OneDrive for Business - not quite the right solution

I wanted to love OneDrive for Business.

And it should have been a great relationship! There are lots of reasons to love OneDrive for Business. Although it had problems in the past, now the Windows app is stable and fast; I’ve got lots of storage space included with my Office 365 subscription; and OneDrive for Business includes features at no charge that cost extra from other services.

So I committed to Microsoft. During setup, I connected my laptop to Office 365 (technically Azure Active Directory), so I log in with my Office 365 business account. I prepared to use OneDrive for Business as the only place for my files and pictures. It was going to be so great! Word and Excel would auto-save my files while I work. Microsoft would keep my files backed up and safe. The digital future was bright.

But little things kept making us fight.

The jigsaw puzzle was almost complete but a couple of pieces just didn’t fit.


Many Office 365 business subscribers will be happy with OneDrive for Business. The advantages are quite real! You might be able to give up Dropbox or Box and reduce your monthly bills, with confidence that your files are secure and backed up.

But the issues that cropped up for me might affect you too. I decided it was worth it to pay Dropbox for a premium subscription to avoid OneDrive for Business issues. What kind of a special snowflake are you?

The advantages of OneDrive for Business

OneDrive for Business - folder backup

Most Office 365 licenses include 1Tb of online storage space for files at no additional charge. If your business uses Office 365 for mail, you’ve also got plenty of storage space in OneDrive for Business. If you want to use Dropbox or Box instead, you’ll likely have to pay for a license and sufficient storage space.

OneDrive for Business includes one important feature that is not yet part of all Dropbox plans: Files On Demand lets you store files online and browse through them in File Explorer on your computer without using any hard drive space. Dropbox Smart Sync is only included in more expensive paid plans.

OneDrive for Business is deeply integrated into Windows and the Office programs. You can easily redirect your Desktop, Documents and Pictures folders so the files are backed up and available from all your devices. Life is simpler if you can store all your files in one place that is deeply integrated so you don’t have to hunt through the left column of File Explorer.

When you work on OneDrive files in Office programs, they are automatically and continuously saved as you work.

OneDrive for Business is full featured, providing fast syncing, version history, recovery of deleted items, ransomware recovery, and more. The other services offer similar security and protection but the point is that you won’t have to give anything up if you use OneDrive for Business.

The problems with OneDrive for Business

Let me be clear: you might not experience any issues if you commit to OneDrive for Business.

Microsoft’s confusing “personal” and “work or school” accounts

First, though, you have to leap over the hurdle that Microsoft has placed in front of everyone using its services: the confusing distinction between Microsoft’s personal accounts and the separate work or school accounts. If you connect to both the personal OneDrive and the “work or school” OneDrive for Business, so you have two cloud icons in the lower right and two references to OneDrive in File Explorer, you will be in a confusing hell which most people never figure out.

Let’s assume that you sort that out. You connect OneDrive for Business to your work Office 365 account and you completely bypass the personal account. What could go wrong?

The mysterious folder backup error

OneDrive folder backup error

The feature that automatically redirects your Documents folder to OneDrive sounds pretty cool, so you visit that screen in OneDrive settings, where a couple of clicks is all it takes to set it up. (Right-click on the OneDrive for Business icon / click on Settings / click on Backup.)

Except it doesn’t work. You get the kind of error message that most eyes literally cannot focus on: “We can’t protect Outlook.pst in the Documents folder. To continue, move this file outside an important folder and try again.”

There’s an answer to this. I’m not going to go through a long explanation of how you might break access to an Outlook archive and the lack of guidance about where to put a potentially important file so that you can still use it and it still gets backed up. Because if you get past that, you might not be done because the next error message might call out OneNote notebooks that also have to be moved before folder backup can be set up with OneDrive and that’s a completely different type of confusion.

Maybe that won’t happen to you. Maybe you’ll highlight Documents and click on “Start protection” (or “Start backup,” because Microsoft can’t use the same words to describe a feature for more than 60 days without imploding) and everything will just work.

But if it doesn’t, like so many issues, the answer is, because Microsoft.

The cluttered documents folder

This one is purely personal and just about aesthetics. When you redirect your Documents folder to OneDrive, everything in Documents is synced with OneDrive. That’s the point. That includes all of the junk folders added by Microsoft and other developers that are cluttering up the Documents folder, which makes OneDrive a mess when I visit it on the web or on my phone.

The folder redirection is an option. I don’t have to turn it on. I could move only the folders that have my files and give up the integration that would let me click on Documents to reach them in File Explorer.

For some reason I’m fine doing that with Dropbox but it irritates me to be forced to do that with OneDrive for Business. What can I say? I’m shallow and capricious.

The mysterious slow computer

OneDrive - Office integration

Look, I can’t prove it, but it felt like everything slowed down. It was weird. I have a monster computer stuffed with RAM and a fast processor and SSDs and, well, it felt slow. I’m still not sure about that. Maybe it was limited to file operations in the OneDrive folders – slow to copy/move files, slow to preview files, slow to open and close them. Maybe it was a general slowdown, maybe it was imagination.

What I’m sure of was that the integration with the Office programs did not go well. Opening or closing a file in Word or Excel all too often got the white border “not responding” screen for several seconds. You know the one, Outlook does it all the time – the one where you don’t know if the system will eventually recover or if a program has crashed so you click again and again until the computer throws up in your lap.

Eventually I went into OneDrive for Business (right-click on the icon / Settings / Office) and unchecked the box, “Use Office applications to sync Office files that I open.” Restart the computer. Now I can’t collaborate with people on my Office files and the Auto-Save button in the upper left of Word/Excel is greyed out and files are not automatically saved – but everything is running at full speed.

By this time I’ve turned off the folder redirection for Documents and I’ve turned off the integration with the Office programs. I’m starting to think, why did I make this change?

The search issue

The final straw.

I use File Explorer to search for files constantly. I am a power searcher. I’ve been obsessed with indexing and searching for files for twenty years. I’ve been closely following Microsoft’s tools for indexing and searching for files in Windows since the early 2000s, when it first released Windows Desktop Search for Windows XP.

When you store files online with OneDrive Files On Demand, you can see all the files in File Explorer but you can only search for file names. You can’t search the full text of the file contents. You can only do a full-text search from the website. (Dropbox Smart Sync works the same way but at least it adds a search box that pops up when you click the icon in the lower right.)

But that’s not all.

If you move the OneDrive folder on your computer to a different location than the default, then you can’t search it at all. Not for file names, not for full text. The folders disappear from the Windows Indexing Service.

I have a small SSD for my C: drive. It holds the operating system and program files but it’s not big enough for my documents and pictures. For that reason I moved the OneDrive for Business folders to my F: drive, a big storage drive. Even though most of the files are online, I still want to have some folders stored on the hard drive for faster access and to make them available if I’m offline.

I can’t search them. When you look in the Indexing options, they’re literally gone.

OneDrive folder missing from indexing options on F: drive

The left side of the screenshot above shows the contents of F:\Users\BruceBerls\ – two folders, Dropbox and OneDrive – Bruceb Consulting.

The right side shows the folders that can be indexed using the Windows Indexing Service (Control Panel / Indexing Options / Modify). The Dropbox folder is indexed. I can search for file names in Dropbox – not full text but better than nothing. The OneDrive folders are just . . . not there. Poof! They’re gone. I kept going back to that dialog box over and over because it didn’t make any sense. Surely that can’t be?

If I search for a file name stored in OneDrive for Business, I get nothing.

Is it a bug? Is it required by some quirk of the Files On Demand agent? There are a few people online complaining about it but no details from Microsoft.

That was it. I moved my documents and pictures to Dropbox and decided not to cancel my subscription to Dropbox Professional. I’ll spend $199/year so I don’t have to think about any of this ever again.

It could have been such a lovely relationship. We dated for a while and I don’t regret it. But it won’t work out between us.

Because, sadly, OneDrive for Business has issues.

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