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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The Dropbox terabyte conundrum

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.


I’ve been a Dropbox user for five years now, and a paying customer for most of that time. I paid because I got tired of bumping up against the space limitations of the company’s free plan, even though it always seemed that Dropbox didn’t provide nearly enough storage for what it charged.

But on August 27, Dropbox announced a new version of Dropbox Pro (its paid tier) that added a bunch of new features and increased the storage on its $10/month paid account tier from 100 GB to 1000 GB. Now it’s competitive with other cloud drive services on price and storage, while still being the Dropbox that I’ve used and loved for half a decade.

There’s just one problem with having a terabyte of storage on Dropbox: It wrecks the service’s root metaphor.

How big is your drive?

The original concept of Dropbox—and it’s right there in the name—is that there’s a spot on your computer where you can drop files, and it’ll automatically sync with other devices that are connected to the same Dropbox account. And all the while, the files are still on your drive, not hosted over a slow Internet connection.

Over the years you’ve been able to share specific folders with other Dropbox users, offer downloads of files to people who don’t use the service, and the like. But at its core, Dropbox has always been a tool that made a small part of your filesystem—~/Dropbox unless you were really stubborn or foolish—into something more.

So, that terabyte of cloud storage is great. But did you know that there’s only one Mac whose default configuration features more than one terabyte of storage? (For the record, it’s the Mac mini server, which features two 1TB drives.) I’ve got a MacBook Air that’s got maxed-out storage, but even my drive only holds about half a terabyte.

If it wouldn’t make everything explode, I could put my entire hard drive’s contents in Dropbox and leave half my allotted Dropbox free and clear. Dropbox is now too big for the storage in my wife’s and my laptops put together.

A while back, Dropbox introduced a feature called Selective Sync that allows computers to opt out of syncing certain folders. That’s good, because it means that if I drop a gigantic file on my Mac mini, it doesn’t necessarily have to be synced to my MacBook Air.

What if I want to use my Dropbox space to offload some less vital files, to be accessible via Dropbox but not taking up space on any of my local devices? Right now the only way to do that would be to put something in the box, then turn off Selective Sync everywhere for that folder. (Or upload files via Dropbox’s web interface, to a folder that’s been unchecked on all your devices via Selective Sync.)

It’s not ideal. Selective Sync wasn’t meant to be used in that way… but for that matter, neither was Dropbox.

A more flexible Dropbox, or maybe not

What I’d like to see Dropbox do is approach this the same way the folks who make File Transporter did. If you don’t know, File Transporter is a sort of “personal Dropbox” device, a networked hard drive that syncs with your devices and others. (Disclosures: I’ve been using an evaluation Transporter sent to me by the company; the people behind Transporter also make Drobo, which is an Incomparable sponsor. They didn’t ask me to write about them and don’t know I’m using them as an example.)

Anyway, when you use Transporter, you have two folders: the Transporter folder behaves just like the Dropbox folder. If you move files in there, they’re synced to the remote Transporter drive and also remain resident on your system. But there’s also a folder called Transporter Library. (It’s not actually a folder, but a mounted file-share volume.) When you move items to Transporter Library, they are moved off of your device and into the Transporter’s personal cloud. You are offloading files from your system, for hosting elsewhere. Accessing them is slow, of course, because they’re not actually on your device. But they’re also not taking up space on that tiny solid-state drive of yours.

It’s a clever approach, and one that I hope Dropbox adopts—but I’m a little concerned that Dropbox is so committed to its metaphor that it won’t want to complicate it like this. Allowing direct disk-like access to Dropbox is very different than syncing files, so it might require major changes to Dropbox’s infrastructure. I can see how it might not be a development priority.

But as a paying Dropbox customer, I have to admit that I’m actually a little frustrated that I am only using 4.6 percent of my fancy new terabyte of Dropbox storage. Giving me storage I can’t actually use actually makes me feel a little bit worse about Dropbox. I know that’s not logical, but there it is. Now that I’m paying for a terabyte of storage, I want to use as much of it as possible.

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