Syncing Files and Mobile Note-Taking

Taking notes at a meeting or class seems like a simple enough task, but what if you want to share your notes or work on them on another device or from another location?

You’ve probably got a laptop and a smartphone, maybe a tablet, or even a desktop at home. With all these devices with screens and keyboards, why not enlist them to help you out, wherever you are and whenever you want?

I’ll give you a quick overview of some of the most popular file synchronization and mobile note-taking services and compare the ups and downs of each.

A quick reminder about security: the UCSF Minimum Security Standard requires that restricted data (e.g., patient health information, data covered by HIPAA or FERPA, etc.) must be encrypted when stored  and when transmitted. While UCSF does not block any of these services, UCSF ITS does not recommend using any of these services alone as a method to store restricted data. One way to secure information is to encrypt restricted data before uploading it from your device or computer. These services do not securely store data such that you are the only person with access to it.

Dropbox (dropbox.com)

Available on: Windows, Mac, web, Android, iOS, Blackberry

Dropbox is the one of the best known cloud-storage services. You get 2GB for free, or 50GB for $10/month. You install the Dropbox application on your computer and tell it which folders to keep synced, and those files are then available on any of your other devices with the Dropbox application. You can also access your files via the Dropbox website, from either a computer or a mobile device. Dropbox also keeps previous versions of files for 30 days, so if you delete something accidentally or want to compare a previous version of a document you can. You can also share files or folders in Dropbox with other people, or make them public via the Dropbox website.

Pros:
+ Seamless syncing between nearly any device.
+ 30-day backup of files.

Cons:
- At 2GB, is the smallest free tier of similar services.
- Paid plans are costly.
- Only synchronizes files, no built-in editing capability.

 

Google Docs (docs.google.com)
Available on: Web, Android, iOS, Blackberry, mobile web browsers

As of January 2010, you can upload any file to Google Docs. This makes it a convenient way to store documents that you don’t want converted to the Google Docs format (Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, PDF, etc.), although converting it will let you edit the document directly from your web browser or mobile device app. Google Docs is a competent editor for simple documents and spreadsheets, and makes it easier to work on documents collaboratively than using Microsoft Office. Another side benefit is that Google Docs will perform Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on PDF’s that you upload, enabling you to copy and paste the text from a PDF into another document. You can now make documents available offline, so you can continue working without an internet connection.

Pros:
+ Does Optical Character Recognition on PDF files.
+ Storage is cheap (1GB of non-converted docs is free, then $0.25/GB / year).
+ Easy collaboration on documents.

Cons:
- Not as full featured as Microsoft Office.
- No method to automate upload/download of files.

 

Evernote (evernote.com)
Available on: Windows, Mac, web, Android, iOS, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, WebOS

Evernote is a web-based note-taking service, similar to Google Docs, but with a greater focus on mobile device use. In addition to text notes, the Evernote application can record voice and photos from your mobile device. Evernote’s main focus is on portable note-taking, rather than syncing individual files, although you can upload and download files using the Windows or Mac application. Evernote’s premium service ($45/year) allows you to access previous copies of your notes, increases the storage and upload allotment for your account, and gives you offline access on your mobile devices.

Pros:
+ Syncs notes, photos, and voice recordings.
+ Capture and edit content directly from your mobile device.

Cons:
- Doesn’t convert or edit uploaded files.
- Many useful features require the paid service tier.

 

E-mailing documents to yourself
Available on: Windows, Mac, web, Android, iOS, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, WebOS, carrier pigeon

This is how we did things back in the stone age, before you youngsters had your “Googols” and “InterClouds.” Every time you work on a document, you save it with a new name (Pie_recipe_2012-01-22.doc, for example) and e-mail it to yourself. It’s labor intensive, low-tech, and decidedly crude; but you get as much storage as your email allows (gmail currently gives you 7+ GB), it’s available wherever you can access your email, and you have a catalog of every single change you’ve ever made to any document you worked on. For bonus points, you can put a description of the changes in the email so you can browse through history of changes without having to download and open the document.

Pros:
+ Cheap.
+ Requires no additional accounts or logins.

Cons:
- Completely manual.
- Mobile access requires a way to open and attach documents on the device.
- Document size limited to attachment size (usually 5mb – 25mb).

 

Please note that these services have varying levels of security and encryption, and you should personally evaluate these before using them for restricted information (HIPAA- or FERPA-protected data, for example). I’ve done some quick research on the four services covered here, but this could change at any time and it is ultimately your responsibility to ensure restricted data is adequately protected.

Service Encrypts storage Encrypts transmission
Dropbox Not to UCSF standard Yes
Google Docs No Yes, when using https
Evernote Not to UCSF standard Yes, when using https
E-mail Maybe Maybe

Have you tried any of these? Let us know in the comments what you liked or didn’t like, or if you use another service.

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