Posted 12/09/09 at 11:00:00 AM by Alex Castle and Norman Chan
When you get right down to it, Dropbox is a pretty simple app. It syncs folders—that’s it. But what makes Dropbox amazing is the sheer number of different ways you can use that functionality, by itself or in conjunction with other programs, to improve your computing experience. We like Dropbox so much that we’ve written about it several times before, and we still haven’t gotten to every cool thing you can do with the program.
That’s why, in this article, we’re going to share with you a whopping 15 things that we think everyone should know about Dropbox, from how to get extra storage for free to how to use Dropbox to control your Bittorrent client.
Run Dropbox as a Windows Service
If you use Dropbox on a server, like a Windows Home Server machine, it’s preferable to run Dropbox as a Windows service, so it starts up before a user logs in. Though Dropbox doesn’t officially support running as a service, you can hack this feature with Microsoft’s Srvany utility.
First, download both instsrv.exe and srvany.exe from the Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit. Copy both files to your Dropbox application directory (ie. C:\program files\Dropbox) on your server, after you’ve already installed Dropbox. This may have to be done with a Remote Desktop connection.
Open up a command prompt as an Administrator, and execute the following commands (quotes included):
“C:\Program Files\Dropbox\instsrv.exe” Dropbox “C:\Program Files\Dropbox\srvany.exe”
reg ADD HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\Dropbox\Parameters /v Application /d “C:\Program Files\Dropbox\Dropbox.exe”
reg ADD HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\Dropbox\Parameters /v AppDirectory /d “C:\Program Files\Dropbox”
Next, cut and paste all files from C:\Documents and Settings\Administrator\Local Settings\DropBox to C:\Documents and Settings\Default User\Application Data\Dropbox
Finally, type net start Dropbox in the Command Prompt.
This works on any Desktop machine as well. You’ll also have to remove the Dropbox application shortcut from the Startup folder in your Start Menu.
For more information on the Srvany utility, head here.
Use Symbolic Links to Unlock Dropbox’s Potential
The biggest problem with using Dropbox to sync programs is that it only works for apps that allow you to change where configuration files and databases are stored—a minority of all software. Lots of popular applications like web browsers, email clients, and even Steam are pretty finicky over where they store their data—they give you little or no control over what locations they use. With symbolic links, a feature in Windows Vista and 7, you can take that control back into your own hands.
Mklink is a command line command short for “make link.” It’s used to create symbolic or hard links, which allow you to connect files and folder. It’s sort of like creating shortcuts, except that they’re handled at the operating system level, so they work with any program. You can, for instance, use mklink to fool Steam into thinking that a game on a different hard drive is actually in your Steam games folder. You can link files on a single computer, or across a local network. You cannot, however, link files across the internet.
To find out all about Mklink, and how to use it, check out our Mklink How-To.
The beauty of using Dropbox with symbolic links is that the principle drawback of each goes away. Dropbox can now sync any two programs, because with Mklink you can change the location of the programs data, whether it wants you to or not, and Mklink is no longer confined to your local network, as Dropbox can bridge the game to computers out in the wider internet.
Here’s an example of how you can use this combo to cloud-ify your Firefox profile:
1. Find the directory containing your Firefox profile. A default installation places this folder in %APPDATA%\Mozilla\Firefox
2. Copy that Firefox directory into your Dropbox folder.
3. Delete the original Firefox folder.
4. Use Mklink to create a hardlink between the new and original Firefox folders, If your Dropbox folder is in C:/ you can use the following command:
mklink /J %APPDATA%\Mozilla\Firefox C:/dropbox/Firefox
Now any computer that you complete these steps on (and that has access to your dropbox account) will share the same Firefox profile. The same basic steps will work for almost any app.
Add files to Dropbox with E-mail
It’s the fifth-most requested feature in Dropbox—the ability to email a file to yourself that will automatically sync to your Dropbox account. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to do this right now. But if you’re willing mash up a few applications and services, you can make this feature work.
First, you’ll need to create a new Gmail account. This address will be what you use to temporarily store files to sync to your Dropbox. We recommend creating a new account that’s easy to remember, and not using your personal or main Gmail account.
Next, download GMail Drive, a shell namespace extension that links to a Gmail account and syncs attachments and emails onto a newly created system drive. GMail Drive creates a virtual filesystem based on email sent to your Gmail account (with GMAILFS: in the subject line), and lets you browse them as if you they were stored on your hard drive.
Finally, using the mklink command, create a symbolic link between the folders in your GMail Drive and a newly created folder in your Dropbox. This means that any time you email an attachment to your dummy Gmail account with GMAILFS: in the subject line, the files will automatically be moved to your Dropbox. This only works if you have GMail Drive and Dropbox running on an active computer or server.
Sync Your IM Chatlogs
A lot of people use instant messaging to keep in touch with their coworkers during the day. We certainly do here at the Maximum PC office, but we’re sure the same can be said for many less-technically-forward offices as well. Because of that it sometimes comes up that while you’re at home you want to remember something from a conversation you had while you were at work, but you can’t, because your IM logs are stored on your work computer.
That doesn’t have to be the case, though. If you use Pidgin, a free, open source multi-protocol IM client, you can tell it to save its logs in a folder in your Dropbox. As long as Pidgin is set up that way on all of your computers, they will all share access to the same logs.
Actually setting it up so that Pidgin saves your logs somewhere other than the default location is a little trickier than you might imagine, though. You’ll need to change the PURPLEHOME environment variable on your system, which defines where Pidgin will save its configuration files and logs. To do this, open the control panel and select System. Then select the Advanced tab, and click on Environment Variables. Now, click New under the System Variables box. In the Variable Name field, enter PURPLEHOME and in the Variable Value field, enter the location of your Dropbox folder. Now Pidgin will use a folder inside your Dropbox called .purple to save its data.
If you’re ok working from a fresh install of Pidgin, that’s all you’ll need to do. If you have existing settings and logs that you want to keep using, just copy the .purple folder from its default directory (Application Data) to your Dropbox directory.
Put Your Music Collection from the Cloud
Tired of having to juggle your music collection between your desktop and laptop computer? Want to be able to access your music from anywhere, on any computer, but don’t want to (or don’t have the cash to) set up a streaming media server? Consider setting up a $9.99/month Pro50 account to host your favorite music.
With your MP3 files and iTunes library.xml file backed up to Dropbox, you can keep multiple computers running perfectly in-sync music collections. Add music on one computer, and it’ll be available on each other computer as well. Just be sure not to make changes on more than one computer at a time.
To tell each instance of iTunes to use the library file located in your Dropbox, just hold shift while launching the program. A dialog box will come up prompting you to choose a new library file.
If you’re using a friends computer, or another computer that you don’t want to keep your whole collection on at once, you can use the Dropbox web interface to download just the files you want to listen to at one time. Just visit dropbox.com, navigate through your collection, put a checkmark next to the files you want to listen to (or next to a folder, if you want to download a whole album at once) and then select Download from the More actions tab.
Keep Firefox Settings Synched Across Multiple Computers
For people who regularly use more than one computer, it can be a pain to switch back and forth between two browsers. Sure, applications and extensions like Xmarks can keep your bookmarks in sync for you, but what about your extensions and your history. Fortunately, you can use Dropbox to keep two Firefox installations totally in sync.
“But wait!” I hear you saying “you can’t choose where Firefox saves its data!” Thats true, but there are ways to work around this. You can us Mklink, as discussed earlier, but there’s also an easier solution specific to Firefox: use Firefox Portable.
Firefox Portable is an app that’s meant to run from anywhere, such as from a portable USB thumbdrive. In order to do this, a portable app has to be entirely self-contained, not storing any data anywhere else on your system. That means that if you get Portable Firefox and install it into your Dropbox, you’ll have a full-featured browser that syncs and backs up all your data in the cloud.
Incidentally, this trick also works well for any portable app that you might want to have available at a moment’s notice.
Store All Your Passwords with Keypass
Everyone knows that good password security requires that you use passwords that are A) long, B) complicated, and C) different for every website and service you use. Of course, these three requirements also make it a total pain to memorize all the passwords you need, meaning that most people don’t follow the rules, either using one password across many services (a security risk) or writing their passwords down near the computer (also a security risk).
That’s where KeePass comes in. KeePass is a free, open source password safe. It allows you to generate a unique, totally random password for every site or service you use, while only requiring you to remember a single master passphrase. Whenever you attempt to log into a service, KeePass asks for your master passphrase, then automatically enters the appropriate password from your safe.
That’s all well and good, but what do you do if you frequently use two different computers (say, a desktop and a laptop)? You could use a USB drive to keep your KeePass password archive with you at all times, but that’s one more little bit of hardware you have to keep track of. Instead, use DropBox to keep an up-to-date copy of your password file on both computers, at all times. Just tell KeePass to save your password archive somewhere in your DropBox synced folder.
Worried about security? Fuhgeddaboutit. KeePass saves your password in an archive encrypted with nigh-unbreakable AES 256-bit encryption. That means that as long as you pick a strong, long password, getting a hold of your KeePass file won’t do a hacker a bit of good.
Know the Pricing Options, Cheapskate
We know you like getting your internet services for free. Dropbox doesn’t disappoint, as the majority of its users utilize the free 2GB account. But what if 2GB of synced cloud storage isn’t enough for you? Dropbox offers two Premium account options.
The first is the Pro 50 account, which boosts your storage capacity to 50GB (it adds 48GB so that your cap is 50GB), which costs $10/month, or $99 a year. For $20 a month, or $199 a year, you can upgrade your account to 100GB of total storage. Pro accounts also get 9 votes (as opposed to 6 for Free users) in the Votebox system, which lets users pick which features to add in the next iteration of Dropbox.
Compared to other services, the pricing is competitive. Our only wish is that Dropbox would offer more storage size options. Sugarsync, a Dropbox competitor, has premium account tiers at 30GB ($5/month) and 250GB ($25/month).
Get 5.25GB of Total Free Space
You can more than double your Free account capacity by using Dropbox’s referral system. Simply find your referral link on the Dropbox website and get a friend to create an account using that link. For each new account you refer, you get 250MB of extra space, up to 3GB. That means all you have to do get refer 12 people to max out on this referral bonus.
In addition, Dropbox gives you another 250MB bonus for becoming a Dropbox “Guru.” Just head to the Getting Started section of the website, and complete five of the six steps listed. These are pretty simple requirements, which include taking the Dropbox tour, installing the desktop app, and sharing a folder with friends. This is the quickest and easiest way to get extra free storage without using any referrals.
Pro accounts can earn up to 6GB of referral space, and downgraded pro accounts still retain any bonus space earned from referrals.
Use Dropbox to manage BitTorrent
How often have you found yourself sitting at work, only to find out that a file you’re interested (a demo for a game you’re excited about, for instance) has just become available online. Sure, you could sit there patiently, and wait until you get home to download it; but why bother waiting when you could have it ready for you as soon as you get there. Most of the big BitTorrent clients have some sort of web-based control, but those can be tricky to set up, and require that you have a static IP (or set up a DynDNS account). Using DropBox, it’s much easier.
Here’s what you’ll need to do: First, make sure you have a BitTorrent client capable of automatically loading .torrent files from a folder. All the big ones are capable of this, including uTorrent, Vuze, and the standard BitTorrent client. Next, set it up to monitor your DropBox, or a folder in your DropBox (My Documents/My Dropbox/Torrents for instance) and automatically open any .torrent file added to that folder.
Now, if you see a file you want to grab, just download the .torrent file to your Dropbox/Torrents folder, and your home PC will start the download as soon as DropBox syncs. It’s as simple as that.
Of course, this method requires that you leave you computer on all day long, a decidedly environmentally-unfriendly practice that we don’t recommend. But If you’re anticipating the need to download something (a beta test for a new MMO, maybe?) we won’t fault you for making a one-day exception.
Use Portable Dropbox to keep your data mobile
Making Dropbox into a portable app (that is, an app that can be installed on a USB thumb drive) might at first seem redundant—isn’t Dropbox meant to replace thumb drives, after all? But if you stop to think about it, there are ways in which Dropbox and USB drives can be used together. For instance, consider the following situation:
You’ve got to give a PowerPoint presentation, and you’ll be using somebody else’s laptop, which is connected to a projector. You could copy the .ppt file over to a USB key, but why bother? All your project files are already sitting on a USB key connected to your computer, running portable Dropbox. You snag the key and head out the door. On the way, your boss calls and tells you that there’s a big mistake in the presentation, but you don’t sweat it: your boss saves a correct version, and when you get to the presentation you run Dropbox and the file updates in a flash.
So how do you actually run portable Dropbox? It’s pretty easy, just follow these steps:
1. Download Portable Dropbox. The Dropbox forums page for the project is here, although as of 12/7/09, the latest version seems to be broken, and you’ll need to grab the fixed version here.
2. Unzip the file you downloaded, and drop the contents (the DropBox folder) onto your thumbdrive.
3. Run the DropboxPortable executable, and follow the instructions in the installer.
Host a website on Dropbox
Now here’s an unusual use for Dropbox. Did you know that you can actually host a website, using Dropbox’s “Public” folder? It’s easy, you just drop in html files and images into your public folder, the way you would normally upload those files onto an FTP server.
Interlinking works fine, as does client-side scripting. Obviously, any server side stuff won’t work, but this is a great way to quickly host a smaller page. You can simply build the site as you like, viewing it locally, and when you’re satisfied, it’s already on the web!
We haven’t heard any specific information about bandwidth caps on Dropbox’s public share, but it’s safe to say that that it’s probably not meant to be used for mass data transfer. In other words, If you want to host something bigger than a personal site or blog, you’re still better off with traditional hosting.
Utilize the Web Interface
Dropbox is primarily a desktop app, but its website is very useful for accessing your files. The web interface offers the same functionality as the desktop client, letting you browse, download, and upload files to your account. This is handy when you need file access on the go, but here are three other reasons to use the web interface:
Track Recent Activity – The recent events tab gives you a timeline of account activity, even including the movement of files between folders so you can keep track of everything. Uploaded images show up as thumbnails, too.
Share Folders – You have to use the website to grant and accept folder shares for collaborating with other Dropbox users (which is different for sharing individual files in the Public folder). Shared folders take up space on the accounts of all collaborators.
Undo Delete Files – The best feature of the Web interface is the ability to view and retrieve previously deleted files in your Dropbox. On free accounts, deleted files can be recovered up to 30 days after they were deleted, though that limit is removed for Pro users.
Use Your My Documents folder as your Dropbox folder
In Windows Vista and 7, you can easily store your My Documents folder in Dropbox. This puts all your document files in the cloud, which can also then be synced with your other computers’ My Documents folders. Just right-click My Documents, go to the Location tab, and click the Move button to relocate My Documents to a new directory. Navigate to your Dropbox directory, and click OK.
Use Dropbox Mobile App for Photo Blogging
The iPhone Dropbox app is currently the only mobile Dropbox client, but it’s pretty powerful. Not only does it let you browse and view images, read documents, and even play music found in your Dropbox, but you can even use it to take and store cameraphone pics directly to the cloud. We found this feature most useful when paired with services and programs that can monitor desktop folders to automatically upload images to blogs and image-hosting sites, like Flickr.