The last time you sent someone a file from your computer, you probably did it as an e-mail attachment. After all, e-mail is a quick, easy and generally reliable way to transfer a file from point A to point B.
There may be a better way. WiredReach says its BoxCloudsoftware/service combo makes it easy to share and collaborate over files with friends, family and co-workers (as opposed to simply sending them), and it gets around the file size and storage limitations you often encounter when dealing with e-mail attachments or online storage services. Better yet, while the sender does have to download and install a small utility to use BoxCloud, recipients aren't required to use any special software.
We found that in many respects, BoxCloud can be a good alternative to e-mail or online storage for file sharing, but some inherent limitations of its own mean that it isn't the best choice for everyone or for every scenario.
Sharing and Receiving Files
Installing and configuring the BoxCloud client is quick and easy. It looks and acts a lot like instant messaging software — the first step is to set up what amounts to a "buddy list" by entering an e-mail address or BoxCloud account ID for each of your contacts. You can create your own custom groups to organize your contact list by category — friends, family, co-workers and so. If your contact list includes other BoxCloud customers, their entries will show green if they're online and running the software. (For other people, e-mail addresses are merely a means for identification and notification — files aren't actually sent through e-mail.)
To share a file with someone through BoxCloud, you simply drag and drop it onto the their entry in the client application. The file could be in Windows Explorer, on your desktop, or pretty much anywhere else on your system. As soon as you drop the file, a dialog appears to let you enter a description, tags and a message to go with the file. You can also decide whether you want the recipient to be notified about the shared file via e-mail.
You can share an entire folder via BoxCloud using the same method, which is a big advantage over e-mail since the latter requires you to separately attach individual files or compress the entire folder before attaching. If you want to share more than a solitary file but less than an entire folder you can select multiple files before dropping them onto a recipient, but BoxCloud doesn't handle this scenario in the most elegant way because it doesn't let you create a single description, set of tags and message for the group of files. Rather, it processes the files one at a time and prompts you for new accompanying information on each one (which, in turn, sends multiple notifications to the recipient.)
The notification e-mail that a file recipient receives from a BoxCloud customer contains the name of the file or folder and a browser link that takes him to the file via the sender's BoxCloud Web site (e.g., johndoe.boxcloud.com). From there he or she can comment on files blog-style as well as download them directly from the sender's computer. Certain types of files — like images — can be opened in place without downloading first.
File transfers are always proxied through BoxCloud's server, even if the recipient already uses BoxCloud and runs the client software himself. The company says it's planning to add the capability to do direct peer-to-peer transfers in a later version.
E-mailed file links remain valid for seven days, a time period that you can't modify. During that period the link takes you to a file without challenge, so anyone that has the link will have access to that file as well.
After a link expires recipients can still access it, but only if they first create their own BoxCloud account and log into the BoxCloud server, which adds some basic security. Once they have an account, recipients can also log directly into a sender's BoxCloud page to see and access all the files or folders that have been shared with them. (When following an e-mail link, you only get access to the specific file for that link and can't get to anything else.)
Unsharing files is almost as easy as sharing them. When you click on a recipient's entry in the BoxCloud client, you'll see all the files you've chosen to share with that person and you can delete any or all of them (the share, not the original file). We did discover a bug that continues to make a file available via its e-mail link even after you stop sharing it (and even though it no longer shows up when you log into the person's site). WiredReach says it's aware of the issue and is working on a fix.
BoxCloud vs. E-mail
BoxCloud offers both advantages and disadvantages compared to sharing files through e-mail or other methods. For example, with BoxCloud your recipients always have access to the latest version of a file you share, since they're accessing the original directly off your computer. This is much more convenient than sending successive iterations of a file as an e-mail attachment, and a side benefit of fewer e-mail attachments is usually a smaller (and thus easier to manage) mailbox file for your e-mail client.
Speaking of attachments, BoxCloud can be very useful for sharing especially large files — say, more than 10 MB — that can't be sent via e-mail attachment either because of common ISP restrictions on attachment size or limited storage on the recipient's mail account.
Of course, the flip side of sharing files directly off your PC is that they're available only as long as the host system is on and online, a limitation that e-mail and file sharing methods like online storage providers don't impose. Then again, people concerned about data privacy will likely appreciate that BoxCloud doesn't require you to upload and store files on a central server or have attachments floating around other people's mailboxes in perpetuity.
Another potential weakness of the BoxCloud model is that downloading a given file will probably take significantly longer than it would via e-mail. This is because BoxCloud downloads are bottlenecked by the bandwidth of the sender's upstream connection, which even for the fastest broadband connections is rarely more than 384K per second (and often less).
By comparison, downloading an e-mail attachment or a file from a online storage provider can be done at the speed of the recipients downstream connection, which is often several megabytes per second. Moreover, as the sender there's always a risk that someone will decide to download a file from your system at an inopportune time, like when your upstream bandwidth is being taxed by another application (say, a VoIP phone call).
BoxCloud is available for Windows, Mac and Linux platforms. The company offers both free and paid versions of its service, but because BoxCloud doesn't actually store any of your files, the pricing plans are based on bandwidth you use rather than the cumulative size of the files you share. WiredReach says that bandwidth usage is charged against an account not when it's shared, but when a file transferred to a recipient —for example, if you share 100 MB worth of files but your recipients download only half of them, you've used only half, or 50 MB of your quota.
BoxCloud's free plan gives you a monthly bandwidth quota of 100 MB and places Google text ads within both the client and the browser-based download pages. Monthly fees of $9, $24 and $49 banish the ads and increase your bandwidth quota to 25, 50 and 100 GB respectively. The paid plans also let you customize your BoxCloud page by uploading a GIF logo to it, as well as get notifications when someone accesses a file you've shared.
BoxCloud is an interesting product that could use more features and polish (like in how it deals with multiple files), and even the lowest-priced $9 per month plan can't really be considered cheap at $118 a year. We don't consider BoxCloud to be a replacement for sharing files through e-mail, but for many people it may prove useful as a complement to it, especially to facilitate sharing large files, entire folders or collaboration over successive versions of a file.
Price:$9 - $49 per month (depending on bandwidth required) plus free version
Pros:no client application necessary on receiving end; shared files remain stored on sender's PC, so no limits on file size or storage capacity
Cons:sender's computer must be online in order for recipient to retrieve files; download speed limited by sender's upstream bandwidth, handles multiple files awkwardly
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