Transporter Sync Review

Transporter was a Kickstarter project that was funded with $260,000 back in early 2013. Transporter is similar to Dropbox except that there is no cloud hosting. With Dropbox, even if two people have the same file, it is also stored on Dropbox's end as well. Dropbox is really amazing. It is easy to understand and generally 'just works'. While Dropbox has a 2 GB free plan (along with easy ways to increase it), it's not the cheapest service. The 100 GB plan is $99, the 200 GB plan is $199, and the 500 GB plan is $499. These are all recurring yearly charges. Transporter is aiming to cut your cost by elminating the cloud storage piece of Dropbox. Instead of storing your files on the computer and syncing to Dropbox, Transporter stores your files on your computer, on the hard drive attached to the Transporter (internal or external options), and on any other Transporters tied to your account. I remember when the Kickstarter launched, but I started paying more attention when they starting sponsoring ATP and The Talk Show. Transporter was founded by the former CEO of Drobo and it also recently acquired Drobo.

Transporter comes in 4 options:

1. Transporter Sync - $99

This is a standalone device that allows you to plug up any USB hard drive and make it a full blown Transporter. It supports drives up to 4 TB.

2. Transporter 500 GB - $199

This is similar to the Sync model, but the hard drive is inside the Transporter device (2.5" drive size only).

3. Transporter 1 TB - $249.00

4. Transporter 2 TB - $349.00

These are 1 time fees and there are no recurring costs.

When the Transporter Sync was announced, I decided to go ahead and pick up 2 of them. At work, we have a Dropbox for Business account. While it works nearly perfect, it is not the cheapest. My thought was that I could spend what we pay for Dropbox for Business in a year ($795 for 5 users per year) and buy 3 of the 1 TB models. I'd put 1 on campus, 1 at home, and 1 more at another employee's house. This would give us 3 copies of any data that is ONLY stored on Transporter and even more of the data that is synced locally to computers.

Transporter has no problems comparing itself to Dropbox. On the Learn More page, it says:

Dropbox is convenient for syncing or sharing a few files, but is just too expensive for everything. Transporter offers all the convenience of Dropbox in a private device, with no monthly fees. This means no more juggling multiple cloud accounts to save money or deciding what gets protected and what doesn’t. With Transporter you can sync, share, protect and own it all.

Transporter's marketing message can be summed up with this: We are just like Dropbox. We have a folder that syncs on your computer, but without the recurring fees. What makes Dropbox so great? It's a folder that syncs and it just works. Can Transporter do that?

When I finally got my devices delivered, I immediately went to work setting them up. The Transporter Sync is packaged professionally and contains just enough instructions to explain what to do, but not require a TL;DR version. They are very explicit that it will format the drive when it's plugged into a Transporter Sync. It took about 30 minutes for my drive to get setup and appear in my account. I installed one at work with a 2 TB external drive and then added its serial number and MAC address to my account. I repeated the process at home. It's a pretty simple process and I didn't run into any problems.

I got the latest version of the software (2.4.13) installed on my Mac and it created a special folder that is very similar to Dropbox. I also found the iOS apps in the App Store. I had everything setup, so it was time to go to work testing them. I called a friend and got him to setup an account and download the software so I could share a folder with him. It was a pretty simple process on the web. There is a whole tab of the account center for creating and managing shared folders. The one thing that concerns me is that is allows you to search for users IDs to invite. Why not just force me to know the username or email address? Nevertheless, creating a shared folder on the web also created it locally on my Mac. I dropped 2 GB of movies into the shared folder and it went to work syncing to the 2 Transporters and to my friend. It seemed to get to him slower it than it would with Dropbox, but it's coming from my network rather than Amazon S3. He removed them from his end and they were removed from my end as well. Overall, it seemed to work well. I repeated the test with 8 GB of files with another friend and it worked just as well. The second friend had a Transporter on his account already, so it was replicating the files across 3 Transporters. The only issue I had was that I couldn't get the contextual menu working. It is suppose to work similar to Dropbox where you can create shared links to files, etc. It just never appeared for me. I reached out to the company via Twitter and was asked to file a support request. When I tried to do that, I was told that Transporter Sync customers only get chat and forum based support (odd?). I tried to chat, but no one ever responded. I was told by the system to leave my email and someone would follow up. Unfortunately, they didn't. I'm hoping these type issues are just growing pains for a new company. One of the things I was excited to try was having files appear in the Finder, but not be stored locally. It appears this is not possible on the Transporter Sync (just the models with the built in drives). On a support document on the Transporter website, it says:

The Transporter Library folder, which contains any files and folders that you have chosen not to store locally, is found inside your Transporter folder. However, keep in mind that its contents reside only on your Transporter, not on the computer itself. This is only available to users with a Transporter (Transporter Sync does not support the Transporter Library).

It does offer a selective sync, but this makes the files disappear from the Finder. They would still be accessible for iOS, though. This would keep me from storing my photos on it as I still want to be able to view them on the Mac. I'm not sure why they are treating the devices differently. It's hard to tell if it's a technical reason or not. Overall, the Mac experience isn't bad. It's not as polished as Dropbox, but its shortcomings are things that can be fixed in future software updates. Dropbox has had a headstart by a few years.

Dropbox's iOS apps are quite polished. They rarely crash and can handle moving large files in and out of the app (using 'Open In'). It has automatic uploads for photos and videos. It's also easy to move files to other folders as well. Sadly, Transporter's iOS apps are terrible. It starts out with the icon. Unless my eyes are tricking me, it's not even retina. Various icons inside of the app are also not retina ready (while other parts of the app are). Launching the app is terribly slow because it has to login and reconnect with at least one Transporter. I'd like to see it keep a cache of what files you have and check in on occasion (using the iOS 7 background refresh) to update what has changed. I'm not wanting a copy of all the files, but rather just a listing. While I am browsing or uploading something, it could be reconnecting to the Transporters. I also struggled to import large files (300 MB) to it from another app. The files just never appeared. It supports uploading photos and videos (at full resolution), but not automatically like Dropbox. You can batch upload, though. You can download files and view them within the app. If it's a video, you can even Airplay it to an Apple TV from within the app. Overall, the iOS apps are the weakest aspect of the device. It's limited in functionality and it's not stable (repeated crashes, large files not uploading from other apps, etc). Again, this is software and an update could resolve these issues at any time.

Is Transporter a viable Dropbox alternative? Right now, I don't think so. It just doesn't provide as seemless of an experience. With some improvements to the software (both Mac and iOS), it can be. I like the promise of it. As your data needs grow, Dropbox becomes an expensive alternative. This is especially true for business plans. With Transporter, there are no monthly fees. You own the data and the cloud. In the future, I'd like to see:

  1. Overhauled iOS apps
  2. Continued improvements in the Mac app
  3. Developer support (API is coming) for third party apps to use it for syncing. Imagine if you could get an Everpix style app built on top of your controlled cloud hardware?
  4. Transporter Sync customers receiving the same level of support in terms of functionality and support. Transporter Sync customers currently cannot file support tickets and can only request help via a forum or online chat.

With the Transporter Sync and $99 price point, I'm very interested in watching how this product evolves from a software perspective. With a few updates, it could easily replace the need for a premium Drobpox plan for home and business use.

Update: 2.4.20 of the Mac software resolved the issue with the contextual menu.

Update: The Transporter library folder has been added to the Sync. See this article.