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.


Anonymous said...

Your blog shows up as dark brown on black on my machine, both in FireFox and Chrome. It's basically unreadable. :-(

David said...

There was a comment here that got lost about my blog showing up as dark brown text on a black background.

Dear Anonymous: Sorry to hear it! :( I assume the usual background image got replaced with a black image for some reason. It shows up fine for me in Chrome, so I'm hoping it was just a temporary glitch. If it's still wrong, let me know and I'll look into a fix.

Anonymous said...

Useful article, David. Especially about how to to configure google docs for scriviner. Thanks. Linda

Anonymous said...

I was using Dropbox (not enough free space for me), Sugarsync (same like Dropbox, and for me slow).

Now I am using new service - Copy. They will give you 15GB for free.

If you register on Copy by this link, and install their application to backup / sync your data, you will get 20GB for free!
Here is the link:

Bonus for you is, that if you will find some referral, you will get next 5GB for free per each! Like this, you can get unlimited space for free!

David said...

I've already got 25GB of free Dropbox storage through devious use of Google Ads and a few other tricks. Thanks for the tip though!

Kevin T. Keith said...

Thanks for this good review.

Could you offer some advice?

I'm using Scrivener on several different platoforms (work computer, home computer, laptop). I was saving projects on Dropbox, which was working pretty well: wherever I opened them, I would have the up-to-date version I saved from wherever I last worked on it.

But some corporate clown decided Dropbox was a security risk, and everybody had to delete it from their work computers. I can still access Dropbox through the Web on my work computer, but I cannot save files directly to Dropbox through the browser using my work-computer-based applications. (This is true no matter what application: Word, Excel, Scrivener, etc.) I have to save my files to my local drive and then upload them individually to Dropbox, or they won't synch.

This is obviously a pain, and it's a particular problem with Scrivener project folders. How do I synch them with Dropbox under these conditions? Better, is there a way to force Dropbox to accept files directly from the application that downloaded that file from Dropbox over the Web (they can download but not upload, under my current setup)?

Thanks for any suggestions.

David said...

Hi Keith,

First, your corporate clown is right. Dropbox is a huge security risk if some script kiddie compromises your account and uploads a load of malware to your computer. Speaking of, if you've got the option, go ahead and enable two-factor authentication in your Dropbox account, m'yeah?

Second, be careful writing at work. We've all had those meetings where those story notes you scribbled under the table were the only productive thing that happened. But, if you've signed the wrong contracts, anything you write on your work computer is property of the company you work for. If you're writing fiction they probably won't care enough to enforce that, mind, but you could still get a stern talking to.

With all that said... I would recommend setting Scrivener to backup to timestamped ZIP files, and then upload only those to Dropbox, manually. It's a pain, but you'll avoid some potentially nasty syncing errors if you don't upload your active Scrivener project. Also set your non-work computers to backup to a Dropbox folder, so you only have to do the manual upload on your work computer.

Hope that helps, and good luck with your projects.

Kevin T. Keith said...

Those are good points about security (network and personal!) on the job.

Thanks for the suggestion re: ZIP files. I had been using Scrivener's default backup settings and hadn't thought about changing them - or using the .zip as the main synch file.

I'll try that. Thanks again.

David said...

I got 48GB of dropbox just by dint of having a Samsung android device.

collaboration is difficult, though, as my total storage (I already had 16gb) consumes whatever Dropbox bandwidth is available under the person's DB account I'm syncing with. So If I share a 6GB folder with someone who only has 1GB of available space, they're locked out.

On the other hand, sharing files via Google drive is not friction-free as in dropbox - people still have to go through a sign in or authentication process to download a file, regardless of the permissions I've set. works better in this regard than either of the two I've mentioned. And I'm now making increasing use of We Transfer - no friction. If I need a file to go from point A to point B, it just works.