obr2By Cody Kapocsi — Last Updated: 12 Oct'18 2018-10-12T00:46:07+00:00

Dropbox Paper Review 2018: A Limited Tool with Limited Use

Dropbox Paper

When Dropbox launched Dropbox Paper, it called the program a new way to collaborate, organize teamwork and work from anywhere. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why many have interpreted it as a competitor to Google Drive (read our Dropbox Paper vs Google Docs comparison piece to see why it’s not much of a fight).

In the 21 months since Dropbox Paper left beta, it hasn’t caught on much. That said, Dropbox has released updates to the service, so we thought it was time to open up the hood to see if it was starting to live up to its potential or if it’s just another lemon destined for the junkyard.

In this article, we’re going to cover Dropbox Paper’s features and evaluate its user-friendliness, as well as make recommendations for who can get the most out of it. If you’d like to know more about Dropbox, check out our Dropbox review.

Features

Dropbox Paper looks like a single sheet of paper that goes on forever and accepts many kinds of content.

Dropbox_paper_empty

While its features may seem like a disjointed mess at first glance, a closer look shows that most fit into one of three categories: features for creators, features for collaborators and features for presenters.

Since people in each category will use the program differently, we divided the features into groups based on the user’s role.

Creators

First, we’re going to cover the features that will be most useful for creators. One of Dropbox Paper’s best points is its support for embedding rich media from 29 websites and services in-page.

It offers many integrations, including Dropbox, Google Drive’s apps, Airtable, Trello, YouTube, Spotify, Vimeo and more. There are several of a more specific nature, as well.

For instance, if you’re a designer, you may find the InVision, Figma, Framer, Lucidchart or Marvel integrations useful. If you’re a coder, you might get some use out of its integrations with Gist and Github.

Paper_embeds

If you’re looking for a program you can use to create a document that doesn’t just link to different media, but contains them in an interactive format, Dropbox Paper might be what you want.

For example, a teacher may use it to create a lesson or homework assignment that uses multiple educational YouTube videos in sequence, separated by questions and white space for answers and concluding with a full Prezi presentation. They could then share a copy with each student.

Paper_Youtube

Another cool feature is the code box. Insert one into Paper and, as long as the code is in one of the 32 languages it knows, it will automatically detect which language you’re using and highlight the syntax based on function. While you can’t compile or run the code, the highlights let you quickly scan and keep track of what you’ve written.

Paper also supports LaTeX, a system designed to make it easy to represent scientific and technical equations. It’s also a good for people who would rather type a short set of commands and let someone else, or a computer, make the formatting look good.

Collaborators

For collaborating, Dropbox Paper is about the same as Google Drive. You can invite people to edit a file by sharing it with your Google contacts, adding them via email or posting a link directly to Slack. You can also set whether anyone with the link can edit the doc or only those with an invitation and whether they can comment and share or comment, share and edit.

Paper_share

If you’ve used Google Drive before, this is going to sound familiar. Everyone invited to the document can edit it simultaneously and their position is marked by a cursor corresponding to a color Paper assigns to them.

Paper puts the editor’s initials in the left margin, letting you quickly see who has contributed what to each document.

Paper_collaborate

Unlike Google Drive, you can insert a checklist block, which enables you to create tasks, assign them to contributors, set a due date and check them off when you’re done.

Paper_list

While that is an interesting feature, it lacks the refinement to be useful. Opening a side panel lets you see tasks in the document, but they only appear if they have been assigned to someone, even if they have a due date. That’s an inconvenient limitation and, since you can’t assign and track general tasks, it loses some of its value.

If you’re looking for a productivity app with better features, you may be interested in Todoist, Wunderlist or Any.do. All three have superior task scheduling systems. Both Wunderlist and Todoist can integrate with Google Calendar, while Any.do lets you pull tasks from emails and transform into tasks with due dates.

If you’re interested in learning more about those services, check out our Todoist vs. Wunderlist vs. Any.do review.

Paper does allow you to insert Trello cards, so if your organization already uses that program, you can use its more robust system instead of Paper’s lists. Cards will update automatically in Paper as they’re changed in Trello.

Paper_trello

While it might be a decent tool for note taking, you’re getting no more utility than you would with Google Docs or Microsoft Word. Evernote is a better option for most people, as it has a more sophisticated organization system that makes it easy to keep track of notes. If you’re interested in learning more about that program, read our Evernote review.

If you’re wondering how Evernote stacks up against Google Drive, look at our Evernote vs. Google Drive comparison.

One small advantage of collaborating in Dropbox Paper is that Paper docs don’t count toward your Dropbox storage quota, so your team’s work won’t come out of anyone’s individual allotment.

Presenters

Paper can transition from editing mode to presentation to mode by clicking a button on the top bar that looks like a squared-off YouTube logo.

Paper_present_button

Again, Paper’s main feature is that it’s a digital equivalent of an infinitely long sheet of paper with no breaks. That doesn’t change in presentation mode, so you won’t get defined slides like you might use in PowerPoint or Speaker Deck or the dynamic and relational slides of Prezi.

Paper_presentation

It doesn’t give you good control over what appears on the screen. You can fine-tune the presentation so slide-like features display as you scroll, but that will only be good for your screen. If you move to one with a different resolution or aspect ratio, all your hard work will be for naught.

That said, the rich media integrations mean you can present more and different kinds of things than you would be able to with other programs. If you want to show off the latest app prototype you made in Figma, for example, you can do so with Paper.

You can also embed Google Docs, so if you’ve always wanted to present one, but didn’t want to use Google Slides, you can do so. For the record, Paper lets you embed Google Slides, too, but you can’t show them in presentation mode.

Instead, clicking on it takes you back to Google Slides.

Presentation mode comes with a dark mode that swaps the white-dominated color palate for one steeped in grays. It’s hard to figure out which colors will be switched, though, as you can’t use dark mode while you’re in the editor.

Paper_presentation_dark

User-Friendliness

Dropbox Paper’s most compelling feature is its user interface, which moved editing tools off the top bar. If you want to insert something besides plain text, you click on an empty line to make a pop-up box appear on the right. It has options to insert one of 29 embeddable services, a Dropbox folder, pictures, a table, a checklist, a regular list, a section break or a code block.

Paper_popup_box

There are also keyboard shortcuts for those features, so you could learn them to save time

Most of the integrated embedded media can be inserted by copying and pasting a link to the content into Dropbox Paper or adding a box of the correct type and paste the link into it.

You can edit most inserted content by clicking on it and choosing from the options in the pop-up box that appears above. Some types of content, such as YouTube videos and checklists, cannot be edited after they’re placed, though.

Paper_edit_popup

That said, the biggest flaw in Paper is its lack of word processing controls. You can’t change your font and, while most of us don’t use the hundreds available in Microsoft Word, it would be nice for presenters to have at least a few options. Font sizes are also limited. You get one body type and three headers, only two of which are available in the pop-up.

Highlighting text lets you bold, highlight, strikethrough or link it, as well as turn it into a list or checklist.

You can comment on most things by clicking on the comment option in the pop-up box or clicking on the object and pressing “ctrl + alt + m.” Again, that will be familiar to people who have used Google Docs.

Paper_comment

There’s no native spell-checker in Paper, though, which means you’re on your own. Even professional writers love spell-check because it’s the last line of defense between a brain fart and an embarrassing public mistake. That Paper lacks it is a serious problem, especially if you were planning to present with it.

While you could work around that by double-checking your work in a different program or installing a service such as Grammarly, the fact remains that you shouldn’t have to in an application like this.

If you’re doing collaborative work in Dropbox Paper, odds are editing and checking spelling would fall to one person, which seems like an unfair situation. It’s mystifying to us that Dropbox hasn’t added a spell-checker already.

Dropbox Paper has an app for iOS and Android devices, so you can log in and make changes on the go, but you can’t enter presentation mode on your phone. That isn’t necessary, but would be a nice feature for making sales pitches outside the office.

Paper_mobile

Who Is Dropbox Paper For?

After reading about Dropbox Paper’s features and user-friendliness, you might be wondering who it’s supposed to serve. That’s a fair question, given that Paper spreads itself so thin. You can do many things superficially with it, but few in a deep, detailed way.

Creators

It’s unclear what solo creators stand to gain from using Paper. The absence of spell-check is a serious downside for most people. If you’re creating a text-only document, there are far better alternatives for that feature alone, not to mention Paper’s poor formatting options.

You could try to use it as an organizational device, but you can’t embed anything in tables.

You’re also stuck with the vertical orientation and infinite scrolling, which means you can’t uniquely organize your ideas like you can with Prezi.

Despite all the embedding options, it’s not clear who benefits most from using this program.

Collaborators

While Google Docs isn’t an outright better word processor than Microsoft Word, its collaborative features, web interface and automatic saves give users compelling reasons to use it.

Dropbox Paper could be viewed as an excellent program for group work, even if it falls flat for the individual user.

It is equal to Docs in how easy it is to invite collaborators and goes further in other areas. It’s easy to create and assign tasks to group members, but the program lacks conditional tasks that trigger news on completion and it isn’t robust enough to support a multistage process from start to finish.

The fact that it doesn’t track open to-do items, or include a spell-checker, raises the question of what kind of group projects Dropbox expects teams to work on in Paper that they couldn’t elsewhere. Odds are that better collaborative tools exist in an industry-specific program or service.

Presenters

You could present in Dropbox Paper, but there’s little incentive to do so. One of the key elements of a presentation is controlling what’s on the screen so your audience can move seamlessly between listening and looking.

Paper doesn’t give you the control you need to make that a reality. Scrolling is also far less interesting than the transitions in Google Slides or Prezi.

The only real upside to Paper’s presentation mode is that it lets you integrate so many embedded media types. If, for some reason, you needed to make a presentation that relied on the ability to do so, the program might be worth a try.

Most presenters won’t need that, though, and will want something that gives them more control.

Final Thoughts

Dropbox Paper is a dud with potential, but it hasn’t progressed much since it was released and it’s hard to have hope that it will transform into something more useful.

While it works fine and has a clean user interface, it doesn’t have one function that gives it an edge over other programs. You can integrate many different programs into a single document, but that doesn’t mean you’re gaining functionality you wouldn’t have had if you used those programs through their own websites. The presentation system is under-baked and the absence of a spell-checker makes it a bad program for word processing.

Every feature works, but it remains unclear why anyone would use Dropbox Paper over another program that has similar features, but with greater depth. That’s not to say that you couldn’t get some use out of the program, but it’s not going to be the right one for most people.

If you’re looking for something better, Google Drive is a good place to start. You can learn more about it in our Google Drive review.

What do you think of Dropbox Paper? Does it have potential that we’re missing or is our assessment dead on? Let us know in the comment section below. Thanks for reading.

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