How to Backup Your Files With Dropbox.com (Part 1 of 2)

This guide will be the first in a two-part series explaining how you can use Dropbox.com to easily backup the files you have saved on your computer. Backing up your files regularly is critical to ensuring you never lose them to the digital void. Whether you have important financial documents saved on your computer, or pictures from your family reunions, the last thing you want is to lose those files forever if your computer ever crashes. Part 1 of this series will explain what Dropbox.com is and why you should consider using it, and part 2 will provide detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to set up Dropbox on your computer.

Part 1: Dropbox.com – What Is It & Why You Should Use It

Using Dropbox.com is a very easy way to make sure your important files are constantly backed up. A free service, Dropbox allows you to create a special folder on your computer that you can save all of your important files in. Any file saved into that folder will automatically be copied and securely sent over the internet to Dropbox.com. Any time you make any changes to files in that folder, the updated version of that file will also be immediately copied and sent securely to Dropbox.com so the backup copy stored by Dropbox.com will reflect the updated version. If your computer ever crashes, you can easily recover all of your files by downloading the backup copies from Dropbox.com to a new computer.

One of the major benefits of using Dropbox for backing up your files is that, once you set it up, all of your files are backed up immediately and automatically, without ever needing any additional actions from you. You just have the make sure that you only save your important files within the special “Dropbox” folder created on your computer. You can still create as many sub-folders within that “Dropbox” folder as you want to keep your stuff organized, and all of those sub-folders will still be backed up to Dropbox.com.

Another major benefit of using Dropbox is that you can use it for more than just backing up files. Dropbox can also be used to synchronize your files across multiple computers or devices. What does that mean exactly? Imagine this:

You’ve just uploaded a funny photo you took of your favorite relative from your digital camera to your desktop computer (be honest, we all know that one of your relatives is your favorite). You save the photo on your desktop computer inside the special Dropbox folder, and then you turn off your desktop computer and go to bed. The next week you happen to be visiting your relative’s house for the weekend, and you want to show them the photo. But the photo is saved on your desktop computer at home! Thanks to Dropbox, this isn’t a problem. You can just turn on your laptop computer on which you also set up Dropbox, open the special “Dropbox” folder on your laptop, and the photo is already there!

How is that possible? Any files you save in the special “Dropbox” folder on one of your computers, in addition to be backed up to Dropbox.com, will also be automatically copied to all of your other computers which are linked to your Dropbox account. Of course, in order to work, all of the computers involved must be connected to the internet. But they don’t have to be connected at the same time. In the example scenario above, your laptop wasn’t even turned on (never mind connected to the internet) when you first saved the photo on your desktop computer. But your desktop computer was connected to the internet, so your desktop computer was able to immediately send a copy to Dropbox.com over the internet. The following week when you turned on your laptop at your relative’s house, you were still able to access the photo on your laptop. Now, I cheated a little when I described that imaginary scenario. Well…I left something out. If, when you turned on your laptop at your relative’s house, that was the first time you turned on your laptop since your first saved the photo on your desktop, then a copy of the photo would only be available in the special “Dropbox” folder on your laptop if you were able to first connect to the internet. As soon as you connect your laptop to the internet, Dropbox.com will automatically send a copy of all new files which it has to your laptop. Exactly how long it takes will depend on how big the file is and how fast your internet connection is, but for most typical digital photos and internet connection speeds it should only take a few seconds. And it doesn’t require any action on your part. As soon as your laptop is connected to the internet the file synchronization will start automatically, and the entire process happens in the background so that it won’t even be noticeable to you. Once the files have been synchronized, the photo will still be available on your laptop even after you disconnect from the internet. An internet connection is only required to back up changes to files and to download files which were saved on your other computer(s). After that, you can still access all of your files even if your computer is not connected to the internet. You can also still edit your files and save the changes if your computer is not connected to the internet. Your changes just won’t be backed up to Dropbox.com until the next time you connect to internet. But again, that process is completely automatic and requires no action from you. You can edit your files and save the changes while you are offline as much as you want, and the next time you connect to the internet the updated files will automatically be copied and sent to Dropbox.com to be backed up and synchronized to your other computers.

Of course, not everyone has more than one computer. But even if you don’t have a laptop, Dropbox can still save the day when you go to visit your relative and want to show them the photo you saved to your desktop computer. If you have a smartphone or a tablet, Dropbox has a free mobile app for iPhones, iPads, and Android phones/tablets. The Dropbox app allows you to access all of your files saved in the special “Dropbox” folder on your computer directly from your smartphone or tablet. The mobile Dropbox app works a little bit differently from the version for computers, though. While the computer version of Dropbox automatically saves copies of your files to all of your linked computers, the mobile app doesn’t automatically download copies of all of your files, as mobile devices have much less storage space than computers do. Instead, it lets you open your files without having to download copies of all your files in advance. To do this, the app requires a constant internet connection while you are using it. If your smartphone or tablet has no signal and cannot connect to the internet, then you will not be able to access any of your files from your mobile device. However, if you anticipate that you are going to need to access certain files from your mobile device in an area where you won’t have signal, you can open those files in the mobile app in advance while your mobile device is still connected to the internet and “star” the specific file or files you think you’ll need to access offline. Those “starred” files will be copied and saved locally on your mobile device, so that even if your device has no signal you can still open the Dropbox mobile app and access those “starred” files offline. The Dropbox mobile app was designed this way to strike a balance between the need to access your files on your mobile device in areas with no signal, and using up too much of the limited storage space on your mobile device with copies of all your files. As I said earlier, this issue is only a concern on smartphones and tablets. Desktop and laptop computers have much more space on them, so Dropbox can easily store copies of all of your files on computers without a problem.

So all of the mobile device stuff is great, but what if you don’t have a smartphone or a tablet? What if you only have one desktop computer and nothing else? Is there still a way to access your files while away from your computer, or can you only take advantage of Dropbox for backing up files? Well, even if you only have a single desktop computer and no fancy mobile devices, you can still share that photo when you visit your relative’s house! For you see, you can still access all of your files from any computer with an internet connection! If you go to the Dropbox.com website from your relative’s home computer, you can log into your Dropbox account with your username and password and access all of your files directly from the website. Your connection to the Dropbox.com website is encrypted, so you can securely access your files from any computer with your username and password. Like with any website you can log into, you should always use a strong, secure password (see this page from Dropbox.com on tips for creating a strong password). You can also download copies of any of your files from Dropbox.com to the computer you’re currently using, even if that computer doesn’t have Dropbox installed on it. This way you can download a copy of that photo to your relative’s computer for them without having to install Dropbox on their computer and link it your account. When you’re accessing Dropbox from the website, after you log out that computer won’t still be able to access your files. This way you can install and link only the trusted computers you own to your Dropbox account so they automatically send and receive copies of all of your files without having to log in every single time, while other computers which you access via the website will not retain any access once you log out.

IMPORTANT SECURITY NOTE: Even though accessing Dropbox.com through the website requires you to log in with your username and password each time you connect, you should only ever do this on computers you trust. Avoid logging into Dropbox.com from public computers, and even if you’re using the computer of a trusted friend or relative, make sure whoever owns that computer keeps it secure and protected with up-to-date antivirus and firewall protection. If a computer is hacked, hackers can install malicious programs on the computer which log every key pressed on the keyboard and every website accessed. If you log into your Dropbox.com account on a computer that has been compromised in this way, your username and password could be logged and sent to the hacker. You can mitigate this risk somewhat by turning on enabling the two-step verification option for your Dropbox.com account (see this page for more information), but even then you need to be careful.

If you want to learn more about two-step verification in general, and how it can help protect many of your online accounts (e.g. Dropbox, Google, Facebook, etc.), I plan to dedicate an article to this topic in the near future, so check back often!

So after I’ve said all of these wonderful things about Dropbox, you’re probably wondering what the catch is. After all, how could a service that offers all of these features be free? Well, the answer is that free Dropbox.com accounts do come with some limitations. The main limitation is that free accounts get up to 2 gigabytes (2 GB) of space to store their backup file copies on Dropbox.com’s servers. If you use Dropbox primarily to back up files like Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PDF files, and other documents that are mainly text-based, for most people 2 GB will probably be more than enough. You’ll also likely be able to backup a fair number of digital photos in addition to those text-based documents without going over the 2 GB limit for free accounts. However, if you backup a lot of photos, or if you backup video files, you’re much more likely to hit the 2 GB limit eventually. If this does happen, Dropbox.com won’t automatically start billing you (you do not have to provide a credit card when signing up for a free account, so they can’t automatically start billing you even if they wanted to). They won’t start deleting your files or blocking access to them either. Instead, if you hit the limit you’ll find that new files you save will not be copied and sent to Dropbox.com to be backed up. But files which were previously backed up to Dropbox.com already will still be there, and you’ll still have full access to them. And you can still create and save new files on your computer inside the special “Dropbox” folder, they just won’t be backed up to Dropbox.com. If this happens, a red ‘X’ icon will appear over any files which were not backed up to Dropbox.com, so you’ll know which files are backed up and which ones aren’t. Also, by default Dropbox will send you an e-mail warning you when you are getting close to the storage space limit. If you do hit the limit, you have a couple of options:

  • Get additional free space by referring friends or completing promotional activities
  • Upgrade to a paid Dropbox Pro account to get 1 terabyte (1 TB) of space
  • Delete some of your files
    • You can always just move some files out of the special “Dropbox” folder on your computer so you’ll still have them; they just won’t be backed up to Dropbox.com anymore.

Well, that’s it for Part 1 of this guide to “How to Backup Your Files With Dropbox.com”. Stay tuned for Part 2, which will give step-by-step instructions on how to sign up for a free Dropbox.com account, and how to set it up on your computers and/or mobile devices. It’s actually pretty easy, I promise!

NOTE: For the record, I do not work for Dropbox, nor am I being paid to promote Dropbox in any way. The reason I’m dedicating my first tech guide series to Dropbox is because backing up your files is very important, but many people don’t do it. For people who aren’t very tech savvy, Dropbox offers an excellent way to always keep their files backed up without having to even think about it. There are other ways, such as using the Windows Backup utility to schedule regular copying of all of your files to an external hard drive. But that requires you to buy an external hard drive, make sure it is always connected, and worry about having to maintain the external drive. If you have a laptop, it also means having to always remember to connect your external hard drive back to your laptop, and to leave your computer turned on whenever you’ve scheduled the backup to occur. For many people, that can be too much to remember. I recommend Dropbox.com to my mom for her to always keep her files backed up specifically because the only thing she ever has to remember is to save any important files to somewhere inside the special “Dropbox” folder on her computer. While all of the synchronizing and mobile device features I described in this article are great, at the end of the day you don’t need to use any of those features to take advantage of the power and simplicity of using Dropbox for backing up your files.