Thinking Outside the (Drop)box…

Sunshine on a Cloudy Day?

So, its been a few of months now since the Dropbox dev team released an iPad version of the hugely popular Dropbox app, but what does this mean for iPad users?

It’s a cloud backup service, isn’t it? Shouldn’t you just sit tight and wait for iOS 5′s iCloud service? Well, in a word, no. I’m going to show you how to make this little gem of an app sing, dance, and do other cool stuff. You will begin to think differently about Dropbox, how you use it, and what untapped potential it has. Would you like to:

  • Break out of the 1GB local favourite storage limit?
  • Keep persistent copies of books, photos and music, even when you empty your Dropbox?
  • Download music and films remotely, using only the iPad?
  • Work in a new way to break out of the 2GB total free space limitation?
  • Run scripts remotely?

Let’s take a closer look…

Back to Basics

I’m assuming you have some basic knowledge of Dropbox, synchronising your files to and from your iPad, and perhaps marking some content for offline viewing. Perhaps you’ve saved your holiday photos in your Dropbox, and used the save photo option to keep a few on your iPad.

Save Photo

Save Photo

Exporting a photo is not the same as pressing the star to make the file available for offline access, because once you get round to deleting this photo from your Dropbox area, your offline favourites are removed as well.

To make the most out of Dropbox, make full use of the export facilities.

Let’s explore exporting some other content. Apple has restricted adding MP3 files directly into your local iTunes library, yet other applications allow you to export from Dropbox directly into them, saving the content persistently in those applications.

For example, you can export an MP3 file to an external player such as AVPlayer HD.

AVPlayerHD export

AVPlayerHD Export

…and once its copied, it remains permanently in that app’s Inbox folder, even when its gone from your Dropbox!

AVPlayerHD inbox

AVPlayerHD Inbox

Lets do it again, this time drop a .mobi file into your Dropbox, and export it to the iPad Kindle app.

Export to Kindle app

Export to Kindle app

By exporting from Dropbox to your native iPad apps, you can then go back and clear up your Dropbox whilst still retaining all of your exported content, and so break out of the 1GB offline favourite limit.

That’s all well and good, you say, but this means I’ve got to keep going back to my personal computer to add new content. Well, for most this may be true, and it’s fine to do just this, but lets be more adventurous and show you how to download new content using Dropbox and uTorrent.

Just Dropping in….


Follow these steps to enable remote downloading of torrents:

  • Download the tiny torrent app uTorrent from here.
  • Set it up, and configure it to watch a folder (your Dropbox folder) for torrents.
  • Set the ‘Move completed downloads to’ field to a folder in your Dropbox.
  • Leave your personal computer running, and go a-wandering with your iPad.
Configure utorrent to watch Dropbox for torrents

Configure utorrent to watch Dropbox for torrents.

  • Navigate to your favourite torrent web site, and search for some content to download.
  • Press on the download torrent link, and you should now press the option ‘open in Dropbox’.
  • Open this into the same folder that is watching for torrent files.
Open torrent in Dropbox

Open torrent in Dropbox.

Then the magic begins as your content is downloaded remotely and moved into your downloads folder, ready for Dropbox to sync down to your device.

So, perhaps you’re beginning to see your Dropbox as less of a static fixture, more of a fluffy, changing and dynamic resource – kind of like a cloud…

But let’s not stop there – We’ve broken through the barrier of local storage, stormed the torrent sites for new stuff, but what about the terrabytes of music and films you’ve already acquired? How to get access to them easily using Dropbox? Easy – you just need to Swish.

Swish - to dynamically move content into and out of your Dropbox space.

Here is a fundamental principle of getting the most out of Dropbox for iPad:

  1. Move new data into your Dropbox remotely
  2. Check out the new content, and export locally if you like it
  3. Swish new data in place of the old, and repeat…

So how do you remotely swish data in and out of your Dropbox? I thought you’d never ask…

Script a Little…

Firstly, we need to start with an application that has tight integration with Dropbox – Plaintext – the simple text file editing program that immediately reflects your typed changes into your synchronised folders. Install the app, and then associate it with your Dropbox.

Link Plaintext to Dropbox

Link Plaintext to Dropbox.

There are other excellent word processing apps, such as Quickoffice, that provide similar integration, but lets keep it plain and simple. This is the key point – it is the quickness and simplicity with which Plaintext operates that makes it so powerful, and versatile. We’re going to get you writing a very simple script that’s going to sit and do some work for you – some swishing.

It is the quickness and simplicity with which Plaintext operates that makes it so powerful, and versatile.

Next, I want you to use Plaintext to write a simple script – I’m using Windows here as my remote personal computer, and writing a simple shell script – if you have skill with other languages, perhaps you can post an equivalent below, mentioning the platform it’s for?

Swish shell script

Swish shell script.

Plaintext will automatically save the script for you, so jump back to your PC and rename SWISH.txt to SWISH.CMD. Then double-click it or simply type SWISH {enter} and it will start watching for new commands.

Now, create a CMDS folder in Plaintext, and anything you put into this folder as a text file will be renamed to a script, and started. As an example, I typed a COPY command to copy an MP3 folder to my Dropbox. A few moments later I had exported the album to AVPlayer HD and was listening to it.

You can see any output from the commands in the RESULTS.TXT file that will appear back in Plaintext. Awesome!

And There’s More…

Now for the icing on the cake, particularly if you’re hesitant to pay for an expanded Dropbox service – perhaps you would only use it occasionally.

Dropbox accounts benefit from one simply stunning and amazing feature – read these two terms from the Dropbox site:

  • Previous versions and deleted files do not count against your storage quota , with or without the Pack-Rat add-on.
  • All accounts, including free accounts, get 30 days of file history.

What this means, in practice, is that if you keep swishing content into your Dropbox and deleting it, you can then restore chunks of it up to your quota limit for anything up to 30 days.

I’m not encouraging you to abuse the system, but here is a real life example – I’ve got a three part documentary to watch, and each part is around 2GB. I’m going to be away for a while, so I simply:

  • Copy one part to my Dropbox.
  • Once it has synchronised, I delete it.
  • Copy the next part, and once synched, delete again.
  • Copy the third and final part, and delete again.
  • Navigate to the Dropbox Web page, and select “Show Deleted Files”.
  • Recover at my leisure each part in turn, to watch, then delete.

So you can see how you can use the deleted items store as an almost unlimited 30-day buffer, simply depending on your upload speed. You can load it up with all sorts of content, and recover when you’re good and ready.

Now, that’s got to be something you want to go try now, isn’t it?

{Please don’t abuse this facility, and do permanently delete content once you have finished with it.}

This has been a brief look at making the most of Dropbox on the iPad, it’s a fantastically flexible system. By understanding how best to use Dropbox, much more can be achieved with it.

As always, its great to get your feedback, so please post a comment below.


  • Eric

    Really really great article!

    Regarding the suggestion about using your Dropbox as a watch folder for .torrent files, I just wanted to make some users aware that the way iOS handles “Open in XXXXX” associations in Mobile Safari is quite a bit lacking. It seems that you can only have one app take control of this file association and there doesn’t really seem to be any way to specify which one takes over. So if you have another app installed (say “FileBrowser” for example – which is the culprit for me) then you’ll have “Open in Filebrowser” in Mobile Safari instead of “Open in Dropbox”. I tried deleting and re-installing the DropBox App with no luck. I even tried deleting them both and installing Dropbox last in hopes that it would reclaim the “Open in..” association, but no. :( The only time the “Open in Dropbox” option shows back up is when FileBrowser is uninstalled. And, for me, the button that only says “Open In…” by itself does nothing when i click it. So as long as the FileBrowser app is taking control of the Safari association, i’m unfortunately unable to use this really awesome tip :( :( :(

    • Mark Simpson

      Well Eric, this one had me puzzled, so I had to go break my association also, and it took a while to fix it, but here I have a solution for you:

      The basic problem is an IOS issue with Safari’s “Open in…” association.

      It seems that only one application can control this, and Dropbox dev team have logged an incident with Apple about it.

      The solution – DELETE the app that appears in the “Open in…” dialog and check again to see if Dropbox re-appears.

      When you get the Dropbox app association working, then REINSTALL the deleted apps.

      I’ve just tried this technique (my association had been hijacked by a printing app, then my AV Player HD app, then – eventually – the dropbox association). It works! :)

      Full details and further discussion about this can be found here : http://forums.dropbox.com/topic.php?id=38581&replies=27#post-321443

      Enjoy!

      Mark

      • Reza

        Thanks for the great post and for troubleshooting Eric’s problem. I had the exact same issue and your fix worked. Still, it’s frustrating that the Open In button is there if it’s not going to work.

        • Mark Simpson

          Hey Reza, thanks for the feedback – it is frustrating to have to work around technology that should “just work” – glad we got you up and running..

          Mark.

  • Pingback: Dropbox: Getting the most outta it!

  • http://www.smashsix.co.uk Steve Dixon

    It seems you’re missing the point of iCloud. It does things automatically so that you don’t have to think about it. Take your average Joe. They’re hardly going to sit here and conduct all of these suggestions just to get a “similar” experience to iCloud, which again does this automatically. The last thing someone wants to do is purchase an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch come this Autumn and then go through hoops and jumps just to get Dropbox working in the way that iCloud does.

    • Mark Simpson

      Hi Steve.

      I take your point about iCloud. As Steve Jobs says – “it just works”.

      iCloud does sync data automatically, but I’m wondering if it will permit the remote scripting, torrent download and extended storage ideas submitted here?

      This is, for sure, much more “hands on” than your average Joe will bother with, but for those that want to push the boundaries of cloud services, I still think its worth discussing.

      Thanks for your valued feedback.

      Mark.

    • http://www.hammyhavoc.com Hammy Havoc

      Couldn’t agree more. iCloud is a fantastic conduit.

  • http://davetaylormp.com dtmp

    I used your suggestion about uploading, then deleting some movies into my dropbox so I could watch them on my iPad over a week long vacation. I found it worked as described, but I ran into some issues when I was trying to stream the movies. I was using a slower cable connection and found that I could watch for 10-15 minutes then the movie would hang. The only way to get it to start streaming again was to tap on another file then back to the movie. After un-deleting some movies, I found that movies wouldn’t stream at all, it would just go into the loading phase and hang there. The work around was to use the favorites feature and let the file download to the iPad. Once downloaded locally they played fine. The catch is that the DB app limits your local storage to 1GB, so I could only do one movie at a time. Maybe a little bit of a pain, but it saved having to lug a laptop just to store the files on. One more thing, is if you plan to do a lot of movies just make sure you start uploading a week ahead of time (since my upload speed is throttled)!
    Thanks for the idea!

  • Justin Taster

    For those who haven’t already signed-up for Dropbox. Signing up using my referral link gives us BOTH an additional 250MB! Cool: http://db.tt/PdQxMf5

  • Christoph

    Hey Mark,

    I was very excited about the option to open mp3 files in AVplayer HD from Dropbox. I installed the player, but none of my files showed the “open in” option. Same after restart of the iPad. What am I missing?

    Best,
    Christoph.

    • Mark Simpson

      Hey Christoph,

      In order to get the “open in” option to show, you have to have the whole file locally. I found that sometimes I could wait till the end of a song has finished downloading, but really the best way is to make the song a favourite in Dropbox.

      Press on Favourites, and wait for the download to complete. Don’t do too many MP3′s at once, or they will time out, and you have to toggle out and back in of the favourite’s section to enable to “Update all” button again.

      Once you have the full song, select it from favourites, and you will see the “‘Open in” arrow appear, and you should be able to select AVPlayer HD.

      Let me know how you get on.

      Mark

  • Raymond

    I am a happy cloud and dropbox user, however both these applications have limitations and its a bit frustrating. I have been an apple user for 15+ years and apple has always been user friendly, in the sense that if i want to have a file in a place all i have to do is copy it or move it to this folder.

    With the iPad and mobile IOS it seems that the control is now with iTunes. If i copy a movie to drop box I have no option to view this in the movie folder which ships with the iPad.

    I do like your code option for music from dropbox to iPad Mark, but with me not knowing more about code i seem to be unable to do the same for my video files. Could you assist me with a work around?

    Also I am aware I’m like a year behind apologies for that

  • Mark Simpson

    Raymond,

    Apologies for my tardy response. I’ve looked into copying Videos direct to iPhone, and it doesn’t seem possible with a standard setup.

    If you have a jailbroken iPad, you can insert compatible videos into your movie folder using the Cydia tool “Bridge”.

    I almost exclusively use AVPlayerHD for my video needs, and I think that’s worth you looking at too: (http://ipad.appstorm.net/reviews/graphics/av-player-hd-why-wait-to-watch/)
    Mark.

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