Dropbox is nothing short of incredible. When the whole world thought file sharing had to be complex and kludgy, a MIT student who forgot his flash drive showed us all that file sharing could be simple enough that we’d all want to do it. You’ve got to trust it with your data, and be willing to pay to store more than several gigs of data, but beyond that, there’s little to make you question using Dropbox. It’s ubiquitous for good reason.
That doesn’t mean it’s the be all and end all of file syncing. There’s Google Drive, Microsoft’s Skydrive, and Amazon’s new Cloud Drive sync. But one new competitor, AeroFS, is taking on Dropbox directly with its own private sync solution, in an app that might be the absolute closest competitor Dropbox has seen yet. It’s fresh out of beta for individuals and teams, so let’s take a look.
What, what’s AeroFS?
Dropbox sure took some explaining at the beginning, but almost everyone — techie or not — is used to it these days. It uploads your files to the Dropbox server and syncs them with your other devices, or with your friends and colleagues’ computers via shared folders. Simple.
AeroFS is almost the same, with a small catch: there’s no central server. It’s peer-to-peer sync that works almost just like Dropbox. You can sync files between your own computers, or share folders with friends and colleagues, over the internet or inside your own network when you’re offline. You’ll still need an account for authentication, but after that, you don’t use the AeroFS servers at all.
It’s Dropbox, decentralized.
So close, you might miss the difference
And that’s not an inapt description: AeroFS feels very similar to Dropbox. After signing up for an account online, you’ll download a small app to keep your files in sync. That is, the files inside your AeroFS folder, since everything you want synced with AeroFS has to be in that folder.
Next up, there’s a walkthrough of how AeroFS works. That’s nice … but it’s identical to Dropbox’ walkthrough. I understand taking cues from the way Dropbox works, and making your own unique product that’s in some ways similar, but a tutorial that’s almost precisely the same is a bit too much.
The good thing is, AeroFS does work almost as good as Dropbox. If you’re used to using Dropbox to store everything, and just need to keep stuff synced between your computers — and don’t need files stored online to access if, say, your computer died suddenly — then it might be perfect. You’ll just have to add your files to your AeroFS folder, and setup AeroFS on your other computers, and it’ll likely work fine. The cool thing is, it’s 100% free, and there’s no storage limits beyond the size of your own hard drive. If you want to keep 500Gbs of documents and media synced between your computers, it might be the perfect app for you.
In my tests syncing AeroFS between my Mac and a Windows 8 PC on the same network, syncing was almost instantaneous. Syncing online was slower, but it seemed to be nearly as fast as Dropbox syncing in my non-scientific tests. You likely won’t notice the difference in real-world use.
The only major problem I had is that AeroFS is more resource intensive than Dropbox; it used 3% of my CPU and around 100Mb of ram all the time it was running, even when it wasn’t actively syncing files. AeroFS is Java powered, so that may be the culprit, but it definitely might eat into your battery life and computer performance.
Sharing and Saving
Now, sharing is one of the best things about Dropbox; it lets you easily send files to your friends and colleagues’ computers by just saving them in your shared folder. AeroFS lets you share files in much the same way. You can right-click on any folder inside your AeroFS folder and invite people to it. Once they’ve accepted, everything in that folder will be synced between both of your AeroFS accounts.
Sharing folders worked great in my tests, just like syncing files between computers connected to your own account. What can get messy, though, is if both of you are editing the same file at the same time. Then, you’ll end up with a sync conflict. The conflicted file will have a yellow fork-in-the-road icon on the bottom to let you know there’s a problem, and from the AeroFS menu you can choose to view your local file, the conflicted copy from your collaborator’s computer, and then merge the changes or choose which version to keep.
There’s also file versions saved for everything you sync in AeroFS, whether between your own computers or with others. You can jump back in time and catch changes, and quickly restore the old version. That’s nice to have; I use the previous versions tool in Dropbox quite often. However, it can use up extra disk space, so you might want to keep an eye on that.
Your Whole Team
You might have noticed that I said shared folders can be shared with one other person. That’s actually one of the limitations of a free AeroFS account. Free accounts can share folders with one other person; you’ll need to make a new shared folder for each person you want to share files with. Free accounts also can have up to 3 teammates, which we’ll dig into in just a bit.
If you want to share folders with more than one person, or have more teammates, you’ll need to upgrade to a Team account, which costs $10/teammate/month. If you just want to share your own folders with multiple people, it’ll cost you $10/month, and the people you’re sharing folders with can still be using a free account.
There’s one final piece to the puzzle: the AeroFS Team Server. This is an extra app you can download to let your computer store all the files from each of your team’s AeroFS accounts (thus, the teammates). Alternately, you can have the Team Server store the files encrypted in Amazon’s S3 storage, giving you a way to — essentially — build your own Dropbox.
If your company has a server running the AeroFS Team Server, then anyone on your team can sync files between their computers even if their other devices are turned off, since they’ll sync through the server. They’ll even be deduplicated and compressed. That makes it much more like Dropbox, and makes it much more interesting for teams. It also can make it more interesting for individuals; you could run Team Server and the normal AeroFS app at the same time to centrally backup your family’s AeroFS files to Amazon S3. I only wish the S3 options were built into the individual app itself; that’d make it a much more compelling tool for individual users.
On its own, AeroFS is a neat tool, one I’m sure I’d have loved to have around before Dropbox. But it’s a different world today. There’s Dropbox for free or $10/month, then alternates from Microsoft and Google that are even cheaper storage. They all let you keep your files synced, and stored online, too. That’s a huge advantage for most of us; I’ve used Dropbox and Skydrive both to get files I needed when I was away from my computer, something I couldn’t do with AeroFS. They also have mobile apps on iOS and Android, where AeroFS currently only has a limited Android app, one that only lets you view files from your computer.
For teams, the advantage is clearer: you can run your own AeroFS server, keeping everything under your roof, with no storage limits. But that’ll still cost you $10/user/month, where Dropbox for Teams would only cost you $10-$13/user/month, depending on your team size, and it comes with unlimited storage and more.
The very best use case for AeroFS right now is keeping larger amounts of files synced between your own computers on your own network. If you don’t need to access your files online, and want to sync more than Dropbox will let you, then it’s a great free option. If you have a VPS and want to sync files between it and your Mac, it’s also a great tool for that. AeroFS is also a great option if you want the added security of not having your files on a 3rd party server, something many businesses may appreciate. Still, it’s a tough sell in today’s crowded collaboration and file sync app market.