Creating a Virtual Desktop with Dropbox

I’ve been looking for a way to make myself completely device-independent, i.e. it doesn’t matter what device I am on I can log in and start working exactly where I left off. Services offered 100% in the cloud like Google Drive (previously Google Docs) are an obvious choice, but have their limitations – especially since I work in an environment where sharing documents online is still not a generally accepted practice.

The Need

Everyone has unique circumstances and different needs when they are working. Some of us will always have one machine and only one machine, but for those of us who switch back and forth it becomes more complex. Here is a little bit about my situation:

  1. My work environment requires me to use both a PC and a Mac, and running VM’s all the time gets old and sometimes difficult. I need to be able to switch back and forth between the two without skipping a beat.
  2. I work and travel abroad often, and sometimes you end up with a power converter that is fried. A lot of times it can be painful to search around town to find a replacement, but much easier to get your hands on another device.

When I log into each device, I want it to be like I just sat down at my desk and I have everything I’ve been working on. If I left a file on my desktop, I want to see it. I need a solution that will allow me to work on my Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc), save copies, and still not be hard-wired into that device. That’s where Dropbox stepped up and solved my problem.

Setting up Dropbox

The first thing you are going to need to do is to download Dropbox and set it up on your computer. This is a very simple process and you should be up and going in no time.

When Dropbox installs, it will install a folder onto your computer which will sync to your Dropbox online. Anything you place in this folder (as well as other folders if you’d like) will be automatically synced. But if that’s as far as you go I think you will be missing the true value of using Dropbox to sync your devices.

Syncing your Desktop

The trick to getting the freedom you want is to make sure the folder(s) you have synced are the ones that you work with on a daily basis. Most people would say “Well then just sync your ‘My Documents’ folder and be done with it”. This is definitely one way of doing it, but you are going to end up eating away at the storage limits on Dropbox pretty quickly.

Instead, think about syncing your desktop. The desktop is the place where I generally work day-to-day, dragging files around and modifying them. As long as my desktop is synced, I will have what I need to work with.

Change your desktop folder in Windows

Change your desktop folder in OSX

Now you’ll have your workspace available on your machines, and also online through Dropbox’s web interface. I personally keep all of the documents I am working with day-to-day in a couple of folders on my desktop, and archive everything else in a folder that doesn’t sync. That way I don’t have too much syncing and if I need to log into another computer or access my files online there isn’t too much to transfer.

Partially syncing Documents folder

In addition to the Desktop, some users may want to sync their ‘My Documents’ folder. However, ‘My Documents’ can get really large, so the trick here is to sync ‘My Documents’ but remove folders that are normall very large like ‘My Pictures’ and ‘My Videos.’


First, you will need to move your ‘My Documents’ folder into your Dropbox using the following steps:

  1. First, create a folder in your Dropbox folder, and name it ‘My Documents’
  2. Navigate to your ‘My Documents’ folder on your computer, right-click, and select ‘Properties’
  3. Select the ‘Location’ tab at the top, then click on “Move…” and browse to Users > (your name) > Dropbox > ‘My Documents’ – this is the folder you created inside your Dropbox folder.
  4. When you click ‘Select Folder’ it will ask you if you want to move your files (normally I would recommend clicking yes)

Now that your ‘My Documents’ folder is located in your Dropbox, everything is set up to sync automatically. However we have to remove the folders that will have large amounts of data. This is done in the Dropbox preferences:

  1. Start by right-clicking on the Dropbox icon from your menu bar and selecting ‘Preferences…’
  2. Then select the ‘Advanced’ tab from the menu, and click on ‘Selective Sync…’
  3. This will give you a list of all the folders that Dropbox is syncing, however in order to selectively sync them you need to click on ‘Switch to Advanced view’ on the lower-left side. This will allow you to navigate inside folders and deselect the ones you do not want to sync.
  4. Deselect ‘My Pictures’, ‘My Music’, and ‘My Videos’ (as well as any other folders you don’t want to sync)

Your selective syncing is now set up.


This is a bit more complex to do on a Mac, so until now I am still working on getting it working correctly. I will be sure to update this article as soon as I have figured out a good technique for Macs.


Start working

At this point, you should be good to go. Many times I work with 2 computers open and to be able to access current files on both machines makes things much more efficient for me. Hopefully you will find it very useful as well.

What’s your take?

  • Good piece! You can also store your dropbox/desktop in a truecrypt container for an added layer local security.