Although once a daydream as airy as a few wisps of steam, today the cloud is here to stay. Cloud storage services allow consumers access to a kind of network storage, hosting files remotely so that you can get access to them at any time from a number of computers and devices. Gone are the days of face-palming because you forgot a document on your home computer. No longer do you have to clog up your own email with photos you sent yourself for easy retrieval later. Nowadays, you can simply send it to the cloud and forget it.
However, confusion about the cloud still abounds: one study found that around half of Americans believed that a lightning storm could interfere with cloud computing. Additionally, while we at Digital Trends believe the benefits of the cloud outweigh the concerns, there are still very real security issues. For this reason, we always recommend encrypting sensitive files using software such as the free program TrueCrypt before entrusting them to the cloud.
Choosing a cloud storage service
Dozens of cloud storage services now compete for customers, luring in new clients with free accounts, extra space, and social-networking rewards. So which option is the best? While there’s plenty of debate over which service to choose, no single choice stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. Each has certain advantages, and you’ll simply have to tinker around until you find the one that works for you.
That being said, if you regularly purchase MP3s from Amazon or iTunes, you’ll probably want to choose the corresponding cloud storage service: Amazon Cloud Drive or iCloud, respectively. Why? These entertainment powerhouses don’t count music purchases you’ve made from them against your storage size limit. Essentially, you can nab free cloud storage for your tunes, which enables music streaming to all your devices
If you’re having a hard time deciding, or if you simply want to take advantage of as many free accounts on various platforms as possible, there’s always Otixo. Otixo is a single-stop platform for managing multiple cloud storage accounts.
The reasons for Dropbox’s success are simple: the service is full-featured, yet easy to use, and the marketing is top-notch. Promotions styled like gaming quests encourage users to invite friends to the service to earn more storage space. Even though a number of services offer more initial free space – Google Drive’s 5GB, iCloud’s 5GB, or SkyDrive’s 7GB, versus Dropbox’s 2 GB – many customers seem to find Dropbox’s referral-rewards system irresistible (up to 18GB free space total). Upgraded pro accounts start at $9.99/month (or $99/year) for 100GB. Mobile support includes Android, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, and Kindle Fire
To get started, just make an account and download the desktop client. This installs a folder where you can drag-and-drop files in order to transfer them to the cloud. You’ll see a pop-up notification anytime anything new is added to your account; if this annoys you, you can disable it in preferences.
One of Dropbox’s main strengths is its constant backup of word files. If you sync your Dropbox folder to your main documents folder, Dropbox will automatically backup any changes you make to each document. To access previous versions of a document, simply right-click on a file within your Dropbox folder, select “Dropbox,” and then choose “View previous versions.” This feature can be invaluable if you accidentally overwrite a file, or if you’re working collaboratively on a project.
Speaking of collaborative projects, Dropbox boasts excellent sharing abilities. Invite someone to share a particular Dropbox folder with you and that folder will appear right on their desktop. You can also send a link to an individual document or image. Additionally, Dropbox offers the best Facebook integration of any service at the moment. Finally, folders full of images can be viewed as a gallery, making Dropbox a viable photo-sharing alternative to Picasa, Imgur, and Flickr.
The lowdown: Least amount of starting free space; greatest possible free space through referrals; best version-control backup; best Facebook integration; great sharing capabilities; good for multiple computers and devices.
We covered Google Drive when it first came out back in April, and the service has only improved since then. As you might have guessed, its greatest strengths all relate to integration with other Google services. With a free account, in addition to 5GB of Google Drive space, you’ll get 10GB of Gmail storage and 1GB on Picasa. Purchase any upgrade ($2.49/month for 25GB, or $4.99/month for 100GB), and you’ll automatically upgrade to 25GB of space on Gmail as a bonus. Mobile support includes iPhone, iPad, and Android.
Signing up is as simple as logging in with a Gmail address and password. From there, Google Drive appears right in your Google toolbar, just a click away from your email inbox. You can drag-and-drop files straight into your browser, or download the desktop client to have access to Google Drive as a folder, just like with Dropbox.
Google Drive borrows from Google’s powerful search algorithm to allow searches of not only file names, but also text in scanned documents and objects in images (a neat trick for those with years of vacation photos). You can upload photos straight to Google+ or view more than 30 types of files directly in-browser, including some – like Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator – for which you may not have the actual software.
But Google Drive’s standout features are its sharing and collaboration tools. Thanks to integration with Gmail, you can share files with a click, with or without requiring a password. And when you work with partners on the same word file, spreadsheet, or presentation, either separately or right at the same time, Google Drive marks the contributions of each person with differently colored labels to make clear what’s changed.
The lowdown: Only service to integrate with Gmail and Google Docs; best sharing and collaboration capabilities; access files directly in-browser; edit documents directly in-browser; affordable upgrade plans.
It’s not so much that Microsoft SkyDrive does any one thing better than other cloud storage systems (other than being the only service to support Windows phones). It’s simply that SkyDrive packs the most punch out of them all, combining many of the nicest features from each program for a well-rounded overall package. If you don’t have a pressing reason to choose another service, it’s hard to go wrong with SkyDrive. It also boasts the most free storage space of any service on this list (7GB), along with inexpensive upgrades (starting at $10/year for 20GB). Mobile support includes Windows phones, Android, iPhone, and iPad.
To get SkyDrive, you’ll need to sign in using a Microsoft account (previously called a Windows Live account). Next, install the desktop client, which functions as a normal folder. As with Dropbox, you can share folders or individual files with a link, as well as access previous versions of files. You can also post photos directly from SkyDrive to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social-networking sites, which is a nice time-saving touch.
However, one of SkyDrive’s most innovative features is its built-in remote access capabilities. From the SkyDrive.com website, you can get access to any PC associated with your account that has the SkyDrive client installed, even files not already uploaded to SkyDrive. In other words, say you forget to move a presentation to your SkyDrive folder before leaving for work, but your home computer is still on. Simply sign into SkyDrive and retrieve it from afar, whether it’s on your hard drive or a connected external hard drive. We can see this remote-access feature saving users a lot of frustration and heartache.
SkyDrive is also the only service to integrate with free Office Web Apps, allowing you to work collaboratively on projects much like in Google Docs. However, the Office Web Apps have the advantage of opening Word, PowerPoint, and Excel documents seamlessly, avoiding any formatting kerfuffles. SkyDrive maintains the 25 most recent versions of every file, so if a partner makes a change you don’t like, you can easily revert to an easier version. SkyDrive also hooks up with OneNote, a sleek note-taking program that works well on touchpads and monitors alike.
The lowdown: Only service (besides Box) to sync with Windows phones; only service to integrate with Microsoft Office Web apps; most initial free space (7GB); inexpensive upgrades; great collaboration tools and version-control backup; built-in remote access capability.
Amazon Cloud Drive
Although Amazon Cloud Drive has beefed up since it first appeared on the scene, via Cloud Player, it still doesn’t offer the editing, sharing, or collaboration abilities of other services. It comes with 5GB of free storage, like Google Drive, and upgrades start at $10 a year for 20GB. It does support mobile integration with the Kindle Fire, but then again, so does Dropbox.
However, the ease of storing music, e-books, and videos purchased from Amazon.com itself may sweeten the deal for high-volume users, especially since Amazon Cloud Drive doesn’t count Amazon music purchases against your storage limit. To use it, sign into an Amazon.com account and download the desktop client.
The lowdown: Inexpensive upgrades; integration with Kindle Fire; free storage and streaming for Amazon MP3s; sparse features for word documents and spreadsheets.
You’re bound to see similarities between Amazon Cloud Drive and Apple’s iCloud. Like Amazon, iCloud starts with 5GB of free storage and $10 a year to upgrade to 20GB. Also like Amazon, iCloud’s strengths lie in music storage and streaming.
You’ll want this option if you purchase, organize, and access most of your music and other media through iTunes, especially since music purchased from iTunes doesn’t count against your storage limit. As you might imagine, iCloud plays along very nicely with the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Apple TV.
The lowdown: Inexpensive upgrades; integration with all Apple devices; free storage and streaming for iTunes MP3s; sparse features for word documents and spreadsheets.
Box is an all-around solid service, and may offer a compelling alternative to users who are wary to place ever-increasing amounts of information in the control of Google, Amazon, Apple, or Microsoft. Mobile support for all accounts includes Android, iPhone, and iPad.
Free accounts start at 5GB, although in a bit of a bizarre twist, many of Box’s rather common-place features only come bundled with a business account, which starts at $15 a month per user. Shelling out for the latter will land you a whopping 1,000GB of storage space (which is just 24GB shy of 1TB), as well as version-history backups, password-protected sharing, and search abilities.
Indeed, in many ways Box seems best geared toward corporate use, and it shows. Clients include Proctor & Gamble, Six Flags, and Pandora. If you’re a small-business owner or a startup, Box may be right up your alley. All accounts, even free ones, allow you to share files or folders with a link. Box also integrates the ability to add comments and assign tasks for easy collaboration and workflow management.
The lowdown: Best for businesses; integrated workflow management tools; great sharing and collaboration potential; free accounts lacking some features.
What cloud storage service do you prefer? Let us know in the comments below.