Better iOS File Sharing with Dropbox and DocsToGo

It should be a simple task. You have a document on your Mac. You want to transfer it to your iPad (or even your iPhone) where you intend to edit it while on the road. Upon your return, you want to transfer the edited document back to your Mac. 

It should be a simple task. But it’s not. Or at least not nearly as simple as it should be. The situation has shown signs of improvement over the months since the iPad was first released. Apple has helped out by extending the iPad’s “Open in…” feature to the iPhone and iPod touch in iOS 4.0.x. Beyond that, however, the improvements are primarily due to innovations from third party developers.

Most recently, the combination of two apps  — Dropbox and Documents to Go (DocsToGo) — have raised the bar for the ease and flexibility of getting this job done. With my two new best friends, you can wirelessly transfer a file to your iPad, edit the document and send it back to your Mac — all with a nearly transparent minimum of fuss.

In contrast, Apple’s officially supported method for file sharing requires using iTunes — with your iOS device connected to your Mac via USB. As I have previously explored in painful detail (File Sharing with an iPad: Ugh), this is a clunky and annoying method — especially when used in combination with Apple’s iWork apps for the iPad. A more convenient alternative, one that bypasses the need to navigate to iTunes’ semi-hidden File Sharing section, is DiskAid (Get DiskAid 4 for iOS File Sharing). However, DiskAid mainly substitutes its own simpler interface for iTunes. You typically still need to connect each shared iOS device to DiskAid on your Mac via USB.

Dropbox and Documents to Go offer a better way. Here’s why…

Why Dropbox

Dropbox is the primary workhouse behind this file sharing combo. It’s a nearly ideal vehicle for shuttling files between your Mac and your iOS device.

• It’s free (and you may already own it). Because Dropbox is a popular and versatile utility, for reasons that extend beyond iOS syncing, you may have already obtained this software for other purposes. If so, this saves you from having to acquire additional Mac software specific for iOS file sharing. Because Dropbox is free, it outshines paid alternatives that might otherwise be in the running — such as MobileMe’s iDisk (which requires a $99/year MobileMe membership).

• Dropbox has a seamless interface on the Mac. Dropbox on your Mac is typically set to launch at login. Once launched, it integrates with the Finder. There is no separate user interface to master. Copying a document to the Dropbox folder is as simple as dragging the document’s icon to the Dropbox window in the Finder. Having done so, the document is wirelessly transferred to Dropbox’s server. At this point, the document is available to every device you own that has Dropbox access (as well as to the devices of other users to whom you give access).

This last point is worth restating: You don’t have to separately transfer the same Mac document to both your iPhone and iPad; one transfer to Dropbox makes the document available to both of them.

• Dropbox transfers are wireless. There’s no need for a USB cable with Dropbox. While wireless transfers may be slower than USB, the speed difference should be trivial for the typically small documents discussed here. The trade-off in terms of convenience is more than worth any loss of speed. Compared to most other apps that allow wireless transfers, such as FileMagnet, there is no need to pair a Mac application to an iOS app each time you want to transfer a file to a given device.

• Dropbox works great at the iOS device end. Using the Dropbox apps for the iPhone/iPod touch and iPad, the files that you copied to the Dropbox folder on your Mac are almost immediately accessible on your iOS device. From within the app itself, you can directly view most document formats (txt, rtf, docx, pdf, and pages files) as well as graphics images. As I’ll get to shortly, it’s also easy to export a file from Dropbox to another app for editing — and then return the edited file to your Mac.

Why (and How) Dropbox to DocsToGo

Conveniently syncing documents between your Mac and iOS devices accomplishes a major goal. But it’s not the end of the story. You also want to be able to edit these documents on iOS devices. Dropbox is not intended for this task. Via a separate app called Droptext, you can edit .txt files in your Dropbox account — but you’ll likely want the flexibility to edit other document types. This is where DocsToGo comes in.

At first, for working with DocsToGo, the iTunes-based file sharing may seem to have an edge over Dropbox. Via iTunes, you can import a document directly into any editing app compatible with the document’s format — DocsToGo, Pages, GoodReader, whatever. You do so by dragging the document’s icon to the desired app name in the iTunes File Sharing list.

Can Dropbox match this feat? Yes — via the “Open in…” feature of the iOS device itself. The feature is available if you are running iOS 3.2.x on an iPad or iOS 4.0.x on an iPhone/iPod touch. It allows you to export a document from one app to another.

You may already be familiar with this feature from opening email attachments in the Mail app. But it is not limited to Mail. It’s available for any app updated to support it. Dropbox has this support. To access it, select a document in Dropbox and tap the “arrow” button. The “Open In…” menu appears, listing all apps on your iOS device that can open the document. Tap the name of the app you want — DocsToGo in our example here. This immediately launches DocsToGo with the document opened.


Why DocsToGo

You may find several apps on your iOS device that can open and edit a selected document. Here’s why have I been emphasizing DocsToGo as the preferred choice:

Bypass the Dropbox app. With DocsToGo, you have the option to import a document from Dropbox without ever launching the Dropbox app. You can instead set Dropbox as an “online” location in DocsToGo. After doing this, you can access the Dropbox server from within DocsToGo and directly open compatible documents. 

This trick works in the other direction as well. After saving a modified document in DocsToGo, you can have the document sync back to Dropbox by accepting the request that pops up when you exit the document. This entirely bypasses the need to use the “Open in…” feature in either Dropbox or DocsToGo.

This is as about as convenient as file sharing can get. It means that, within seconds of saving/syncing a document in DocsToGo, and without having to perform any other action, the document is available on your Mac (as well as all other devices that support Dropbox). At this point, you could even use the “Open in…” feature in Dropbox to export the edited document to yet another iOS app!

I did find one glitch with this option: After saving an edited file directly back to Dropbox from DocsToGo, I was no longer able to view the file in Dropbox. When I tried, I got an error message. However, the file still opened fine on my Mac in both TextEdit and Word.

Note: Whenever you use the iOS’s “Open in…” feature, you are almost always making a copy of the document, not moving it. After using the option several times for the same document, you can wind up with numerous copies scattered across different apps. It’s easy to get confused as to which version of a file is which. This is another reason I prefer using the DocsToGo option to sync an edited file directly in Dropbox.

Overall, no other iOS app can match DocsToGo here. Pages cannot send a file back to Dropbox at all. GoodReader can return a file to Dropbox, but the procedure strikes me as more clunky than with DocsToGo: you have to copy the entire file via an option in GoodReader’s Manage Files section and then paste it to DropBox via the Connect to Servers section. As a last alternative, some people are satisfied with transferring files as attachments in Mail; that’s too much of a kludge solution for me.

• DocsToGo is a decent text editor — about as good as you can get on iOS devices. From my experience, DocsToGo is one of the two best iOS editing apps; the other is Pages. Of the two apps, only DocsToGo works on the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch; Pages is limited to the iPad.

The term “best” may be a bit misleading in this context. Neither app is outstanding as a text editor. Both are missing numerous features available on their Mac relatives (Microsoft Word and Pages). And, if you import a file from your Mac to one of these apps, you’ll often find that some formatting has been stripped out. Still, if all you want is to edit a document with minimal formatting, these apps are up to the task. Almost all other apps, if they have any editing capability at all, are limited to the barebones .txt format. [Update: As noted in the comments below, QuickOffice and Office2 are two alternatives that are competitive with Docs2Go.]

For documents created on your Mac that you intend to edit in DocsToGo, it’s best to save the Mac documents in Microsoft Word format (.docx). One convenience here is that you can save documents in this format even of you don’t own Word: Mac OS X’s “free” TextEdit can do it. This is yet another reason to prefer DocsToGo over Pages. 

Bottom Line

For file sharing between Macs and iOS devices, the combination of Dropbox and Documents to Go is a winner. It’s certainly a far cry better than Apple’s iTunes and iWork apps solution.

Looking at the larger picture, file sharing with iOS devices still has a long way to go. As of now, once you venture beyond Apple’s iTunes-based file sharing, each third-party app has to reinvent the wheel — coming up with its own method and interface for accomplishing the task. As Matt Neuberg wrote in a TidBITS article: “The entire process of getting iOS to work with documents is like trying to tell someone how to knit, while they’re wearing mittens and earmuffs, and you’re blindfolded.” Ultimately, what is needed is for Apple to supply a new standard for file sharing (hopefully one that borrows from and improves on the Dropbox model) — a simple approach that will be adopted by all apps.

Another “larger picture” issue is whether the iPad is capable of functioning as a serious text-editing device, even when using an app as good as DocsToGo. I have my doubts (as I explain in a related article).

In the meantime, with Dropbox and DocsToGo, you can seamlessly and wirelessly move a document from your Mac to your iOS device, edit the file on your iOS device and reverse the procedure to return the edited document to your Mac. There is no quicker and simpler solution than this combo.