iCloud vs. Dropbox: Which is Better for Managing Files on Multiple Devices?

Over at the Mac OS X Hints website, which I edit, I posted a poll about using iCloud to store documents. With OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, iCloud is now a way for applications to store files in the “cloud,” or, more correctly on Apple’s servers. This is practical if you work with multiple devices: a desktop Mac and a laptop, or a Mac and an iPad. However, the limits in using iCloud make it more of a hassle than a useful tool.

The main problem with iCloud is that it is application-specific. If you create a document with TextEdit, and save it on iCloud, you can only access it with TextEdit. (You can get access to it on any computer linked to that iCloud account, but not on iOS.) So if I want to take a TextEdit document and work with it on my iPad, I can’t; there’s no equivalent app. I can’t import it into another application that supports its format. The same is the case for other apps that use iCloud for storage. If, for example, I use an iCloud-compatible text editor on my iPad, I can’t access its files easily on my Mac, unless there is a corresponding application.

Now look at Dropbox. All you do is put a file in your Dropbox folder and it’s automatically stored in the cloud and available on any other device or computer that can run Dropbox (which is pretty much every computer and mobile platform available today). No need to worry about having the right application to open a file, no need to go through convoluted processes to open or save files; the files are just there in the folder.

Not only does Dropbox allow you to sync files across devices, but you can also create shared folders for friends or co-workers. I have a number of them for projects I work on, and each person involved gets access to all the files, and can share their files easily with others. And, with Dropbox, you can put a file in your folder and right-click to get a “public” link, which you can use to share the file with others, even if they don’t have a Dropbox account. I find that this replaces the iDisk file sharing that was part of .Mac, which I used fairly often.

So while iCloud is nice for syncing data from apps where you don’t save files – calendars, to-do apps, etc. – it is far less practical than Dropbox for storing documents. If you already use Dropbox, this is probably obvious, but if not, its worth trying.

Don’t use Dropbox? Get a free 2 GB account; I get a 500 MB kickback if you sign up.