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A Quick Guide to Dropbox Versioning

One of my favorite features of Dropbox is 'versioning,' which keeps a copy of every change that you make. Every time you press 'save' on a document that's in your Dropbox, a new version is saved.

There are two things I have been wondering about versioning:

  1. What happens to changes that you make while offline?

  2. What happens to changes when the file is renamed or overwritten?

I finally did some quick tests of this, and the answers are pretty straight-forward:

Offline changes will not be versioned. Any changes made to a file while the computer is offline are not versioned on Dropbox.com. The only version that will be saved is the one which is active when you reconnect. So avoid making changes offline if you want to be able to use Dropbox versioning to "undo" a change (or use something like ForeverSave or version control system like git).

n.b. The ForeverSave app has not been updated since 2011, so decide for yourself whether that is an investment you want to make. I haven't tried it or contacted the developer to see if it is still under active development.

Versions are saved by path + file not by the actual file itself. To explain what this means, let's look at an example.

Imagine you have a folder called "/Dropbox/Working" where you store things that you are currently working on, and another folder called "/Dropbox/Done/" where you put them when you are finished with them.

Next, create a file called "favorites.txt" in "/Dropbox/Working/" and put a list of your favorite colors in it, saving after each line. So it might look like this:

  1. Red {press save}

  2. Yellow {press save}

  3. Blue {press save}

If you go to https://www.dropbox.com/home/Working and select "favorites.txt" and "Previous Versions" you will see three versions. But then you decide that really you like Green instead of Yellow, and Blue more than Red, so you change the file to look this this:

  1. Blue

  2. Green

  3. Red

and save it again. Then you decide to move 'favorites.txt' to "/Dropbox/Done/" because you are satisfied with your choices. If you go to https://www.dropbox.com/home/Done, select the file 'favorites.txt' and select 'Previous Versions' you will find there aren't any.

If you want to see your previous versions, you have to go to https://www.dropbox.com/home/Working and select "Show deleted files" (or go to https://www.dropbox.com/home/Working?d=1 which will show the deleted files automatically). Then you can select the 'favorites.txt' file and see previous versions.

Now imagine that you decide to create a new file called "Favorite Days.txt":

  1. December 25th

  2. June 17th

  3. May 28th

and you save it after the 3rd entry.

As you look at the list, you decide that you really want it to be chronological, so you change it:

  1. May 28th

  2. June 17th

  3. December 25th

and save it again. Then you decide that you no longer need the list of your favorite colors, so you delete "favorites.txt" and rename "Favorite Days.txt" to "Favorites.txt"

If you go to Dropbox.com and look at the "Previous versions" for "Favorites.txt" what you will see is your current "Favorites.txt" version, but if you click on one of the older versions, you will see a list of favorite colors not favorite days.

(Note that while Dropbox preserves UPPERCASE and lowercase letters in filenames, Dropbox is not case sensitive. As far as Dropbox is concerned, "Favorites.txt" and "favorites.txt" and "FAVORITES.txt" are all the same file if they were all in the same directory.)

Lastly, if you move or rename a folder, such as changing "/Dropbox/Done/" to "/Dropbox/Completed/" all of the files in that folder will lose their version history. As far as Dropbox is concerned you have deleted the folder /Done/ and created a new folder /Completed/ with new files in it.

Knowing is half the battle.

Personally, I wish that Dropbox was smart enough to keep version history with a file regardless of name changes or being moved to different folders. That being said, I realize that it would add a level of complexity to the service that would not be easy to implement. The important thing is understanding how Dropbox works, and how to get back to previous versions if you want them.

I have been in the habit of saving files that I am currently working on to one folder, and then moving them to another folder when I am done with them. That makes it easier to find everything that is "in process" because I only have to look in one place. However, if I want to keep my Dropbox version history connected with the files, I am going to have to change that habit. (I'm probably going to start putting "@WORKING" in any file that I'm actively working on, and create a Spotlight saved search in Finder.)

One last word on versions: by default, Dropbox will save changes for 30 days, if you want more, you'll have to sign up for the Packrat feature.