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Syncing Apps With Dropbox

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Many Mac users are fortunate enough to have more than one machine. Whether it’s a home desktop and laptop, or a home and office machine, it can be very useful to keep some form of continuity between the two systems. This is easy enough to do with individual files — simply using an online service such as Dropbox or Syncplicity to keep everything synchronized between two machines. But what about applications?

This article will explain how easy it is to keep many popular applications in sync between more than one computer. It doesn’t involve putting all your data on ‘the cloud’ — you still have a local copy if a service closes down for any reason. The steps outlined work for the applications noted here, and may well be applicable to a different piece of software you’d like to keep synchronized. We’ve previously written how to achieve something similar for your iTunes library, but will now take the idea a little further, extending it to other apps.

How Does It Work?

Every application on your Mac has some form of preference or library file — this is where all your application data is stored. What this solution proposes is to store this file on the Dropbox server, rather than simply as a local file. It means that whenever the file changes on one computer, the change is automatically copied across to another machine. When you open the app on another Mac, everything should look the same as you left it previously on the other computer.

Is It Secure?

Dropbox is an extremely secure service, encrypting your information before transmitting it across the Internet. In addition, it supports file ‘versioning’ — this means that if you find that your application preferences are accidentally corrupted or overwritten, it’s simple to revert to an older version through Dropbox. If anything, placing your application library or preferences in more than one location is safer that relying on one sole computer.


Existing Solutions

Many of the applications which are bundled with your Mac are able to sync through Apple’s MobileMe service — iCal, Address Book, Mail, Dashboard and Safari Bookmarks for instance. This works great, and you might not need to use the Dropbox strategy for those applications. I’d recommend sticking to MobileMe for these, as it ensures syncing works well with your iPhone or iPod as well as between Macs.

Getting Started

The first step is to create a Dropbox account if you haven’t already. You receive 2GB of storage for free — probably enough for most simple applications — but you can upgrade to more if you’d like to keep a more data-heavy app in sync. The next step is to locate the library file for that application. For the purposes of this walkthrough, I’ll be using Things, a popular task manager.

The location of the library for Things is at:

User > Library > Preferences > Application Support > Cultured Code > Things

The path is likely to be similar for other applications, and a few examples are shown later on.

Moving Files and Syncing with Dropbox

The next step is a little more complicated. Essentially we need to do two things:

  1. Move the library into your Dropbox folder
  2. Create an ‘alias’ to tell Things where to find the new library location

First, close the application in question — ensure that it is completely shut down. Before you do anything, back up the library or preferences file — I can’t stress enough that you should make a copy of the file(s) you’re planning to move, to ensure that if you make a mistake at any point you’re able to simply put them back as before.

The next step is to move the library to your Dropbox folder, usually User > Dropbox. It should sync as normal.

At the moment, when you open Things it will still look for the library in the original location. This is no good, and we need to create an ‘alias’ in place of the library to point Things to your Dropbox folder. This takes three steps:

  1. Right click the ‘Things’ folder in your Dropbox area, and click ‘Make Alias’
  2. Move the alias which is created (represented by a folder with an arrow) to the original location: User > Library > Preferences > Application Support > Cultured Code
  3. Rename the alias to whatever the original folder or file was called, in this case simply ‘Things’

Here are a couple of screenshots showing a ‘before and after’ view of our library folder:

Showing the original Things folder, before we moved it to Dropbox
Showing the original Things folder, before we moved it to Dropbox
After moving the original folder and replacing it with an 'alias', this is what you should see
After moving the original folder and replacing it with an 'alias', this is what you should see

Opening Things should now work as normal, with the application automatically being redirected to the new location of your library.

Setting Up Your Second Computer

You then need to follow the same process on your other computer. Providing you don’t have any information in the application, delete the library file and create an alias from your Dropbox folder in the exact same way.

I wouldn’t recommend using both computers at the same time as you’re likely to lose data, but moving from one to the other (and closing Things each time) should ensure that your data is kept in sync wonderfully!

Other Applications

Things is simply used as an example here. A few other applications, along with the location of their library/preferences data are:


I hope you’ve found the walkthrough easy to follow and feel confident to experiment with syncing application preferences and data between your Macs. Providing you always back up your information first, there’s no harm in trying the process out with any of your favorite apps.

I’d be interested to hear how you get on, and do let me know which applications you end up syncing on a regular basis!

38 Responses to “Syncing Apps With Dropbox”

  1. Can iPhoto be used in DropBox to sync on desktop and laptop? Sugar Sync cannot. All my iPhoto libraries are on a separate internal HD inside my MacPro desktop and in the “Pictures” folder on the laptop. Don’t understand if an alias is necessary? Or, if it will even work for iPhoto? Thank you. Have been searching for answers for many days!

    • Hi,

      Yes, iPhoto can be used with DropBox sync, I have this configured myself. You can do this in two ways. [1] move the iPhoto folder manually to DropBox then create a symbolic link for the folder using the method above in my original post and put the symbolic link in the original place of the iPhoto library. Or [2] follow this article which shows how to move your library using the iPhoto interface [probably the better option]. You can then choose DropBox as the location for your photo’s and iPhoto will be cool with it.

      Hope this helps.

      Have a good new year!


    • Beverly

      Thank you Luke! I have multiple libraries so my computers are used to having to “find” them in various locations, so it should work that they are located in a different area. Thank you for the link to confirm. I created an alias of dropbox on the MacPro separate harddrive, then put the libraries in it. It seemed to “copy” them into the alias folder and has been uploading for 3 days with about 13 more days to go. It was about 50GB size. I was afraid to use the symbolic link incase I made a mistake that I could not undo, although tempting. Thank you for assuring me that iPhoto will work in DropBox!

  2. I’m a bit late to this thread because I just started using Dropbox. Has anyone tried this approach for syncing iWeb’s “Domain.sites” file from the ~/Library/Application Support/iWeb folder? I’d like to be able to edit my iWeb site from either my laptop or my iMac without tediously copying the most recent Domain.sites file back and forth. Guess I’ll just try it after safely tucking a backup away…

  3. This works great. My only problem is that if I don’t quit Things in one computer when I open it in the other, there is a conflict. Do you know if there is a way to quit Things if the computer is put to sleep and/or it has not been used for certain time? That would be very helpful, thanks!

    • Yes I have.

      Your Billings database folder is located at usersusernamelibraryapplication supportbillings

      I simply moved this to my dropbox folder and then created a symbolic link from the moved folder and then moved this link back to ..application support

      So when Billings is launched it looks for the billings folder in application support and sees a fake billings folder that actually points to the correct billings folder in the dropbox.

      * Creating an alias won’t do the same thing as a symbolic link. To understand how to create a symbolic link go to

      ** I have actually gone one step further and created an encrypted disk image with my billings folder contained in it just for extra security! I of course need to mount this image before I use billings.

      Hope this helps.

    • Important to note that it appears that Billings only edits the data file when it is closed, as opposed to Things, which edits the data file on the fly. This means if you leave Billings open on your laptop, then load it on your desktop, the data will probably get out of sync (and most likely fubarred).

    • Thorsten Knatz

      Obviously I am too stupid to create a symbolic link.
      How do I create one for my Billings database in the Dropbox folder that will link back to the Libary?

    • WillPtwo

      Will, i Just purchased Bento and it cannot see my address book or calender because I am on an exchange server. Bento Support says it is not supported and only sees local databases. Do you have an idea as to how it could find my addressbook and ical? Thanks.

  4. Manuel Aguilar Hendrickson

    I just tried it with Mellel, and it also seems to notice it’s an alias and no the original folder. Any workaround?

  5. Lucubrato

    I tried this for Bento, but couldn’t get it to work. It just hung when trying to load up the database file.

    I know the makers of Bento discuss in detail how the location of the database can’t be moved — part of their stated aim of making it a one-user and one-machine product. I’m not surprised I couldn’t get it working — I suspect that is part of the design. (If we could get around it this easily, I imagine a whole lot of people wouldn’t consider ponying-up for File Maker Pro!)

  6. Marius_Th

    & @doog, dropbox als has versioning, in the webinterface, click on the right side of a file (at the little down arrow) for a menu to pop up, choose to top most item called ‘revisions’.

  7. Marius_Th

    @htiawe: Foxmarks also syncs user passwords, but 1Password libraries are very syncable using dropbox, using the 1Password ‘AgileKeychain’ format and moving that to your dropbox.

  8. Re: Dropbox and SugarSync, I have tried both, and both work well. Of course, Dropbox is free for up to 2 GB, while SugarSync does not have a free plan. But I honestly prefer Dropbox, for the following reasons:

    – in the web interface, you can actually open an html file that is in your Dropbox. With SugarSync, you need to download it first. This way, if I am borrowing a PC on the road, I can still access some of my files that I cannot with SS.

    – Dropbox can handle Mac package files well, while SugarSync cannot (yet).

    That said, SugarSync adds versioning (i.e., I can go back to older versions of my files in the interface), and it certainly has a nice looking web interface. From a resources point of view, Sugarsync seems to use less RAM but more CPU when idle, while DRopbox is the opposite. (I have both running now: Dropbox is averaging about 0.1% CPU, 48 MB Real Memory, 978 MB Virtual memory; Sugarsync is 1.8% CPU, 36 MB Real Memory, 1 GB Virtual Memory.) SugarSync insists on having their icon in the Dock, while Dropbox hides itself far better.

    My one year of SugarSync will be up in September and at that point I’ll need to decide which one to keep. For right now, I’m planning on Dropbox, but that, of course, could change.

  9. Nick Ingrao: Thanks but im looking to share the other bits of Firefox. Such as saved passwords, 1passwd can export the password library but it cant be shared between two (or more) computers live. A dream would be to run Firefox directly off Dropbox, without needing to install.

  10. How does Dropbox compare with Sugar Sync? i need to sync some files between both Macs and PCs, and I hear that Sugar Sync is good at that though I have no personal experience with it.

    Any feedback on SugarSync anyone?

  11. This procedure for Things did not work for me – Things gave an error if there was an alias to the folder rather than the real folder in ~/Library/Application Support/Cultured Code (which, by the way, is different from the path you list in the article – it is not in ~/Library/Preferences/etc.)

    However, that’s ok. You can simply move the folder to your Dropbox, and when you next launch Things, hold down the option key – it will allow you to select an existing library, and you can just navigate to the folder in Dropbox.

  12. There a several comments after the iTunes walkthrough that you link to, asking for more info on where Dropbox comes into the equation for that type of setup. Were those questions answered anywhere?

  13. I use Dropbox to sync my 1password keychain between my two Macs. I have set mine up where I do not use any aliases to make it work. I simply point the app pref or data location to the Dropbox file on the machine. That data appears on the second Mac. Also note that if you are a Time Machine user, it will make backups of your entire Dropbox account on all your Macs. If you do not wish to have 4 copies of the same file, simply exclude Dropbox from your backups on your second machine. This is what I do as I have a PowerMac G5 and a MacBook Pro. It’s just something to note.