Friday, May 27, 2011

And The Winner Is...

A while back I had blogged about online storage services, and spoke about two in particular, Dropbox and SugarSync. I have been playing with the free versions of both for a while now, comparing them to see what I liked and didn't like about them. I knew that I needed to commit one way or the other and get some kind of online storage up and running sometime, but I hadn't had much time to give to the matter for a while.

Given the recent bout of home-destructing tornadoes, I figured it was time to pull the trigger before sometime became too late. So I pulled out the old spreadsheet, dusted it off, and finished it up, this time having a better idea of both tools. Before we get to the results, however, I wanted to pass along a couple other things.

First, there are a couple of online services that are very big that I mentioned briefly before. Carbonite and Mozy are two of the heavy hitters for online storage/syncing, and for good reason. They have proven track records, they're big enough that there's essentially no risk of a sudden overnight disappearance, and they offer a great set of services for a very low cost. Carbonite offers unlimited space for just $59 per year, the lowest cost of the bunch. Just a bit more expensive is the oldest player (I think) in the field, Mozy, which runs $72-120 per year (but for only 50GB and 125GB, respectively). Both have free Android and iOS apps that give you access to your sync'ed files on the go, and always-on PC syncing that shouldn't get in the way of your normal computer usage. However, these services are really designed more
for backup purposes than for sharing and flexibility. I wanted some additional features, so I looked past these for the slightly more expensive but much more feature-rich Dropbox and SugarSync.


To help describe some of the major differences between these two great services, here is a professional reviewer's take on five key areas:

Drawing comparisons between SugarSync and Dropbox is a requirement when picking out a cloud provider. It's important to understand the differences between the two platforms, and which features are more important to you.

SugarSync has taken an "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to cloud storage. It supports all major mobile OSes, including Symbian and Windows Mobile. It can sync as many folders as you'd like, between as many computers as you'd like. It does scheduled backups. It integrates with Facebook. Starting to sound like an infomercial, yeah? But wait, there's more!

Dropbox takes a decidedly different approach to the cloud, aiming to lower the bar required to jump into cloud storage. Whereas SugarSync markets itself toward the technophile who lives on the cloud, Dropbox markets itself to people who need basic cloud and sharing services. Dropbox customers just want their data to be available wherever they are.

Dropbox or SugarSync? Rye or Whole Wheat? Pepperoni or Sausage? We can only help with the first of those, so let's get to it.

Features - Winner: SugarSync

If you want features, SugarSync is your product. There really is no comparison. SugarSync aims to be your complete solution to cloud storage, providing cloud backup, "choose whatever folders you want to" sync, and integration with third party services like Facebook. Folders can be synced to mobile devices, although depending on the platform, e.g. iOS, it might not make any sense since you can't edit anything on the device.

In addition, SugarSync has editing support for certain file types, and shared foldesr with password protection, while Dropbox has none of these features. So if any of them are useful to you, you might just want to stop reading here and pick up SugarSync.

As a commenter on one of my previous articles suggested, you can get around Dropbox's single-folder limit by creating symbolic links (NTFS Junction Points for Windows users). But the process is command-line only on both Windows and Linux, and Mac OS X users need to create aliases for each folder, which I've had broken by Dropbox updates.

Ease of Setup - Winner: Dropbox

Not having so many features makes Dropbox's setup a no-brainer. Download a setup file, install it, sign in, and you're ready to sync files. If all you need is one folder, or you just want the simplicity, Dropbox is your cloud storage provider.

Dropbox has even taken into account if you move the folder accidentally. It will pop up a message and tell you to move it and or it will download the folder from the cloud. It's that kind of simplicity that is winning Dropbox more users every day.

Performance - Winner: Tie

I hate ties. But one of the most important features of cloud storage is how fast you can push and pull data from the 'Net. Both Dropbox and SugarSync were able to fully use my 25/25 Mbps Internet connection without issue, although SugarSync's throttling system left something to be desired.

Synchronization speed was equally speedy, usually within seconds for both products. Dropbox was slightly lower on RAM usage than SugarSync. But it was only a couple MB, which is close enough to be considered negligible.

Sharing - Winner: SugarSync

This was a tough one to call. But overall, SugarSync has a better sharing model. Being able to password protect folders will at least keep the general masses from stumbling upon your public file share. If you're worried about someone trying to hack your files from either provider, that means you probably shouldn't have the files accessible on the Internet in the first place.

Additionally, SugarSync's ability to integrate with Facebook Photos makes it all that much easier to have a central location for all your photos.

Accessibility - Winner: SugarSync

This was another tough one. Both platforms provide excellent accessibility options, with a plethora of mobile clients, and friendly websites. SugarSync, though, has gone the extra mile in its recent release of multilingual support. SugarSync also provides a Symbian OS app, which until Microsoft & Nokia pair up, is still the most prolific mobile OS overseas.

SugarSync has better media streaming functionality as well, with support for building playlists and viewing photo slideshows in the mobile applications. Dropbox can download those files and open them too, but the experience isn't as fluid as with SugarSync.

Security - Winner: Dropbox

Dropbox? But didn't I just say SugarSync's password-protected shares were a main reason for winning sharing? Yes, but there is more to security than password protection.

SugarSync transmits files from your machine to the cloud via an SSL-secured connection, but encrypts the files themselves with AES-128 after they reach SugarSync's servers. Dropbox encrypts files with stronger AES-256 before sending them up with a secure SSL connection.

So in the event that someone were to intercept the SSL connection with Dropbox, they'd still have to unencrypt the files. While with SugarSync their job would be done.

Pricing - Winner: SugarSync

SugarSync continues to be aggressive with its pricing. It has changed its business model at least twice since I reviewed it back in December. Right now, SugarSync offers 10 GB more storage (60 instead of 50) for the same price as Dropbox. And if you have the 100 GB plan, they are $5 a month cheaper than Dropbox.

SugarSync also offers more storage options, although supposedly you can contact Dropbox for a custom storage quote if you want more than 100 GB.

Bottom Line - Winner: SugarSync

Dropbox SugarSync
Ease of Setup X
Performance X X
Security X
Total 3 5

Being a long-time Dropbox user, this exercise opened my eyes as to what Dropbox is / is not doing for me. Dropbox's dead simple approach works for a lot of people, and honestly if you're not too technical, I would be leery of picking up SugarSync. It has a more involved setup process, and has a lot of features that you'd probably never use.

However, for people looking to synchronize and store files in the cloud and can use some of that extra whiz-bang, SugarSync is the better solution.

As with anything, making this kind of decision really comes down to deciding what your most important factors are, and then finding which service does the best job of fulfilling those factors. For me, the most important things were:

1. price per GB
2. flexibility in designating public/private folders and links
3. syncing to multiple devices

SugarSync won the price-per-GB hands down - when I logged on last night, I was greeted by a message for a one-time promo where I could get any of the plans half off. This dropped the cost of SugarSync from near the bottom to below the basement floor, and was a deal too good to pass up. I ended up purchasing one size bigger (to allow room for growth) while paying less than I had expected for the smaller size. Sweet! Carbonite was obviously the best in terms of pure available storage space, but given that I'm not likely to need the kind of gaudy space that would warrant an unlimited account, that detail was more or less mitigated, and I could settle for 'good enough' in this case.

As the reviewer notes above, SugarSync offers a much more granular level of control in determining which folders get sync'd across all machines, which are only backed up to SugarSync (no syncing to other machines), and which files are shared publicly. This introduces a level of complexity that some people may not be comfortable with, but it doesn't bother me at all, and if I'm going to be using this service as my primary backup method going forward, I'm going to want as much control as possible. SugarSync also offers the ability to upload files by e-mailing them as attachments to a special e-mail address you get when you sign up, it has a native audio player built in that lets you stream music from your account no matter what computer you're connecting from, and it allows some file editing capability. I don't recall seeing those features on any of the others, and though they're not critical, they'll probably come in handy from time to time.

Speaking of multiple devices, SugarSync supports more platforms than the others, which is of particular interest to me when looking to the future. Who knows what devices we'll own over the next five years, let alone the next 10-20? Laptops, tablets, smartphones...I'm sure we'll have a variety over time, so I thought this was a biggie. Also, SugarSync doesn't charge extra to sync multiple computers, so I could conceivably set up a computer for myself, Lindsey, and the kids, as well as multiple smartphones, all in the same account. The other services required additional licenses or some kind of incremental cost for the same level of sharing. By controlling the access into each machine, I can open up everything to Lindsey's computer and mine, but block the kiddos off from everything but one specific folder that we can use to quickly and easily transfer files back and forth. The primary limit is my own willingness and ability to learn how to use the service effectively. The only major area where I felt Dropbox had a clear hand up on SugarSync was in terms of app integration - I know of several big apps (i.e. Titanium Backup) that are tightly integrated with Dropbox. SugarSync is trying to catch up, but they're just not there yet. However, this just means a bit more manual intervention for me, and I can handle that.

I'm still planning to keep my Dropbox account and use it regularly. It's a great service, and for someone looking to establish an online storage depot that's drop-dead simple and very effective, Dropbox is a great choice. All in all, however, SugarSync offers a better set of features for my preferences, and the fact that I happened to stumble over a 50% discount made it an unbeatable deal. Even if you're just looking for a free service, I'd still recommend it for all the same reasons. You never know when you might need it, so it would be wise to spend a bit of time making some arrangements to save your pictures, videos, and documents in the event of a catastrophe.

If you are interested in starting a SugarSync account, please e-mail me and I'll send you a referral. If you start out that way, I believe that both you and I will get a couple hundred MB of additional space free, so it's another win-win.

Happy Syncing!

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