Evaluating Dropbox and Syncplicity: A First Comparison

I’ve been looking all my life for an acceptable backup and synchronisation tool. Even with enough technical experise and an own server, I just cannot find the right software.
Recently, some new services popped up that transparently sync and backup your files on the net: [url=http://www.getdropbox.com/]Dropbox[/url], [url=http://www.syncplicity.com/]Syncplicity[/url], [url=http://www.sugarsync.com/]SugarSync[/url] and [url=https://www.mesh.com/]Microsoft Live Mesh[/url].
Judging from the outside, all four look surpisingly similar. Yet, there are some differences that I’d like to discuss here. I haven’t looked at all of them, so I will restrict my comparison to Dropbox and Syncplicity: Live Mesh accounts are not available publicly and it’s Windows-only, SugarSync only offers a free trial, no limited long-term free accounts. Also, even though there are clients for other operating systems available, I have only tested the Windows versions.

Both Dropbox and Syncplicity are in beta stage, so I suspect this comparison to be “dated” early.
First, let’s start with some commonalities:
[*]transparent monitoring for changes
[*]file revisions
[*]encrypted transfer
[*]web-based browse/restore
[*]easy online publishing/sharing
Both use [url=http://www.amazon.com/s3]Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3)[/url] as storage backend. That’s fine with me, as Amazon is likely to have better reliability and scalability than any home-brewed server farm.
Dropbox has a very simple application with no windows or configuration settings whatsoever: The tray icon shows if it’s currently syncing, you can open the dropbox folder from it, and open the web interface. For everything else, like a list of recently changed files, you have to check their website.
The current client uses about 1/3 of my upload bandwidth when syncronizing (~30kb/s). There is an early version of an updated client available on the forums with apparently improved background transfers, resulting in higher speeds.
Right now, Dropbox offers 2GB for free and unlimited file revisions. I’m not so sure how they want to keep this as a free offer once the beta phase is over, and they don’t have any pricing information published yet.
In comparison to Dropbox, Syncplicity’s client software is more comprehensive. Syncplicity also allows you to select arbitary folders to be synchronized. They have a pricing scheme online: Their free account has 2GB storage, allows to sync two machines and keeps five file revisions.
Syncplicity synchronizes files that are locked by other applications; I haven’t tried this, and I cannot say how Dropbox handles locked files.
In Syncplicity, if you delete files and want to restore them, you need to download them from within the web interface on a per-file basis. In contrast to that, Dropbox offers to restore files and folders to their original location within the dropbox – you cannot specifcy a different location, or download deleted files individually (without restoring them to your original location) though!
Personal opinion: As a real backup solution, both services fail. I want to restore files and folders to any location, in any previous revision.
[u]Synchronization Conflicts:[/u]
If I read correctly, Syncplicity “branches” on conflict, keeping both versions. Dropbox keeps only the first version that reaches the server, but copies the conflicted file with a suffix like “(conflicted copy 1-25-2008)”. I haven’t tested the conflict management, which would be a necessary step before using both solutions to collaborate.
I haven’t tried publishing and sharing of files at all, so I cannot really comment on that. Dropbox seems to have photo gallery support built-in, so you can publish folders and people can conveniently browse your pictures. Syncplicity cannot publish folders (yet), only single files.
Unfortunately, neither Dropbox nor Syncplicity allow users to specify encryption keys. Both state that the files are stored using AES-256 – I’m not so sure if that’s true because you have direct clickable links inside the web interface (and can publish direct links), and even if it was true, it doesn’t really add much security.
I know that with the sharing and publishing mechanisms, encryption is not easy. I’d want to see a way to encrypt selected folders with individual, asynchronous keys, that cannot be used directly to publish files.
I have performed a few short tests with a TrueCrypt container, with interesting results: The Syncplicity client seems to rely on file change dates – by default, TC doesn’t update the container date, so Syncplicity won’t notice that the files changed. I’m not sure if this is good, as it might affect other files, too, and cannot be judged from the interface. For TrueCrypt, you can change the behaviour in its interface, but that doesn’t help much: Syncplicity does not do incremental updates, so it’ll upload the whole container every time something changes.
DropBox, in contrast, immediately picks up the change as soon as I dismount the container, even if TrueCrypt doesn’t update the container date, and only synchronizes the changes. I’ve changed a few bytes in a text file, resulting in 8KB upload; a new file (4.1MB) resulted in 4.1MB upload.
Dropbox Advantages:
[*]unlimited file revisions (unsure if they keep this for free)
[*]incremental (delta) file upload
[*]has client software for Windows, Mac and Linux
[*]easy to restore deleted folders
Dropbox Disadvantages:
[*]only syncs one folder (but they’re working on that)
[*]renamed files are treated like new files (new revision, old file deleted)
Both services look promising and, at least with the Windows client, work as advertised. Nice work! A real comparison will be possible only after they both left beta phases. I’m curious about the Dropbox pricing scheme – both rely heavily on Amazon S3, so we’ll see if they can differ much.
Personally, what I’d like to see is something I can deploy to my own server, maybe connected to my own Amazon S3 storage. I don’t like having my files online at some third-party servers, without control over encryption and deletion. At least they should add the option to encrypt folders and/or files using local keys that are not transferred to the server.
You can change the location of the Dropbox folder by modifying DropboxPath in HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Evenflow Software\Dropbox (stop Dropbox before doing that).
Also, you can add individual files from outside the Dropbox folder using hard links on Windows, and other folders by using soft links on Mac. Users in the forum report that Junctions on Windows do not work as Dropbox doesn’t detect changes inside the junctioned folder.

7 Responses

  1. Daniel says:

    One thing that Dropbox doesn’t state is what happens if you want to terminate your account and have all your files securely wiped out from the server.
    As far as we know they can just leave the files on a server prone to attacks. No much future in these businesses if they don’t have an aggressive privacy policy

  2. Jay says:

    Try JungleDisk for the same functionality – and more
    – You control (private) encryption keys
    – Pay only for what you use
    $0.15 per Giga Byte storage
    – Very active development and new features requests.

  3. Patrick says:

    I installed Syncplidiocy on my one PC and selected the dirs that it should back up. I let it back up everything, before I installed the program on my other PC.
    After installing on my other PC, I assigned the correct folders for it to sync with on the new PC, and it started inital sync.
    When I returned about 6 hours later, it had reached 11 % and had stalled. After a while I exited the app and started it again. It now started working again.
    It looked like it was downloading files, but the time left got smaller and smaller, and the amount of files suddenly dropped. I wondered how it could download so fast, and after 15 minutes it had downloaded the whole 1.5 GB.
    So I went to check, and of course only some of the files was there. But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was, that now Syncplidocy had DELETED the files on my original computer, meaning that ALL MY DATA IS LOST!!!
    So I went in help, but they offer no form of contact with the free edition – even though having DELETED MY FILES!!! The manual said to use the recycle bin, but this only offers restoration on a SINGLE FILE BASIS! So does it expect that I sit and click “restore” 10.000 times????
    I am appalled! Luckily I took a backup a few days ago before starting out with apps like this, and lucky for me. But days of work is lost!

  4. Moritz says:

    I’ve been using Syncplicity to synchronize some of my files between my Laptop (WinXP) and desktop (Vista, now Win7). Sometimes it eats up my CPU and I have to kill it, but apart from that I’m happy. But I don’t need it for restore – for (network) backups, I use another app, Crashplan. You’re right, restore on a file basis sucks. Dropbox supports that.
    Syncplicity [url=https://my.syncplicity.com/Forums/default.aspx?g=posts&t=3066]”looks into adding this feature in a future release”[/url], until then, you can [url=http://manual.syncplicity.com/Restoration-Request]file a Restoration Request[/url].

  5. Thomas says:

    In my Dropbox version moving the folder is a feature, so you dont have to mess with regedit settings.

  6. Learnertt says:

    I reccommend DriveHQ, huge files are a breeze. They are safe, some extra services you may have to pay for.

  7. read more says:

    Evaluating Dropbox and Syncplicity: A First Comparison – Moblog