Getting Started with Dropbox on iOS

Dropbox is the essential tool in my toolkit. It’s my tertiary backup safety net. It’s my fast way to transfer files from my devices to my Mac (and vice versa). It’s where all my work files are stored. It’s where 1Password securely stores my passwords so I can get to them whenever and wherever I need them. There are so many things that Dropbox does for me, it’s almost like it should be a part of the OS itself (which is probably one reason Apple wanted to buy them—good thing they didn’t, Apple probably would have ruined Dropbox). I’m going to show you just a few of the things Dropbox can do for you on your iOS device, so buckle in for some tips that you can start using right away.

What is Dropbox?

Dropbox is a cloud storage service where files in a special folder on your Mac and PC are automatically synced up to the cloud. Simple as that, put a file in there, it’s uploaded. Add a file from a device it’s downloaded. Share a folder with someone and the files are synced between you seamlessly. Anything and everything in your Dropbox folder is uploaded and backed up. There is even a rudimentary version control system so you can roll back to older versions of files. While Dropbox isn’t intended as your primary backup service, it’s a great for making sure you have an additional safety net for your files. If I get a new computer, all I need to do is install Dropbox on it, sign in, and all the files are downloaded to the new machine. Since all my crucial work files are stored in Dropbox, this means I can get back up to speed very, very quickly. There are a lot more options to explore within Dropbox (like selective sync so that some folders aren’t downloaded to a machine—great for using machines with smaller drives), but this post is just about getting started with Dropbox and iOS.

It starts with a free account

First you need to sign up for a free Dropbox account. When you sign up you get 2GB of space for free. Nope, not a lot of space, but one of Dropbox’s clever tricks is that if you refer other folks to them, you get more space for free. Not to mention bonuses for hooking up Facebook, Twitter, and turning on Camera Uploads on your machine. I kept referring people for a while until I got to about 8GB of free space, then I needed to step up—yeah I was already addicted to Dropbox by that point.. Eventually it wasn’t enough for me and I upgraded to a paid plan. Right now I have over 130GB of space on Dropbox (which is more space than my wife’s hard drive on her aging MacBook Air), but with enough referrals you can do just fine on free for a good while. If you want to sign up for Dropbox, you can use my referral link (and I’ll get a titsch more space and so will you!).

The apps

On your Mac or PC you’ll want to install the helper app to set up the syncing folder on your machine. While you can pick a different place for your Dropbox folder on your machine, neither Dropbox nor I recommend you do that. For your iOS devices, you’ll need to install that app too (it’s free, don’t worry) and sign into Dropbox. That’s pretty much all you need to get started but I’m going to show you a few things really help you start rocking Dropbox.

Camera uploads FTW

The first, and I think one of the most powerful, features of Dropbox is Automatic Camera Uploads. All you need to do is turn it on in Dropbox and when you fire up the dropbox app, it will automatically start uploading your photos from your Camera Roll to a special “Camera Uploads” folder in Dropbox. You can choose to allow uploads over just WiFi or use your cell data plan too (I opt for the cell plan option myself). Why is this so freakin’ awesome? You know how much of a pain getting pics from your iPhone is? Sure PhotoStream makes it easier but you still have to fire up iPhoto or Aperture to get them. Email? Yeah, another app to fire up on your Mac and get the picture before you can use it. With Camera Uploads turned on, the files are just transferred from your iPhone or iPad automatically. How do you think I get iOS screenshots and pictures for these posts? Connect my iPhone and transfer them through iTunes every time? No way. I just tap the Dropbox app and, whoosh, the full-sized photo is on my Mac in seconds.

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On your machine, when you connect a camera (or device with a camera like an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch) Dropbox will ask you if you want to turn on Camera Uploads. Do it! Why? Not only do you get an easy (and intelligent) backup of your photos, you also get extra free space from Dropbox (since they know that pictures can take up lots of space on their own). I have all my devices set to do just transfer my photos automatically when I connect them. Photos, video I’ve shot, screenshots, it’s all there ready to be imported into iMovie or wherever—and backed up to the cloud as well.

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Get that file onto your device painlessly

You thought Camera Uploads were cool for getting stuff from you device to your Mac (or PC), well the reverse is just as awesome. Just drop the file into your Dropbox folder on your machine, fire up Dropbox on your device and…boom…it’s there. Yes, large files might take a bit to download, but don’t worry, Dropbox is pretty efficient with bandwidth. From there you can say give a quick check of the file and then open it in a helper app for editing (like transferring a book to iBooks or editing a document in Pages). You can also select Dropbox to open files on your iPhone or iPad to both transfer it to Dropbox for storing and then open it in a helper app to edit. Great for when you receive a document in an email and you need to make quick edits, but don’t have your laptop with you.

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Offline access too

Great you have all these files in Dropbox, but what if you’re going to be offline? Not much good are they? No, true, that’s why Dropbox has a “Favorites” setting. Mark a file a favorite and the file is downloaded to local storage so you can view it online or off. I do this when I’m presenting from my iPad and want to make sure that I have my presentation ready to go regardless of if the Internet isn’t available when I start my talk.

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Just the beginning

Dropbox is so popular that tons of apps on your iOS device use the Dropbox API to sync files to and from Dropbox. Apps like Writing Kit, Byword, Drafts, Elements, Readdle Docs, Remarks, PDF Expert, QuickOffice, Notability, Noteshelf, Scanner Pro, Penultimate, and so many more. Connected apps makes Dropbox just a simple, seamless part of your routine. I’ve started this post on my Mac in Byword, but I could just as easily have started it—or finished it—on any of my iOS devices by just opening the file in Writing Kit (my favorite iOS text editor) from Dropbox and picking up where I left off.

Now it’s your turn

What are your favorite Dropbox tips or stories? Has it saved your tush in a pinch? Thought you lost a file, but got it? Have a clever Dropbox workflow that you’d like to share? Chime in and share!

Like this post? Share it!

  • Rounak Jain

    Use it as a redundant sync method for notational velocity.

  • Jason Burroughs

    but wait a second – if i turn on automatic camera uploads, it pushes them to my dropbox folder, which then resyncs to the dropbox section on my ios device, right? In other words, if i have 1000 pictures in my photostream, now i have 1000 extra copies on my iphone and ipad – taking up all that space. it does not stream the pictures when they are requested, but just takes up the space twice, from what i can tell (see “other” in itunes for space usage). i turned it off specifically because of this. interested in your feedback.

    • Janus

      dropbox does not copy all the photos back to your idevice. rather it just shows you a list of photos you uploaded. you can view the photos or download them back to your idevice only when your idevice is connected to the internet.

      • Tris Hussey

        Exactly. You can actually save space this way since you know your photos have been backed up (and can be imported into iPhoto or whatever), you can delete them from your device!

    • Rounak Jain

      only the favourites get permanently cached onto the local disk, the other files are downloaded on demand.

  • RubenR

    We use it to store our MS Outlook archives files. This way they are avilable any where at Home, office or personal laptop not just tr local HD

    • Tris Hussey

      Very cool. And MS Outlook manages that okay?

  • DanO

    Dropbox is freaking awesome. Last year I had to be away from my business for a couple of months due to family issues (yea). I set up dropbox, moved some critical employee scheduling, client billing, client contracts, . . . into the dropbox folder and wala. I was able to do all of my administrative duties and provide my office with the data they needed to service our clients, get employees paid, and billing sent out. Dropbox rocked, probably saved my business actually.

  • trainmanVT

    Can I designate a second camera upload folder with a unique folder name for scanning and archiving very old family photos that we do not want to mix with current activity

  • daz

    what happens if i delete a photo from my itouch – does it stay on dropbox

    • Jad

      I came here looking for the same question. I think it doesn’t sync between camera roll on iOS and Camera Uploads folder, which is too bad. It would’ve been PERFECT.

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  • Random 234

    Is there any way to get the old iOS 6 version, I have an iPod and have dripbox set up on my computer but want it for iPod, but they are never making iOS 7 for iPod 4th gen

  • Random 234