Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dropbox as a File Server for CHEM 333, But Better

As a Mac aficionado and app addict, I have a keen sense as to whether a particular piece of software will increase my productivity and entertainment levels or whether it will just decrease my checking account balance. Not that it matters since I usually buy it anyway. What can I say? I'm a scientist.  Most of those "scientific" purchases, however, are disappointing; the software falls short of my expectations and many don't even deliver the utility they promise. When I do encounter a gem, there is usually an "ah, hah!" moment that justifies all the experimentation until that point. Enter Dropbox.

Given Dropbox's current popularity, I'm a little late in finding this one, but ecstatic nonetheless, especially since it's free.  Dropbox is essentially a web-based file hosting service, which provides you with 2 GB of online storage space. In its most modest application, users can upload and download files to their Dropbox folder through the Dropbox website using any web browser; there's no requirement to download any software.  The real power of the service, however, is unleashed when the Dropbox software is downloaded onto each of the user's computers. The software creates a folder called Dropbox on each computer where it is installed. All files placed or saved into that folder are then synchronized across all machines that also have the Dropbox folder installed. That's it! There are no special synchronization steps or instructions to remember.  Just use your Dropbox folder like you would any other and changes are instantaneously (well, almost) synchronized to all Dropbox folders on other machines.  Don't always have access to a computer? No problem; just download the iPhone or iPad app and you've got access to your files anywhere you go.  Dropbox even keeps track of past versions of each file, so that users can revert to older versions if they need.  Worried about losing your files in "the cloud" or when your internet connection is down? No need: All Dropbox files are saved locally on each machine.

As if that weren't enough, you can also share subfolders with other Dropbox members. I am currently using this function in my Advanaced Synthetic Laboratory class (CHEM 333). I set up a shared folder for each of my students where they can save their IR and NMR data files (we have a lot of them!). I can open their files directly from my computer's Dropbox folder, make changes or comments if I want, and then save the file. The changes are immediately available to everyone sharing that folder. You can even set preferences so that you're alerted when a change has been made to a file or folder you're sharing. It's been a great way to keep track of my student's progress in the lab.  It's also a much cheaper (read: free) alternative to setting up a file server, not to mention better.  So far it's worked like a charm and students have been quick to adopt the process.

There are lots of useful applications of Dropbox such as sharing pics with friends, URL links to files, and uploading PDF files to iBooks or PubMed on Tap on your iPad or iPhone.  My favorite so far though is the ability to sync my Bookends reference database and all attached PDFs, which allows me to access and update my reference literature everywhere I go. I just moved the Bookends database and associated Attachments folder to Dropbox and voila. Done!

If I've sold you, then give it a try. Click on the link below and start "Dropboxing" now. If you're on campus and need some assistance or want more information on the applications I mentioned above, send me an email or stop by my office; I'd be happy to help.

Start Dropboxing Now!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

CHEM 233 Wednesday and Thursday Labs Cancelled

Snowpocalypse! All CHEM 233 labs are cancelled on Wednesday and Thursday (including afternoon labs) this week. These sections will complete lab 2 during the week of the midterm exam (March 9 & 10) during their regularly scheduled labs and will turn in their report for lab 2 the following week. Students missing their lab Wednesday or Thursday should make arrangements with their TA to turn in the report for lab one by this Friday, Feb 4. Friday labs are not cancelled and will meet as scheduled.