Which is best, Dropbox Backup or Dropbox sync? Use both!

Dropbox and Dropbox Backup can both the used to back up documents and other files on your computer, but there are also important differences. When should you use them? Which is best? Why?

These two services from Dropbox can be confusing and so it is worth taking a close look at them. In some ways they are the same and in other ways they are different. Both copy your documents and other files to cloud storage, but in different ways and for different purposes.

To use Dropbox Backup you need a subscription and the cheapest plan offers 2 TB of online storage, which is enough to back up most computers. Backup does work on a Dropbox free plan, but since online storage is limited to 2 GB for new users, it is not enough for serious use. You can try it in a limited way on small folders though.

I have earned extra Dropbox storage space over the years and have over 9 GB free. That is enough to try out Dropbox Backup, so let’s take it for a test drive and see how it works. First how to set it up setup, and then how Dropbox Backup differs from regular Dropbox.

This works on a Windows PC and an Apple Mac. There are small interface differences, but the features are the same.

Set up Dropbox Backup

If you have not yet installed Dropbox, you have the option to enable Dropbox Backup during installation and setup, so skip the next two screenshots. If you already have Dropbox installed on your computer, here’s how to set up Backup.

Dropbox in the menu bar on the Apple Mac.
Dropbox in the Mac menu bar
  1. Click the Dropbox icon (Mac menu bar at the top, PC taskbar at the bottom), and select Preferences.
  2. Select the Backups tab.
  3. Enable or disable notifications for external drives as you prefer.
  4. Click the Manage backups button.
Dropbox settings on the Apple Mac.
Dropbox Backups settings

The Backup setup tool appears and it is the same one that appears when Dropbox is first installed on a computer.

Dropbox Backup settings and folder selection.
Folders to back up in Dropbox

Three folders are automatically selected for backup: Desktop, Documents and Downloads. Use the checkboxes to select or deselect them. If you want to back up other folders on the computer’s drive, and you probably do, click the link Modify folder selection.

Select the folders to back up in Dropbox Backup.
Select what to back up in Dropbox Backup

A window appears that shows the folders in your home folder and their sizes. Use the checkboxes to select the folders to back up. You can dig down, selecting a folder and then choosing which subfolders and files are included or excluded. Usually it is best just to select the whole folder on the left.

Click the Save button (off the screenshot) to start the backup. If you have a free Dropbox account, you will be asked if want to take out a subscription. Ignore this and click Continue with Basic if you don’t want to subscribe, but remember that you don’t get much space for free, so don’t try to back up more than will fit in your storage.

Dropbox Backup completion notice on the Apple Mac.
Dropbox Backup is finished

Use your computer and use Dropbox normally while files are backed up from the drive to your online storage. It could take some time if there are a lot of files and a notification appears when it is finished.

What to back up with Dropbox Backup

The Documents and Desktop folders are selected for backup by default in Dropbox Backup. However, it is possible to use OneDrive on a PC and iCloud on a Mac to sync them. It’s best not to back up synced folders because they are stored differently than other folders on a drive.

You would normally back up folders outside of Dropbox and other synced folders. You can even back up whole external drives.

How to access Dropbox Backup backups

To access your Dropbox files in a web browser, just go to dropbox.com and log in. To see the files in your backups, go to dropbox.com/backups/all. Multiple computers can be backed up if you have the space and they can be Macs or PCs. Just open the backup you want to browse.

Dropbox Backup on the web in a browser.
View Dropbox backups on the web

Accessing the files in a backup is very similar to accessing regular Dropbox files. If files are lost or corrupted on your computer, you can download files from the backup and replace them.

Accessing Dropbox Backups on the web in a browser.
Access files and folders in Dropbox Backups in a browser

If a file is deleted on the computer, it can be recovered for up to 30 days from the backup. However, this is true of Dropbox synced files too. In fact, Dropbox Backup works a lot like Dropbox in many ways, so what are the differences?

Back up anything with Dropbox Backup

Dropbox creates a folder on the computer that it keeps in sync with your online Dropbox storage. One special folder where you can put things you want to back up online and sync with other computers you may use.

Dropbox Backup can back up anything from a single folder to a whole drive. It is for backing up files and folders outside of the Dropbox folder, and even whole drives. (It is a file backup, not a disk image that can be restored to a blank drive to make it bootable.)

Two way vs one way sync

Dropbox is a two way sync process and the Dropbox folder on the computer is identical to the Dropbox folder online. Files added, changed or deleted online or on one computer are also added, changed or deleted on another computer. Whatever happens on another computer or online with Dropbox, happens everywhere else.

Dropbox Backup is a one-way sync. Files or folders added, changed or deleted on the computer are copied and stored online. You can open a backup and access deleted files and see different versions of changed files for up to 30 days.

Files and folders in Dropbox Backup are not synced to other computers with Dropbox, but you can access files in the backup from other computers if you need them.

Unlike Dropbox, you cannot delete files online in Dropbox Backup. When you try to delete a file or folder, it sends you to the backup setup on the computer. To remove an item online in Dropbox Backup you exclude it from backup.

Fast vs slow syncing

Add, change or delete a file in the Dropbox folder on the computer and the changes are reflected online in seconds. This is fast syncing.

Dropbox Backup settings on the Apple Mac.
Set the backup frequency in Dropbox Backup

Dropbox Backup runs every 15 minutes at most, but it can be set to once a day, once a week or a custom schedule. This is slow syncing and it is standard for backup software.

Use Dropbox and Dropbox Backup

If you have a paid subscription to Dropbox, you have enough online storage space to use both Dropbox and Dropbox Backup. Dropbox to sync files across computers and store online, and Backup to store files, folders and even whole drives outside of the Dropbox folder.

Dropbox Backup works with free plans, but you are limited by space. However, you can try it with a small folder to see how it works.

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