Cloud Sync Review: Dropbox, iPhone, MobileMe Back to My Mac

Hi everyone,

This is my first post on this forum, and I want to share how I’ve been using DEVONthink Pro 1.5.4 in the past with Dropbox and share how I am now using DT Pro Office 2.0 Beta 5 in conjunction with the iPhone web app and MobileMe Back to My Mac. Although DEVONthink has the capability to manage ridiculously large databases, this post and mini-review are focused on cloud syncing and iPhone workflows using small databases. At the end there are suggestions that I hope the DEVONtech team can address.

For me, using DT with cloud sync is safest and most productive using small databases, so I cater my workflow accordingly. I use DT for online professional and creative research, centralizing information, brainstorming, personal/professional journaling/writing, and, of course, analysis and synthesis. For small database size, I try to use plain text and electronic/non-scanned PDFs when I can and very compressed JPEGS and RTFDs only as needed for my needs.

I do also use very large databases with scanned OCR PDFs and media files. I also use these with Dropbox. But they are more “archive and reference” databases instead of “working/syncing” databases. Obviously, version 2.0 featuring opening multiple databases is great for combining active vs. reference databases.

I do own a ScanSnap scanner. It’s amazing. But it’s not really part of my DEVONthink and Dropbox workflow. I owned the scanner and learned to use Adobe Acrobat Professional (included with the scanner) before I used DT Pro. I am 99% paperless and using Dropbox and Spotlight definitely makes life easier. I do feel that a DEVONthink Pro Office paperless scanning system can easily be implemented using Dropbox even with very large databases as long as proper backups are performed (discussed below). This is because unlike iDisk, Dropbox syncs are done incrementally. On a productivity level, how suitable this type of workflow would be depends on one’s broadband speed, number of documents uploaded at any given moment, time constraints/demands, and so on.

I’ve been using DT Pro 1.5.4 for about 8 months using Dropbox on 3 Macs and have been extremely happy as it is rock solid stable. The key to using with Dropbox is that only one computer can be in use with DEVONthink Pro at any given time. If there is a conflict, it’s no big deal, just delete the conflicted files once you figure out which files you want to keep (right click on the database file to “Show Package Contents” to “see” the conflicted Dropbox files). The other secret to using with Dropbox is to have as small of a database as possible. It’s possible to have a large database, as Dropbox is usually very stable, but it may take longer (much longer) to upload and download the syncing files.

My working/syncing database was around 15-30 MB. I just finished that project and have now started a new working database. One way I keep the database small in size is to only have 1 archived backup in the database (set in Preferences > Backup > Archives). I also use multiple reference databases that contain larger files that don’t need to be synced as often.

I don’t use Dropbox as a means of backup, only for syncing. For backup, I quit DT, and manually initiate a Time Machine backup to a FireWire 800 Lacie Rugged Drive so the package file is saved in it’s entirety. I set the DT preference to “Open windows that were open on quit” to get back to where I was working quickly. The frequency of this backup depends on how intensively I am working. Sometimes I may backup every 5-20 minutes if it’s important. I also use the DT ApplesScript > Export > Backup Archive to my desktop and then upload this zip file to my iDisk (I don’t like the Backup to iDisk AppleScript, “feels” too slow to me). I also may do this very often.

I just upgraded to 2.0 Beta 5, and I wanted to share my current workflow.

The iPhone is a game and life changer for me, as well as for many other people. It has completely changed how I structure my workflow. In designing and updating my workflow, I wanted it to be iPhone-centric. For obvious reasons, smaller databases work better for cloud and iPhone workflows.

For my work, the iPhone is a means of increased spontaneity and productivity in my creativity, analysis, and synthesis of materials. I find the auto-correct and predictive typing to work very well for me. It’s not just about DEVONthink, but also about all the other iPhone apps that help me with my life.

I upgraded to Office Pro Office mainly to have the web server functions for use with the iPhone. I am an intermediate level end-user/power-user but have no background in advanced computer science or networking, so I was very grateful to have the excellent DT user manual and excellent YouTube DT iPhone screencast as a guide:

I am using a spare Mac mini as the DT Pro Office web server and used the DT user manual and video above to setup a local network and Internet access to the web server using simple port mapping to my AirPort Express (the Apple AirPort manual helped too). Now I can access my DT database from my iPhone anywhere as long as I have 3G or Wi-Fi. For those who are squeamish about port mapping and networking you can also use the Lighthouse software as recommended by the DT Pro Office manual. It looks very simple.

As I stated earlier, the key to Dropbox is that only one computer can have the database open at any one time. So what do I do about the other 3 Macs that I use? That’s where MobileMe Back to My Mac comes in (I don’t know if MobileMe is available outside of the US, sorry).

Obviously, using the other 3 Macs I can access my DT database using the Web 2.0 interface. And yes, it works very well. Wonderful design and execution. Bravo. But what if I want to actually use the native DT application without causing sync problems with Dropbox.

Well I just use Back to My Mac screen sharing to go into the Mac mini and quit DT Pro Office. Voila. Now the Dropbox database is free to be used with any other of the 3 Macs I have. Once I want to use the iPhone again, I just quit the DT application on the current computer and using Back to My Mac I can open the DT application on the Mac mini server again.

The nice thing about using the Mac mini is that it is very small, very quiet, and very energy efficient, and it can be run “headless” without an monitor, keyboard, or mouse using Back to My Mac. Also Back to My Mac works via the Internet not just a local network.

The only major flaw I see with the current beta is that when creating a new note in the iPhone Safari web app, the new note goes into the global inbox and not the current database inbox. This is a major problem because I can’t access or read the new note I just wrote at all. This flaw is not present in the Web 2.0 browser interface.

Other flaws have been addressed in this forum. To allow iPhone zooming of PDF or JPEGS files, tap once on the image. Safari opens a new tab, and then zooming is allowed.

Overall this is an amazing beta. A total game changer. It was designed with the iPhone and cloud computing in mind while still retaining it’s ability to handle massive amounts of data. Thank you, thank you.

Some things I would hope future versions can address would be to allow iPhone editing of files, adjustable or black on white color scheme (like Instapaper, Amazon Kindle for iPhone, or TwitterFon/Twitterific), and also to have better rtf/rtfd font handling. I know this is a challenge, but Air Sharing does a great job rendering rtfd right now. Obviously, these are actual iPhone apps and not just web apps.

As of now my iPhone workflow still consists of the excellent Good Reader PDF engine/app, Notebooks app for reading/editing, and Air Sharing for rtfd files. But what they lack is proper cloud syncing and the DEVONtech magic and unity.

Once the DEVONthink iPhone web app allows new notes to go into the current database then I can probably forego the Notebooks app. As far as rtfd, I could probably just separate the text and image files into DT groups (folders). The only reason I would still keep either Notebooks or Air Sharing is just as a backup in case I had no 3G or Wi-Fi to access my DT database web server.

I really think cloud computing and the iPhone are the future and the present in many areas, especially for my type of needs.

Thanks to the DEVONthink team for implementing these core functions in their current beta. It’s looking really good, right now.


The iStat iPhone app is pretty neat for monitoring a DT web server, even though I have no use for it.

This web page link though is a very short explanation of port mapping on the Apple AirPort routers that clarifies a lot for me in very few words, especially if you’re using multiple servers:

For me I just used 8080 for both the public and private port numbers.

Another request to the DEVONthink team: I hope one day that iPhone group (folder) management will also be available beyond editing files also.

Again, a great current user interface example of editing and folder management is currently implemented with the Notebooks iPhone app. I’m sure these are completely different types of apps, but these are merely hopes and wishes that would make any future DEVONthink iPhone app perfect. Even the standard iPhone Mail app does not have these folder management capabilities yet.


I forgot to add another tip to keep the databases small. Do not use thumbnails in the database. Cover flow, Quick Look, and the Split View can make up for this in version 2.0. The Ajax Web 2.0 browser interface and iPhone web app do not use thumbnails anyway.

As indicated in the forum thread below, the Global Inbox is giving me Dropbox Sync grief as well. Especially as I’ve come to love the iPhone web app, and as it is now, all new notes get put into the Global Inbox as the only choice. I’ve totally deserted my use of the Notebooks iPhone app at this point. I’m much more productive and creative right now despite these sync issues.


I’ll give those suggestons a try. Backup, backup, backup. Productivity is always about giving up 1 unit to gain many more later.


I want to thank everyone for letting me share my workflow here. I’m just about to bring online several blogs and websites, but I haven’t gotten around to them just yet. I had to get my DEVONthink system in order first. All my future sharing about DEVONthink and technology will take place there, and I have much more to share with those who are of like mind.

I finally figured out a workaround for the global inbox sync problems. The root problem is that the global inbox folders cannot be placed in the Dropbox for “two-way sync.” I tried the symbolic link method as indicated in the link above. It only gave me a “one-way sync.” I only have very basic skills with Terminal, sorry.

Anyway, what works for me is to understand that in a Dropbox/DT sync workflow the global inboxes are completely mutually exclusive within each computer being used. Put another way, as long as I open the DEVONthink application without opening up any databases, I will not have any conflicts between two completely different global inboxes.

I now set my startup preferences to “Open new window” and without a default database. By doing this no “DEVONthink.lock” file is created for Dropbox linked databases and the likelihood of conflicts is practically zero.

However, there can be “DEVONthink.lock” files created for the global inboxes, but these are mutually exclusive as seen below. They are completely separated with no chance of conflicts with Dropbox. So even with two simultaneous global inboxes open, there will be no warning that the “Database is already in use.”

This mutual exclusiveness can be quiet good in terms of freedom from conflicts. Especially in terms of the Destination preference below:

That means two computers can be used simultaneously to “add” to DEVONthink via bookmarklets, drag/drop, etc. without conflicts.

Or, on the other hand, as seen in the preference above, one can add to any shared Dropbox database, so long as only one computer is using the database at any given time. It’s a win/win due to the flexibility.

You may ask, “Well if the global inboxes are independent, how would one access the information on the “other” computer’s global inbox since it is not synced?” That’s where MobileMe Back to My Mac comes in again. I can just use screen sharing to manipulate that global inbox directly.

So here is my workflow in action based on the realities of the current DEVONthink/Dropbox betas. I have a Mac Mini Web server that is run at all times. Using the iPhone, I can browse, read, or search my entire database with ease. I can easily add, but not review any new notes. These new notes go to the global inbox of the Web server with no concerns of conflicts.

Depending on the destination settings of my other Macs, I can have independent additions to the global inboxes of each respective Mac, or I can use Back to My Mac to close the Dropbox database file running on the web server thus allowing me to add to the synced database. I can even use the Ajax Web application from Safari as an interface also. It’s quite polished and extremely stable and fast.

I have come to love this workflow. I find that what’s important for me is to reflect/analyze past data, and to be able to spontaneously add new analyses and conclusions. Editing is not a big issue for me. Reviewing just written notes is not a big issue for me either. What is important is the time-savings of not having to sync and the ability to have my resources unified and retrievable the DEVONthink way.

Life is not always what I want it to be. Look how long it took Apple to have synced iPhone Notes and cut and paste. But with patience and a basic understanding of how things work, I’ve been able to make a workflow that has enormously increased my creative and analytical energies. I owe DEVONthink much as the software is very powerful, flexible, stable, and ironically, simple.