The much-awaited Dropbox Paper is here — well, the public beta anyway. We have to admit that it seems great on the surface. But is it? Let’s dig deeper and find out what’s likable about Paper and what isn’t.
1. Unobtrusive Interface and Markdown Support
Paper is super white and super clean. That’s the first thing you notice about it. The only major element on the screen is the toolbar at the top. Formatting options and other buttons pop up only when necessary. For example, when you highlight a bit of text or move the cursor to the beginning or the end of a line.
If you find the stark whiteness of the page off-putting, there’s nothing you can do about it. The good news is that there’s not much getting in the way of your words. You just click on the Create new doc button (the + icon at the top right) and start writing. Paper autosaves everything you type, and it supports Markdown, which we love.
I found the Create new doc button annoying after a point. Every time I reached for the toolbar, I ended up clicking that button instinctively, creating one blank document after another.
Why the formatting toolbar doesn’t have italic and underline options is a mystery to me. You’ll have to fall back on keyboard shortcuts to italicize (Ctrl + I) and underline (Ctrl + U) text.
By the way, the document view we just outlined is not what you see every time you launch Paper. The Docs section is. It shows you a list of your recent documents in a tabbed format. Click on one of these files to edit it.
In the Docs view, you can switch tabs to display documents created by you, shared with you, or archived documents. The sidebar in this section lets you access your folders and starred documents.
2. Rich Media Support
Embedding rich content is as easy as pasting its link in the appropriate location in the document. That means you can now punctuate text with GIFs, tweets, videos, and so on. Paper supports content from the usual popular services like YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook. Feel free to delete the pasted link once the embedded media shows up.
3. Quick Add Option for Files, Checklists, Code
See that “+” icon that appears when you hover at the left edge of any paragraph? That lets you add elements like Dropbox files, dividers, checklists, and even code blocks to the document.
What’s more, you can also insert tables from this “quick add” toolbar. We appreciate that tweaking tables is so smooth and intuitive.
Since checklists are an option, adding to-do lists or tasks lists to any of your documents is convenient. To assign a particular task to one or more people, @mention them right next to the task.
Want to add a link to one of your Dropbox files when you’re in the middle of typing? You don’t have to bring up the “quick add” toolbar to do so. Type “+” and start typing the name of the file. You can then choose it from the autocomplete list that appears. Hit Enter to insert a link to that file right there.
4. Beautiful Image Galleries
To begin with, Dropbox has made it effortless to add an image (or ten!) to your Paper document. You just drag and drop the image where you want it to appear. Click on the image and you’ll get a few alignment options. Select it and hit Delete to make the image go away.
Here’s the interesting part: When you add multiple images, Paper arranges them in a sharp-looking gallery right there. If you want to delete any image from the set, go ahead — you don’t have to worry about messing up how the gallery looks. Paper will rearrange the images to keep the gallery looking inviting as ever. I did have trouble adding portrait-sized images to Paper. They just wouldn’t show up.
Of course, the galleries will only be as beautiful as the images you add to them, so you might want to work on perfecting your images.
5. Simple Collaboration Setup
To invite team members to collaborate on a document, hit the big blue Share button in the toolbar. This gives you a pop-up box from which you can invite people using their email addresses. Look for the tiny Link settings link in this box. It allows you to tweak document permissions i.e. who can access the document and whether they can edit it or only comment on it.
Commenting is also simple. When you hover over the right edge of paragraphs, a speech bubble shows up. Click on it to bring up the comment box, and type away.
Find text-only comments too boring or not expressive enough? Paper understands your dilemma, and lets you add emoji and cute, animated stickers to liven things up.
You can bring any specific part of a document to someone’s notice by leaving an @mention there. This notifies that person, and sends her an invite to join in if she’s not already a collaborator. If you have received an invitation yourself, you can preview the document, but can’t edit or comment on it unless you sign in to Dropbox.
#hashtags also work in Paper. Use them in any document and they turn clickable, allowing you to narrow down Paper documents containing that hashtag in a single click.
6. Full Text Search
With Paper’s search mechanism, you can search for a document based on keywords present in its title or anywhere in the text it contains. You can also filter documents based on the author’s name. Look for the magnifying glass icon in the toolbar to start a search.
7. Keyboard Shortcuts
Paper has a decent number of keyboard shortcuts. You’ll find them listed in the Keyboard shortcuts section hidden behind the ? icon at the bottom right in any document.
You might already be familiar with the formatting and Markdown shortcuts. Take the time to learn the ones for editing and commenting. It will help you fly through document editing without jumping back and forth between the mouse and the keyboard.
On a side note, you might also want to explore keyboard shortcuts in other web apps.
8. Ease of Tracking Revisions
Paper keeps document versioning simple. Click on the More icon (three dots) next to the Share button in the toolbar and select View history from the dropdown menu that appears. This displays a pop-up window where you’ll be able to see all the changes made to the document as well as the comment history.
If it’s the word count that you’re looking for, you’ll find that option as well in the More dropdown menu.
Tracking the edits made to a document by each collaborator can get messy. Paper gets past this problem by adding attribution to text snippets where required. The author’s name appears to the left of the text he has contributed, even if he has pasted it from elsewhere.
9. Painless Section Navigation
Documents, especially the ones that go on for pages and pages, can be a pain to navigate. With Paper, you don’t have to waste time scrolling up and down to find the section you’re looking for. Hover the mouse over the left edge of the screen and a sidebar with an index slides out. Click on any of the headers or sub-headers in that list and off you go to that section. Handy!
— John Canelis (@jcanelis) September 2, 2016
10. Unlimited Documents, Unlimited Version History
Anything that’s not gnawing away at your Dropbox storage is great, right? Paper documents don’t count toward the storage limit, so you can create any number of them. Also, regardless of which Dropbox plan you’re on, your document history goes back all the way to when you first created the document.
Of course, we can’t guarantee that Dropbox won’t put a cap on the number of documents and/or versions in future.
11. Easy Switch Between Work and Personal Accounts
When Dropbox introduced the Teams feature a while ago, it gave you the option to pair your work account with your personal Dropbox account. If you have done that, you can switch between your Work and Personal accounts to use Paper. To access this toggle option, open Dropbox Paper and click on the tiny left arrow at the top left of the page (next to the Dropbox logo). This takes you to the activity stream, where you’ll see the Work and Personal options at the bottom of the sidebar.
Okay, being able to see both my work and personal @Dropbox accounts in the same interface is pretty nice.
— (((Area Man))) (@xwordy) December 8, 2015
What’s Missing From Dropbox Paper?
We all know that there’s no such thing as a flawless app or service, so let’s see where Paper could fare better. But remember, this is the beta version we’re talking about. So you’ll need to cut it some slack if you come across bugs, missing elements, and not-so-well-executed features.
The most obvious drawback of Paper is the lack of offline support. If you happen to lose your internet connection in the middle of working on a Paper document, you can’t edit it any further till you’re back online. You also can’t access your Paper documents from Dropbox on your desktop. You have to access Paper on the web.
DOCX and MD are the only file formats available for exporting documents. It’s unclear whether other important formats like PDF and HTML will make an appearance in the final version of Paper.
If you were looking forward to adding custom fonts and such, you will be disappointed. I’m finicky about font customization in document editing apps, but for once, the lack of options hasn’t bothered me.
More header options would have been convenient. Right now you have only H1 and H2 headers, both in the formatting toolbar and in the keyboard shortcuts. You can add H3 headers by preceding text with the Markdown syntax
###, but you can’t go lower than H3.
If the convenience of Google Docs add-ons has spoiled you, you might grumble a bit that Paper doesn’t come with any add-ons. It does integrate with your Google Calendar though.
Dropbox Paper vs. Google Docs
When we think of online tools for collaborative editing, the sturdy Google Docs is often the first option that comes to mind. So yes, it’s natural to compare Docs and Paper. Given its minimalistic approach, it is Paper that comes across as lacking in these comparisons. But that’s because of our perception and expectations rather than any actual limitations of Paper. I, for one, am loving the cleaner and simpler approach of Paper.
We might need to pit Docs and Paper against each other to decide which one’s the better choice for different people. Let’s save that discussion for another time though and wait for Paper to lose its “beta” tag first.
Will Paper Go the Way of Mailbox and Carousel?
It’s no time to pass judgement on Paper’s fate when it isn’t even out of beta yet, but someone has to address the elephant in the room. Yes, Paper is good. But so were Mailbox (acquired from Orchestra) and Carousel — two Dropbox tools that are now dead.
I’d love to give Dropbox Paper a try, but I’m so afraid that they also shut it down at some point and all my stuff is gone. Should I worry?
— TobiasVanSchneider? (@vanschneider) September 14, 2016
It’s hard not to wonder if you’ll be scrambling to find yet another editing/note-taking tool maybe just a year or two from now if you jump ship to Paper. We would like to think it won’t come to that, based on Dropbox’s current execution of Paper as well as Paper’s potential. But if you’d prefer to wait and watch even after Dropbox comes out of beta, we certainly understand. We would still urge you to give Paper a trial run.
If you have any questions about how this feature works in Paper or that, the Dropbox Help Center is where you’ll find the answers.
Have you tried the Dropbox Paper beta? What gets a thumbs-up from you? What gets a thumbs-down? Share your first impressions with us, you early adopters. If you haven’t taken Paper for a test drive, tell us what’s holding you back.