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.
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.
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
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
- File requests
- Priority email support
The Plus plan costs $9.99 per month, or $8.25 per month if billed annually.
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
- Smart Sync
- Live chat support
The Plus plan costs $19.99 per month, or $16.58 per month if billed annually.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 Drive offers some useful features that you shouldn’t ignore when looking for a cloud storage provider to host your data.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
$ indicates a feature that Dropbox offers only as part of a paid plan.
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.