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by Martin French
Electronic storage is a pain the ass, no doubt about it. Pretty much everything is now "digital" so that means the good folks of Planet Earth have had to become familiar with hard disk technology, backups and the ever present "Cloud".
Cloud storage is just the Silicon Valley way of saying "remote servers", in fact the entire internet is little more than tens of thousands of remote servers connected by cables and switches.
Calling it a "Cloud" makes it sound fluffy and cute and only slightly less boring than a beige sofa.
Storing data online provides many advantages for the perpetually forgetful and those prone to spilling hot drinks all over their laptop or dropping their cell phones in the toilet.
The internet is home to many online storage services, all of which have a free option that folks in the wacky world of the arts will be thrilled to learn all about we feel sure.
For this piece we're going to look at the top four. "Google Drive", the awesomely monikered "SkyDrive" from Microsoft, "Dropbox" and "Cloud Drive" from Amazon.
On your own computer these "cloud" devices all work in much the same way, apart from Amazon's "Cloud Drive". You install an application on your machine, set the location of the folder on your hard disk and then any files and folders copied or saved to those folders will automatically be uploaded.
If you connect another computer using the same storage account (on a laptop for example) the files already in the cloud will be downloaded to the newly connected machine. If you make changes on the new machine those changes will be reflected on your other connected devices and so on.
All of the featured services also have mobile applications for all popular smartphones so you can manage your files directly on your phone. Smartphone apps don't sync the files however because phone storage space is at a premium. To use the mobile apps you need an internet connection (wifi 3G or 4G preferably) so you can grab individual files as you need them.
Google Drive too stupid to know how much storage you are using.
As the name very obviously suggests this one comes from the worlds biggest advertising company, Google.
For free you get 5GB of storage which is more than enough for thousands of regular documents and a fair few large images. Setting the thing up is very simple. All you need is a Google account so if you have a Gmail account you already have access to Google Drive.
If you use Google Docs (their online word processor and spreadsheet programmes) then you can select an option to have these documents synched to your local computer folder for offline viewing (allegedly).
Creating new documents is available from inside the Google Drive website and anything you do create will automatically transfer to your local computer. Our test document however (a simple text based file) could not be opened with any application that we had on our systems.
You can upgrade to more storage if you start to run low. 25GB of space will set you back $2.49 per month, there is no option to pay per by year and save some money.
When we tested this particular service we stumbled across a rather massive, show stopping problem. Despite only having a few files in our "Google Drive" folder the app reports that we have used some 24% (1.18GB) of our free storage space.
In reality we only have 331Mb of documents in there. What's happening is Google Drive is storing deleted items in the trash folder, a folder that is only visible if you go looking for it via the web interface.
Despite repeated attempts to empty this trash folder some of the items would not delete and the system still reported we were using 23% of our storage space. We tried to resolve this problem, which many others were having, with Google but Google's support services for users are, to be blunt, crap!
Dropbox is by far the most developed of the online storage services
Dropbox was the first of the online storage companies to make these kinds of services as simple to use as possible. They popularised the idea of having a folder on your local computer and anything in it synchronise with an online service.
The overall web interface for the product shows a level of design and operational maturity that other online products lack.
For free you get 2GB of storage which is a little tight fisted for todays connected devices but if you're careful and only store the things that you really need to backup or use on the move you should be fine.
You can get additional free storage by recommending friends to the service (up to a maximum of 16GB) or by hooking various other accounts to the Dropbox service like Twitter and Facebook (125Mb each).
Files are uploaded in the background as you work, a small spinning icon on the menu bar is the only indication that something is afoot.
Via the web based interface you can set up folders to share with other users or even email links to specific files. Removing the links once they have been shared is a very simple process so you can easily keep files safe from prying eyes, be careful what you share though!
Dropbox keeps a list of computers and devices that are linked to the account in the settings of the web interface. From there you can make sure that devices you no longer used are permanently disconnected from the service although files stored locally on the machine will remain in place. You cannot remote delete files.
Should you decide to pay for extra storage you can get 100GB, 200GB or 500GB for $99(US), $199(US) and $499 respectively. All the packages cost more if you pay monthly.
From the worlds biggest software company comes 7GB of free storage in the shape of SkyDrive, which has by far the best name out of any of these services.
Via a web browser the SkyDrive service is accessed through the Outlook.com domain name which is the home of the new look version of Hotmail. If you have a Hotmail account already then you can cross grade to Outlook.com and get the SkyDrive storage into the bargain.
The interface gives you a multitude of ways to handle your files and interact with them. Only a few file types can be viewed online, like images and videos, but editing is only available for Microsoft documents from Word, Excel and Powerpoint. The feature set is limited within these editors unless you upgrade to "Office365", the online version of Microsoft's Office suite.
SkyDrive's share options let other people edit your stuff.
You can also create new documents inside SkyDrive's online interface in Word, Excel and Powerpoint format. Unlike Google Drive you can even open these documents on your local machine and you don't need the native versions of Word, etc to do it.
A uniques feature for this type of application is the ability to embed documents or even entire folders into website pages for online sharing. (Dropbox allows you to share individual links to files).
This might be useful if you have a lot of items you need to distribute or if you want to give access to just one file via your website.
An embedded folder is represented by a single blue tile on the webpage of your choice. When clicked, the SkyDrive website will open (although not inside your own SkyDrive account) where users can then download the files to their own machine.
If you want more storage from SkyDrive then Microsoft offers the best prices for additional storage for this type of service. 20Gb is just £6 per year. You can go as high as 100GB of online drive space for £32 per year.
Amazon's Cloud Drive - functional but not much else
Finally we have Amazon's "Cloud Drive" product which is the only one of the four we have tested that doesn't work automatically to keep files synchronised between your computer and the online storage service.
When you install the Cloud Drive application on your computer you have two ways to upload individual files or folders. You can drag and drop items into an upload window or select a file or folder, right click on it with your mouse and choose a context sensitive menu option to "Upload To Amazon Cloud Drive".
Neither option is particularly intuitive.
When files have finished uploading a small green tick shows up on the OSX menu bar where the applications icon lives. We imaging it will behave in much the same way on Windows Taskbar.
You can share documents from within the Cloud Drive web interface but editing and creating documents is not possible.
Unlike the other services it is perhaps best to think of Cloud Drive as more of an online locker for certain files that you want to keep safe and accessible from anywhere in the world.
If you upload the same document more than once then the application will detect this and ask if you want to make a copy or overwrite the original file. Again, it is neither intuitive or automatic but it could be useful for certain types of files.
Additional storage can be bought on an annual basis with as much as 1000 Gigabytes available for $500 a year. It's not clear what happens to your files if you stop paying for it though since Cloud Drive is not a synching service so there is no guarantee that the files on your Cloud Drive are also on your local machine.
What's The Best?
Here in TheLab™ we use both SkyDrive and Dropbox. The latter is a well developed service that is also integrated into many mobile apps and has really good sharing options. The free storage capacity is a little on the stingy side though and additional storage is expensive.
SkyDrive provides a lot of storage up front and additional storage is far cheaper than Dropbox. If you use a Windows 8 phone (like a Lumia 920 or HTC 8S) or a Microsoft Surface or Windows 8 computer then SkyDrive is already well embedded into your devices and provides a simple to use online storage service and synching ability. SkyDrive apps are also available for all mobile platforms and desktop computers.
You can also create and edit certain types of Office documents using the service which will come in handy even if you don't have those applications on your local machine.
Google Drive's inability to accurately record how much storage space you are using is completely unforgivable. The fact that you can create documents on the service (Google Docs) and have them available for offline viewing is completely pointless if you can't even open them on your local machine. Avoid!
Cloud Drive from Amazon is a useful service for simple file storage but the whole system of uploading files is not at all intuitive and it doesn't work as a synching service so if you use a paid option and then stop paying for it, who knows?
Update 9th May 2013: Since this piece was published Amazon have changed the way Cloud Drive works. It now synchronises like all the other services.