A consistent criticism of iOS and the iPad is the lack of an easily assessable file system but this is only partially true. When the iPad first shipped in 2010 it certainly was much more limited. But eventually Apple added iCloud which has evolved into Apple’s version of an cloud-based file system and it works fairly well at this point. It’s not perfect but it has been rock solid in my use of it. But, still, time and again, some continue to say the iPad has no file system and no access to a file system. Well, it’s certainly not the full featured Finder that the Mac has and it’s true that it accumulates folders for apps (Mac or iOS) that use iCloud for saving files. But, it IS a file system.
There are different methods to access iCloud files. From within an app is probably the most common way. By default when I open an iWork app I see that app’s documents as they reside in iCloud. But it is also possible to view iCloud folders via the iCloud Drive app or from the file picker. So, for example, if I want to attach a file to an email I can browse through my iCloud folders. It works pretty well. But in many ways the iCloud Drive app is clumsy and somewhat limited. For example, creating new folders in iCloud Drive app is not obvious. I must first select an existing folder or file and then I am then given an option to create a new folder. Also, customizing the iCloud Drive app is very limited. I can choose to view in a grid of icons or as a column/list view hybrid. It is possible to sort by date, tags or name but not possible to add new tags. There is no way to “Get Info” for a file.
I interact with the iCloud file system (usually from within apps such as Pages or Numbers) on a daily basis and it does work very well in that regard. But it is no Finder replacement. Rather, it presents a simplified, iOS version of the Finder. It’s the sort of thing that will frustrate power users coming from the Mac but be perfectly fine for less technically experienced users such as my granny.
By comparison, the DropBox app feels like a step towards being a Finder replacement. Well, it’s clumsy in its own way but it feels a bit more like the Finder. It does not offer a list or icon view but the column view it presents works fairly well. I can pretty easily navigate through a hierarchy of folders and when I land on a file I get a preview of the file. Even better I can create new folders, add files, etc. Just as I might on the Mac I can browse files and open in their native apps or import into another app. So, I can click on a Word document and open into Word or into Pages. Or I can share it using the normal DropBox method which creates a link which can be shared via email or Messages or any other way I might send text. Or I can export the file and share it as an attachment. If it is a file in a folder shared with a client it’s also possible to have a conversation via comments on the file right in DropBox.
I use DropBox everyday and consider it an indispensable part of my iPad workflow especially when it comes to collaboration. In fact, when it comes to collaboration DropBox on iOS even surpasses the experience on the Mac. For example, commenting on shared files which cannot be done from the Finder. Also, Inviting others to a shared folder or managing the share settings for a folder are all easy to manage from within the DropBox app. All of these things require using a web browser if you’re working on a Mac.
The DropBox app is updated on a regular basis and recently was updated to add support for Split View which is a great addition and very helpful.
And of course anything in DropBox is available on any device connected to the internet. I’m not using my Mac as much as I used to but when I do I know that any files I’ve got in DropBox will always be up-to-date regardless of which device was last used to edit the file. This leads me to one last bit that is very specific to my website management workflow. At the moment I have nearly 20 client sites that I manage. Before switching to my iPad as my primary device I used to use Coda on the Mac and configured each site to have it’s “local” files in a folder on DropBox. It worked very well as I could switch between my MacMini and my MBP and know that the local files were always in sync. With iOS, Coda does not offer DropBox as a choice for the local files. Instead they are truly local files on the iPad but luckily they are shared with Transmit on the iPad. My super easy solution to back-up these files to DropBox? I open up Transmit on the iPad and connect to my MacMini which is always on as my media server. I can very easily sync multiple folders, files, etc. to the DropBox “Websites” folder on the Mac and it all goes to the cloud automatically. It’s not as easy as it would be if the iOS version of Coda offered DropBox as a “local” file option in the first place but it’s relatively painless and a good example of how a local Mac can serve as both a local back-up and a gateway to DropBox.