June 2, 2011

Re-examining Dropbox and its alternatives

By Woody Leonhard

Recent revelations about privacy concerns with Dropbox have led many people — including me — to think about changing my practices regarding online file-storage and -synchronization providers.

If you use Dropbox or some other cloud storage and sync program, let me explain what you do — and don't — need to be concerned about. And what you can do to sleep better at night.

Michael Lasky wrote about Dropbox in his October 28, 2010, Top Story, Dropbox: File synching and sharing made easy. Dropbox lets you drag and drop files into a special folder on your Windows desktop. The dropped files then magically appear on all other PCs, laptops, phones, and iPads that use the Dropbox service and are set up to share the folder you have. It has good password-based security and fine file-sharing options.

We here at Windows Secrets use Dropbox all the time, both as individuals and as a group. As Michael said, "Every once in a while some product — or service in this case — comes along that we soon find we can't live without. Dropbox, an online file-backup, -sharing, and -synchronization service, fits that category."

I personally like Dropbox so much I recommended it in my January 27 Top Story, Seven simple steps for setting up Windows 7.

That's why I was very concerned when reports started surfacing a few weeks ago about possible privacy problems with Dropbox.

Setting up Dropbox from a privacy point of view

To understand the problems that have caused all the concern, you need to understand how Dropbox works.

When you sign up for Dropbox, you supply a user name and password and then install the application. As long as you're connected to the Internet, the files you drag into the local Dropbox folder magically appear on all PCs, laptops, phones, and iPads that also have Dropbox installed and are attached to the same Dropbox account. The files also appear online when you sign into the Dropbox site and specify the same user name and password.

The first time you set up Dropbox on a new machine (PC, Mac, phone, tablet), you have to specify the user name and password for your account. (Currently, you can have multiple Dropbox accounts, but you can use only one at a time — you have to sign out of one account before signing into another.) After that, Dropbox remembers the sign-in details, and it's click-and-drag easy for you to store files in the cloud. Dropbox automatically synchronizes the contents of the Dropbox folder on all of the machines using the same account.

Dropbox has a lot of smarts. For example, it won't store the same file twice. If you drop a picture of your summer vacation into your Dropbox folder and your brother drops the same picture into his Dropbox folder, Dropbox recognizes the duplication — it uploads and stores the file only once. Even if you and your brother have completely different user names and passwords and work with completely different folders, Dropbox is smart enough to refrain from storing the same file twice.

Moreover, if you make a small change to a big file and then drag the updated file into your Dropbox folder, Dropbox is smart enough to just synchronize the deltas — it identifies the parts of the file that have changed and uploads only those changed parts. That can save you a lot of time and bother with sluggish upload speeds. It also saves bandwidth and storage on the Dropbox servers. Slick.

Other people can't get into your Dropbox unless you give them your account's user name and password. (You can set up Public folders with Dropbox, which — as the name implies — are accessible to anyone with the right URL. But you have to specifically designate a folder as Public.)

When you move from one device (computer, phone, tablet, etc.) to another, or you have more than one Dropbox folder set up on your computer, you have to supply the correct user name and password on each device to get at the data. (Or you can sign in to the Dropbox website with the correct user name and password.)

So only people with the user name and password can see the data, right? Well, no — and that's the source of the privacy problem.

Dropbox privacy called into question

Until a month ago, the Dropbox FAQ said, "All files stored on Dropbox servers are encrypted (AES-256) and are inaccessible without your account password."

But as he reported in his April 12 blog, security researcher Christopher Soghoian put two and two together and came to a rather disconcerting conclusion: the only way Dropbox could deduplicate files or store the deltas is if the Dropbox system can get at the contents of your files. At least on the surface, that contradicts the assurance that your files "are inaccessible without your account password."

The Dropbox help site also stated a month ago, "Dropbox employees aren't able to access user files, and when troubleshooting an account, they only have access to file metadata (file names, file sizes, etc. — not the file contents)." As it turns out, that isn't exactly true, according to Soghoian's blog.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that Dropbox was trying to hide the fact that it could (and can) look at the contents of your files (for example, in response to a legal warrant). A Dropbox representative, Drew H., stated publicly in a three-year-old Dropbox forum post that company employees were authorized to look at stored content such as file names — but not file contents. Dropbox encrypts the data before it's stored, but the encryption is done with Dropbox's own keys, and those keys are maintained by Dropbox. When required, people at Dropbox can get at the keys and decrypt your data; but that process is tightly controlled, as described in the "Compliance with laws and law enforcement requests; protection of Dropbox's rights" section on the company's Privacy Policy p! age.

Soghoian posted his analysis on April 12; shortly after, several Dropbox website statements on privacy and security changed. On April 21, the folks at Dropbox posted a clarification of their terms of service. "We felt our old TOS language was too broad and gave Dropbox rights that we didn't even want. We wish we had explained this when we made the change, but unfortunately we didn't and we're sorry if these changes have raised concerns about our commitment to keeping your stuff private." Again, it's important to note that Dropbox has always clearly stated that it maintains keys for unlocking all of the data: that's in the company blog and has been for years.

The blog goes on to describe situations in which Dropbox will divulge your data, under the new Terms of Service: "We may disclose to parties outside Dropbox files stored in your Dropbox and information about you that we collect when we have a good-faith belief that disclosure is reasonably necessary to (a) comply with a law, regulation or compulsory legal request; (b) protect the safety of any person from death or serious bodily injury; (c) prevent fraud or abuse of Dropbox or its users; or (d) protect Dropbox's property rights." You can see the full statement on Dropbox's Privacy Policy page.

You may find those terms chilling, but Dropbox does make a compelling argument in its favor by comparing its Privacy Policy with those of Apple, Google, Skype, and Twitter. Apple and Google store data online and have similarly broad-reaching policies. Skype and Twitter aren't quite so broad, fitting the nature of their service.

Soghoian has since filed a 16-page complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, alleging deceptive trade practices and unfair competition. He argues with some authority that Dropbox has an unfair advantage over competing cloud file-sharing services by maintaining its own keys (which allows its programs and employees access to your data). He further argues that Dropbox is misrepresenting the strength of its security and that its inferior security practices allow it to operate at a lower cost than its competitors.

What should — or can — you do about it?

I don't have any secrets worth sweating about, and I bet you don't either. But it's disconcerting nonetheless to know that specific Dropbox employees, no doubt following strict company guidelines, can see all of the data in my Dropbox folders. I'm also more than a little concerned about recent massive data breaches, where data and keys on other sites — such as Epsilon, Sony, Honda, Netflix, DSLReports, SecurID, Gawker, WordPress, iTunes, and many more — have fallen into bad-guy hands. Dropbox may follow the best security practices in the world, but that still doesn't make the company or its employees impervious to the rewards of data harvesting. And who's to say the keys can't be swiped as well?

Depending on your level of security comfort (or paranoia), you have four possible choices if you want to synchronize data in the cloud:

You can use Dropbox, realizing that the staff of Dropbox has the capability to read your data and send it to duly constituted authorities in some jurisdiction or another. If you understand the situation and it doesn't bother you, more power to ya!

You can encrypt your data before Dropbox gets it. The people at Dropbox recommend TrueCrypt, which runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. In general, all you have to do is put a TrueCrypt-encrypted file inside your Dropbox folder and change one setting on the TrueCrypt file. Dropbox has a forum thread that describes the approach and some of its problems. Suffice it to say that most people find it works easily. The major downside? It doesn't work on mobile devices, and file uploads and downloads might take longer.

You can use one of the integrated Dropbox third-party routines that perform encryption and decryption. At this moment, SecretSync and BoxCryptor are the best-known representatives of the genre. Both work with the Dropbox API and allow you to encrypt and decrypt the data with your own keys. Dropbox still encrypts the files (a second time), but should the occasion ever arise where Dropbox or some nefarious person uses the Dropbox key, the resulting file will still be scrambled — and you're the only one with the key. Users report varying degrees of success with BoxCryptor on Mac OS X and Linux. SecretSync support for Mac and Linux is "coming soon." There's no mobile support for this technology, either.

Or, you can drop Dropbox altogether. SpiderOak offers similar services, free, without the centrally maintained encryption keys: you encrypt the data with your key — and only you have the key. Bad guys can steal everything in SpiderOak, and they still can't crack your files. With SpiderOak, you create your password on your own computer — not through a Web form received by SpiderOak servers. According to a SpiderOak FAQ, "When you create a SpiderOak account, the setup process happens on your computer (after you download the application), and there your password is used in combination with a strong key derivation function to create your outer layer encryption keys. Your password is never stored as part of the data sent to Spide! rOak servers." In fact, SpiderOak's support staff has no ability to reset your password — you are completely responsible for its safekeeping. SpiderOak works on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux but not on mobile devices.

SpiderOak even offers an open license, which allows your company or organization to set up its own SpiderOak operation. The administrator can see each account's name and contact information as well as the amount of data stored — and that's it. There are no keys floating around and no way for admins to look at the data. SpiderOak calls it "zero-knowledge privacy."

So whether the Dropbox privacy news elicits a yawn or seems dire (or at least sobering), you now know its limitations and you have alternatives.

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May 22, 2011

Who’s Screwing You Over on Privacy Issues? Pretty Much Everybody.

Dropbox–flamed this week for revealing that it will hand over your stored files to the feds if requested–is not alone in its willingness to throw users' privacy under the proverbial bus.

Nor is Apple, under the gun today after a revelation by O'Reilly Radar that 3G iPads and iPhones keep track of users' locations in unencrypted files.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently released its annual Privacy and Protection Report Card, rating the largest online players' performance in four categories:

  • Telling users about data demands
  • Being transparent about government requests for information
  • Fighting for user privacy in the courts
  • Advocating for privacy before Congress

EFF asks the provocative question, "When the government comes knocking, who has your back?" The discouraging but unsurprising answer appears to be, "You better have your own," because almost everybody failed.

As ZDNet's Violet Blue said, "They've either got your back in a pinch, or they'll sing like yellow canaries when the chips are down and sacrifice you without a second glance."

How the Big Boys Did

Among the tech firms whose performance on privacy issues can best be described as "not terrible:" Google (two stars plus two half-stars), Amazon (two stars) and Twitter (one star and two half-stars).

Google was the only surveyed company to rate something in all four categories, giving it a solid grade of C. Google got props from the EFF for citing user privacy as it pushed back in court against a request for search records, and for regular reporting about how and when they provide data to governments around the world.

Amazon and Twitter received props for their handling of requests for individuals' data, and Yahoo earned a star for resisting subpoenas of a user's email records.

Microsoft, Facebook and AT&T earned one star each for lobbying Congress on privacy concerns.

Coming up completely empty: Apple, Comcast, MySpace, Skype, and Verizon.

Privacy-minded users have already kicked themselves off Facebook and sworn off FourSquare and cloud-based anything. They won't get much additional benefit from a privacy bill rolling out on Capitol Hill.

The Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights, introduced in the Senate last week by strange bedfellows John McCain and John Kerry, got a lukewarm review from EFF's Rainey Reitman: "The bill's most glaring defect is its emphasis on regulation of information use and sharing, rather than on the collection of data in the first place. For example, the bill would allow a user to opt out of third-party ad targeting based on tracking–but not third-party tracking."

Moreover, Reitman adds, a loophole in the legislation allows sites like Facebook to step neatly around privacy protections: "A user would surrender any right to opt out of being tracked by Facebook or Google simply by having an account with them."

You are warned…

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January 10, 2011

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011

viagra headache color="#000000">Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011 color="#000000">Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011Those important computer tasks—like securing, cleaning, and backing up—are like any other resolution: we all say we're going to do them but rarely keep up with them all year. Here's our simple guide to staying on track in 2011.

Keeping your computer in good shape gets to be tedious and annoying when you have to try to fit it in to your busy schedule. Rather than letting things slip through the cracks and watch your computer slow to a crawl, fall victim to a nasty virus, or crash and burn with no backups, we've put together everything you need to tackle to stay on top of all your computer maintenance tasks. Here are the four things we're going to look at (feel free to click to skip to any of the sections):

Back Up Automatically

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011
Backing up our data is something we all know is important but many of us do not do. In the past you might've been able to get away with the excuse of inconvenience, but nowadays it's so effortless that if you're not backing up, you should make it your first order of business for the new year.

A good backup system will duplicate your important data in three places. One of them can be your computer, another can be an external hard drive that you keep in your house, but one of those three places should exist outside of your home. Local backups (like backing up to an external USB drive) protect you if a hard drive dies, but not if your house is robbed, catches fire, or you fall victim to any other incredibly fun disaster you can imagine. While these are rare circumstances, the effects are devastating. Since backup is so easy, there's really no sense in taking the risk. First we'll take a look at backing up to the cloud, which requires essentially no effort at all, and then we'll consider your options for each specific operating system so you can have a local copy on an external drive as well.

Backing Up to the Cloud

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011As long as your work doesn't consist of serious data creation, I'm of the opinion that you can use Dropbox for all your backup needs, especially now that it includes selective sync. I used Dropbox toorganize my home folder and sync my iTunes library to multiple computers and it works great. While Dropbox can take care of just about everything I want backed up and synced, it can't handle your applications and system files without causing problems. Also, for reasons I don't entirely understand (aside from the cost), not everyone wants to keep the majority of their stuff in their Dropbox. So, for those of you who aren't sold on Dropbox being the golden egg of cloud backup, your other best bet for off-site backup is Mozy.

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011Mozy has become a Lifehacker favorite, especially with the speed boosts and its ability to also back up to external drives. In fact, its external drive backup options make it a cross-platform tool that can pretty much handle every one of your backup needs (cloud + local drive). While I wasn't in love with Mozy when it first came about, it's now considerably faster than it was in its early days and can handle everything from one application. That's pretty tough to beat. For a full walkthrough, check out our guide to setting up a foolproof and fireproof automatic backup plan with Mozy.

Backing Up to a Local Drive

NOTE: While we're not going to get picky about the brand of drive you use, make sure you get one that's a bit bigger than your computer's drive if you want to save multiple backups.

While Mozy can back up to an external drive nicely, you may prefer a backup tool with a larger feature-set that's more tailored to your operating system. Fortunately, there is no shortage of backup software available for every operating system. We've narrowed down the pool and have a few options for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, that should cover all your local backup needs.

Windows

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011Built into Windows 7 is the Backup and Restore Center, which Microsoft debuted in Windows Vista and has since improved in Windows 7. While it'll take more than a few clicks to set up, you're given a good number of options to control how your data is backed up. You can choose what you want to backup, where you want to back it up (including network locations), and how often you want the backup to occur. While it may not be the perfect solution for all users, it's built into Windows and pretty easy to set up.

Alternatively, you have the classic SyncBack. The SE version is free but you can pay for additional features. Nearly five years ago, Gina used SyncBack SE to set up an automatic backup plan that still works today. If Windows Backup Center doesn't quite cut it for you, SyncBack SE is a great alternative.

Mac OS X

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011One nice feature of Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6 is Time Machine, which lets you plug in a drive and just back up with no effort at all. Once it has a full copy of all your data, it will only backup the files that have changed since that original copy was made. If you want a file you lost, you can activate Time Machine and go back in time to retrieve an earlier copy of that file. Your Time Machine backup drive can also be used to restore lost data and set up a brand new Mac with all your files.

Time Machine pretty much does what it wants to do and that's that, so if you're looking for more control I'd suggest picking up Carbon Copy Cloner. It's a free backup utility that makes a bootable copy of your drive (which Time Machine does not). I use it all the time and love it. It can be as simple as selecting the drive you want to copy, but you can also selectively copy certain files. Carbon Copy Cloner is very straightforward backup software, so you're not going to find the bells and whistles you might with paid software, but if you want something simple that also offers quite a bit of control over your backup, it's an ideal choice.

Linux

For easy backups on Linux machines, Back In Time is a good solution. You can get your backup plan set up pretty quickly, and it backs up using space-saving snapshots (much like Apple's Time Machine). As far as Linux backup apps go, it's pretty easy to understand and runs great on GNOME and KDE-based Linux systems.

Secure Your Computer and Your Life Online

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011
There are a number of ways your computer can get into trouble. Whether you're dealing with viruses, online threats, or physical theft, here are some great tools to help keep you safe.

Antivirus Software

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011
For Windows, however, you don't have to look much further than Microsoft Security Essentials. There once was a day when relying on third-party antivirus software was necessary, but Microsoft put those days behind us. MSE is great at ferreting out malware, performs very well, and is free. Mac OS X and Linux users generally don't have to worry too much about viruses, so you get a pass on antivirus software. But you don't get a pass on the next category.

Online Security

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011
We've take a pretty extensive look at how to stay secure online, so read through that and you should be in pretty good shape. Additionally, you'll want to take a look at how to combat spam email, learn how to prevent someone from breaking into your Mac or Windows PC, and invade your own privacy to make sure your private information is secure.

Preventing (and Preparing for) Computer Theft

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011Prey is a wonderful, free, open-source tool that can help you track down and (potentially) recover your stolen Mac, Windows PC, or smartphone. If you're like me and you've had your laptop stolen before, you know how devastating it can be. When you lose technology with personal data, the thief doesn't only have access to your expensive hardware but a lot of information about you as well. Coming to this realization is not fun, so be smart and take the necessary steps to protect yourself from a potential theft.

For those of you with iPhones (or other iOS devices), you're lucky enough to have free access to find my iPhone. Set it up and use it! If you're don't have a recent iOS device, we've got you covered. Here's how to set up Find My iPhone on older iOS devices.

Run Regular Maintenance

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011With your data backed up and protected, you're going to want a computer that runs smoothly. Performing regular maintenance can play a big role in keeping your machine in tip-top shape. Mac OS X and Windows 7/Vista will take care of defragmenting your drive for you—so no need to take care of it yourself—but if you're running earlier versions of Windows you should check out our guides on setting up a self-repairing hard drive and setting up scheduled tasks to run your favorite cleaning tasks in the background. If you're a fan of CCleaner (the all-in-one crap cleaner for Windows), check out this guide to automating your CCleaner sessions.

For Mac users, maintenance tasks are regularly scheduled by OS X and so, technically, you don't have to do anything yourself. Nonetheless, it's in your best interest to play a hand in your system's upkeep. If you want a look at every possible option you have, definitely check out our guide on cleaning up and reviving your bloated, sluggish Mac. Alternatively, if you want to do a bit less, you can just schedule maintenance tasks in the Terminal and repair disk permissions. If you're not familiar with repairing your disk permissions, all you have to do is go into your Applications —> Utilities folder and open up Disk Utility. Inside of Disk Utility, choose the First Aid tab and then click the Repair Disk Permissions button. It'll take a few minutes and slow down the system a bit, but running this operation will help prevent little errors here and there. Running this once a month (and after any major software installation) will keep your Mac a bit happier and less prone to preventable issues.

Last, if you have a bad habit of letting your Downloads folder or Desktop get out of control, check out our guide to automatically cleaning and organizing your folders with Belvedere (or with Hazel if you're on a Mac).

Create a Tidy, Attractive Desktop

Resolved: How to Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean, and Backed Up in 2011
Once your computer is backed up, safe, clean, and running smoothly, you ought to finish up with a little fun. Your machine is, ultimately, going to be more fun to use if it's easy to navigate and looks just the way you want it to look. We've taken an extensive look at customizing your desktop, so be sure to check out those options to take on some serious customizations. Need inspiration? Check out our most popular featured desktops from 2010. If you're just looking for some simple customizations, however, you can find some excellent, distraction-free wallpaper over at Simple Desktops and great free icons at the Iconfactory.

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February 4, 2010

5 Essential iPod Touch Apps for the Mobile Geek

TT - 153

5 Essential iPod Touch Apps for the Mobile Geek

by Scott Nesbitt – January 31, 2010

The iPod Touch is more than just an MP3/MP4 player. And it's far more than just a crippled iPhone. It's a portable entertainment center, and a powerful tool for the mobile worker.

The key to the latter, though, is finding the right apps. Many of the applications for the iPod Touch that are available through Apple's AppStore are fun. There are some that are … well, they're interesting. Others are downright useless.

The apps that this TechTip covers are perfect for the geek on the go. They range in price from free to under five dollars. Best of all, they can keep you productive and connected.

Echofon

If you use Twitter, you've probably noticed that many tweets are sent from mobile devices. I've tried several Twitter apps for the iPod Touch and the best by far is Echofon.

Like any other Twitter client out there – whether for smartphones or a desktop computer – you can use Echofon to view tweets from the feeds that you've subscribed to. You can also view @mentions, direct messages, and any Twitter lists that you follow.  Obviously, you can also post tweets, reply to tweets, and retweet any interesting posts.

The interface is attractive and clean. It's easy to scroll though tweets and the Echofon alerts you not only to any new tweets and @mentions but also how many of each. While I'm leery of calling any application intuitive, Echofon comes really close. Everything you want to do is a tap or two away. And you pretty much get  used to the interface after only a couple of minutes.

Unlike a number of for-pay apps, Echofon has a free version. The free version has fewer features than the pay version but gives you a good idea of what Echofon can do. If you like it, the full version will set you back $3.99.

Evernote

genuine viagra without prescription height="270" align="right" />One way in which two million (and counting) people keep track of information and manage their lives is with Evernote. Evernote started as a desktop application for Windows or Mac OS X. But Evernote also has a Web-based component that you can access using a mobile device like an iPod Touch.

With the free Evernote app, you can read and edit your notes in the Web edition of Evernote. You can also create new notes and even upload images to your Evernote account.

Best of all, if you're offline and want to write a note you can do that within the Evernote app. Once you're back online, just tap the Sync icon to upload the note or notes to the Web

Obviously, you'll need an account with Evernote. A basic account is free, or you can get a premium account (with more storage space and options) for $45 a year.

Stanza

Information. People can't get enough of it. And for many, that information comes in the form of books. When you're on the run though, carting one or more dead-tree volumes weighs you down – literally and figuratively.

I'm an enthusiastic user of an ebook reader. But sometimes, even that's more than I want to carry. Luckily, there's the Stanza ebook reader for the iPod Touch and iPhone.

A free app, Stanza offers the closest thing to print-quality text on a screen that I've seen. Unlike many dedicated ebook readers, it also has a backlight which allows you to read in low light.

Using Stanza is simple. Just choose the book that you want to read from the ones that you have on your iPod Touch. Once it's loaded, tap the screen to turn the pages. You can change various aspects of the text – including font, color, and the amount of space between lines. You can also bookmark pages that contain interesting information.

On top of that, Stanza supports a variety of ebook formats. (Note: the reader can't open ebooks that are protected by DRM.)

How to get books onto your iPod Touch? You can try transferring them from your computer to the device, but that process can be more than a little cumbersome. Stanza does include links to several sources of ebooks online – both free books and ones you have to pay for. You can also download ebooks from Web sites as long as they're in the ePub format.

Dropbox

You're away from your computer. But you need that file or document. And you need it now. What do you do? If you use DropBox, you can view that file on your iPod Touch with a couple of taps of the screen.

A previous TechTip discussed DropBox. Just to refresh your memory, it's an online file storage and sharing service. You upload a file or set of files to DropBox, and you can access them from any computer or device on which you have the necessary software to get to your DropBox account.

You can download the free DropBox app for the iPod Touch from the AppStore or directly from the DropBox Web site. Once you've entered your account details, you can view files or upload them from your device with a tap or two. How do you think I got the screen captures in this TechTip onto my laptop?

Of course, you need a DropBox account – you get 2 GB of space for free, and can pay for even more storage. On top of that, you'll need software to view the types of files – for example, word processor documents or spreadsheets – that the iPod Touch's built-in software doesn't support.

Boingo Mobile Client

I'd be lost without wireless – whether in my home or when I'm on the road. While there's a lot of free wifi out there, there isn't always a free hotspot where I am. Which is why I have a Boingo Mobile account.

For $7.95 a month, I get unlimited access to thousands of wireless hotspots in over 70 countries. Not that I'll ever visit all of those 70 countries, but for the two that I do frequent, Boingo Mobile is one of the most useful apps on my iPod Touch. And the monthly fee is about the same as the hourly fee charged by many for-pay hotspots.

The first time you that you try to use a Boingo-enabled hotspot, you'll have to manually connect to it. You do that by tapping Settings > Wi-Fi and then tapping the name of the network. Once you're connected, go to the iPod Touch home screen. Tap the Boingo Wireless icon, then tap Login.

If you frequent one or more hotspots, make sure that your iPod Touch is set up to automatically connect when it detects a hotspot. To so that, tap Settings > Wi-Fi, then slide the option Ask to Join Networks to ON. Whenever you need to connect,  Tap the Boingo Wireless icon, then tap Login.

Summing up

The five apps discussed in this TechTip really only graze the surface of the body of apps for the iPod Touch that help make mobile geeks more productive and keep them better connected. They are, though, a great point at which to start building your library of mobile apps.

What apps do you recommend for the iPod Touch? Feel free to leave a comment or to share your favorites in the forums.

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July 28, 2009

Four Ways to Back Up and Share Files in “the Cloud”

Tech tips 223

Four Ways to Back Up and Share Files in "the Cloud"

By Scott Nesbitt – Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Web has become an integral part of the lives of millions of people, and not just for browsing or shopping for computer parts, either. More and more people are using Web applications for a variety of tasks.

There are Web applications for doing just about everything. You can create documents, balance your books, invoice customers and clients, keep track of tasks, plan events and much more. One area in which Web application developers are really pushing the boundaries is storing and sharing files. And why not? The Web is just a big collection of servers with big hard drives. With the price of hard drives dropping, it's easy and fairly inexpensive to add more storage.

A previous TechTip looked at one online storage solution: Amazon's S3. But S3 can be difficult for the average person to use. Luckily, there are simple online storage and sharing options galore. This TechTip will look at a few storage and sharing services which are easy to use and can integrate nicely with your workflow. Most of them hook right into your operating system's file manager, making it easy to back up and share files.

DropBox

One of the more popular online storage and sharing services is DropBox. To say that DropBox is easy to use is an understatement. You sign up for an account, and then download the DropBox client. The client – whch is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux – enables you to quickly upload files to your DropBox account. If you have DropBox installed on multiple computers, the client will also synchronize any changes or additions.

DropBox_imageYou can also share folders and files with people from the DropBox Web site. Just click on the name of a folder, and then click the Share this link. You'll be asked to enter the email addresses of the people with whom you want to share the files, and you can enter an optional note.

From the Web site, you can also view with whom a folder is being shared, whether or not those folks have accepted your invitation, and you can even download the files in a folder in a ZIP archive.

With DropBox, you get 2 GB of storage for free. If you refer someone to DropBox, you can get an extra 3 GB of free storage. There are also two pay options: 50 GB for $9.95 a month, and 100 GB for $19.95 a month.

drop.io

drop.io is something a little different. It's not for long-term storage of files. Instead, drop.io is sharing and collaboration tool. Someone I know described it as something like a way station for files. And I think that's a pretty good description.

DropTo use drop.io, you head over to the Web site and create what's called a drop. This is just a folder that will contain the file or files that you want to share. The drop has an address like drop.io/
myDrop. Then, you upload your files using your Web browser. You can also set options on the drop like an expiry date (which can be a day, a week, a month, or a year away) and what the people with whom you're sharing files can do – like delete or download files, add files to a drop, or leave a comment on a file.

Each free drop has a 100 MB limit. If you want or need more space, or need multiple drops, then there are for-pay plans available from $19 a month. And there are a number of applications that make it easier to work with drop.io, like an chewable viagra target="_blank" title="https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/8482">add-on for the Firefox Web browser, an application for the iPhone, and a desktop tool that works with Adobe AIR.

SugarSync

SugarSync reminds me a lot of DropBox. The biggest differences, though, are that SugarSync is a lot flashier and a bit more flexible.

SugarSync enables you to backup, share, and synchronize files on your desktop computer or laptop computer with the SugarSync site using something called a Magic Briefcase. You download and install a piece of software and it links the The Magic Briefcase folder on your computer with the SugarSync site. It's literally as easy as copying and pasting files.

As well, you can share your files and folders with others. If you use a Web-based email service like Gmail, you can import your contacts. Or, you can manually enter the names and email addresses of people with whom you want to share files.

What sets SugarSync apart from its competition is that it has extensive mobile phone support. There is SugarSync software for the iPhone, the BlackBerry, and for phones that run Windows Mobile. I tried the BlackBerry edition of the software and it worked quite well. But unless you have a good data plan, I'd only sync important files. Otherwise, moving files around can get expensive.

For me, though, the main drawback is that SugarSync only supports Mac and Windows. If you're a Linux user, there's no desktop client. You can, though, upload files and share them using your Web browser.

Like most other online file storage and sharing sites, SugarSync offers a free 2 GB account. There are paid plans that range from $4.99 a month for 30 GB of storage to $24.99 a month for $250 GB of storage.

Box.net

Box.net is aimed at businesses, but it's easy enough that anyone can take advantage of the service.

Box.net is centered around collaboration. In fact, a key concept in Box.net is the collaboration folder (or folder). Each folder can be an individual project or a portion of a project. You can upload files to a folder, and invite others to collaborate. You can even specify whether or not each collaborator can edit or just view the files in a folder. On top of that, each folder has an area for short comments. It's simple, but can be effective if used properly.

The plans that Box.net offers aren't as flexible as some other online storage and sharing services. The gives you 1 GB of storage, and the ability to create only five folders. The next plan up costs $7.95 a month, and gives you five folders and 5 GB of storage. The business plan will set you back $15 per user per month, but gives you an unlimited number of folders and over 30 GB of storage.

That said, Box.net does offer some useful collaboration features. One that impresses me is called Tasks. Tasks lets you assign a collaborator to review, approve, or replace an existing file. Running a close second is Web Documents, which is like a Web-based word processor. You can use Web Documents as a way of getting a project started – create a task list, write drafts, share notes, and more. There's also a mobile version of the service, and a mobile version that's made especially for the iPhone.

Anything else interesting?

As I mentioned earlier in this TechTip, there are a number of interesting options in the area of online backup and file sharing. Here are a couple of other ones that you might be interested in.

A previous TechTip discussed Ubuntu One, the service started in April, 2009 by Canonical (the company behind the popular Linux distribution named Ubuntu). Ubuntu One enables you to upload, share, synchronize, and store files. The Ubuntu One client, which only works with Ubuntu at the moment, integrates with the Nautilus file manager. You can copy files into the Ubuntu One folder in your /home directory, and the client synchronizes them with the Ubuntu One Web site.

On the Ubuntu One Web site, you can indicate which folders to share and with whom. At the moment, you get 2 GB of free storage, which isn't too shabby. There's also a 10 GB plan in the works, which will cost $10 a month.

Another option is a Web Disk. This is a feature offered by some Web hosting companies. A Web Disk is just a secure directory on your portion of one of the company's servers. You give the directory a name (don't make it too obvious!) and assign it a password. Once it's set up, you can drag and drop files from your desktop computer or laptop computer to the Web Disk, right from your operating system's file manager. The best part of a Web Disk is that it's bundled with a Web hosting plan – you don't have to worry about paying extra.

Reasons not to use these services

There are a few, and these are a couple of the most common:

First off, do you want your data (whether it's sensitive or not) in the hands of someone else? Many people are borderline paranoid about the safety of their information on the Web. For them, putting that information out there will seem like a bit of a risk. And, let's be honest, no matter how safe something may appear to be there's always a way around security.

Second, you might not always have access to the Web. Your Internet connection could go down, or a piece of your hardware – like a modem or a wireless router could suddenly go belly up. On top of that, the kinds of sites that are discussed in this TechTip could be knocked offline. If that happens, then it's just as bad as if your hard drive crashed and you didn't have a backup.

Conclusion

Online file sharing and storage services are powerful tools. They can make it easier for you to exchange documents, photos, videos, and other files with friends, colleagues, and clients. And those tools can be a component of a good backup strategy. Best of all, many of the services out there – like the ones described in this TechTip – are easy to use, and often free. Or, at least, very inexpensive. You'll get flexibility and peace of mind without breaking your budget.

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