In this Dropbox Paper review we take a look at Dropbox's attempt to capture a slice of the 'collaboration market.' How do its collaborative features stack up against those offered by Google Apps or Office 365?
Dropbox is a great solution for sharing files via the cloud, but in terms of providing a set of collaborative editing tools, it’s lagged behind rivals Google Apps for Work and Office 365 for some time now. Whereas Google Apps and Office provide you with a comprehensive set of browser-based tools that you and your colleagues can use collaboratively in real time to edit various types of documents - Docs, Sheets and Slides - Dropbox has (to date anyway) been more about providing cloud-based file storage.
To be fair, Dropbox’s recent integration with Microsoft Office provided Dropbox users with some real-time file editing capabilities, but the full version of Office 365 (with its OneDrive integration) is more robust in this regard. Similarly, Google Apps for Work - which was built from the ground up as a suite of browser-based collaborative tools - has always felt a bit more intuitive and solid than the Dropbox-Microsoft Office hybrid, providing a cleaner interface and simpler sharing options.
Enter Dropbox Paper
Dropbox have now launched a new product which aims to change all that and challenge Microsoft and Google’s dominance in the field of collaborative productivity tools: Dropbox Paper. Available as both a web app (for use in a browser on desktop computers) and as a downloadable mobile app, it provides a clutter-free environment for creating and sharing text documents.
The browser-based version
With the browser-based version, the emphasis really is on ‘clutter-free’ - file menus and options are kept to an absolute minimum, and there are no formatting controls immediately on display.
However, when you highlight a piece of text, a formatting menu appears which allows you to:
- make text bold
- strike text through
- format text as H1 or H2
- add bullet points
- add numbering
- add tasks (checkboxes)
- insert hyperlinks
- add comments
Whilst not typing, hovering over your document text will result in a “+” symbol appearing which allows you to add a variety of content types to your file (as a slightly random aside, this is very reminiscent of the way that Squarespace allows you to add content to your web pages). Clicking on this gives you the option to insert:
- an image
- a file from Dropbox
- a table
- task checkboxes
Hovering over the left hand side of the screen will display a table of contents, which is based on the headings you use.
The mobile app version
The mobile app version of Dropbox Paper is similar in terms of functionality to the browser version but different in terms of interface, in that formatting controls are always visible.
This makes the mobile experience ever-so-slightly less ‘minimalistic’ but it is understandable, given that highlighting text on a mobile and tablets is a much fiddlier affair than on desktop computers (if the only way to see the formatting menu on a mobile device was by highlighting text, nobody would ever use the app...).
Collaborating in Dropbox Paper
Collaborating in Dropbox Paper is a pretty simple affair. You simply choose who in your team can access the document. They can then edit it alongside you in real time; add comments to it; have assigned tasks to them and so on. You can ‘@mention’ a team mate in the document and that poor soul will be notified that they’ve got something to attend to in your Dropbox Paper file.
How Dropbox Paper integrates with your existing Dropbox account
Dropbox Paper is not a standalone product - you will need a Dropbox account to use it - but within your account, it does effectively sit on its own. You will need to log into the browser version of Dropbox to access it; there you will find a ‘Paper’ section where all your documents are created, stored, and organised.
In other words, you won’t be able to locate or access any of your Dropbox Paper documents when you’re using the desktop app. This differs from the Google Apps approach, where the desktop version of Google Drive provides direct shortcuts to Google Docs, Sheets and Slides files.
Dropbox Paper documents don’t count towards your Dropbox file storage allowance, which is excellent.
What makes Dropbox Paper different to Google Apps and Office 365?
The key things that make Dropbox Paper stand out from the likes of Google Apps or Office 365 involve rich media and code.
Unlike Google Docs or the online version of Microsoft Word, you can embed video or audio into a Dropbox Paper document (simply by copying and pasting the URL into the your Paper document - do that and your video or audio stream will magically appear). Example of supported services include Youtube, Soundcloud, Vimeo and Google Maps - but there are many more: see the Dropbox site for a full list of supported rich media types.
This approach to rich media represents a USP for Dropbox Paper, and is one of its strongest features. It allows you to create very ‘dynamic’ documents, with the embedded rich media really bringing your content to life, or adding important context.
Additionally, you can add code snippets directly to Dropbox Paper documents. This makes it a very handy tool for developers who wish to document their work or invite colleagues to review their code.
Galleries in Dropbox Paper
Another really strong aspect of Dropbox Paper is how it handles images. You can just drag and drop images into a Dropbox Paper document and it will automatically arrange them into gallery grids. This makes for some very neat layouts.
What Dropbox Paper is missing
What Dropbox Paper gives with one hand, it taketh away with the other. There are a few key omissions or oddities in Dropbox Paper which are worth paying attention to.
You can’t format fonts in Dropbox Paper. To be honest, this doesn’t really bother me hugely, as the product is not really conceived to be a desktop publishing application; it’s more of a cloud-based collaboration tool. And the font that Dropbox does makes use of - which I believe is Atlas Grotesk - is a pleasure to use, and extremely readable.
Italics and underscoring
The standard Dropbox Paper formatting menu does not allow you to italicise or underscore text. You can, however, do this with standard keyboard shortcuts (CTRL I, CTRL U etc.), but I’m rather baffled as to why users are not given the option to make use of these very common formatting options using the standard controls. This will definitely confuse some users and needlessly put them off using Dropbox Paper, because they will mistakenly think it’s not possible to italicise or underscore their text.
The standard formatting controls only provide you with the option to add H1 and H2 headings. H3 headings are routinely used to to break up web content…so if you’re hoping to use Dropbox Paper to author web copy, you’ll be a bit puzzled to find that H3s are not on the formatting menu.
You can actually add H3s - but you’ll need to preface your titles with an appropriate number of hash signs - for example, you’ll need to put ‘###’ before a heading to turn it into H3 etc. If you need to go further than H3s and delve into the exotic world of H4s and H5s, you will be out of luck however - Dropbox Paper seems to draw the line at H3s.
You can currently export Dropbox Paper files to Microsoft Word or to Markdown formats. This is handy if you are starting a document off collaboratively in Paper and then wish to tart it up on your own in Word. It’d be nice, however, to be able to export your Dropbox Paper file to PDF or Google Docs.
Dropbox Paper review conclusions
There’s a lot to like about Dropbox Paper, and it’s certainly a welcome addition to the Dropbox product in general. If you are an existing Dropbox user, you'll love having it in the feature set. One of the most annoying things about collaborating in Dropbox to date has been all the ‘conflicted copy’ sync errors when more than one person tries to update a shared document; Dropbox Paper does away with all of that, at least where text documents are concerned.
The main pros and cons as I see them are as follows:
Pros of using Dropbox Paper
- It has a clean, simple interface which makes creating documents quick and easy
- Collaborating on and sharing documents is very straightforward
- The option to add rich media to documents is unique and really brings Dropbox Paper files to life
- Image galleries are attractive and adding them is a breeze
- The option to embed code directly into documents makes it a useful tool for web developers and programmers
- It provides a simple but effective task management tool
- Navigating documents is easy due to the automatically generated table of contents file
Cons of using Dropbox Paper
- The options to italicise and underscore text are not visible in the standard formatting menu
- Adding H3s is needlessly complicated (and you can’t add any header type below the H3 level)
- The options for exporting your content to other formats are rather limited
- You can’t change typefaces (although many users will not necessarily see this as a disadvantage)
Alternatives to Dropbox Paper
For users who want add rich media, code snippets or task checkboxes into their documents, and really value a completely minimalistic approach to content creation and sharing, Dropbox Paper is something of a unique option.
Evernote is similar in some respects, but it’s more of a ‘workspace’ and doesn’t facilitate the addition of rich media to notes (although I suspect that Evernote will up their game a bit once they get their head around what Dropbox is doing).
The more ‘meaty’ alternatives to Dropbox Paper are Google Apps or Office 365. Both of these products are more established real-time collaborative editing solutions, and offer significantly more functionality (especially when it comes to number crunching or presentation creating). You can read our Office 365 versus Google Apps comparison here.
For me, Google Apps comes closer to Dropbox Paper in providing a minimalistic approach - and if Google have any sense, they’ll start adding the kind of rich media features that Dropbox Paper currently boasts into their products. The best argument for going for Google Apps over Dropbox is the fact that you get email accounts with it, alongside unlimited file storage (on the more expensive Google Apps plans).
Video: Dropbox Paper overview (official video from Dropbox)