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Dropbox for Mobile Devices
Dropbox lets you bring your files with you, but does it do it as well on every platform?

Dropbox is becoming an important service for many people to have access to their files at all times. A natural extension is mobile versions of Dropbox that provide quicker access than having to pop open your laptop.

Until recently, Dropbox for Android was buggy and not up to speed with the iOS app. That all changed last week when Dropbox released 1.0.9.4, which fixed a number of outstanding bugs introduced in the previous release. I decided it was time to compare the iOS and Android versions of Dropbox, to see if the aplication fared better on either platform.

While going through the review, I ran into an odd problem: it's very hard to ignore what the platform gives to the application running on it. Both iOS and Android have SDKs that give a lot of support to the applications. So trying to just review the Dropbox application inherently means reviewing bits and pieces of the particular platform. Ultimately I pressed forward, because this is about the end user's experience, and from that perspective it's the Dropbox experience, regardless of how the platform affects it.

Devices

For the showdown, I used the devices I had available: an iPad 1, an iPhone 3GS, and for Android, a rooted Nook Color running the release of Cyanogenmod's CM7 port of Android. I'll be reviewing CM7 in an upcoming article. But I'll say here that it's a fantastic port of Android 2.3.3 (Gingerbreard), and really makes the Nook feel like a complete tablet device.

Performance - Winner: Tie

I like starting these "versus" articles with Performance, but in this case it forces a tie the first thing. Both iOS and Android versions of Dropbox open quickly, and download / upload at the same speed. The iPad is the fastest here, but only because of the hardware, and even on my two-year old 3GS, the app is still plenty snappy.

Cloud To Device Sync - Winner: iOS

Before we start a flame war in the comments, let me explain. This is one of those weird spots where the application is dependent upon what the platform provides. Out of the box, iOS provides more built-in functionality than Android. I could view all my documents, play some movies, listen to MP3s, and pretty much use the app to its fullest without having to do anything.

I used a number of file types to test this, and the following table shows how that washed out:

Files Tested And Results
  Android Dropbox iOS Dropbox
MP3 Plays using Built-In player Plays using Built-In player and plays in background.
Microsoft Word DOCX file Requires App Download Viewable using Built-in viewer
PDF File Requires App Download Viewable using Built-in viewer
MPEG4 Movie File Requires App Download Viewable using Built-in player
MKV Movie File Requires App Download Does not play, even passing off to VLC
Dropbox on iOS has more built-in functionality.

In iOS, it is also possible to send those files to other apps to handle. I found in my experience the receiving app usually wasn't expecting a file to be sent its way, and thus didn't handle it well. But overall the iOS experience was more unified than Android, for Dropbox

Device To Cloud Sync - Winner: Tie

The primary issue with device to cloud sync is Dropbox isn't really aware of the filesystem underneath it. Even though I can freely move files around on my Nook into the Dropbox-created folder, Dropbox doesn't detect files that have been added there, and sync them up. It's mostly a viewer on both platforms, and will only sync pictures taken by the camera(s) on the particular device you're using. This is something Dropbox could rectify, but most likely won't.

Closing Thoughts: Winner - Dropbox on iOS

Dropbox is a polished application on both platforms, especially with the latest round of updates from Dropbox. iOS does have an edge here though, and it's mostly because of what iOS provides to developers to leverage. The funny part is that as I was writing up this conclusion, it dawned on me that there's been a reversal of the adage "There's an app for that." Here, Android can do everything iOS does, and do it better, but not without hunting down a bunch of apps to do it.

That built-in functionality is what we ultimately decided was more important. People are overwhelmed by the amount of apps out there in both Google and iOS ecosystems. Anything that helps users deal with that is a good thing, and not having to search for three to four different apps puts iOS in the lead.

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