Why Store Your Data Online?
Since the advent of the internet, the technology industry has been steadily moving away from local storage to remote, server-based storage and processing—what is known as the cloud. Look at music and movies: We used to play them from local media, but now they’re streamed from servers. By keeping your own documents and media files in the cloud, you can reap the same advantages of anywhere-access and sharing. Productivity gains and reduced local storage requirements are additional benefits. We’ve rounded up the best cloud storage and file-sharing and file-syncing services to help you decide which are right for you.
These services provide seamless access to all your important data—Word docs, PDFs, spreadsheets, photos, any other digital assets from wherever you are. You no longer need to be sitting at your work PC to see your work files: With cloud syncing you can get to them from your smartphone on the train, from your tablet on your couch, and from the laptop in your hotel room or kitchen. Using a service like those included here means no more having to email files to yourself or plug and unplug USB thumb drives.
If you don’t yet have a service for storing and syncing your data in the cloud, you should seriously consider one. Which you choose depends on the kinds of files you store, how much security you need, whether you plan to collaborate with other people, and which devices you use to edit and access your files. It may also depend on your comfort level with computers in general. Some services are extremely user-friendly, while others offer advanced customization for more experienced technophiles.
What Can Cloud Storage Do for You?
The very best cloud storage solutions play nicely with other apps and services, making the experience of viewing or editing your files feel natural. Especially in business settings, you want your other software and apps to be able to retrieve or access your files, so making sure you use a service that easily authenticates with the other tools you use is a big deal. Box is particularly strong in this regard.
The range of capabilities of cloud-based storage services is incredible. Many of them specialize in a specific area. For example, Dropbox and SugarSync focus on keeping a synced folder accessible everywhere. SpiderOak emphasizes security. Some cloud storage services, such as Apple iCloud, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive, are generalists, offering not only folder and file syncing, but also media-playing and device syncing. These products even double as collaboration software, offering real-time document coediting.
Distinct from but overlapping in some cases with cloud storage are online backup services. Some of these, such as Carbonite, are all about disaster recovery, while IDrive combines that goal with syncing and sharing capabilities. If you want to bypass the cloud for your backup, you can still go with local backup software, which saves you the time it takes to upload and download your data.
In fact, most cloud services offer some level of backup, almost as a consequence of their intended function. It follows logically that any files uploaded to a cloud service are also protected from disk failures, since there are copies of them in the cloud. But true online backup plays can back up all of your computer’s files, not just those in a synced folder structure. Whereas syncing is about managing select files, backup tends to be a bulk, just-in-case play. With syncing, you pick the documents you might need and keep them in the cloud for easy access. With backup, you back up everything you think you might regret losing. Easy, immediate access is not guaranteed with online backup, nor is it the point. Peace of mind is.
The Deal With the Cloud
Just to clear up any confusion, the cloud part of cloud-based storage services refers to storing your files somewhere other than your computer’s hard drive, usually on the provider’s servers. As one tech pundit put it: “There is no Cloud. It’s just someone else’s computer.” Having data in the cloud refers to the ability to access those files through the internet. Your data is usually encrypted before making the journey over the internet to the providers’ servers, and, while it lives on those servers, it’s also encrypted. Well-designed services don’t upload entire files every time they change. They just upload the changes, saving your connection bandwidth.
You can access your cloud files through an app or software installed on your computer (once it’s installed, it’s usually pretty much invisible), though you need an internet connection for it to work. If you temporarily don’t have an internet connection, that’s okay. The service waits until the next time you do have a connection and takes care of business then.
Free vs. Paid
Many cloud storage services have a free account that usually comes with some limitations, such as the amount of storage they provide or a size limit on files you can upload. We prefer services that offer some level of free service (even if it’s only 2GB) rather than a time-based trial, because that lets you fully integrate a service into your life for several weeks while you get a feel for how it works and what might go wrong with your particular setup.
What could possibly go wrong? Human error accounts for a good deal of cloud storage tragedies, but the dropped internet connection is another common troublemaker. Ask around (or just look through our review comments), and you’ll hear sad stories of how cloud storage can go wrong. One of the benefits of paying for an account is that it usually comes with additional support from the provider, so if anything does go wrong, you can get someone on the phone to help you resolve the issue.
There are many other reasons to pay for cloud storage, from getting a lot more space (a terabyte really doesn’t cost all that much anymore) to being able to upload really big files. That last benefit is relevant to graphic designers, video editors, and other visual artists who often host enormous files. Other perks of paying for your cloud storage often include increased access to file-version history (meaning you can restore an important business proposal to the version you had before your colleague made a bunch of erroneous changes), more security, or more features for collaboration and working with teams.
The Best Cloud Storage Services
Here, we highlight only the best cloud storage services among those we’ve tested. When PCMag tests these services, we evaluate their feature sets, ease of use, stability, and price. There are many more cloud storage services on the market that didn’t make the cut for this article, however. If you love a particular service that we didn’t include, please be sure to let us know about it in the comments. Click on the review links below for more detailed information on each of our favorite cloud storage and file-syncing services.
Veteran cloud storage provider
The Granddaddy of cloud storage, Dropbox offers a rather measly 2GB of free storage, but this can be increased up to 16GB free of charge by linking your Dropbox to social media and referring friends to join the service.
Dropbox Business subscriptions allow users to collaborate on work as well as giving each person unlimited space in a personal Dropbox account. There are also enhanced features for file recovery and versioning. Business pricing starts from around $12.50 per user per month (£10, around AU$16.50), or you can give it a go for free with a 30-day trial.
Price: 2GB free. 1TB for $10 a month (£6.58, around AU$11) with Dropbox Plus or 1TB for $19.99 a month (£15, around AU$27) with Dropbox Professional, which has some added extras.
A smart option for Google fans and G Suite users
Google Drive is a natural choice for owners of Android devices as it’s already integrated, but users of other platforms may appreciate the generous free storage too. You can also store high definition photos on your mobile phone with companion app Google Photos, and make use of Google’s own office suite (now known as G Suite).
Downsides include the fact that the web interface isn’t very easy-to-use, although Windows and Mac users can download a desktop app to drag-and-drop files easily.
Price: 15GB free. 100GB for $1.99 a month (£1.59, around AU$2.50). 1TB for $9.99 a month (£8, around AU$13). 10TB for $99.99 a month (£74, around AU$130).
Puts a premium on security
With an insanely generous free tier and a simple drag-and-drop interface, New Zealand-based Mega is one of the cloud storage heavyweights. There’s a handy mobile app to allow you to upload files and photos, as well as sync clients with desktop machines.
Mega claims that all data stored in its cloud is encrypted on your device before it reaches the firm’s servers. As the company has released the source code to its sync client, experts can check that there are no vulnerabilities.
Price: 50GB free. 200GB for $6 a month (£4.50, €4.99, around AU$7.50). 1TB for $12 a month (£9, €9.99, around AU$16). 4TB for $23 a month (£17, €19.99, around AU$30). 8TB for $35 a month (£26, €29.99, around AU$46).
Backed by Microsoft and ideal for Windows users
OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) is integrated into Windows 10’s file explorer. You don’t have to download an additional app – it’s there to use out of the box, which is obviously very convenient for those who have made the jump to Microsoft’s newest operating system.
Microsoft’s Photos app can also use OneDrive to sync pictures across all your devices. There’s an app for Android and iOS devices, and there’s even one in the App Store for Mac users (although it has received mixed reviews).
Price: 5GB free. 50GB for $3 a month (£1.99, around AU$4). 1TB for $8 a month (£5.99, around AU$11). 5TB for $11 a month (£7.99, around AU$14)
Apple’s competitively priced cloud storage locker
If you want to back up your iPhone to iCloud, you’ll need more than the free 5GB allowance Apple gives you, but compared to rivals iCloud prices are very reasonable.
The Mac Finder app integrates iCloud Drive, where you can store any files you wish. Documents created in the iWork office suite are also saved to iCloud and can sync across your devices. Windows users can also sync their files with iCloud Drive using the official client, and access the iWork apps on the iCloud website.
Price: 5GB free. 50GB for $0.99 a month (£0.79, AU$1.49). 200GB for $2.99 (£2.24, AU$4). 2TB for $9.99 (£8, AU$13)