Dead simple to associate with each other.

Kindle shows your books by cover when you're browsing to read something. Full-color covers. Fantastic. I don't get these on the regular Kindle. I want to enjoy them. But this is where Kindle for Android goes DERRRRP!!!

It won't show me the goddamn covers.

Oh, yes, I get a little default blue book with the title in white text. Fuck that. I want my beautiful cover art.

It wasn't always like this. The covers used to display fine. Then there were software updates. Now they're gone. I don't know why.

I thought it was Calibre. I thought it was those off-market books I bought. Then I bought A Game of Thrones, and that was broken. And one of the books that was already broken? Suddenly the cover displays just fine. It just happened to two other books. I didn't do anything, but it started to work.

There is no fucking rhyme or reason to this. There is no tech support recommendation beyond "uninstall, reinstall, and reboot", and it doesn't work.

And as software problems go, this one is easy. Remember: book, cover, opf file. I could associate the three of them in code myself in about five minutes. Three if I'm showing off.

I've seen this problem reported at least two major versions ago. Amazon hasn't fixed it. I'm not sure they've even acknowledged it. Why should they? You're not buying your books from us, huh? Fuck you.

Meanwhile my buggy little device is awash in a sea of random blue.

Please note: I'm bitching about a very minor problem in an otherwise excellent program. It's parsing MOBI files, which is not easy, extremely well. It's clear, easy to read, and 90% of the time it just works.

But that 10% matters. Presentation matters. It's a minor polish issue, something that should be an easy fix. And it's not getting fixed.

I'm not going to stop using Kindle for Android. I sincerely hope I have to eat my words on the next software update. But until then, this five-star app?

I rate it at about two.