So, here’s the thing about Box.net vs. Dropbox. Yes, they are both cloud storage and synchronization solutions. Yes, they both have the word “box” in their names. Yes, they are both excellent for cloud file sharing. Yes, they are very, very good at what they do. But… they are completely different.
In a nutshell, the Dropbox service revolves around the concept of the magic pocket—you put something in your Dropbox folder, and it’s there for you whenever you need it, where ever you need it, be it offline, online, at work, at home or in a coffee shop, on their website etc.. Box.net on the other hand, is more of an online workspace that focuses on web-based collaboration, in the vein of SharePoint and Google Docs. These differences are even more pronounced in the respective free versions, which we’ll be comparing and contrasting in this groovyReview.
Pricing and Plans
Dropbox and Box.net both have a free version that offers 2GB and 5 GB of cloud storage, respectively. The Dropbox Basic account is pretty much full-featured—you don’t get much extra functionality by upgrading, just more storage. The Box.net Personal plan, on the other hand, is very much a “lite” version of Box.net Business (see feature breakdown below). The biggest omission from the free Box.net account is the desktop sync feature. More on that later. For this review, I’ll only be talking about what you can get for free. But it’s still worth mentioning the price of upgrading, because someday, you might want to.
Dropbox Vs. Box.net Feature/Pricing Comparison
|2 GB (Basic)||50 GB (Pro)||100 GB (Pro)||Basic: 30-day version history/undelete; Pro: unlimited version history/undelete (“Pack-Rat”)|
|5 GB (Personal)||25 GB (Personal)||50 GB (Personal)||Throttled uploads, no document version history, no desktop sync|
Dropbox, as I mentioned, keeps it simple. 2 GB is free. 50 GB is $9.99 a month. 100 GB is $19.99 a month. That comes out to about $1 per 5 GB per month. Pro users also get the Pack-Rat feature, which saves all earlier and deleted versions of your files forever, instead of deleting them after 30 days.
There’s also a semi-secret Dropbox for Teams account that starts at $795 a year (~$66.25 a month) with 350 GB to share among five users. You can read more about it in our Dropbox for Teams review.
Box.net gives Personal users 5 GB for free. You can go up to 25 GB for $9.99 a month and 50 GB for $19.99 a month. This comes out to about $2 per 5 GB per month. That’s twice as much as Dropbox. Note: This only adds storage space to your account. It does not give you access to features only available to Business users.
Now, if you upgrade to Business, you get 500 GB to share among all of your users. It costs $15 per user a month. With a minimum of three users, you’re looking at $45/mo for 500 GB—but you also get the expanded functionality.
Like Dropbox, Box.net has a corporate solution: the Box.net Enterprise plan. This is a custom solution—you have to call for pricing.
For all account types, Dropbox has Box.net beat in pricing when it comes to cloud storage space and number of users. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Dropbox is a better value. It all depends on your needs, as you’ll see.
All this being said, there’s a major arms race in terms of free cloud storage. As soon as Amazon Cloud Drive or iCloud or SugarSync begins offering more free space, others tend to follow suit. The above figures may not be accurate by the time you read this post.
Box.net Feature Breakdown
Oh, one last thing: Dropbox has a referral program that rewards you (and whoever signs up with your referral link) with 250 MB of free Dropbox space. Here’s my referral link, if you haven’t signed up for Dropbox already and want 250 MB of extra space right off the bat. Last time we checked, you can get up to 10.25 GB of free Dropbox space. Box.net has a referral program that pays you 25% commission, if you’re interested.
Uploading and Syncing
Dropbox is optimized as a cloud syncing service. As such, its strength lies in its desktop client. This sits unobtrusively in your system tray, keeping your local Dropbox folder synced across all your machines and in the cloud. To upload or sync files, just put it in your Dropbox folder.
You can also upload files from your web browser by logging in at Dropbox.com. Files uploaded via the web can be no larger than 300 MB. Files synced via the desktop client have no file size limit.
The common complaint about Dropbox’s way of doing things is that it restricts your synced files to a single folder. So, if you wanted to sync a couple of folders from My Photos, some songs from My Music and a few random files from your desktop, it’s not going to happen without some hacking though. You can, however, selectively sync individual folders within your Dropbox folder (more on Dropbox selective sync) if you don’t want personal data for instance syncing to your comany PC or MAC at work. Personally, I don’t find this much of a hassle—but then again, I’ve been using Dropbox for years and I already have my system set up to keep everything in my Dropbox folder.
As mentioned above, Box.net does have a desktop sync client available—but you have to be a Business or Enterprise user for it to work. So, Personal users are left with the browser-based single file or bulk uploader. The single file uploader lets you browse for a file on your hard drive.
The bulk uploader runs a Java application that lets you drag and drop files into your browser. Uploaded files must be under 25 MB for Box.net Personal users.
Without a desktop sync client, it’s kind of a pain to get files from Box.net to work on locally. You can download Box.net files one-by-one by Clicking the arrow and choosing Download. To download entire folders, you’ll have to upgrade.
However, the intention is that you wouldn’t have to download the files to work with them locally, because Box.net allows you to view/edit and collaborate on files directly from your browser.
Working with Files in the Cloud
This is where Box.net shines. Dropbox wasn’t built for editing documents online. You can preview Word documents, PDFs and other common document types in your browser via shareable links. But in terms of getting in there and making changes to files on Dropbox.com, you can’t (at least not natively).
If you want to edit a file in your Dropbox folder, then you’ll have to use a desktop application, such as Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, Notepad, Photoshop, etc. You just edit the local copy and it syncs the changes to the cloud. I like it that way. Only problem: desktop software is expensive. I’d like to be able to edit Dropbox files with Google Docs or Picnick or Zoho, but the way Dropbox is set up, you just can’t do that at this juncture.
Box.net, on the other hand, is all about online editing. Box.net has its own .webdocs format that is like a very limited version of Google Docs, but I wouldn’t bother with it. Instead, you can edit your Box.net files with Zoho Office or any of the other web apps that plug-in to the Box.net API.
There’s also at least one app that lets you edit Box.net files directly from Microsoft Office, sort of like you would edit SkyDrive documents in Office. It’s called DocsInOffice.com—it’s in beta and I haven’t tried it yet.
So, in a nutshell: Dropbox requires offline editing with automatic syncing to the cloud whenever you update a file. Box.net allows online editing as well as third-party web app editing. Which one is better for you depends on your weapon of choice. Oh, it’s also worth mentioning that Box.net will lock files when you are editing them online to prevent conflicts. Dropbox will save two versions of the document if a conflict crops up.
Collaborating and Sharing
Because Dropbox is about offline editing, the extent of the collaboration is pretty much embodied in shared folders. For example, MrGroove and I both have Dropbox. Our shared Dropbox folder is kept in sync on both of our computers—so if I upload or edit a doc on my hard drive, it shows up on his computer automatically.
Dropbox also allows you to share individual files or entire folders with the public via shareable links (no Dropbox account required to view/download files). Just grab a shareable link for any file in your Dropbox folder. It looks like this:
With a little tweaking, you can also allow public uploads to your Dropbox folder if you want to allow people to send you files vs. just pull files from you.
Box.net’s online editing model is more conducive to collaboration than Dropbox. Each file has its own backchannel and meta data, including tasks, tags and comments. So, for example, you can edit the file itself with Zoho Office and then explain what you did in the comments section on Box.net. You’ll also get email notifications for this info.
Or, you can assign another Box.net user a task. You can even assign a client a task. If they aren’t a Box.net user, they’ll be shown a quick three field sign-up page before they are given access.
Are you starting to see how Box.net and Dropbox are fundamentally different? Box.net means to replace your project management system, document editing software and practically anything else you’d use to take a project from start to finish. Dropbox, on the other hand, is more geared towards letting you use whatever system and software you normally use—Dropbox just handles the file synchronization.
Mobility and Extensibility
The last important area to cover is mobility. Both Box.net and Dropbox are aggressively expanding their smartphone/tablet functionality. Dropbox has a very nice mobile app for iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry, and it keeps getting better with each update.
Recently, they just added offline viewing of Dropbox files (add them as favorites and you can view files natively without Internet access). You can view PDFs, docs and photos natively and upload photos from your camera roll or take a new picture.
With the iOS version, you can even save certain documents—e.g. movies—from Safari right to your Dropbox.
Personally, I really love the Dropbox mobile app. It’s saved my bacon more than once when a client emailed me asking if I could re-send a document while I was away from the office. The Dropbox mobile app easily lets you find the file you’re looking for, create a shareable link and attach it to an email. I also used Dropbox to share photo albums with my mom—I could snap a picture of her grandson and then have it on her iPad within seconds via a shared folder.
Uploading from the iPhone to Dropbox is so easy that I often use it to wirelessly sync photos and screenshots rather than plugging my phone in via USB.
As with the desktop browser version, there are no native editing features, however. You can overcome this with the vast selection of mobile apps that plug into the Dropbox API, such as Quickoffice, Documents to Go and PlainText but I personally wish it was built into the dropbox app.
Box.net has a mobile app for Android, iPad and iPhone, as well as mobile optimized site for other smartphones.
It pretty much lets you do all of the same things that Dropbox does—browse files and folders, view and share files, save files for offline access, upload photos from the camera roll, comment on files, etc.
It also has an Updates tab that gives you a news feed on your document in a news feed format, so you can see who has edited a file, commented on a file, completed a task, etc.
As far as editing files in the Box.net mobile app, you can’t really do that natively. But thanks to the Box.net API, you can edit Box.net files via a third-party mobile app, such as Documents To Go. In fact, Box.net has three pages of mobile apps that plug-in to Box.net.
Overall, the Dropbox and Box.net apps are just about evenly matched, for now. There are some slight differences in UI, but nothing that qualifies as a game-changer.
Conclusion – Which is better: Dropbox or Box.net?
Declaring an absolute winner between Dropbox and Box.net doesn’t make any sense. Unlike Dropbox Vs. Sugarsync, there is quite a bit of overlap in functionality between these two services, but at the end of the day, they are designed for different purposes. The question that is really worth asking is: “What do I want my cloud-based storage service to do?” If you’re looking for a very low profile, hands-off file syncing utility, definitely, definitely go with Dropbox. I would say that 99% of personal users will be more satisfied with Dropbox, and possibly a goodly chunk of business users. Dropbox works like magic. I use it everyday and I hardly ever think about it. That’s how good software should be. If you’ve been feeling jealous and/or excited after reading the hype surrounding Apple’s new iCloud service, I strongly recommend you give Dropbox a try—especially if you are a Windows or Linux user. I think you’ll find it refreshingly simple.
But if you are looking for a cloud-based collaborative workspace, go with Box.net. It has tons of collaborative features that Dropbox simply doesn’t have, the most important being an easy way to edit documents online. The commenting and tasks are notable, too. But the problem with the Box.net Personal account is that you don’t get desktop sync. That really befuddles me. It makes the free version of Box.net completely useless as a backup utility and cumbersome for anything other than spreadsheets and text documents. You could, perhaps, use Box.net as an online office suite—but Google Docs is way, way better in almost every way—at least for personal users… today. Box.net is most friendly to a business / enterprise crowd. Big, big companies like AARP, Six Flags, MTV, Dell, Harvard Business Publishing, DirecTV and Panasonic use Box.net and love it. So, if you are a project manager or technology coordinator at a mid- to large-sized company, you might want to get in touch with the Box.net sales team and see how it can work for you. My guess is that it can be vastly more affordable and intuitive than any arduous corporate VPN or virtual workspace type of setup.
But at the end of the day, I don’t think most of our groovyReaders fall under that header. Most of us just want to have all of our files available to us everywhere. And Dropbox does that the best out of any cloud-based storage, file locker or syncing utility I’ve reviewed and used personally.
And of course, there’s no harm in getting them both and trying them each out for a 30 days. They are free after all. And if you’re unhappy with both, check out SugarSync.