Using a Micro SD Card on a MacBook for Dropbox

A little over a year ago, I wrote an article that documented how I was using an external drive with Dropbox. Over the last year, I’ve been trying several methods in the hopes of finding the perfect solution.

This article is where I will be documenting my use of a Micro SD card to store Dropbox content. I’m using an adapter that takes a Micro SD card and allows you to stick it into your MacBook’s SD card slot and sit flush with the edge. I’m using this BASEQI adapter and this PNY 128GB card and it looks like this:

2016-05-28 10.09.37

I started researching Micro SD cards and their speed, but quickly had to just say, “Well, this is probably as fast as it is going to get”. My Micro SD card is what is called a “U1” card. Here is a table that shows the different speeds of SD cards, taken from sdcard.org along with all the logos you will see on the SD card and it’s packaging:

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 3.34.53 PM.png

As it turns out, it wasn’t as fast as it was going to get, since I got a U1 Micro SD card which is 1/3 as fast as the U3 Micro SD card.

It is worth noting, when looking at these speed levels, the difference between the lowercase “b” and the uppercase “B”. When you see 100 Mbps, that means Megabits per second. But there are 8 bits in a byte. When you see 100 MBps or 100 MB/s, that means MegaBytes per second, or 8 times faster.

Now that we know that my new U1 Micro SD card is going to operate at 10 MegaBytes per second, let’s compare this to the SanDisk USB drive I was using before… That used “USB 3” (yes, there is a difference between USB and USB 3 – USB 3 is loads faster). Since my U1 Micro SD card is 10 MB/sec, and USB 3 was a minimum of 100 MB/sec, I already know that this is going to be at least ten times slower.

However, USB 3 can burst up to 640 MB/sec, so while my 10 MB/sec Micro SD card is guaranteed to be at least 10 times slower – it could be 64 times slower…

USB 3 can range anywhere between 100 MB/sec to the theoretical maximum of 640 MB/sec. So right off the bat I know that my Micro SD card won’t operate as fast as the previous USB 3 SanDisk drive. If you can find a Micro SD card that is U3, you’ll be at least three times faster than a U1 Micro SD card.

In summary:

  • USB 3 – 640 MegaBytes per second
  • U3 Micro SD – 30 MegaBytes per second
  • U1 Micro SD – 10 MegaBytes per second

 


 

But I’m using this for Dropbox, so does any of this even matter?

 


 

On day one, it felt like it was going to matter, and that this Micro SD card just wasn’t going to work. Moving large volumes of files from the USB 3 drive to the Micro SD card took a really long time. And when I say a really long time, I mean that it took the better part of a day (closer to 18 hours than 1 hour).

I also felt like it was slowing the whole MacBook down. Over the next few days I decided to change Dropbox’s Selective Sync for a couple of folders. I wanted to have as much of my Dropbox on my SD card as I could, so I began downloading large, multi-gigabyte folders to the Micro SD card that I didn’t have on the old USB drive.

This took longer than I expected. Moving Dropbox from my USB drive to the Micro SD card was one thing, but downloading just one 2GB folder from Dropbox took the better part of a day on very high-speed internet.

I started out using exFAT as the file format on the Micro SD card, but quickly reformatted that to OSX Extended since I had read that it made a big difference in speeding up access to an external drive.

I asked over on StackOverflow to see if the format of the SD card played a big role in the speed of the card. I was thinking that the internet speeds weren’t the problem, so possibly it was an IO issue on the card, but the consensus was that the formatting of the drive doesn’t have as much to do with the drive speed (ie: USB3 is faster than Micro SD U3 is faster than Micro SD U1).

I’d like to experiment with exFAT, OSX Extended, and OSX Extended Journaled, running speed tests on the drives with each format, but I’m worried about how much time it will take.🙂

As of today, I’ve synced everything that I have room to sync from Dropbox. I have about 5GB free on my 128GB Micro SD card. But now that I’m done with the most of my syncing, the MacBook is performing normal again. I intend to leave things for a while and see how they are doing, but as of now, it seems like this is an acceptable solution once you have a chance to get everything synced up.

 

UPDATE: June 5, 2016

I’ve been experimenting with something that I was confident was going to be a failure: running applications from the Micro SD card. I had done this on the USB 3 drive, so I thought I would give this a chance on Micro SD as well.

The first application I moved over was pretty lightweight and low-usage: flux. Flux helps to adjust the color of your screen so that you get warmer tones as you get later into the night. That worked out very well, and I never even noticed a change in the way things loaded.

With the success of Flux under my belt, I decided to do something drastic: I moved Google Chrome over to the Micro SD card. Google Chrome is my primary web browser, so I was sure this would be a total bust, but… here it is, a day later and, believe it or not, I’m updating this blog post in Google Chrome on the Micro SD card. I don’t really understand why, it works exactly as fast as when it was on the SSD hard drive.

I’m going to try moving more CPU-intensive apps over to the Micro SD card. It would be interesting if something like Photoshop or Garageband could run off of the Micro SD. I kind of doubt that would work, but I’ve obviously been wrong before. We’ll see.

UPDATE: June 8, 2016

For the past few days, running Dropbox on this Micro SD card has been working out perfectly. So I decided to add applications to the Micro SD card to see how well they could run on it as well. I found a problem that you should be aware of…

I took an overnight trip and took a lot of photos on my smartphone; I knew these were going to need to get synced up with Dropbox, so when I came home, I opened up my MacBook and watched to see what would happen.

Well, it turns out that Dropbox went to work right away to sync the new photos to the Micro SD card. HOWEVER, I had just moved Google Chrome to the Micro SD card. As it turns out, while Dropbox was downloading the new photos, Google Chrome wouldn’t even load.

Now then, I need to go back and clarify exactly what is happening here, because this setup does in fact work pretty well if you aren’t doing what I am doing.

So I was trying to use Dropbox with a U1 Micro SD card as the storage location, AND have applications that I would run directly from the same U1 Micro SD card to save space on my MacBook’s internal SSD.

As long as Dropbox isn’t syncing data and downloading files, this works flawlessly. I have been able to even run Google Chrome from the Micro SD card without any noticeable change in speed. But while Dropbox is downloading data, any application on the Micro SD card will not operate at an acceptable speed.

UPDATE: September 22, 2016

Pay attention to the speed of the Micro SD card, or you will regret it later. Here is proof:

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-6-09-17-pm

I’m just trying to copy 650MB to this Micro SD card and it says it is going to take 17 minutes. This would already be done if I was using the USB 3…

UPDATE: October 27, 2016

Lately I’ve been thinking that my MacBook isn’t getting a good wireless signal over in this part of the house. I don’t know for sure, but I had a hunch that maybe the kids were watching Netflix and with all the streaming going on, maybe it was slowing down my MacBook…

I’m inclined to say I was wrong about that.

I happened to look at the storage used on the Micro SD card for Dropbox and noticed that I had less than 3 GB left on my 128 GB card (they generally say that you should reserve 10% of any hard drive or disk – and that’s on any computer…)

It’s kind of like riding in a van: if there are 3 or 4 people in your minivan it isn’t a problem. But if you have 8 or 9 adults in your minivan, it is packed. You’re going to feel every movement of the person next to you. And the person behind you will feel like they are breathing down your neck.

The same is true for this Micro SD card. Remember that _MY_ Micro SD card is the slowest of the bunch, so your’s might be faster, but if it is over 90% full, you’ll want to upgrade. I’m looking into it now.😀

Alfred 3 is Out and It Rocks

I’ve been playing around with the latest version of Alfred 3 and I have to say it is yet another amazing upgrade to my all-time favorite Mac App. This app defines “Approductive”!!

I’m going to be testing out all of the features and plan to update this post as I go. Be sure to check out their blog post for all the new features and updates. But to get the ball rolling, here is the first thing that everyone should setup in Alfred 3.

Auto-Expanding Snippets

Alfred 2 had a Snippets manager, but in order to use a Snippet, you had to either open Alfred, type “snip”, then select your snippet; OR, you’d have to memorize a keyboard shortcut that would launch the snippet. There might have been easier ways, but it was never quite easy enough for me to go all in and use it.

In Alfred 3, they’ve upgraded this in a big way. They now provide, “Auto-Expanding Snippets”. If you are familiar with TextExpander, you know what this is. Imagine a text shortcut that you type anywhere on your Mac, like “ddd”. Whenever you type this, wherever you type this, you would hear a pop! sound and then you would watch the “ddd” get erased and then you could watch today’s date get inserted like this “2016/05/23”. It was like magic. Alfred 3 now provides this functionality, and it works perfectly! Here is a demo of one using “appp” to fill in “approductive.wordpress.com”:

 

 

app-wp-snippets

If you are on the fence about getting the Power Pack, let me be the one to give you the nudge and go for it. It is well worth every cent!

See more at https://www.alfredapp.com/

Finally, an ergonomic mouse that is easy to use

I’ve played around with different forms of input over the years. A Magic Mouse, a Magic Trackpad, and many other types of mice. With every new approach there are usually tradeoffs. Overall, I’m generally very satisfied with just about anything made by Logitech, but their trackball mice have never worked for me.

I’ve always liked the idea of an ergonomic mouse, but I’ve always found them either too hard to use, or they caused more pain than a normal mouse. About a year ago, I started noticing some occasional pain after using my mouse at work, so I decided to see what was on the market.

The Logitech M570 takes a different approach from other ergonomic mice. There is a trackball, but only for your thumb. The left and right clicks are pretty normal placements as a regular mouse, so your fingers don’t have to learn anything new. And the thumb trackball took me no time to get used to. Other ergonomic mice have taken me several days; with the M570, I was using it right away.

top view

The view from the top

front view

The view from the front

in use

The hand rests very naturally on the mouse

The mouse sits stationary, and I find that I can rest my hand on it comfortably. And, most importantly, no more pain.

Magnifying Lamp

I’m going to diverge from the norm here just a bit to point out something that I’ve had at my desk for the past six months that has come in surprisingly handy. While this isn’t an “app”, in keeping with the spirit of this site’s theme, this actually does make a lot of little tasks More Productive.

Before I go any further, I have to add a disclaimer:

Yes, this is pretty fucking dorky; but like a fanny-pack, its so fucking convenient. But the good news is, you don’t have to wear this one in public. This one can be safely hidden away at home.

Last July I took the family on our first trip out of the country (we live in the US). My kids were super excited to be “crossing the border” for the first time as we made our way into the frozen unknown of Canada (which turns out to be not so frozen and is actually very well-known).

Travelers note: always do a Google search for holidays and activities happening around the time of your travel plans.

We arrived in Toronto, Canada in late June, just in time for Canada Day, one of the biggest holidays of the year.:/ And while the timing could not have been worse, our experience could not have been better.

One of the treasures I found while in Toronto was a well-known shop for electronics hobbyists called Active Surplus. This place was simply amazing. Sadly, it has since shut its doors.

Imagine a warehouse where some baby boomer just threw away a ton of useful electronics components because they thought it was “a ton of junk”. And then imagine that some kind of futuristic robot automatically sorted everything into neatly organized bins in a way that you could casually and satisfyingly browse the isles, slowly plucking the fruit from the vines and tossing those unwanted treasures into your basket for mere pennies.

This was Active Surplus.

My wife stayed in the car (van) while I walked inside for a few minutes and I quickly realized the mistake I had made. I should have planned a separate solo-outing, not some “I’ll just pop in” kind of visit.

I hurriedly picked up a lot of great things, but one thing in particular that I found (and the point of this long story) was a Magnifying Lamp.

I picked up the Eaglestar Pro 22W Fluorescent Lamp, which has served me well, for about $50. This isn’t intended for an office, unless you work on electronics all day, but at home, this is extremely handy. You clamp this magnifying lamp onto the side of your desk and lighted magnification is literally at your fingertips. Some of the things you’ll love about a device like this is that it doesn’t require turning knobs or adjusting. You just pull the magnifying glass where you need it and it stays in place.

The Eaglestar Pro is now discontinued, but a very similar model (equipped with LED lighting instead of fluorescent) is on Amazon. It is made by Brightech (I’m not sure if Brightech is a new version of Eaglestar, but these are very similar models). They call it the “Lightview Pro“. I call mine the “Canadarm” because I had just finished reading Chris Hadfield’s book.

My “Canadarm” has amazing optics and really nice lighting, and I have it mounted on my desk right by my laptop. Being able to simply grab it and click on a bright light and see things under magnification has been surprisingly useful. I originally thought I’d be using it on electronics projects, but in the past six months it has served many purposes:

  • An amazingly clear close-up view when soldering. And it is super easy to position even while soldering. Something a ‘third hand’ doesn’t do well.
  • Reading part numbers on all sorts of things. Etchings, carvings, small print, etc.
  • Helping the kids repair their cheap electronics
  • Reading the numbers on battery cells
  • Removing unwanted splinters🙂
  • And you can point it up at the ceiling for some supplemental lighting

I had actually been in the market for one of these before we took the trip, and when I saw the box, I knew I had to have it; part souvenir, part utility, but something I don’t plan to remove from my desk anytime soon. If ever.

The Ideal Dropbox Setup for External Hard Drives

The problem:

  • You have a MacBook or PC with a hard drive that isn’t big enough for your entire Dropbox account.
  • You have this shiny external hard drive that could hold your entire Dropbox account with space left over.

The solutions that DON’T work, or that I don’t want to use:

  • Symlinks inside your Dropbox. I’m not going to bother providing links to examples. They are everywhere. This. Doesn’t. Work.
  • Some third-party tool that assures you it will be around forever.
  • Moving your Dropbox root folder onto the external hard drive. Because if I left my laptop attached to my external hard drive all the time I wouldn’t have purchased a laptop.

The only solution that actually does work:

  1. Create a new user account on your MacBook or laptop. (you could even give it a username of “Dropbox”.
  2. Setup Dropbox, signing into Dropbox with your account, but change the Dropbox root location to your external hard drive.
  3. Don’t log out. On a mac you can “switch users” so that this account on your MacBook stays logged in and keeps syncing your Dropbox. Switch back to your user account.

Benefits:

  • You still have Dropbox in your home folder, and you still have Selective Sync. The storage on your internal drive is unchanged.
  • With your external drive mounted, you can now see all of your Dropbox.
  • I haven’t confirmed this, but I believe it uses LAN sync.
  • UPDATED on 2/13/2016: One of the commenters, Bob, pointed out in the comments below that you don’t need to worry about changing file permissions on any of the files in your Dropbox folder on the external drive either. OSX will treat any changes to files on an external drive as being changed by the current user. So there is no need to do any kind of massive file ownership change to what is on your external drive. Really great tip that I honestly hadn’t thought about when I started this project!

Un-mounting the external drive:

If you ever unmount your external hard drive, your Dropbox folder is unchanged. When you switch over to the other user account, Dropbox throws a nice warning that simply says “Your Dropbox folder is missing.”

Dropbox doesn’t delete files from your account, and it doesn’t go about creating duplicates. It simply says “I can’t work like this” and waits until you remount the hard drive.

UPDATE Spring 2016:

I wrote this post a year ago, and during that time I found a solution that is much simpler. It may not work for everyone, but if your entire Dropbox account has less than 128GB, this might just work…

I no longer attach an “external” drive, nor do I create a separate Dropbox user account. Instead I use a very tiny form factor USB drive. This USB drive stores 128GB and fits so snuggly into my USB port that I leave it in all the time. It is the SanDisk Ultra Fit 128GB. I got it when it first went on sale for $29.99, and in the past three months it has been holding steady at that price range.

Since my entire Dropbox account is less than 128GB, I just let it all sync to the drive and I never have to worry about it. By the time my drive is larger than 128GB, I’m hoping they’ll have a 256GB model available.🙂

2016-02-05 18.57.10

UPDATE: April 2016

Dropbox is working on a new prototype that might help, but it is probably a long-way from being available to most of us. The idea is that you can see the files you have on Dropbox without actually downloading them to your device. Imagine “Selective Sync” but still showing the files you chose not to download (very similar to how Dropbox works on an iPhone or an Android device).

Here is the article:

http://www.macworld.com/article/3061181/data-center-cloud/dropbox-wants-to-stretch-desktop-file-storage-to-infinity.html

 

UPDATE: End of May, 2016

I have found that a USB port permanently occupied has been an inconvenience since there are only two USB ports on the MacBook. I’m currently experimenting with using the SD card slot instead (You can see the MacBook’s SD slot in the photo above). I never use the SD card, but I’ve had several occasions where I needed another USB port available.

A normal SD card would stick out of this port, but I have found a couple of interesting SD adapters that are designed specifically for the MacBook and, when inserted, are flush with the edge.

My first attempt didn’t work, because I glossed over the description on this adapter and didn’t realize that a “MacBook Pro 15 inch” wasn’t going to be the same size slot as is on the MacBook Pro 13 inch that I own. So pay close attention when ordering online and make sure that you are getting a Micro SD card to SD card adapter that was made for your specific MacBook.

2016-05-27 21.50.42

That one was about $8, and unfortunately, the cheapest deal I could find for my MacBook was this adapter and it cost around $25. Ultimately though, if it isn’t flush with the edge of the MacBook it will get bumped and knocked out, so it has to be a perfect fit.

I’m waiting for the new adapter to arrive, but I’ve gone ahead with the Dropbox migration. I purchased this 128GB Micro SD card and was using the rsync command to copy files from the USB Dropbox drive to the new Micro SD Dropbox drive.

I ran into some issues where rsync failed and gave some errors, and I think it may have been because the Micro SD card uses the exFAT file system as its default partition type. I started over and formatted the MicroSD card to use OSX Extended (since that is how I had formatted the USB drive) and rsync has been copying without any errors so far. It is still too early to say for sure if this is going to be a working long-term solution, but I’m optimistic.

I love the idea that this will sit flush in the MacBook, so I don’t have to worry about knocking it out. And I’m excited because there is already a 200GB Micro SD card that has great reviews, so I have a little more room to grow if I go the Micro SD route.

UPDATE: Late May, 2016

If you plan to migrate your Dropbox from a USB drive to a Micro SD card, don’t do what I did and try to copy all of the files manually. Because when you go into Dropbox and tell it to change the location of Dropbox to the new Micro SD card, it will say “There is already a Dropbox folder there” and you’ll have to delete the folder. Dropbox insists on moving the files for you, which honestly I prefer.

Also, the right SD card adapter is worth the money. This was clearly made for my MacBook! I’m going to be keeping notes as I continue to use this device.

2016-05-28 10.09.37

One thing I’m noticing right away is the speed difference. The SD Card slot on the MacBook is much slower than the USB 3 slot. I ran a speed test for each of the two drives, the the SD card was considerably slower. I’ll consider uploading the comparison. When I saw this Micro SD card adapter, I thought this would be a cut and dry solution, but the speed is definitely a factor. At times my MacBook was crawling. Some things I’ve learned:

Make sure that you format the Micro SD card using one of Mac’s partition types. OSX Extended or OSX Extended Journaled. I was using exFAT originally and it was impossibly slow. After I switched to OSX Extended, it sped up quite a bit.

The slowness affects how fast Dropbox can actually download and sync your folder. Since the IO write times are slower, Dropbox moves slower too. For example, when I open Finder, there is a bit of a lag as folders populate.

I feel like the OS is slower overall, but I haven’t quantified this yet. When I take the card out, it seems like the OS speeds up considerably.

With the USB 3 drive, I created another folder called Applications and moved some of my larger Mac Apps over to the USB. There wasn’t any noticeable change in the performance of most apps. I haven’t attempted to do this with the SD card, because I don’t think it will be able to keep up, but I’m planning to try it. If I could move larger applications over to the SD card, that would be ideal since the form factor can’t accidentally be bumped out.

Once Dropbox gets fully synced, the SD card might be a good solution for Dropbox, but my gut here is that it won’t work well if you have a lot of things that write directly to Dropbox (like 1Password, or using Photoshop with files in your Dropbox).

UPDATE: June 2016

I’m going to start logging all of my notes for the Micro SD card on a new post.

Open Favorite Tweets on the Desktop

I’m a big fan of IFTTT.com, but one thing I missed was the ability to take actions on Favorite Tweets. This was a limitation in the Twitter API, but they’ve just restored this feature, which means I’ll be actually using Twitter again.

What I was doing before was using IFTTT to email me any links in Tweets that I favorite. I use this when I’m using Tweetbot and see an article that I want to read later. Sure, there are services like Pocket, but I seldom use them. And emailing them to myself is fine, but it too is tedious. So I set out to make this a little more automated. Turns out this is pretty simple.

Here’s the IFTTT recipe:

IFTTT Recipe: Open link tweets on my Desktop

This recipe just saves the link in the tweet in a text file in ~/Dropbox/IFTTT/Desktop. Running cat $file | xargs open will open it in the browser. You see where this is going?…

Next, I created a Folder Action Script using the AppleScript Editor. AppleScripts tend to be a black whole, IMHO, so I immediately pass off the AppleScript to a simple Bash script. Yes, its probably possible to do this in AppleScript. I don’t care. If you get it working, I might care, but probably not. You can see the AppleScript and the Bash scripts in this gist:

Four things you’ll need to do:

  1. Copy the applescript to ~/Library/Scripts/Folder Action Scripts
  2. Copy the shell script to ~/bin and make executable with chmod +x open-starred-urls.sh
  3. Attach the Folder Action. In Finder, right-click on ~/Dropbox/IFTTT/Desktop (make it if its not there) and select Services –> Folder Actions Setup… With your AppleScript in ~/Library/Scripts/Folder Action Scripts, your script should appear in the list. Activate it, and make sure that “Enable Folder Actions” is checked at the top of the box.
  4. Profit

Once you’ve set it all up, go favorite a tweet and watch your life fall into place.

UPDATE: I created another recipe, and refactored this a bit so that you can use the same script with a bunch of different services. Here’s another recipe that does the same thing when I star an item in the iOS app Reeder, using the Feedly service:

IFTTT Recipe: Open Starred Items on my Desktop