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Secure Dropbox alternative BitTorrent Sync exits Beta

Cloud storage and file synchronisation service Dropbox has become understandably very popular, as it allows you to store files on its servers so they can be accessed from anywhere, and syncs them across multiple devices.

Unfortunately Dropbox was one of the first companies to be named by Edward Snowden as cooperating with the NSA, handing over users’ data and files to the security organisation as part of its PRISM dragnet data collection program. Although it has joined the other large tech companies affected by the revelations in demanding greater transparency over its (admittedly coerced) role in the PRISM program, the revelations are a slap in the face for anyone who thought their data safe with the company.

For those who love the functionality of Dropbox but value their privacy, there are a number of options available. These include manually encrypting your data before uploading it to Dropbox (for example using TrueCrypt), which is quite easy to set up on a desktop, but generally means that you cannot access your files on the go due to lack of mobile support.

Alternatively you can use a cloud service such as SpiderOak or Wuala, which encrypt your files before uploading them to their servers, and have great support for synching across almost all platforms. The problem here is that these are non-FOSS services, which adds to the issue that all cloud based solutions are inherently less secure than using local storage, precisely because files are being stored on a remote server (and are therefore accessible to third parties).

This is where BitTorrent steps in, using the decentralised peer-to-peer technology for which it is famous, to provide a service that has many of the advantages of a service such as Dropbox, namely seamless file transfer and syncing, but without having to entrust your files to a third party.

In a similar way to Dropbox, BitTorrent Sync lets you drop files into a special folder on one computer  (including mobile devices) and either view them from any other connected device, or download them for local synchronisation (including any edits and changes that have been made).

This means that users’ own computer’s and storage systems can be effectively used as personal cloud servers, although it does have the drawback that these have to switched on when you wish to use them. In addition to the increased security and privacy this setup brings, it also means no cloud storage fees.

BitTorrent Sync has over the last few months undergone extensive beta testing, and is now out of beta and fully available to the public. Boasting transfer speeds of up to 90 MB/s (which is much faster than Dropbox as no cloud servers are involved, but we only managed around 3.5Mb/s), BitTorrent Sync has already hit over 1 million users and had 30 Petabytes of data transferred. It is completely free (and will remain so, although premium features may be added in the future) and there are no limits on how much data you can transfer.

There are desktop clients available for Windows, Mac, ARM x64, Linux x64, PowerPC, PPC QorIQ, FreeBSD i386 FreeBSD x64, i386, and Linux i386, and mobile apps for Android (2.2 or higher) and iOS (5.0 and higher).

Using BitTorrent Sync

We downloaded BitTorrent Sync on a Windows PC and an Android phone. When you first install the Windows client it will set up a BitTorrent Sync folder for you, and give you the ‘secret’ (a long string of randomly generated numbers and letters) specific to that folder.

BitTorrent Sync 2

You can create as many BitTorrent Sync folders as you like, then share each one with whoever you like by giving them the secret to that folder.

BitTorrent Sync 3

From the main screen you can manage your shared folders.

BitTorrent Sync 4

To share files with someone else who has BitTorrent Sync installed, you can copy the secret (for example to send by email) or, if intended for a mobile device, generate a  QR code which can be scanned using the device’s camera from within the BitTorrent Sync app.

BitTorrent Sync 5

To sync with an Android phone, download and install the app, then add a folder.

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Choose a destination folder on the phone (or make a new one), and scan a QR code or enter a shared secret (we scanned the QR code shown above) for the folder on the PC that you want to share.

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You can then view all the files in that folder on your phone. If you select a file it will download to the phone and you will be given the option to view / listen / watch etc. it, or you can simply download the whole folder to your phone.

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You can send files from Mobile to Mobile by selecting the folder you want to share, and the app will generate a QR code for it.

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To sync files from the phone to the PC, we simply created an empty folder on the PC, then added a folder in the BitTorrent Sync app on the Android that pointed to the files we wanted to sync, scanned in the QR code for the empty PC folder we had just created.

Conclusion

It did take a few minute of playing around to fully get our heads around the syncing process, but once done we found BitTorrent Sync an easy to use and very flexible tool, for which we can think of a ton of applications (automatically uploading all photos we take on the phone to our PC was one that immediately sprang to mind).

We tested transfer speeds by syncing a 4GB movie file from the PC to the phone (both devices on the same WiFi network, connected to the internet with 20Mb/s broadband), and were quite impressed to see download speeds max out at around 3.7 MB/s, with transfer of the file taking almost 22 minutes. Compared to something like Dropbox this isn’t at all bad (and unlike Dropbox you don’t have to wait to upload the file before you can download it), and being able to easily transfer such large files without any need to connect a cable could a life saver.


Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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