Dropbox device limitations
April 14, 2019 4:25 AM   Subscribe

In March 2019, Dropbox began limiting free-tier accounts to a concurrent total of three devices. Free alternatives?

I my account shows a total of 37 devices connected, about ten of which are active. It looks like the service is pushing a 12.50/user/month price. That's just not happening. What are your solutions to this issue?

This piece presents a few options but appears inaccurate (pCloud 's pricing is no longer current, for example).
posted by mwhybark to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (unsure how the italics got in there, that was supposed to be a link to info about the new policy)
posted by mwhybark at 4:27 AM on April 14, 2019

You don't mention what OSes or devices or storage limit you need. Since you're on the free tier, though, I'm guessing that your needs are not huge.

If you only need Mac / Windows support and/or Android / iOS support, I believe Google Drive might be suitable for you. 100GB is $2 a month, AFAIK there's no limit on devices. It's Google though, and we all know their approach to services and products aimed at consumers is whimsical. "What, you like that service? Pity we're pulling the plug on it next month."

I use Google Drive for a tiny amount of storage. It's fine.

If you are completely ensconced in Apple's ecosystem, they have their own iCloud or whatever with similar pricing. My partner has this and it's Good Enough(TM) for their purposes.

SpiderOak is similar to Dropbox but with "zero knowledge" encryption. They claim that they cannot decrypt your data and do not store your password - except if you use the Web-based interface to recover a file, in which case they do see your password but claim that there's only a window of time in which it's stored. They have 150GB plans for $6 a month or $69 annually. Unlimited devices, supports Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux...

I have personally used SpiderOak and ... it's OK. Not great, not as seamless as Dropbox, and I've had occasional issues with hiccups in the service, though it's been a while.

If you want a more DIY solution there's NextCloud, which offers clients for pretty much everything and you can self-host the software. Some hosting providers also offer accounts. NextCloud is more full-featured, includes file storage, calendaring, etc. I do wish that a company I'm familiar with offered NextCloud services (like Fastmail.fm) with prices similar to Dropbox or a bit cheaper - I'm not up for running my own these days.
posted by jzb at 5:20 AM on April 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's unclear to me whether or not the three device limit applies to the account holder's devices or to devices belonging to other Dropbox account holders with whom folders have been shared.

It seems unlikely that the OP personally owns 37 devices with Dropbox installed. If that's the case, some paid implementation of Dropbox makes sense. If the OP is sharing files by sharing the login credentials to a single Dropbox account among the owners of 37 devices, this is not how Dropbox is supposed to work. They should each have an account and share folders among accounts.

A limit of three "account holder" devices seems reasonable for a free service. If the three device total also applies to devices belonging to holders of other Dropbox accounts with whom a directory or file may be shared, that kind of breaks the model.

One potential way to circumvent the limit for a person who needs to have more than three "account holder" devices is to use an email ailiasing service such as sneakemail to register for multiple Dropbox accounts and simply share all directories among them. This way, even though dbox1@email.com is registered on devices 1, 2 and 3 and dbox2@email.com is registered on devices 4, 5 and 6, they would all sync the same files.
posted by slkinsey at 6:02 AM on April 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you just need the syncing and not the cloud backup and file access through the web frontend, I would recommend the free and open source Syncthing. I've been using it for years since I outgrew dropbox's size limits, and it works really well for what it's trying to do.

The major difference from Dropbox is that Syncthing is decentralized, so your files are only on your devices and syncing requires some devices to be online simultaneously. (I keep an old netbook on at home running syncthing for this purpose.) Syncthing does use a centralized discovery server, so you don't have to worry about setting up your IPs and keeping them configured. But that server never touches your data, it just tells your various devices where to find each other.
posted by ropeladder at 6:24 AM on April 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

I use https://www.sync.com
posted by terrapin at 6:33 AM on April 14, 2019

pCloud's lifetime pricing model is interesting. For a one time payment you get 99 years of storage: $175 for 500GB or $350 for 2TB, which is about what it would cost you to buy three years of service at their monthly subscription rates.

Upgrading from lifetime 500GB to lifetime 2TB costs the same as just buying lifetime 2TB, so doing that is effectively just burning the initial cost of the 500GB plan.

Essentially you're betting that your online storage requirements are not going to grow larger than your initial plan size selection, and they're betting that over time the per-gigabyte price of storage will shrink faster than the income they make off your up-front payment will grow.

Since my own Dropbox account has been well under whatever paltry number of GB they offer for free, I too would balk at paying $10/month for 1TB I have no present use for. But I could actually imagine myself spending $350 just once to oblige an online storage provider to give me 2TB I could forget about until I needed it.
posted by flabdablet at 9:17 AM on April 14, 2019

Re: pCloud, you’re also betting a tech startup will be around for your lifetime, or long enough to make the $350 worth paying. .
posted by spitbull at 10:59 AM on April 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Re: pCloud, you’re also betting a tech startup will be around for your lifetime, or long enough to make the $350 worth paying.

Indeed. That's a bit shy of four years of monthly payments. Then again, it's a company that's been around since (according to Crunchbase) six years with one round of funding ($3M) in 2015.

If they're using public cloud storage as a backend (e.g., not actually trying to manage their own infrastructure) and have their pricing tweaked right, they could very easily be sustainable long term. My assumption with Dropbox, pCloud, et. al. is that they have the account quotas tweaked so that most users tip into a paid tier where they don't use most of the allotment. That is, a lot of people signed up for 500GB accounts that are actually only using like 13-25 GB or people signed up for 2TB accounts using only 600GB or thereabouts.

The price of cloud storage trends ever downwards, at least so far. If on AWS or the like, they receive pricing breaks per GB / TB the more data they store, so if they can keep other costs down (e.g., developing new clients / maintaining clients / support) then it seems like something that could be around quite a while.
posted by jzb at 12:00 PM on April 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

pCloud is neat, but it's sort of a one-way bet: you're betting both that your storage requirements are going to stay under the purchased threshold, but you're also joining them in betting that the per-GB pricing will shrink enough to keep them solvent... or else they just go belly-up and you're S.O.L.

Online storage seems to be a 3-way tradeoff between price, capacity/bandwidth, and longevity: pick any two. You can get free services that will probably not delete your stuff or go out of business tomorrow (price+longevity), but don't give you much storage space. You can get free services that will let you store a lot of stuff, but not for very long (price+capacity). But for capacity and longevity—a good amount of data, and reliable enough for long-term storage—that you generally have to pay for. There is just no way a company can offer a free tier with lots of capacity, not delete accounts/data frequently, and not charge anything for it; the math doesn't work. So I would be intensely suspicious anytime you come across anything that looks like a free lunch.

If you don't care about the longevity of the data, the best deal going on a free tier right now seems to be Mega.nz (formerly MegaUpload, yeah that one) which offers 50GB storage—but with a very significant bandwidth limit of a GB or two per day (it varies...somehow). Also I think 35GB or so of the total storage quota expires periodically, although maybe they've relaxed that since I don't see anything about it anymore.

Personally, I just sucked it up a few years ago and started paying for Dropbox's 1TB/year plan, although if I was doing it over I'd probably look harder at Google Drive (because that lets you share the storage with Google's services, e.g. Gmail and Photos), although there are legitimate privacy concerns that might make something like SpiderOak or Sync.com (which both do zero-knowledge encryption) more appealing. Apple's iCloud storage is overpriced compared to other options (it's built on others' infrastructure so they have to mark it up) but is quite well-integrated with i-products if that's your thing.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:01 PM on April 14, 2019

I use NextCloud on a $5 tier VPS, largely because I don't play well with others.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 12:05 PM on April 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Whose VPS, and how much does it end up costing you per TB per month?
posted by flabdablet at 8:03 PM on April 14, 2019

Response by poster: It seems unlikely that the OP personally owns 37 devices with Dropbox installed.

This information is accurate and was obtained by viewing Dropbox’s registered devices. It includes three or four generations of iphones for myself and my spouse, a similar number of ipads, and every computer I have owned and set up for the last decade. I interpret your comment as hostile, fwiw. Thank you for your advice.
posted by mwhybark at 11:00 PM on April 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: on our local lan we use BTSync or whatever they call it this month. It sounds similar to syncthing upthread. I do not have a particular reason to stick with DBX, it’s just the most polished and easiest to instantiate. Our primary use case has been a shared password vault for two users, and now that Google and Apple seem to be provisioning competent cloud password management there may be less reason to keep dropbox-style cloud services active across all our devices for both users. my ideal scenario would be to move the password vault into a BTSync cloud service that propagates to all BTSync enrolled devices (especially theold ones that I only fire up once every two years) and yank all the files outta dropbox.
posted by mwhybark at 11:12 PM on April 14, 2019

I’m not sure why you consider the questioning of 37 devices hostile... it was my first thought too.

Is there a particular reason why you and your spouse don’t have individual accounts, and share the folders you both need?

Is there a particular reason you don’t unlink devices you no longer use from your Dropbox account?

It seems reasonable to wonder why two people actively use 37 devices. Maybe there’s a good reason! If so, the reason for this unusual use case seems like relevant information for those trying to suggest alternative options.
posted by fabius at 4:51 AM on April 15, 2019

I didn't interpret that comment as hostile either. The guess about sharing username/passwords is not what I'd have assumed, though - my guess was that 37 devices includes those registered with Dropbox and aged out over time, but not removed officially from Dropbox's list of registered machines. I use Linux on most of my machines and prefer to do a clean install every or every other Fedora release. When I used Dropbox those "devices" would add up quickly even though really it was just a handful of machines that I kept re-installing Dropbox on.

Dropbox's arbitrary device limit is ridiculously low, but 37 is a lot of devices if they're actually in service. And I say that as somebody with a seriously silly number of computers in my house just for one person. (Not 37, but north of 10 devices that would sign into Dropbox if I still used it - including phones, tablets, Plex server, and assorted laptop/desktop machines.)
posted by jzb at 5:30 AM on April 15, 2019

I'm on Digital Ocean, and I've not needed or priced out terabyte-sized storage yet. Nextcloud can be set up to connect to AWS-compatible object stores.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 6:58 AM on April 15, 2019

Response by poster: That’s correct, I just never unregister them. There’s no particular reason, it just never occurred to me to do so. Apple’s new device limit is impinging on me too, but it’s slightly less onerous.

We share a single dropbox account in order to locate the password vault in dropbox and to allow us to easily access records and information on all our devices and as a mechanism to enable easy access to miscellaneous widgets I wish to deploy across the devices.

The in-use device count is, um, three laptops, all with a copy of a virtualized win 10 system which also appears as another device, two mac minis, one native wintel win 10 device, four ipads, four iphones (we are in the middle of migrating, which is how I came to learn of the issue with device limits) and two big-box style old mac pros with four bootable drives in each bay of each machine. each mac os on the bootable drives also has the virtualized win 10 environment. of course it is quite rare to boot into any given drive that is not the current primary boot drive, but the bootable drives are clones of prior primary systems. I think the dropbox accounts on the older systems probably look like the same machine to dropbox because it’s on the same hardware. So if that is correct there are about 21 devices that are in semi-current use.
posted by mwhybark at 7:13 AM on April 15, 2019

Response by poster: Quick update: I have successfully swapped to google drive as the cloud storage for the vault on our ios devices and our day-to-day computers. I suppose my next step is dumping the rest of the dropbox content into my local sync solution.
posted by mwhybark at 5:34 AM on April 17, 2019

Another option: Mega. Fifty GB free storage, encryption that you control, works on Windows, Linux, Apple. I switched when Dropbox essentially stopped supporting Linux and I've been perfectly happy with it.
posted by mississippi at 8:32 AM on April 17, 2019

Response by poster: worth looking into!
posted by mwhybark at 8:16 PM on April 17, 2019

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