As you may have read in my previous blog post on ExpanDrive 5, it had some great features, but some significant caveats. Now, ExpanDrive 6 is here, released almost 6 months ago (July 5, 2017) it’s had some time to release minor updates and bug fixes. So as a traveller looking to keep my local storage at a minimum while having everything backed up and readily available in the cloud, I’m excited to see what version 6 brings to the table. It comes with claims of being 500% faster and the addition of offline-sync mode. It also adds two new cloud platforms, BackBlaze B2 and Google Team Drive as well as a new user interface.
The question is, does real-life usage actually match the claims? I’d love to hear your experiences. Let me know in the comments at the end of this post! Meanwhile, here is what I’ve found.
There is very little information about the v6 release on their website or Twitter. Even now, months on from its release, the changes are not entirely clear so most of the information in this article will be based on the newsletter they sent out announcing the version 6 update as per the two lists below (also published on their blog here).
All new User Interface
- Fast server-side search
- View old file versions
- Easily get shared links
- Built-in file browser
- Integrated context menus and transfer badges
Super-fast Strongsync transfers
- Multi-threaded transfer, up to 500% faster
- Sync files and folders for offline access
- Google Team Drive & BackBlaze B2
- All-new SFTP & FTP engine
- Support for SMB/Windows file sharing
My main complaints with ExpanDrive 5 on a Mac were it’s inability to handle large files and large multi-file transfers, and the fact that it froze all the time. So has this been solved?
At the time of writing, ExpanDrive continues to offer a free 7-day trial. Once the trial expires, the pricing remains the same as version 5 meaning you can purchase a single-user license for USD 49.95 or with lifetime upgrades for USD 74.90. Additional discounts for multiple licenses and for educational or non-profit users are also still available.
The core features remain the same:
- Connect to multiple storage platforms at once, including most common platforms, with a single application.
- Background file transfers for small files and real-time transfers for large files.
- Native file access just like an externally attached drive.
Supported storage platforms
|Amazon Cloud Drive||Yes|
|Google Cloud Storage||Yes|
|Google Team Drive||Yes|
|OneDrive for Business||Yes|
|RackSpace Cloud Files||Yes|
|Microsoft Sharepoint Online||Yes|
From the list above, HP Helion has been dropped, understandably since it’s no longer being offered by HP, and four new platforms have been added: OneDrive for Business, Backblaze B2, Google Team Drive and SMB/CIFS.
So after using it for 7 days, I’ve covered off all the things I did in my previous tests of ExpanDrive 5 and Odrive that I would do on a regular basis.
What I found is:
Like it’s predecessor, ExpanDrive 6 has a straightforward installer. It’s to the point and doesn’t mess around. During the installation, you can connect your first storage location if you wish, and once it’s installed, the usual ExpanDrive taskbar icon becomes available. Any clouds you have connected during setup should now appear as external drives on your Mac, and you can access them just like you would a USB drive. I did note though as I had connected Dropbox during setup that it seemed to have forgotten my connection and I had to reconnect it after installation. Having only installed it with Dropbox and adding other clouds later, I’m not sure if this is a Dropbox specific issue or an ExpanDrive one. I have noticed throughout my testing though that the Dropbox connection does seem to drop out and need reconnecting frequently. It occasionally happens with other cloud drives but far less often.
From the taskbar icon, you have similar functionality to ExpanDrive 5, with the ability to control your connections and monitor what they are doing, including the new background sync function. You can add or remove cloud connections, eject and reconnect storage locations (useful if they failed to connect for some reason), you can edit the connection settings, you can see any transfers that are currently running, and check for updates.
The interface has had some cosmetic updates that do improve the appearance, but it’s nothing major and doesn’t significantly enhance usability in my opinion. The main thing it adds is the ability to see what files are currently being transferred, giving you an idea of what is happening in the background.
Files mostly seem to upload or download just as fast as Dropbox, Google Drive and Amazon Drive’s own applications. Previously, in ExpanDrive 5, it behaved solely like a native file copy. So on a Mac, your Finder file transfer dialogue is open telling you how long there is left and so on. Now though, there are some differences. The new StrongSync engine is meant to synchronise files up to 500x faster than ExpanDrive 5, which would be a massive performance improvement. It also adds offline file sync support.
Now, I was hoping that this offline file sync support and new sync engine might resolve large file and multi-file transfer drop-outs. In my first tests, it didn’t. In fact, I was going to write it down as worse. Initially, I couldn’t get anything more than about 200mb to sync successfully through ExpanDrive 6. I got the same errors as in ExpanDrive 5 that indicates “some data can’t be read or written” for single file transfers or “one or more required items can’t be found” for multiple file transfers. I found the error even occurred with folders containing just 5 files that were about 5mb each. I tested this moving data from the local hard drive as well as from an external drive on a connection with 40Mbps upload speeds and encountered the same errors. This meant it would still be really unusable for me.
However, after the ExpanDrive 6.1.3 update on October 12, 2017, I noticed that I can now sync much larger files. There is no mention of anything related to this in the release notes, but I was even successfully synchronising video files over 6gb each. The caveat though, is that this is achieved using the recommendation I made in my previous review to have a local file cache that is used to synchronise in the background. So if you throw gigabytes worth of files in, they’ll copy quickly and smoothly. However, it will take time to sync in the background, and until that synchronisation is complete, there will be gigabytes taken up on your OS X drive. It’s a monolithic improvement. I can’t even begin to describe how brilliant it is. It just means being aware of how it functions to ensure you don’t fill up your Mac hard drive accidentally.
One other thing I noticed is that when working with smaller files directly on ExpanDrive 6, it worked much better than in version 5. For example, I was able to open a 12mb PSD file and edit it in Photoshop without waiting long and without it causing the entire computer to freeze. Instead, just Photoshop freezes while it waits. Offline sync can also help with this by synchronising the needed files first.
In my experiments, I did notice that uploads sometimes seem to show in the new transfer section of the ExpanDrive dialogue as transferring for a long time. I suspect that since there are no options to control the bandwidth usage, this may be to automatically balance transfers so that they don’t significantly impact the internet for other usages, something cloud drives can do if they are left to use unlimited bandwidth.
In ExpanDrive 5, I noted that an ‘untitled folder’ often occurred when creating a new folder on a cloud drive and renaming it. I also noticed deleted files often reappeared. This does seem to occur much less in ExpanDrive 6. However, I’ve noticed that when working with files directly on a cloud server, the files change. You get files occurring on say Dropbox that have unusual names. Sometimes these files are completely inaccessible and appear corrupt. Other times they are perfectly accessible with Finder generating previews for them. Yet ExpanDrive indicates those files are completely synchronised. My first thoughts were that they were being corrupted, however, after further testing, it turns out that these files eventually appear as normal on Dropbox. So I assume it’s part of how ExpanDrive locks the files while they are in use and until they are entirely synchronised back to Dropbox.
It’s a little concerning initially, but it is important to remember that ExpanDrive is meant to replace the cloud provider’s own software, not be used alongside it. In that scenario, it is unlikely you would ever encounter these temporary partially synchronised files.
Within applications, file and folder access is native as it was in ExpanDrive 5, so in case you haven’t read my previous post, this means that, for example, in Photoshop I could navigate into my drive and select a location to save my graphic. I could also open a graphics file from the drive, just as if it were a USB stick. The caveat here though is, logically, the speed is impacted by your internet connection. So loading a large file, especially on a slow connection would take a while. Similarly saving a large file can take a while. Why? Because it behaves just like a physically attached drive, so there is no visible temporary files or anything like that it is straight to the cloud, or at least, to the local cache and then the cloud. This is another area that becomes a problem with real-time access, especially since there is a risk your large save will fail.
It is excellent, for small files. In practice though for large files, I found in ExpanDrive 5 that I was waiting for a while for it to open and even longer for it to save before continuing on with what I was doing. Even in Finder when opening a folder I had not opened before that ExpanDrive had not cached, it seemed to cause Finder to hang until it loaded the contents.
This freezing of Finder and other applications when opening and saving files was a real headache and seems to have been a significant focus of the ExpanDrive 6 improvements. Previously, I found it can cause Finder and other applications to hang and become unusable for a few minutes, the longest, while I was testing was about 8 minutes on a 40Mbps connection while I was accessing a Dropbox folder containing a couple of thousand photos. The freezing also occurred when first single-clicking a file. In Finder, a single click would result in loading a preview icon for it. So when clicking a larger file, say a 20mb raw photo, Finder would be frozen until it finished creating the preview which of course requires accessing the entire file. This again depends on the file size and the speed of the internet connection. My main comment here on ExpanDrive 5 was that it wouldn’t matter quite so much if there were a delay except that Finder hangs, meaning you can’t use it for anything else in a different window. You just have to wait.
I can’t even begin to tell you how pleased I am that this has been partially addressed in ExpanDrive 6! When opening uncached folders, I find they now load much faster than they did in ExpanDrive 5. I’m talking almost instantly, except for some folders with huge numbers of sub-directories or files. Those ones do still take a bit longer. However, most importantly, the delay waiting for the directory contents to load is not a big deal because Finder no longer freezes while you wait. You can keep using Finder freely! That is a vast improvement and makes ExpanDrive 6 vastly more usable than ExpanDrive 5.
The other improvement is that ExpanDrive 6 now seems to bypass preview generation. This means that when you click a file, Finder no longer freezes while it accesses the entire file to generate a preview. It just shows you the filetype icon instead. This is also a vast improvement on usability. It also appears that a timeout has been put on file access, meaning if it takes too long to download, it will generate an error message. This means you aren’t stuck waiting for that file to process, particularly if it’s a massive file. The downside of this though is that if you are on a slow connection, it can be near impossible to open anything.
I tested this particular function while our internet connection was capped at 256/256Kbps. I know a lot of people are running faster than this all the time, and in Australia, as more people migrate over to the NBN, they are getting unlimited connections, but these low speeds are still a real-world scenario that has to be tackled. Especially if you are planning to use ExpanDrive for cloud access while travelling and never know what the quality of your internet connection will be like. So this is what I found on 256/256Kbps while not doing anything else on the internet:
I could not open a 300kb file from OneDrive or Dropbox.
It just threw an error over and over after every attempt.
In translation, the timeout means that ExpanDrive is not usable on a very slow connection except with the absolute tiniest of files.
As ExpanDrive 6 has added a local sync option, allowing you to download files to your local computer for offline access, you need to be able to remove them as well. This is done in much the same way as the Smart Sync function that Dropbox introduced early this year.
When using ExpanDrive, right click on the file or folder you would like to synchronise. Go to the “Offline Sync” sub-menu and select “Local” to make the file available offline. If you don’t need offline files anymore, repeat the same steps but select “Online only” instead.
Back when I reviewed ExpanDrive 5, the team there indicated encryption is something in the works for a later version:
@darksbane no at rest encryption. Right click integration coming.
— ExpanDrive (@expandrive) October 6, 2016
However, that does not appear to have found its way into ExpanDrive 6 as yet. So in the meantime, you will still need to continue to pair ExpanDrive with another tool like Boxcryptor to make use of encryption.
Memory and CPU usage
With only 7 days in the trial, it does not give much time to test memory and CPU usage, however, ExpanDrive 6 seemed to remain faithful to what I noticed in my tests of ExpanDrive 5. In fact, it’s even better, during transfers, particularly of big files or lots of data I did not notice ExpanDrive using large amounts of RAM and CPU time. It seemed to remain quite reasonable all the time and never seemed to exceed the percentages used by the Dropbox application with similar data.
I have to say, ExpanDrive has jumped ahead by leaps and bounds. As an application it is excellent. It’s still so simple to get started, easy to use, and it just works as though it was always a part of the operating system. It’s great to be able to access all my files across all my cloud platforms as though they are a locally connected storage drive. Even better, it has virtually no footprint on my local storage except while files are being synchronised, or are locally synchronised. So I have access to terabytes of data with a few clicks of the mouse.
The application freezes are not something that can quickly be dealt with as that comes back to actually opening files. If they have to be downloaded, it is going to take longer to open. Fortunately, Finder no longer freezes so this is a vast improvement. For large files, you really need to synchronise them locally first. This makes them totally usable compared to ExpanDrive 5. The downside is that there is no way to specify where these local files are stored, so you have to make it work on your local drive. If you are travelling and don’t want an external drive, then this is perfect anyway. If you have a lot of large files that take a while to upload or a lot of big files that you need to access locally, then this can quickly chew up your local drive. So it’s going to be a balance depending on the kinds of files you are keeping in the cloud and when or where you need to be able to access them.
If you are using the free versions of various cloud platforms to get more space, you could purchase ExpanDrive to bring them all into one application. It works well in that scenario. In my situation where I have 3 terabytes in Dropbox, 1 terabyte in Amazon Drive and another terabyte in OneDrive, comprised of many large files as well as small ones, ExpanDrive 5 was useless. I’m pleased to now be able to say that with ExpanDrive 6, it now works very well and I can use it smoothly across a lot of cloud platforms. The only downside I can see is not being able to specify where to store the local cache. Encryption would also be great, but not a big deal for me.
Awesome work ExpanDrive, awesome work!
I’d love to hear your experiences with the latest release of ExpanDrive. Let me know in the comments below.