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Dropbox Paper (beta) review

Although still in beta, Dropbox Paper is a capable online note-taking tool with a particularly clean writing interface

  • Free; Clean, elegant writing interface
  • No offline editing mode

We got hands on with Dropbox Paper last year, when it was still in an early closed beta incarnation, and we saw plenty of potential in the note-taking web app's ability to quickly create clear and attractive documents for sharing. Paper allows you to collaborate with members of a free or pro Dropbox team, share documents with anyone you choose, and create and sync notes between web and mobile apps.

Paper went into open beta in August this year and in September the Paper mobile app for iOS was released for European users, joining its Android counterpart. We'll be giving both the mobile apps and the updated web version a full review, but bear in mind that, as beta products, we still expect improvements and upgrades to be made as Dropbox gets feedback from users.

Dropbox Paper is free, but you will need a Dropbox account - also available for free - to use it. Although Paper requires a Dropbox account, the documents you create in it don't count towards your storage limits and, rather than appearing as a folder in your main account view, can be accessed via a Paper tab at the left of your usual Dropbox interface.

Although Dropbox Paper has been widely compared to Google Docs, its clearest rivals are Evernote and Microsoft OneNote, both of which are flexible note-taking apps with sharing capabilities. While Google Docs, like Microsoft Word Online, firmly occupies the realm of traditional word processors, Paper doesn't have as many traditional formatting and composition tools, but instead focuses on a clean writing interface, a few simple formatting options and easy integration of features such as variable-state tickboxes, code sample snippets and links.

Just write

Paper enthusiastically embraces the kind of minimalist interface you'll find in many distraction-free writing tools aimed at authors and journalists. Create a new document and you get a blank page with wide margins inviting you to "Give me a name. Now write something brilliant."

A bar at the top of the screen encourages you to add documents to specific folders for ease of filing; lets you add a specific document to your favourites and allows you to share your document with other users, who'll be able to comment or collaborate on your work in real time.

A menu button marked with three dots gives you access to extra features, including a word sound, version history and options to print, download, move and archive your document. Finally, at the far right, icons let you search your other Paper documents, view any notifications you've received, or create an entirely new document, which will spawn in the same browser tab you're currently working in.

Once you've composed some text, to add formatting, just highlight it and a floating toolbar will appear above. While you can't make major changes to font size or face, you have a number of simple options including bold, strikethroughs and headers, as well as options to create bulleted, numbered and tickbox lists, add links or comment on the paragraph. Tooltips give you the keyboard shortcut - if applicable - when you hover over each option. Oddly, italics don't appear in the toolbar, but can be applied using ctrl+i.

If you move your mouse to hover over the left margin, a blue plus sign will appear. Click on it, and a toolbar will appear with options to insert images, embed links to files in your Dropbox and insert a table. The same toolbar lets you add bulleted, numbered or tickbox lists and insert dividers and code boxes.

We particularly like the code boxes, which make it easy to provide clear examples of command-line functions and program snippets in tutorials and software documentation. However, we were slightly disappointed to find that we couldn't just highlight text we wished to put into a code box and create one around it. Instead, we first had to first create the box, then paste in the text. 

If you include more than one line, code boxes also apply line numbers automatically. This feature can't be disabled, which can be annoying if you don't want or need auto-generated code line numbers. However, this is made up for by automatic syntax highlighting - you can also select specific languages to force appropriate highlighting.

Some of Paper's features are almost too subtle. If you create a document that uses H1 or H2 headers, a stack of thin blue lines will appear at the far left edge of the web interface. If you mouse over these, they'll expand into a very useful table of contents that you can use to navigate your document.

Paper also supports markdown options to automatically insert various formatting features, as well of a range of keyboard shortcuts. These are all clearly documented, although we'd have liked said documentation to be more easily accessible from inside the Paper web app.

Insertions and image handling

Placing and resizing images and other inserted content feels a little clunky. Dragging individual images around the page can be slow, and they don't always settle in the position you want them to appear in. Larger photos, such as those produced by most mobile phones, take a long time to redraw as you position them, and rather than allowing you to freely resize an image, its size is always relative to its position.

For example, centered images will typically be larger than those floated to the left or right, and while it's clear that images are positioned relative to a fixed formatting grid that controls the position of different page elements, working out where an image will appear takes more trial and error than we'd like.

Once you're used to it, image positioning works relatively well, but the ability to drag pictures around creates an illusion of greater flexibility than Paper actually has. Images can also be expanded to full width - even beyond the margins of the rest of the document - and if a picture has been reduced in size to fit, you and other document viewers will be able to view it at a larger zoom using a magnifying glass icon that appears when you hover over it. Adding multiple images works better, automatically generating a small gallery layout in which all images can be the same size or one can dominate.

Tables give you fewer positioning options - they can follow the page's margins or extend beyond them, and you can only move them on a vertical axis. They're very easy to work with, though, allowing you add rows and columns at the click of a floating button.

Dropbox inserts can show a preview snippet of any file in your Dropbox storage that Paper can recognise, allowing you to embed fragments of PDFs, spreadsheets, and documents, which will open when you click on them. You can also paste in links from YouTube, SoundCloud, Twitter, Instagram and other streaming and social media services to conveniently embed the linked content in your document.

From Paper's main web interface, you can even link your Google Calendar, and you'll then be prompted to create discussion agendas to go with forthcoming calendar events. However, these currently only extend one event into the future.

Paper mobiles 

Paper's recently released mobile apps for Android and iOS share most of the features of their web app counterparts, from formatting and commenting to image insertion. However, particularly on smaller smartphone screens, we found it easiest to use them for basic note-taking and leaving advanced formatting until later.

You can tap into a paragraph to open a menu bar that includes options to insert images, indent the paragraph and add formatting, but selecting text to apply these options can be fiddly unless you have either a large tablet or a Bluetooth keyboard connected. However, all of the web app's commenting features are available, allowing you and your collaborators to discuss notes on the move.

Unexpectedly, when we embedded a photo from our phone, Paper refused to save the current status of our document until it had finished uploading the image. Like their web app counterparts, the mobile apps require you to be connected to the internet if you want to create or edit content, although your existing notes are synced to the app so you can at least view them, even if you're offline. It's also worth noting that folders currently aren't available, so all your documents appear in a single Docs screen.

Conclusion

Dropbox Paper is an excellent choice if you're looking for a simple note-taking and sharing tool. We're keen on its uncluttered interface and on the ease with which we were able to add images, code snippets and tickbox lists. Everything feels more polished than when we previewed the service last year, although we're still not convinced that Dropbox has found the ideal solution for image handling.

Features that we'd take for granted elsewhere, such as a British English dictionary, are also missing, emphasising that Paper is indeed still in beta. We also desperately want an offline mode for the web app and offline editing in the mobile apps, so we can keep writing even if our net connection goes down.

Verdict 

If you want a clean, capable and free writing environment with strong collaborative working features, Paper is already a very credible alternative to market leader Evernote, which has recently restricted the number of devices on which you can use its free version to just two.

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