Dropbox vs. iCloud – Comparison of Cloud Storage Solutions

Dropbox is without a doubt the leading cloud storage service. No other solution, including Apple’s iCloud, has come close to what Dropbox has to offer. But with the release of iOS 11 and macOS 10.13, Apple has made significant improvements to iCloud Drive.

In this article, I will compare Dropbox vs. iCloud Drive and share with you, why I moved most of my personal data from Dropbox to iCloud.

Apple has made iCloud Drive significantly more usable with its latest releases of iOS and macOS. But despite the updates in iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra, iCloud Drive still doesn’t offer the same advanced sharing features that Dropbox offers, even with its free Basic plan.

For example, with iCloud I can only share individual files but not folders. However, iCloud Drive offers some unique features that make it worth taking a closer look.

To learn more about the exact differences continue reading.

The benefits of cloud storage

For those of you who are new to cloud storage, let me point out some of the benefits of using Dropbox, iCloud, or similar services.

I started using cloud storage many years ago when the Dropbox service first launched. The reason why I decided to move all of my data into the cloud was convenience. By using the cloud, I could access all of my files and folders from anywhere.

More importantly, my files would automatically get synchronized across all my devices. As a result, I could access my documents from both my iMac and my MacBook, without having to copy them back and forth.

Pros and cons of cloud storage

Cloud storage also played an essential role in my backup strategy. Even though no cloud storage service replaces a good backup, a dead hard drive no longer meant data loss because I always had a copy of my data in the cloud.

Last but not least, most modern cloud storage providers offer sharing features, allowing you to share individual files or folders with others quickly. Until the latest release, iCloud had only very rudimentary support for sharing, which is why I have used Dropbox for so many years.

Dropbox on iOS
Dropbox on iOS

Dropbox review

From a technical perspective, there is no good reason why you wouldn’t want to use Dropbox. The service is reliable, fast and one of the most feature-rich services out there.

Dropbox offers a free Basic plan that comes with 2 GB of space and some essential sharing features. Additionally, Dropbox offers a Plus and a Professional plan for $9.99 and $19.99 per month.

Get 500MB of extra space

Comparison of available plans
Comparison of available plans

Basic Plan

The free Basic plan comes with what Dropbox calls core features:

  • 2 GB of space
  • Best-in-class sync technology
  • Easy and secure sharing
  • Strong 256-bit AES and SSL/TLS encryption
  • Access to all your data from anywhere

Plus Plan

In addition to the core features, the Plus plan offers:

  • 1 TB (1024 GB) of space
  • 30 days version history and file recovery
  • Remote device wipe
  • Two-factor authentication
  • Microsoft Office 365 integration
  • Collaboration via Dropbox Badge and Dropbox Paper
  • Commenting
  • File requests
  • Priority email support

The Plus plan costs $9.99 per month, or $8.25 per month if billed annually.

Professional Plan

In addition to all Dropbox Plus features, the Professional plan offers:

  • 120 days version history and file recovery
  • Advanced sharing permissions
  • Password-protected and expiring shared links
  • Granular permissions
  • Showcase
  • Smart Sync
  • Live chat support

The Plus plan costs $19.99 per month, or $16.58 per month if billed annually.

Features

Before we go into the comparison between Dropbox and iCloud Drive, here is an overview of the most important and useful features of Dropbox, based on my usage patterns.

Dropbox on mobile devices
Dropbox on mobile devices

Best-in-class sync technology

Dropbox has one of the most robust synchronization engines in the industry. During the many years I have used Dropbox, I have only had a few issues with file synchronization. Those problems never resulted in data loss but, instead, in the occasional duplicate file.

Easy and secure sharing

Sharing files or folders with others is incredibly easy with Dropbox. To share a file or folder on a Mac, all you have to do is right-click on it in Finder. Alternatively, you can use the Dropbox web access, and on mobile devices, you can use the excellent Dropbox app.

Strong encryption

Dropbox encrypts all data that it transfers between your devices and the Dropbox servers using Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS). Additionally, Dropbox also encrypts your data while it stores the information on its servers. But there is a catch. Dropbox manages the encryption key and thus has access to all of your data. If hackers manage to steal the encryption keys used by Dropbox, they may get access to your data.

Version history and file recovery

Dropbox allows you to restore previous versions of individual files but not complete folders. Additionally, you can quickly recover deleted files or folders. How far you can go back in history depends on your Dropbox plan.

Advanced sharing permissions

With the advanced and granular sharing permissions, you can give users read-only access to specific folders or even sub-folders.

Simple sharing permissions
Simple sharing permissions

Password-protected and expiring shared links

The sharing links you can generate via Dropbox usually are publicly accessible. That means anyone who has the link can access the shared file or folder. But with the paid tiers, Dropbox allows you to protect shared links with a password and optionally make them expire after a specific time. What I am missing is the ability to make all links expire automatically after a pre-defined date, so I don’t have to set an expiration date for every link individually. That way, I don’t accumulate hundreds or thousands of links over the years.

Remote device wipe

Using remote wipe, you can delete your data from lost or stolen devices. I have never used this feature because I encrypt all my mobile devices and using iCloud (not iCloud Drive), I can remotely wipe the entire device.

Two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication is an important security feature to safeguard your account from unauthorized access. The second factor in case of Dropbox is a unique code that Dropbox sends via text message or that you can generate via an authenticator app. As a result, when logging in to your Dropbox account from a new device, you have to enter your username and password as well as the randomly generated code.

Microsoft Office 365 integration

Dropbox’s Office 365 integration allows you to view and edit Microsoft Office documents directly from the Dropbox webpage and collaborate in real-time with others.

Microsoft Office integration
Microsoft Office integration

File requests

You can request files from someone else who doesn’t have a Dropbox account. When requesting a file, you can generate a special link that you can share with someone else. The recipient can click on that link and upload whatever file you are requesting. The uploaded file gets stored directly in your Dropbox. I have used that feature a few times when exchanging large files with third-parties who didn’t have Dropbox or other cloud storage solutions.

iCloud Drive overview

iCloud Drive is an essential part of Apple iCloud. But despite its tight integration into both iOS and macOS, it is still an optional feature that you can enable or disable as you please.

Files app on the iPad
Files app on the iPad

Apple doesn’t offer dedicated storage plans for iCloud Drive only. Instead, all iCloud features share your plan’s storage. As of this writing, Apple offers the following storage tiers:

  • 5 GB for free
  • 50 GB for $0.99 a month
  • 200 GB for $2.99 a month
  • 2 TB (2048 GB) for $9.99 a month

In my opinion, the free tier is a joke as it does not provide enough space for most users. On the bright side, Apple allows you to share your storage with other users via Family Sharing. I am on the 2 TB plan and share it with my wife and two kids. The kids don’t have their own devices yet, so they technically don’t use up any space.

iCloud Storage Plans
iCloud Storage Plans

Features

iCloud Drive offers some useful features that you shouldn’t ignore when looking for a cloud storage provider to host your data.

iCloud Storage Overview
iCloud Storage Overview

Integral part of the operating system

iCloud and thus iCloud Drive is an integral part of the operating system. That means you don’t have to download an additional app or create a separate account. Additionally, macOS can automatically store your Documents and Desktop folders in iCloud Drive to keep them in sync between multiple devices, including your iPhone or iPad.

Integration with third-party apps

Many Mac and iOS-compatible apps can store their data in iCloud. By doing so, those apps automatically keep their data in sync across all your devices. For example, I use iA Writer for drafting blog articles. I can start an article on my iMac and then finish it on my MacBook or iPad without having to copy anything back and forth.

Optimize (Mac) Storage

On iOS devices, the operating system never downloads the full contents of your iCloud Drive. Instead, only the most recently used files are cached, and you can download everything else on-demand. That is how almost all cloud storage apps work on mobile devices.

iCloud can optimize the storage on your Mac
iCloud can optimize the storage on your Mac

Apple made the same feature available for the Mac. By enabling this option, the full contents of iCloud Drive will only be stored on your Mac, if you have enough space available. You can still see all of your data in Finder, but you may notice a cloud icon next to some files. That is an indication that the file currently resides in iCloud Drive and your Mac has not downloaded it yet. If you opened the file, your Mac would instantly and automatically download it.

Files app for iOS

With iOS 11, Apple launched a new Files app. Think of it as a stripped down version of Finder for iOS. Thanks to its deep integration into the iCloud ecosystem, Files offers some unique and useful features, including:

The Files app for iOS
The Files app for iOS
  • Support for Tags that synchronize between macOS and iOS. I tag certain files, like tax receipts as part of my file processing routine in macOS. Using the Files app, I can quickly see a list of files based on their tag. Even better, tags work across different cloud storage providers. That means, if I tagged a file in iCloud Drive as “Tax” and another one in Dropbox, both files would show up when I clicked on the Tax tag filter.
Files app showing tags
Files app showing tags
  • Third-party integration: Using the Files app, not only do I have access to files in iCloud Drive, but I could also link my Box, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, Baidu, Adobe Creative Cloud, and Google Drive account. That way, I can browse or search files in all linked accounts from a single app. Before you can add third-party accounts (Files calls them Locations), you have to install the respective cloud provider app on your iOS device.
  • Overview of shared documents: Under the “Recents” tab in Files, there is a section called “Shared Documents.” It provides a list of all the files you shared with others using iCloud.

On a file or folder level, Files offers the following capabilities:

  • Select, duplicate, move, delete one or more items
  • Create, rename, duplicate, move, delete a folder
  • Rename, share, tag, or get more info on a file

For documents stored in Dropbox, you can also generate sharing links for individual files or folders using the Files app. That’s incredibly convenient and quick!

You can share Dropbox link with the Files app
You can share Dropbox link with the Files app

Encryption and privacy

Unlike Dropbox, Apple doesn’t know or have access to the encryption key iCloud uses to encrypt all your data. Instead, Apple ties the encryption key directly to your Apple ID. That’s a huge plus compared to most other cloud providers, that insist on keeping a copy of your encryption key.

Version history and file recovery

The Preview app supports version history
The Preview app supports version history

In macOS, application developers have to enable their apps to support version history. As a result, not all apps support that feature. Most of Apple’s applications and some third-party apps support version history. Of course, you can always use Time Machine, if set up, to restore previous versions of or recover deleted files.

Offline files

Apple doesn’t allow you to specify what files or folders iCloud Drive caches on the local device for offline access. On the Mac, you can instruct iCloud Drive always to keep files available locally by disabling “Optimize Mac Storage.” But if you do choose to let macOS optimize your storage, the OS controls what files remain available offline.

The highlighted item as not been downloaded yet
The highlighted item has not been downloaded yet

On iOS, you cannot force the Files app to cache all documents. In other words “Optimize Storage” is always on. Apple does offer a workaround via the “On my DEVICE” location, but it is clunky. To make a file or folder available for offline access, you to have to copy or move it to your local device folder. As a result, when you copy a document to your local device folder and edit it, you have to copy or move it back into iCloud manually.

Note: In my beta version of iOS 11, I cannot copy or move documents to the “On my DEVICE” folder. I don’t know if Apple has disabled that feature or if it is a bug.

Dropbox vs. iCloud Drive

Dropbox offers an incredibly robust and reliable cloud storage and data synchronization platform. Apple has entered the market much later and thus has some catching up to do.

Sharing files in Files app
Sharing files in Files app

With Dropbox, you can share links to individual files or folders, add expiration dates and make those links password protected. Additionally, you can share folders with other users, and Dropbox keeps those folders perfectly in sync across multiple devices.

iCloud Drive can’t do all of that. You can only share individual files with other users but not folders. On the plus side, Apple has integrated iCloud Drive deeply into its ecosystem, and you don’t need to download a separate app or create a different account. Below is a comparison chart of the essential differences between Dropbox and iCloud Drive:

Feature
iCloud Drive
Dropbox
Broad OS support
Limited
Deep OS integration
Encryption key not stored in the cloud
Free storage
5 GB
2 GB
Granular sharing permissions
$
Optimize storage
$
Selective sync
$
Share storage space with family members
Support for Finder tags
Support for offline files
Limited
Support for shared folders
Support for sharing individual files
Support for third-party providers in iOS app
Version history and recovery
Limited
$

$ indicates a feature that Dropbox offers only as part of a paid plan.

Conclusion

Over the past few years, I had switched back and forth between Dropbox and iCloud Drive a few times. Currently, most of my personal information is in iCloud Drive, and I have shared individual files with my wife. We used to share entire folders, but that is, unfortunately, not possible right now. Practically, that limitation hasn’t impacted our productivity much.

For all of my business data, I still use Dropbox, because I need to share much of that data with co-workers and doing that on a per-file basis wouldn’t be feasible. As a result, I use both cloud storage solutions, and I will probably continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

What cloud storage provider do you use? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.

21 thoughts on “Dropbox vs. iCloud – Comparison of Cloud Storage Solutions”

  1. I am torn myself. When iCloud was relaunched last year I had high hopes to move all my cloud storage to iCloud. That dream quickly ended because I cannot share folders with my family.
    We absolutely need this feature. My wife stores her recipes in a database and sometimes my daughter wants to access files. I have documents I work on that I share with my son. We have a database of receipts from all our purchases that we all need to access on the road if there is a warranty issue with a product or we need a manual. The list goes on.
    The other problem is that you cannot have ONE database for all family photos, taken from everyone’s device. Not by default, because your almost adult children may have stuff you don’t want to see but there is not even an OPTION. What is wrong with Apple?
    For work I use Dropbox and like the features a lot. But it is just way to expensive compared to iCloud. I am not willing to pay $100 a year. I would do it for $50. So we also added a G-Mail account, simply to get 15GB in storage on top. And honestly, that is all we need for Data.

    Reply
  2. I use Dropbox for all my personal data, and after many years, it’s never let me down. My only issue is I think Dropbox is leaving money on the table by not offering a plan between free and Plus. There is a huge gap between 2-4 GB (free range) and 1 TB for $8.25/mo. I need about 50-100 GB, which is way on the low side of the delta between the two Dropbox storage plans and I would happily pay for it. But…I refuse to spend $99/year for a gazillion times more storage than I need. I’ve even asked Dropbox why they don’t do this…their answer was simply: “We just don’t…nor will we.”

    That’s fine, it’s their service, but like the author of this article, I think Dropbox is a much better service than iCloud, even though iCloud has the perfect plan structure for me. In fact, I even pay Apple $.99/mo for the 50 GB just so I have the necessary storage should I ever need it.

    Microsoft OneCloud would be a decent alternative except you can’t use many file naming conventions with their cloud service and I’m not renaming many of my files just so OneCloud will back them up.

    Dropbox is certainly the best…but they really need to offer a plan a little higher than the free plan. Maybe they think folks will cave and cough up the $8.25/mo…but I don’t think that’s the case.

    Reply
  3. I’m running Mac Sierra (NOT High Sierra). Got this email from Dropbox in August 2017. Finding many of my Dropbox files are gone. Thoughts:

    “Hi Audrey,

    We’re reaching out because we’ve detected one or more .iCloud placeholder files in your Dropbox. These placeholder files could lead to data loss if no action is taken, as the recent release of macOS Sierra has changed the way Dropbox is able to sync files in some circumstances.

    To make sure all your files are safe, please follow these steps:

    Search for .iCloud files on Dropbox. Using the search bar on dropbox.com, type in .iCloud to see which files in your Dropbox are affected. When you’ve identified those files, you’ll need to recover the actual versions from iCloud (follow Apple’s instructions here).

    Update to the latest version of the Dropbox desktop client (version 11.4.22). To ensure Dropbox continues to sync properly, download the latest version of the desktop client.

    Manage warning notifications. You may see warning notifications from iCloud when you move files from an iCloud-synced folder into Dropbox. You can opt out of these notifications by following these steps.

    Why is this happening?

    The .iCloud file type is a “placeholder file” created by iCloud when it tries to free up disk space on Mac devices, as part of Apple’s new Optimize Storage feature. Placeholder files take up very little disk space because they don’t have any of the information that makes up the actual file. You can think of a placeholder file as a map to the actual file—the placeholder file lives on your device, while the actual file it represents lives on the iCloud server.

    Unfortunately, moving .iCloud files into Dropbox can cause some serious issues. iCloud treats the file move as a deletion from iCloud, and it deletes the actual file on the iCloud server. In some cases, iCloud will move only the placeholder file into Dropbox, so Dropbox will sync that placeholder instead of your actual file. In this scenario, neither Dropbox nor iCloud still has the actual file.

    This scenario can also occur if you’ve moved your Dropbox to a location synced by iCloud (like Documents or Desktop), or if you have a symlink to Dropbox in one of those locations.

    For more information on Dropbox and iCloud on macOS Sierra, visit our help center.

    Thanks!
    The Dropbox Team
    © 2017 Dropbox”

    Reply
  4. I would love to switch with my cloud storage to iCloud Drive (i’m deep into the Apple Eco-system as well).
    But I have the problem that I share my Dropbox account with my parents and they have almost nothing of Apple, so switching is out of the question for now (since i’m the one who pays for it).

    Dropbox 1TB + Smart Sync = €20 / iCloud Drive 2TB + Smart Sync equivalent = € 10

    So plan cost wise i’m crazy to stay with Dropbox, on the other hand though.
    The 3rd party app support Dropbox has built up is very nice, while that’s something to be much desired with iCloud Drive.

    Reply
  5. How about BOX? My school and company where I work AT&T uses BOX. It’s similar to Dropbox and has 10GB free starter cloud folder.

    Reply
    • Hi Raymond!

      I have heard a lot of good things about Box, but, personally, I’m invested in the Apple ecosystem and at work, we use Dropbox. So I never had the need and opportunity to use Box.

      Reply
  6. I use both but pay for iCloud because I wanna have one archive for all of my photos. Dropbox is for docs or lecture materials.

    Reply
  7. I currently use Dropbox Plus, and have been using it in one form or another ever since Dropbox first launched. As a [primarily] Mac user, I find Dropbox’s sync feature unmatched across all of the other platforms I have tried. As my personal and family needs continue to grow, I have been researching other services to try and combine usage into one service that we can all share. Unfortunately, I have not found a service that can accommodate our needs for a reasonable price.

    At the moment, I use DropBox Plus as the sole user, but defer costs a bit by loading up on plan renewals/keys when they go on sale at Dell.com. These sales come up fairly regularly and the last time I purchased it, I got about 3yrs worth of Plus (1TB) for $70/yr (less a $25 Dell gift card). Purchasing Dropbox this way allows you to add the purchases as renewal key codes to your account (i.e. they stack). And assuming you can use the Dell gift cards, it makes it an even better deal.

    We are also Amz Prime members, so when Cloud Drive first came out, I was excited about their $69/yr “unlimited” plan. But as Amazon often does, they canceled that plan and now offer tiered usage plans instead. Begrudgingly, we pay for their 1TB at $60/yr so we can back up all of our photos and videos from all of our devices at original resolution. It was the only service I could find that worked on Mac, iOS, and Android (me) and saves our uploads into individual (by device) folders (on the CloudDrive side) as well as a large photo dump we can all view in the Photos app. It also has Selective Sync when using the desktop app, so we are also able to use it as yet another archive for all of our (mostly mine) personal files, etc. This way, I can use it to back up my music collection, but not have it also be stored locally on mine or anyone else’s computers. IMO, Selective Sync is an essential feature in order to manage usage in shared/multi-computer environment.

    At first glance, Amazon CloudDrive/Photos sounds like the best shared solution for our needs, but in my testing of it at the time, I found the sync feature to be error prone and unreliable, often with lots of upload errors especially when using the CloudDrive desktop app. So for now, I am not using it for syncing, but will give it another shot when my Dropbox renewal keys are used up. I am hopeful that the sync features will be up to par with Dropbox by then, so I can move entirely to CloudDrive and use it as a shared service for my entire household and mixed device environment.

    Additionally, since I use Android, and Google Photos offers free photo and video backups (at slightly lower quality), I have enabled sync on my Android device and iOS devices for an additional backup point. Might as well since it’s [currently] free. These backups wouldn’t be shared of course, as they are tied to individual google accounts. As for syncing, I admit I have not tested Google Drive (One) much. It looks like One offers selective sync as well a Family shared storage plan, so that is yet another option I may have to consider down the road.

    And as another user pointed out, I also think a Dropbox plan between Free and Plus would be hugely popular, but I also think many Plus users would downgrade as a result, so I don’t think Dropbox will ever introduce one, unless it is reactionary to one of the other service’s offerings. In the past, Dropbox simply doubles the amount of space for the same price, which effectively has no impact on my usage.

    Reply
  8. Backup and Sync (iDrive) – files related to portfolio, projects, libraries of everything from materials for 3D to cad details.
    Dropbox – administration and work files for use at home
    iCloud 50GB – Apple related, photos.
    OneDrive – a few work related files

    The bulk of storage is with Google. I went with that and Dropbox after Apple left MobileMe iDisk users without a direct transition to iCloud. Recently I have had to disable Backup and Sync at startup as it eats up CPU % to the point where my iMac has shut itself down. I now only manually enable B and S and babysit syncing with activity monitor so Google needs to go. I would like to put everything on iCloud because I’m happily in their ecosystem but read of filing structure issues plus still smarting a bit from the iDisk fiasco. Dropbox seems like the obvious solution but iCloud has a better plan. I will put everything on iCloud if there are no issues when working outside their filing structure.

    Reply
  9. I started reading stuff about dropbox and iCloud because I saw an potion in My iPhone settings under iCloud > apps using iCloud where I could turn on dropbox. I have both Icloud 2TB and dropbox available to me. But I haven’t found out what turning on dropbox under apps that use iCloud actually does.

    Reply
    • Hi Ken,

      The setting you are referring to enables Dropbox to store configuration data in iCloud. I don’t know exactly what kind of data, but I assume it could be account credentials via Keychain.

      There is a second integration option between these two cloud storage providers. If you open the Files app and go to the home screen, you see a section called Locations. If you click on Edit, you can enable Dropbox. That way, you can browse both iCloud Drive and Dropbox from within a single app.

      Reply
  10. Great article! I’m thinking about moving all my work and personal files to iCloud Drive. It might sound silly but I actually trust apple more than Dropbox and appreciate their recent transparency with regards to privacy.

    One thing you didn’t mention was all the end to encryptions of iCloud? I don’t understand all the SSL and TSL etc but I remember reading that apple uses 128 encryptions for iCloud Drive and 256 for Apple Pay? I assume that 256 is stronger and more secure so why not use that for everything?

    I use file mail more for sharing files these days as well so I use Dropbox less for sharing.

    Gonna yo and read some of your other articles now 👍

    Reply
  11. 2019. Apple has still not made it possible to sync the Pictures folder for automatic backup. Inexplicably, iCloud space is consumed without more files being added to the synced folder. Apparently this happens when an external drive is attached to a Mac.

    Reply
  12. I am afraid that this article doesn’t do it for me. It seems to me that iCloud much to my chagrin is a synchronisation and backup service not a storage service. In my case I have 5 apple devices using my iCloud account. My desktop has 1 terabyte , my laptop 256g….. I find myself in the situation that my 109g on iCloud is being replicated on my Mac Pro eating up all of the space from storage on my iMac …. which severely limits my ability to load new apps onto the Mac Pro. I would welcome 1. Advice on how to use iCloud as storage only or alternately 2. A good alternative to iCloud that is solely cloud storage … maybe amazon?

    seems to me that apple have lost the plot on this one.

    Reply
    • Hi Charlie,

      Apple has delayed folder sharing until later this year. Once the feature becomes available, I’ll update the article. For now, iCloud is still no serious competitor for Dropbox.

      Cheers,
      Michael

      Reply

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