If you have not been bored to death by conversations of computing “in the cloud,” then you show good judgment by not going to the meetings I attend. Trust me, a group of nerds discussing macro computing trends is enough to make you reconsider your career choice.
Since you haven’t sat through these meetings, the basic idea behind “the cloud” is this: Instead of storing files inside your computer, a Web-based service stores them for you and manages your access to it. If cloud storage is done well, it feels as seamless as if the file were still on your hard drive.
The beautiful part of the cloud is that those files are available on whatever device you have in your hand, as long as it has Web access. Laptop, desktop, smartphone … the Web does not care. It just lets you open your presentation and work on it no matter where you are.
The whole process is far easier than dragging a pile of USB drives around, and it can allow multiple people to work on the same document.
Many companies offer this service for free. Keep in mind that the free storage is a ploy to get you to buy more storage. But hey, free is free. So which service is the best?
Let’s take a look at the major players and see if we can determine which is right for you.
All iPhones and iPads come with an iCloud account. Five gigabytes of storage are set aside on Apple’s servers for you to store your files and documents. Apple’s implementation of this is so seamless that you may not even know you have saved something in its cloud.
This makes using iCloud really simple, which may get you utterly hooked on it. You can store music, pictures and all kinds of stuff up there. You may find that you start keeping everything up there and have a need for even more storage.
Apple places a high value on its cloud storage. Upgrading will run you a minimum of $20 for an additional 10 gigabytes. Keep in mind, iCloud storage actually goes farther than that of its competitors, because anything you have purchased from Apple (music, movies, TV shows, apps), and your Photo Stream pictures do not count against your total.
iCloud does not support file transfers, and it’s not easy to collaborate on documents, so it is really a personal storage solution. As an iCloud user, you will probably want to add one of the other cloud solutions.
Apple makes it exceptionally easy to expand your storage, on either your computer or your iDevice. It is no surprise that it does not offer support for Android.
Apple’s arch-nemesis is Google, which has been developing cloud-based solutions for a long time. Google Drive was previously called Google Docs. It combines a Web storage model and an online office suite. The beauty of this is that you have the ability to store files in the cloud, but also the ability to edit them from your phone or tablet and save them in industry-standard file formats like DOC, XLS and PPT.
Google grants you a whopping 15 gigabytes of storage for free, but this is shared between Google Drive, Gmail and Google+ photos, so keep that in mind.
You can always upgrade your storage. However, the first real step that Google offers you is to 100 gigabytes for $59.88 a year, or about 60 cents a gig. If you are really looking for an intermediary step, you can add 25 gigs of storage for $25 a year, but only from the mobile app.
Box is a business-focused cloud storage company that will (somewhat grudgingly) give you a personal five-gig account for free. It offers some add-on apps to allow you to edit files stored on its servers, but they are nowhere near as elegant as Apple’s or Google’s editing solutions.
Box’s file-sharing and collaboration tools are very good, and Box would be a great choice if you are working with people who are spread far and wide. I use CloudOn in addition to Google Drive for document editing. This app allows you to link to Box for storage, which works out better for me than Box’s editing solution.
Box’s free plan limits you to files of 250 megabytes or less and its upgrade charges to 25 or 50 gigabytes of storage are the most expensive of all the ones I’ve investigated. Considering that you can get a 1,000-GB business plan from the site for $45 a month, it is obvious that it favors the corporate side of its business.
Box does occasionally run specials with smartphone purchases. I ended up with one of these and received a free upgrade to a 50-gig package. Keep your eyes open for this. Otherwise, I would recommend that you keep looking past Box for personal usage.
Amazon’s CX service is also primarily aimed at businesses, but it does have a free personal plan for cloud storage that allows you 10 gigabytes of space. However, it doesn’t make it terribly easy to find the free option on its site.
Backed by Amazon’s incredibly robust server farm, CX is very dependable, although strangely under-featured. There is no editing of documents within the app, but you can share large files and collaborate on them with others.
The biggest downsides with CX are the cost of upgrades and the limitations it puts on the free account. CX is the second highest-priced at $2.40 a gigabyte for extra storage space, and it will flush your account if you don’t log in every 15 days. It also limits you to files no larger than 200 megabytes.
On the bright side, it does allow you the second-largest total allowance of free space at 10 gigabytes.
Dropbox is the Kleenex of cloud storage. It has almost the same verb quality as Google. “I Dropboxed it to you!”
Being the king has its pluses and minuses. More apps support Dropbox than any of the other cloud services. Unfortunately, Dropbox only offers you two gigabytes of free storage to take advantage of all those apps.
Dropbox does offer several opportunities to earn additional free space by doing things as simple as following it on Twitter and liking it on Facebook, so at least it has a sense of fair play.
Microsoft has an opinion on anything that involves technology and SkyDrive is its answer to cloud storage.
SkyDrive offers seven gigabytes of free storage, excellent file-forwarding capabilities, great collaboration and full support of editing via online support of Office files. The interface has a very Windows 8 feel with big blue squares.
SkyDrive also offers the most cost-effective expansion of any of the cloud solutions that I explored at roughly 50 cents a gigabyte. Microsoft also makes a point of letting you keep your free gigabytes of storage so that when you buy a 20-gig upgrade for $10, you actually end up wth 27 gigs of storage.
SugarSync is a service that came into being as a backup application. Its goal was to define a group of files or folders on your computer and keep a copy of them somewhere safe.
Its goal was not originally to be the place where you store something you want to share with someone else or something you need to look at on your iPad.
The concepts are similar though. Like several of these services, Sugarsync allows you to designate a folder on your computer to be backed up continually. Of course, you can drop anything in that folder and then look at it on whichever device you choose.
Sugarsync’s technology for backup and sharing is solid, but it doesn’t give you the ability to edit files so you would need to couple it with something like CloudOn.
Mozy is in the same category as Sugarsync as it started life as a backup program, but a beta portion of its service called Stash now serves as a file-storage and sharing app.
With two gigabytes of free storage, Mozy is the least-supported and lowest-implemented of all the storage solutions that I looked at so you may be best served looking at one of the other options.
As I look at these options, a couple of them jump out to me.
Google Drive seems to have the best combination of power and raw storage at 15 gig. Google is not likely to go out of business and it knows a little bit about securing data, even if it may paw through it to make sure you get ads that are applicable to you.
To me, the second-best option is Microsoft’s Skydrive. Its seven gigs of storage have almost no limitations and excellent editing, sharing and collaboration tools.
Since all of the base levels of these services are free, you can actually combine them to get the amount of storage you need. I have an account with each and every one of them. The biggest challenge then becomes keeping track of what you put where…
But I even have a solution on that front for you. CloudMagic allows you to search all of your cloud accounts from a single interface. When you are trying to find out which of seven places you stored the spreadsheet comparing cloud pricing, it seems like magic indeed.
So, my advice? Set your self up a few cloud accounts (I would say Google Drive, SkyDrive and DropBox) and index them with Cloud Magic so you can find where you put stuff.
Total out-of-pocket expense? Not a single dime. Total free storage? 24 gigabytes. About 100 times the size of my first hard drive.
View a spreadsheet with all of the costs here.