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Good Google Drive alternatives for collaborating on documents, notes, presentations, and more

Back in the day, Google Drive was early to market with a halfway decent, browser-based collaborative document editor. Relatively bare-bones and free, it caught on quickly with a portion of the market.

These days, Google Drive is far from the only game in town. Subjectively, it also isn’t very good anymore, and bugs often stick around for months or years. Remember the “randomly indent parts of paragraphs for nearly two years, even in Chrome” bug? The iOS apps have also steadily deteriorated.

Thankfully, there is a strong selection of alternatives for different audiences. Whether you need a full-featured professional suite or just a scratchpad to jot notes with others, give these a look.

Quip

Quip is perhaps the closest to Google Drive in terms of browser-based simplicity and mobile apps. It has a unique, minimal interface for basic editing. But for simple, collaborative documents, adding notes, and discussion about the document (instead of getting lost in email), Quip is a great choice.Bonus: Quip has partial support for Markdown. If you paste it in, Quip leaves it alone. But if you use Markdown syntax while you write, Quip will turn it into rich text. If you’d rather keep it as markdown, just press Delete once after the auto-conversion.

Office

You heard me. Microsoft Office has improved significantly over the past few years, especially on iOS and macOS. I can’t speak to the depth of its feature set, but it feels more organized, approachable, and usable than ever.

The native apps and web apps also have collaboration now. It doesn’t have a free version like Google, but Microsoft also isn’t mining your documents for advertisers. Paid Office 365 plans start at $5, which include the web apps and hosted domain Exchange email. Compared to Google Drive, the entry level Office plan gives you far better web apps, broader industry file compatibility, collaboration, and more standard, app-friendly domain email for the same price.

Jessi and I share a family Office subscription, which gives both of us access to the native apps on iPad and Mac. I’ve use the email for Chartier.land and my business Bit & Pen domains for about a year now, and I’m happy.

iWork

Considering this crowd, I probably don’t have to say much about iWork. It’s a solid suite for documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, and Apple recently added collaboration on both the web and native apps. I think it’s also free when you buy a new Apple device now, so financially it’s a win.

Apple Notes

If you just need a simple place to share things that are more note-like than full-on documents, and everyone you want to share with is on an iPad, iPhone, or Mac, Apple Notes is a good choice.

It does basic formatting like headings, lists, bold, and italics. It handles photos and you can add rich media links from Safari. I’ve heard from people who use Apple notes to share family todo lists, idea scratch pads, and even collaborate on blog posts. It’s pretty flexible.

Dropbox Paper

Dropbox recently launched its own basic document collaboration tool. I can’t speak to it much since most of my work is in Quip, Google Drive for some clients, or Ulysses, but I‘ em heard from people who are happy with it.

Zoho

Zoho has its own growing collection of web apps and services that I would put somewhere between Google Apps and Salesforce. At the core, though, are apps for documents, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, sites, wikis, and much more.

You can sign up and use some of the apps for free, and pricing varies based on the collection of apps you want.

Honorable Mention – Texpad

Texpad is another online collaborative document system with native apps. It’s built around LaTeX, a “document preparation” system popular in academia, hence the honorable mention. Its audience is niche, but enough people responded to my original question on Twitter that I wanted to include it.

Any others?

This list is mostly stuff I know about and have used at least a few times. Did I miss any good ones? I’m happy to expand this list, so let me know on Tumblr @chartier, Twitter @chartier, or here.

A guide for switching from Dropbox to iCloud Drive

A while ago, I switched from Dropbox to iCloud Drive. I did it mainly because I realized I was paying for too many clouds and, between the two, iCloud had become more indispensable to me than Dropbox. People asked me for a guide on how to do it, and I think I have something fairly straightforward for you.

This could probably work for switching between just about any Cloud Service A to Service B. The main requirement of my method is that you have on-disk file access to both services; not just silly web apps in a browser. In other words, their apps are installed and you have local/synced access to all files.

Naturally, before diving in, I recommend you back up everything and triple check them just to be sure. Here are the steps I took:

  • Find a file cloning utility like ChronoSync. I’ve owned a copy for years, and it’s always performed beautifully, including for this recent switch
  • Set up the file copy source as the root of your Dropbox folder
  • Set up your destination as the root of iCloud Drive
    • As far as I can tell, the Finder doesn’t reveal the actual directory location of your iCloud Drive. In the File selection sheet, iCloud Drive should be in your Finder sidebar. If not, Command-Shift-I will select it
  • (Optional) Exclude any folders you don’t want copied. For example, I have a “Family” folder in Dropbox for stuff I share with Jessi. Sadly, iCloud Drive still doesn’t support this in iOS 11 and High Sierra, so I didn’t see a point (yet) in copying that folder over
  • (Optional, but highly recommended) Do a trial run first. ChronoSync has a ‘test’ option that will display all the changes it intends to make. This helped me feel better that I had the sync set up properly
  • Run the copy. As long as you have the space for it, I recommend doing a copy, not a move, just to be safe. But if you’re short on space, a move might be your only option. Proceed with caution, backup backup backup, etc.
  • Check that everything is in iCloud Drive
  • Delete everything from Dropbox
  • (Optional, if possible) Uninstall Dropbox. It’ll free up a decent chunk of CPU and memory. I’ve seen people with big powerful MacBook Pros mention a slight, but notable increase in performance once they got rid of Dropbox’s sync client
  • (Optional) If your goal is to save money like me, don’t forget to downgrade your Dropbox account. I dropped back to the free tier, so that’s around $100/year back in my pocket

The end.

Of course, I still collaborate on documents with other people, moreso these days since I freelance for multiple clients. Your mileage likely varies, but most collaboration I do happens in Google Drive (unfortunately) and Quip, so I simply have less of a need for a shared raw file space.

Overall, it’s gone pretty well. I haven’t lost files, and the iOS 11 iCloud Drive Files app is a big leap forward. If Apple ever bothers to catch up to competition with shared folders, I might close my Dropbox account entirely.

I hope this helped. Hit me with any questions, and I’ll answer best I can.

From Dropbox to iCloud Drive: a review and some thoughts

My Dropbox-to-iCloud Drive experiment has gone pretty well overall. Both were charging me $10 per month for 1TB of space, but now that I moved everything to iCloud Drive and pulled Dropbox back down to the free tier, I get to save $120/year.

For personal uses, iCloud Drive has performed pretty well for me the past couple months. The speed of saving files to and retrieving files from iCloud Drive feels on par with Dropbox on both iOS and Mac, thanks in part to improvements in macOS Sierra. However, I should restate that I do much less collaboration with raw files these days. I create and manage nearly all of my work in apps and services like Ulysses, Quip, Todoist, and Trello, then share or publish it with others in online systems like WordPress (this site), Weebly (my personal and business sites), Quip, or Google Drive. Of course, your mileage will vary.

The few raw files I still work with are things like PDF books I download, or media resources I snag from Unsplash, Envato, and elsewhere for content and blogging. If I need to receive files, I can of course still use my free Dropbox space, or I can visit Dropbox share links in a browser on any device. When it’s time to share files with others, Dropbox can still work, but so can Droplr.

Others who have made this transition told me there’s a noticeable performance boost to be had by uninstalling Dropbox from a Mac, which I just did yesterday. They weren’t kidding.

I’m pretty happy so far. I still use my Mac for a dwindling handful of tasks at least a couple times a week, so it downloads everything from iCloud (and still Dropbox) and backs up to my Time Capsule, just in case. But at this point, I’m feeling pretty good about simplifying my cloud services and saving money.

All that said, iCloud Drive is not without its drawbacks. Here are a few problems and speed bumps I’ve hit so far, and yes: I’ve filed radars (sometimes multiple) for all of these.

Complaints

The ‘Save to iCloud Drive’ app extension is great, but

The “Save to iCloud Drive” dialog uses a terrible file viewer that is hard wired to 1) a list view, with no icon view option, and 2) have all folders and sub folders opened. It makes scrolling even a modest file library nearly unusable. I am quite disappointed that this shipped at all, especially since the iOS 9 app extension file viewer was much nicer. To work around this problem, I created an @Inbox folder on my Mac, which floats it to the top.

Oh yeah, folders

Update: Turns out I was wrong, you can create new folders in iCloud Drive for iOS. It’s arguably a little hard to find, but easy to use once you do. Tap the select button in the upper right, then a New Folder button appears with the other file management controls.

There’s no way to create a new folder on any iOS device. You need a Mac, because it is apparently still 2010.

Also, tags

Finder on the Mac has supported tagging files for a few years. While you can sort folder contents on iOS by these tags, there is no way to apply tags on iOS. You need a Mac, because it is apparently still 2010.

App folder clutter

All apps that store files in iCloud Drive are hard wired to have their own folders in the top-level directory. This means I have to scroll past folders for Byword, Cinemagraph Pro, Mindnode, etc. just to find my Documents or Resources folders. It would be great to have the option to collect those files in a specific folder, such as /Apps.

Restoring deleted files

This is a ding on both Dropbox and iCloud. iCloud Drive has what I think is a fairly standard a 30-day retention policy, kinda like Photos does for your media. But to restore files, you’re stuck like Dropbox: you need to jump on a Mac or PC to use the web interface. Also like Photos, this is functionality I believe should be built right into the app, especially since iCloud.com won’t let you get into any of the apps if you visit on an iOS device. While you can use the ‘Request Desktop Site’ option, I doubt it works well on iOS.

Summary

A while ago I got tired of suffering death by 1,000 clouds. I’ve canceled a couple of small services since then, but this is one of the largest changes and savings I can make. For my needs, it’s gone well so far, though I certainly hope Apple pays more attention to iCloud Drive to make it a more viable competitor in this space. Things like file sharing and competent file browsing tools are a must, and I’m hopeful Apple can close those gaps soon.

Progress update: My Dropbox to iCloud Drive experiment

To catch everyone up: A while ago, I wrote about paying for too many clouds that are getting too Venn-diagram-y for my comfort and wallet. Dropbox and iCloud are two of my most expensive and overlapping clouds, but I can leave Dropbox easier than iCloud, so I decided to try just that.

My plan is:

  • Phase 1: copy the roughly 70GB of stuff I have in Dropbox to iCloud Drive
  • Phase 1 part deux: backup the hell out of everything
  • Phase 2: test the hell out of changing my file-based workflows with iCloud Drive
  • Phase 3: Delete everything from Dropbox, except folders I’m collaborating on
  • Phase 4: fall back to Dropbox’s free tier for what little collaboration I still do with it, and to support the apps I use that sync only via Dropbox

Because of how much stuff I have, I’ve been paying $10 per month per service, so I hope to save $120/year.

If 70GB doesn’t sound like much to you, I have about 110GB of photos in iCloud Photo Library, and probably 1+ TB of purchased iTunes music and movies, and around 440 apps from over the years. But I generally don’t consider that stuff “data I need downloaded and backed up,” at least not in Dropbox or iCloud Drive. I have an external iTunes drive that I hook up once every few months, and I download my recent purchases ‘just in case.’ I also have a Time Capsule at home to which I backup my entire Mac, including both Dropbox and iCloud Drive, also just in case.

Part of the impetus for this experiment, beyond saving money and simplifying where I store stuff, is that I realized most of my collaboration now happens in Quip and task apps like Todoist, Trello, and Basecamp. In other words, I mostly collaborate in systems and apps these days, not raw files and folders. Being that I’m a much bigger fan of using various apps for most of my work, this fits my style. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Status report

As of about September 23 or so, phases 1 and 1 part deux are done. I finished copying all my Dropbox files into iCloud Drive, then ran a Time Machine backup to cover my ass. Then another, mostly because I’m human and I still don’t trust these things. Also, no, I’m not blind or deaf to the, shall we call it, “ever so slightly turbulent road” iCloud has taken to get where it is today.

I am also what I would consider a pretty good way through phase 2—testing iCloud Drive for my day-to-day needs. I’m mostly iOS these days, so when I do things like scan travel receipts into a PDF for expenses, I now save to a folder in iCloud Drive. On my Mac, I moved the Dropbox item in the Finder sidebar down, and put iCloud Drive in its place.

So far, it’s gone pretty well. Saving and accessing files in iCloud Drive feels about as fast as Dropbox. Watching the file upload/sync process to iCloud Drive feels fine too.

Of course, one major feature iCloud Drive lacks for my needs is collaboration—it can’t share folders or even individual files with others (sure, MailDrop is a smart feature that might suffice in some cases, but.. eh, it’s just not the same). Being that my content strategy business is client-based, it’s a prime argument for why I still should keep around at least a free Dropbox account for the near future. I also have a handful of apps that still sync only via Dropbox, so I hope the free tier accommodates them too. Gradually, I’ll ask those devs to support iCloud Drive (if they don’t already), and possibly seek out alternatives that do. But if the free Dropbox space works for now, it isn’t a high priority, at least not just yet.

Naturally, I hope Apple is working on addressing these collaboration features which pretty much feel like a necessity these days. Considering it already has features like calendar sharing and a whole feature umbrella called Family Sharing, I think Apple gets it. I just want to see it move faster; it’s already way behind here.

I feel pretty good about moving ahead with phase 3 and 4, so I might take care of that this weekend. I’ll write a follow-up once the dust settles.

From Dropbox to iCloud Drive: An Unexpected Experiment

A while ago, I realized I’m going through death by 1,000 clouds. I pay for too many cloud services, many of them redundant, and I’d like to find a way both to simplify and to go easier on my wallet.

I’ve cut back on a service here and there, but now I’m trying an experiment: copying all my files from Dropbox to iCloud Drive, and downgrading Dropbox to a free account. My goals are:

  • Simplify where I keep most of my files
  • Keep a free Dropbox account (for now) so I can still get and share files
  • Pay for only one cloud locker and save around $100 per year

iCloud Drive and Dropbox are two of my most expensive clouds which have the most overlap. However, I’m pretty embedded in Apple’s ecosystem and generally happy—a large part being iCloud Photo Library—while Dropbox is more of a generic, replaceable cloud locker. In other words: between the two, I can leave Dropbox easier than iCloud.

As I write this, I’m uploading just over 100GB from my Dropbox to iCloud Drive (my screenshot shows only 45GB because I don’t need the rest readily available; I can finish uploading it later in a separate batch). Since I’m beta testing macOS Sierra and iOS 10, I went all the way and switched on the new iCloud feature that syncs my local Desktop and Documents folders with iCloud, too.

Now, Apple’s cloud has become much more reliable for me in the past couple years, but I won’t put all my chickens in one basket, not for a while. I use a Time Capsule at home to backup my entire Mac, including my cloud directories. I’m also considering firing up one of my other previous backup drives because, let’s face it—you can never have too many backups.

I’ll keep my free Dropbox account mostly because I still collaborate with clients and on various projects. But my hope is that the free 2GB, plus whatever extra free space I’ve earned over the years, will be enough.

Who knows, maybe this will work, maybe it won’t. If it does, I’ll gain some simplicity and save a little extra cash each year. To me, that is at least worth taking a shot.

Drafts 4 for iOS can import text from almost anywhere

Drafts is a terrific way to quickly capture bits of text on iOS and send them almost anywhere. But while it’s obvious Drafts can send text to many places, it now also uses iOS 8’s built-in document picker to import text as well. So if you’ve started a note on your Mac, as long as you’ve saved it in a compatible location, you can bring it into Drafts on your device to continue working or take an action.

Just tap and hold on the new draft button (+), and a menu will appear. Select your file storage option and you’ll be able to bring your text into the app. You can learn more about this functionality on the Agile Tortoise Support Page.

Death by 1,000 clouds

I subscribed to Pocket Premium a couple weeks ago. Then I found Stache for iOS and Mac, a somewhat similar bookmarking app that saves full copies of webpages in iCloud, and it got me thinking about all the clouds for which I’m paying recurring fees. The stuff we create, save, and care about is scattered across myriad clouds, each with their own rules, pros, and cons. Do I really need another?

For a few years now, I’ve been paying for usual suspects including both Dropbox and iCloud (I blew past the paltry free space years ago), but what really matters are all the pieces of other clouds for storage and related services. Off the top of my head I’m paying for Evernote Premium, Pinboard, Pressable hosting space for this and other sites, Flickr Pro, Pocket Premium, iTunes Match, Feedly Pro, Freshbooks, Xbox Live, and Playstation Plus. My Google Apps account is grandfathered on a free tier, but technically I should be paying for it, too.

I’m sure I’m missing a couple others, but that’s still a lot of clouds. It’s also a lot of terms of service, redundant storage, login credentials, and points of failure. Could I remove some of this overlap and, of course, save money with alternatives? Could Stache or Safari’s Reading List cover my Pocket Premium and Pinboard needs? Will enough developers follow Greg Pierce’s lead with Drafts 4 and drop their custom sync engines for iCloud (well, technically the new CloudKit), or at least offer iCloud as an option so I might not need to pay for Dropbox? Or, for folks who live and work in other ecosystems and clouds, will enough developers adopt document provider extensions in iOS 8 and OS X to plug in Dropbox, OneDrive, Box, or even something like a Transporter personal cloud for all their storage needs? Maybe Together for iOS and Mac will be a solid Evernote replacement once it makes the transition to Apple’s new CloudKit.

I don’t have a grand insight or solution, just a reality check that is probably good for us all to do sooner than later. The good news is that, with the debut of document provider extensions this fall, the tools and infrastructure will finally be available for iOS and OS X users to build and seek out our own solutions.

[photo by Grant MacDonald]

How to automatically save screenshots to Dropbox, share links

Dropbox icon WindowsIf you have Dropbox installed on a Windows PC and use the “Print Screen” key, a pop-up window will give you the option to automatically save all screenshots to to your Dropbox folder.
In addition, pressing CNTRL+PrtScn will save the screenshot to Dropbox and paste a link to your clipboard for easy sharing!

[thanks Brian!]

FeedPress can save feed subscriber stats to Dropbox

FeedPress, an excellent, feature-packed FeedBurner replacement for counting your feed subscribers, can automatically save a daily record of your stats to Dropbox. Just sign in and go to Settings > Dropbox to set it up.
FeedPress Dropbox integration

O’Reilly Media can send your books to Dropbox, Google Drive, Kindle

Oreilly Dropbox books
Buy a book from O’Reilly Media and you can have it sent to your Dropbox, Google Drive, or Kindle. Just sign in and go to Account Info to set it up, or use the drop-down menu on each book in the Your Products section.