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Evaluating Cloud Storage Services

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You don't need a big hard disk anymore; data is moving from local storage to the cloud. It used to be that you stored all your documents, digital pictures, and other computer files locally, on your computer's hard disk. But that didn't let you access your files if you were using another computer or were away from your home or office. In this article, author Michael Miller examines the most popular cloud storage services for consumers, including Dropbox, Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft OneBox, and Apple iCloud.
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It used to be that you stored all your documents, digital pictures, and other computer files locally, on your computer's hard disk. But that didn't let you access your files if you were using another computer or were away from your home or office.

Today, more and more users are storing important files not on their own PCs, but with cloud storage services. These services store your files on their servers, and provide access from any computer or mobile device that's connected to the Internet. With cloud storage you can view your digital pictures on your office PC, home computer, tablet, or smartphone, wherever you happen to be.

Cloud storage also facilitates file sharing and group collaboration. Just provide access to appropriate friends, family, or co-workers, and it's easy to share your vacation pics with your Aunt Edna or collaborate on a group presentation with colleagues in Vienna or Tokyo.

And when you store your files in the cloud, you don't have to store them locally. That means no more filling up your computer's hard disk, or maxing out your smartphone's limited internal storage. Store as many file as you want in the cloud, and don't worry about your local hard disk crashing and losing everything. All your files are safe and secure out on the Internet.

Not surprisingly, cloud storage is big business today, with some of the biggest technology companies entering the market. When you want to store your files in the cloud, which service should you use? There are a lot of good ones to choose from... which we'll examine, in strict alphabetical order.

Amazon Cloud Drive

First up, alphabetically anyway, is Amazon's Cloud Drive service. Now, Amazon is a big player in the enterprise cloud storage space, providing storage and web hosting for some of the largest websites and companies out there. But Amazon also offers a cloud hosting service for consumers, although it isn't quite as competitive as you might think.

Amazon Cloud Drive give you 5GB of free storage, which used to be okay but now has been surpassed by Google, Microsoft, and several other players. If you need more storage, Amazon is actually a bit pricey, offering a measly 20GB for $10/year and charging $50/year for 100GB of storage. You can do better elsewhere.

The service runs on all the popular PC and mobile platforms, and integrates well (of course) with Amazon's own Kindle Fire tablets and Fire smartphones. In fact, if you use an Amazon mobile device, Amazon Cloud Drive might be the cloud storage service of choice. For the rest of us, however, there are better choices.

Apple iCloud

All of you iPhone and iPad users out there are probably already familiar with iCloud, Apple's online storage solution. It integrates quite nicely, thank you, with Apple's popular mobile devices, but is less convenient if you live in the non-Apple universe.

There's much to like about iCloud, however, if you are an Apple devotee. You can use iCloud to easily store and stream all the music and videos you purchase from the iTunes Store (and none of those purchases count against your storage quota), and the automatic transfer from your device's Photo Stream is particularly nifty. You also use iCloud to automatically back up the contents of your iPhone or iPad.

That said, iCloud has trailed other cloud services on the pricing front. Up until recently, you had to pay $20/year for a meagerly 10GB of storage, and $100/year for 50GB. Fortunately, Apple has rethought its pricing strategy, and now offers 20GB of storage for just $.99/month (that's about $12/year), and 200GB for $3.99/month (about $48/year). You still get just 5GB free, but if you need more storage, it ain't a bad deal.

While iCloud gets my wholehearted support for anyone using an Apple device, I still have trouble recommending it for non-Apple users. Even with the new pricing plan, there are better deals out there – for services that work better with Windows PCs and Android devices.

Bitcasa Infinite Drive

Here's one you probably haven't heard of, but should have. Bitcasa offers tons of storage for not much moolah, services all major and minor devices (including Windows Phone and Chrome OS), and provides an interface that's particularly easy to use for streaming photos, music, and movies – just the kind of media most people use these cloud storage services for. What's not to like?

As to the pricing, you get 20GB for free, which may be enough for most users. If you need more, Bitcasa offers 1TB of storage for $99/year, and a humongous 5TB of storage for $499/year. You won't run out of storage space with this one.

Bitcasa is definitely a service you should consider – especially if your storage needs are large.

Box

Box is a cloud storage service targeted more at the enterprise market, but also offers consumer-oriented plans. You get 10GB for free, or can pay $60/year for 100GB. For business users, Box offers a plan with unlimited storage for $180/user/year.

That said, Box really shines as a collaboration and work-flow solution. There are all sorts of security and permission options that the corporate IT guys will love, as well as editing and commenting options that matter when you're working on group projects.

If you're a business user, then, Box should be on your must-consider list. If you're just a regular consumer, however, it probably won't be your first choice.

Copy

Like Box, Copy hails from an enterprise computing background, and it shows. It isn't quite as easy to navigate and operate as the more consumer-oriented services, but it does offer features that business users will appreciate.

As to pricing, Copy gives you 15GB free, but then charges $99/year for 250GB of storage. The free part is nice, but the larger plan is a little on the expensive side. (Copy also offers much larger storage plans for business users.)

Copy is fast and solid, but not necessarily the easiest service to use – especially from the company's website. It's a valid alternative to the more well-known players.

Dropbox

When you ask most users about cloud storage, the name Dropbox will probably come up. It wasn't the first cloud storage service out there, but definitely was one that popularized the whole concept. Dropbox is easy to use, very popular, and runs on just about any computer or mobile device.

When installed, the Dropbox app works like any other network drive on your computer. Drop a file into the Dropbox folder and it automatically syncs to your storage online.

As popular as Dropbox is, it's just too expensive for users with significant storage needs. Dropbox only gives you 2GB of free storage, which is somewhat stingy compared to the 15GB you get from Google, Microsoft, and other newer competitors. If you want more storage, you'll pay $9.99/month (or $99/year) for 250GB, which is on the high end these days.  

So if you need a lot of storage, Dropbox is not a contender. If your storage needs are more modest, however, there's a reason why Dropbox is so popular. It's one of my favorites, despite the pricing issues.

Google Drive

Google Drive is a player to beat in the cloud storage market. The world waited a long time for Google to add cloud storage to its portfolio of web-based services, but the wait was well worth it.

What you get with Google Drive is an easy-to-use interface, lots of storage for free (and more for a minimal price), and Google's web-based applications to use, if you want. I personally use Google Drive to store and sync files with family members and some of the musicians I collaborate with; I've also used it with several publishers to store and transfer files for some of my past book projects.

Here's the deal with Google Drive – it is very, very easy to use. If you've used any other Google service, you'll find Google Drive's interface quite familiar. You sign in with your Google Account (and we all have one of those, don't we?) and just click away from there. It automatically syncs your local files with the cloud, so that your files are consistent across all of your devices.

Pricing-wise, Google was one of the first services to offer 15GB of free storage. Additional storage is affordable, with 100GB for just $24/year – and, if you need that much, 1TB for $120/year. Compared to Dropbox's $99/year for 250GB of storage, Google Drive is a real bargain.

If you can't tell, I really like Google Drive. For most users, it's all you need for cloud storage.

MediaFire

Then there's MediaFire, another cloud storage service you probably haven't heard of. But here's the big news – MediaFire gives you 50GB of free storage, more than any other comparable service. Now that's something to consider.

That 50GB of free storage comes with some catches, however. First of all, the free version is ad supported, so there's that annoyance to contend with. Second, you can only upload files up to 200MB of size, which might be an issue, depending on what you want to store. And third, you can only download files one at a time; you can't download complete folders, which could be a deal-breaker for some.

By the way, if you go with one of MediaFire's upgrade plans, all those annoyances and restrictions go away. And the upgrade plans are also affordable, with a whopping 1TB of storage for just $2.49/month. (That's about $30/year.)

Still, 50GB for free is appealing. I'm betting you'll check this one out.

Microsoft OneDrive

Not surprisingly, Microsoft has jumped head-first into the cloud storage game. Perhaps more surprisingly, given Microsoft's track record with first-generation releases, OneDrive is pretty good.

OneDrive (formerly known as SkyDrive, until Britain's BSkyB satellite service sued them – it's a long story) is well integrated into Microsoft's Windows 8/8.1 operating system and Windows Phone devices. In fact, when you install Windows 8.1 or Office 365, OneDrive is the default storage option for all the files you create. Microsoft really, really wants you to store your files in the cloud.

To that end, OneDrive gives everybody 15GB of free storage. And, if you you're an Office 365 subscriber, you get a whopping 1TB of storage as part of your subscription plan. (If you're not an Office 365 subscriber, Microsoft will sell you 100GB of storage for $24/year, or 200GB for $48/year – very affordable alternatives.)

As noted, OneDrive is just a click away if you're a Windows or Office user. It's incredibly easy to store your documents on OneDrive, and you get free access to Microsoft's Office Web Apps, the online versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

If you're a Windows user (and most of us are), OneDrive may quickly become your cloud storage solution of choice. It's integrated so seamlessly into the Windows 8 operating system that, for many users, it's just too much trouble to use anything else. It also helps that OneDrive is easy to use and works well. It's tough not to recommend this one.

SpiderOak

Finally, if privacy is your thing, consider SpiderOak. This cloud storage service is probably the most secure of all the major services. SpiderOak encrypts every file you upload before they hit its servers, which means that anyone who might inadvertently gain access to your stuff will find it wholly unreadable. For added security, you access SpiderOak through its secure client software, not via a web browser.

Not surprisingly, SpiderOak is targeted primarily at business users. It's a tad pricey (just 2GB for free, and $100/year for 100GB of storage), but if privacy is a main concern, the price is worth it.

Which Cloud Storage Service is Right for You?

Now that you know who offers what in terms of cloud storage, how do you choose the best service for you? Well, everyone has different needs, so it's tough to recommend one single service for every user. I personally use several of these[md]Microsoft OneDrive, as it's so well integrated into Windows 8; Google Drive, because it's integrated with everything else Google does (and it's real easy to use); Apple iCloud, for my iPhone and iPad; and Dropbox, because it seems to be the service of choice for many of my business colleagues, and because it was the first cloud storage service I ever used.

All of these are good services and get my recommendation – with one exception. As much as I like Dropbox, it's only good if your storage needs are minimal. Several other services offer a lot more storage for a lot less money. I particularly like Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive, both of which give you 15GB for free and 100GB of storage for $24/year. Some of the less well-known services are also appealing, especially Bitcasa, with 20GB of free storage and 1TB of storage for $99/year, or MediaFire, which gives you a whopping 50GB of storage for free and 1TB for just $30/year. Lots of choices.

When you're ready to make your choice, it helps to compare the features and pricing available from the major cloud storage services. That's what the following table is for; it might help you make up your mind.

Cloud Storage Service

URL

Free Storage

Other Plans

Platforms Supported

Amazon Cloud Drive

www.amazon.com/clouddrive/

5GB

20GB $10/year

50GB $25/year

100GB $50/year

Android, iOS, Mac, Windows

Apple iCloud

www.apple.com/icloud/

5GB

20GB $12/year

200GB $48/year

iOS, Mac, Windows

Bitcasa Infinite Drive

www.bitcasa.com

20GB

1TB $99/year

5TB $499/year

Android, Chrome OS, iOS, Mac, Windows, Window Phone

Box

www.box.com

10GB

100GB $60/year

Unlimited $180/year

Android, iOS, Mac, Windows

Copy

www.copy.com

15GB

250GB $99/year

Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, Windows

Dropbox

www.dropbox.com

2GB

100GB $99/year

Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, Windows

Google Drive

www.google.com/drive/

15GB

100GB $24/year

1TB $120/year

Android, Chrome OS, iOS, Mac, Windows

MediaFire

www.mediafire.com

50GB

1TB $30/month

Android, iOS, Mac, Windows

Microsoft OneDrive

onedrive.live.com

15GB

100GB $24/year

200GB $48/year

Android, iOS, Mac, Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox

SpiderOak

www.spideroak.com

2GB

100GB $100/year

Android, iOS, Mac, Windows

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