If you didn't know much about Cloud storage, then the media storm surrounding the launch of Google Drive would suggest you are now well aware of the concept. What you may not realise is that Google Drive arrives late into a crowded market and with many key features missing. So which Cloud storage service should you actually use?
The reigning king is Dropbox, a service whose rise we covered just last month. Dropbox has been on the market since 2008 and attained more than 50m users. Its key is both its simplicity and ubiquity with it appearing on every major operating system: computer, smartphone and tablet. Google clearly thinks it can challenge Dropbox though and it is not alone. Microsoft's SkyDrive service offers similar functionality and was actually first on the scene launching in 2007. At the opposite end of the scale we have iCloud, Apple's Cloud storage and backup system for Mac OS X and iOS devices which was released only in October last year.
The sector is not limited to rivals from mega corporations either. Independent company SugarSync has been around for as long as Dropbox and gained numerous fans for its comprehensive functionality. Meanwhile security specialist Trend Micro has managed to win hearts and minds honing its security expertise with potent underdog 'SafeSync'.
Which to choose can therefore be a matter of personal requirements, but we have found some universal elements to help make your decision that little bit easier:
Capacity - as the saying goes, size matters so how much storage is available on each platform and what are the limits on individual file sizes, if any?
Functionality - what can each Cloud service do beyond being a big online hard drive?
Availability - Cloud storage and synchronisation is meant to make your files available anywhere, but is that really the case?
Privacy - upload your data to a Cloud storage service and what can be done with it? Do you even still own it?
Pricing - how much free data is offered and is it good value to upgrade to large amounts?
Much as 'Google' has become a byword for Internet searches so 'Dropbox' for many has come to represent all Cloud storage services. A start-up by MIT graduates five years ago, Dropbox thrives due to its focus on simplicity and ubiquity but has it been resting on its laurels?
The plaudits for its ease of use and availability are well earned. Dropbox remains the most intuitive Cloud storage service on the market giving users a folder into which anything added or deleted is synchronised with all their other computers and mobile devices. The newly redesigned website is elegant too and no service matches Dropbox's availability. Official clients exist for Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, Android, iOS, BlackBerry and its API has allowed third parties to construct apps for Windows Phone, Symbian and even webOS and Maemo.
Dropbox also isn’t lacking in functionality. It offers file encryption, file and folder collaboration, public file sharing and direct media streaming though only for common formats like MP3, AAC and AVI and each file must be started individually.
More of a real world problem for Dropbox is that of capacity and cost. Dropbox offers up to 100GB of storage space to consumers and up to 1TB to business customers, but free storage is just 2GB, which is among the lowest in the sector. Furthermore Dropbox pricing looks increasingly out of touch as competition heats up. 50GB and 100GB for $99 and $199 per year respectively, makes Dropbox the most expensive Cloud storage service available.
The upside is that users can gain free space for referrals with free account holders getting half a gigabyte per referral up to a maximum of 18GB and with paying customers awarded 1GB up to a maximum of 32GB. Dropbox also gains further points for imposing no maximum file size on its users other than 300MB if uploading via a web browser.
Dropbox remains the most accessible and polished Cloud storage and synchronisation service available, but you pay a significant premium for it. Media playback needs to be improved and as major players refine their offerings and fight a price war, Dropbox will need all its powers of invention to stay ahead.
Google has been criticised for the lateness of Drive, but Apple's iCloud only beat it to market by six months. It replaced the widely criticised MobileMe service, which has existed in various forms since 2000, but only with iCloud did it take on the true Cloud storage and synchronisation functionality that categorises the rest of the market.
The first thing to say about iCloud is it is quintessentially Apple. This means it has a laser-like focus on the company's products and devices and absolutely no inclination to play outside of Apple's tightly managed, but beautifully landscaped, walled garden. As such iCloud is designed to only play nice with Apple hardware and software, though there are notable benefits to this approach.
Most commendable is iCloud's ability to completely backup the settings and data from your Mac, iPad, iPhone or iPod touch automatically. It means should you lose or break a device or simply buy a new one, you can log into iCloud and everything is seamlessly restored. This is a huge plus for iCloud and takes it beyond the simple data storage and sync role of other services. Due to Apple's exclusivity it effectively has no rival.
In some ways this makes iCloud the most advanced Cloud storage service available, the problem is in others it is by far the most limited. Most obviously this manifests itself in document storage since there is no accessible folder structure, limited file format support and only content created in apps and programs can be uploaded. In addition iCloud does not save file versions so deleted files are lost and media streaming is a fudge job requiring files to be downloaded first before they can be played. This is improved in conjunction with iTunes Match, a service that lets you store your entire music collection in the Cloud, but it requires a further outlay of £21.99 per year.
All of which brings us to cost. Despite being famously 'premium' iCloud is reasonably good value: 5GB is provided free while content purchased from Apple does not count towards this total. Beyond this a further 20GB is £28 per year, 50GB is £70 per year and there are no file size restrictions.
As for privacy Apple mirrors Dropbox's approach: you retain ownership of your data and access is only granted to provide Apple with the permissions required to supply the services. An exception is Apple's insistence that it can delete anything it deems 'objectionable' content. Ultimately if you use Apple products you have long put up with worse.
iCloud has a captive audience, but it is also a limited one because of its restrictions to Apple hardware and software. Its backup solution is the most comprehensive on the market restoring whole devices, but in almost every other regard iCloud is a bare bones service.
While Dropbox gets all the headlines, we can't help but feel sorry for Microsoft as its SkyDrive service actually hit the market a year before the ambitious start-up. Microsoft has also long used its corporate muscle to outperform Dropbox in some significant ways.
Much like Microsoft itself, the biggest element SkyDrive has going for it is capacity. Up until this month all SkyDrive owners were given a whopping 25GB for free and while this has now been reduced to 7GB, it remains 3.5x more than Dropbox and almost 50 per cent more than anyone else. Additionally SkyDrive pricing is an industry low with just £6, £16 and £32 per year for a further 20GB, 50GB or 100GB respectively. There is a catch, Microsoft imposes a 2GB maximum file size and while this won't hurt the majority of users, it does feel unnecessary.
Where SkyDrive takes further hits is in availability. Windows, Windows Phone, Mac OS X and iOS clients are offered, but Linux, BlackBerry and even Android support have so far been overlooked. This is a shame became SkyDrive has some impressive functionality including media streaming of common codecs, file and folder sharing and collaboration as well as the ability to sync multiple computer folders not just its own - something not offered by Dropbox.
Cleverly Microsoft has also tied SkyDrive in with Microsoft Office Web Apps so documents can not only be viewed, but also composed and edited through both the SkyDrive website and Windows Phone. Furthermore it keeps up to 25 versions of a file at any one time in the event some are accidentally damaged or deleted. Where it has missed a trick is the lack of tighter integration with Xbox Live and Windows/Windows Phone as a system wide backup platform like iCloud.
When it comes to privacy we are again on familiar ground. Microsoft claims no ownership of your content, but reserves the right "to use, modify, adapt, reproduce, distribute, and display content posted on the service solely to the extent necessary to provide the service." Where it does come down hard is copyright infringement, something of a grey area with other services, with Microsoft stating "If you share content on the service in a way that infringes others' copyrights, other intellectual property rights, or privacy rights, you're breaching this contract."
SkyDrive is a service that has been surprisingly ignored by users over the years and it combines great Microsoft Office integration with class leading free storage and bargain pricing for additional capacity. Its weak spot is platform support, which is both frustrating and baffling, but we have great expectations for SkyDrive as the competition heats up.
While Microsoft has the right to feel aggrieved by SkyDrive's relative obscurity, SugarSync is entitled to be absolutely furious. A phoenix from the ashes of the 'Sharpcast' photo sharing service, which closed in 2009, SugarSync has struggled to get mass market awareness despite long being a favourite with techies and consistent group test winner. On all counts we can see why.
First the good. SugarSync is arguably the most complete Cloud storage and synchronisation service currently available. It starts off well by offering users 5GB of free storage and follows this up with support for a vast array of platforms including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Symbian. There is even a plug-in for Outlook as well as access via the SugarSync website. All of which makes its lack of support for Linux somewhat bizarre.
Overlook this and the functionality is excellent. Rather than a single folder, Windows and Mac users can select any folders on their system and they will be automatically synchronised and backed up. Files and folders can be publicly shared and password restrictions added, something only Trend Micro's SafeSync offers out of this selection of services. SugarSync tracks files changes as well. This is limited to five versions of each file, but that should be more than enough.
Where we were less impressed was media streaming as files must be downloaded on mobile apps in order to stream and then only codecs natively supported will work. In terms of pricing SugarSync is more middle of the road. A further 30GB, 60GB, 100GB or 150GB can be purchased for $50, $100, $150 or $250 per year making it cheaper than Dropbox, but far more expensive than SkyDrive.
SugarSync has wide availability, a strong suite of features and for those in need of its advanced options it is a good choice. Against this pricing for additional storage is unremarkable, media streaming is basic and it really needs to work on the design of its service and apps which will otherwise continue scare off the less technically minded.
You can tell when a sector is gaining momentum because all the major players move in. So credit goes to Amazon in 2012 for being very much one of them. Sadly Amazon's 'Cloud Drive' is the currently the runt of the Cloud storage litter.
This isn't to say Cloud Drive is a total write off, more to the point it simply feels like a product still in beta. The foundations are in place: Amazon offers 5GB of storage for free with 20GB, 50GB and 100GB upgrades available for a very reasonable $20, $50 or $100 per year. Amazon goes a step further too with 200GB, 500GB and 1TB options for $200, $500 and $1000 to maintain a simple $1 per gigabyte price policy. A little like iCloud, Amazon also doesn't count any digital purchases made through its store towards your allocation and these purchases are automatically uploaded.
The problem is from here it goes largely downhill. Despite all this storage Amazon imposes a 2GB maximum file size, which means while you will be ok purchasing HD films directly you won't be able to upload your own. In addition Amazon has no desktop software or mobile apps so all uploading and access to your content comes via the web browser. In fact the only really useful (but common) functionality is it does track file versions of documents so they can be restored.
Where Cloud Drive does aim to stand apart from its rivals is the media viewing experience. Photos can be viewed in gallery format and slideshow options, but the main event: 'Cloud Player' for music and video, is so far limited to US customers only. A timeframe for international roll out is hard to guess because the service has already been available for more than a year.
It is hard to judge Amazon Cloud Drive because it is clearly an unfinished product with little value to users outside of the US. Regular Amazon customers would be wise to sign up for the free storage, but no-one will need to tell the ambitious retailer that significant upgrades must be made before it will be competitive.
Much has been made of the multinational giants striding into the Cloud storage sector and throwing their weight around, but what we love about technology is that good, old fashioned innovation always finds a way to come through. SafeSync is a perfect example of this.
The service comes as a result of security specialist Trend Micro buying Humyo in 2010 and it combines its online nous with the latter's feature rich foundations. Consequently SafeSync is the only Cloud storage service on the market that operates its own EU and US data centres and doubles this up with password protection on all shared files.
Interestingly for those who couldn't care less who accesses their files, SafeSync remains a surprisingly compelling choice. For a start the choice of storage options is vast and pricing is among the most competitive in the sector. 20GB, 50GB, 100GB, 250GB and 500GB capacities are on offer and SafeSync differs by giving discount on these plans to anyone who signs up for two years instead of one.
As such 100GB is priced at a very reasonable £49.98, but signing up for two years is just £74.95. At the top end 500GB is £249.99 or two years for £374.75 which works out as just 30 per cent more per year than Dropbox charges for 100GB while two years for 250GB (£249.88) is less. There is also no restriction to the size of file you can upload.
Core functionality is good too. SafeSync copies its rivals by installing a folder on your desktop with all content synchronised online and across your devices. There is currently Mac OS X, Windows, iOS and Android support, but Linux, Windows Phone and most surprisingly BlackBerry (where you would expect SafeSync's security focus to find a lot of support) are significant omissions.
While platform support may be limited, what is there is excellent. The biggest winner is the notoriously codec-limited iOS as virtually any form of media will stream because the app converts incompatible file types in real time. As for audio, continuous playback is supported by automatically detecting any audio files in the same folder and creating a playlist. If we are being picky streaming video can be pixelated at times, particularly through the website player and the web UI is drab, taking its cue more from SugarSync than Dropbox.
SafeSync mixes industry best security with large storage capacities at compelling prices and wraps it up with exceptional media streaming. The web UI is clunky and more mobile formats need to be supported, but this is certainly the dark horse of this group test.
Developer: Trend Micro
Rumours about Google Drive have been circulating since March 2006, which would have made it the oldest service on test. Almost six years later and an official launch in April 2012 makes it the youngest. Has the wait been worth it? Potentially...
Google Drive pitches itself under the slogan 'Keep everything. Share anything.' It is simple and it sums up Drive's limits and virtues well. On the plus side Drive gives users 5GB of storage free, a fair amount but not revelatory considering Gmail originally launched with a mould breaking 1GB. Then again Drive's premium capacities are well priced. 25GB is $2.49pm ($29.88 yearly), 100GB is $4.99pm ($59.88 yearly) and 1TB is offered for $49.99pm ($599.88 yearly) making it the cheapest 1TB solution.
Marring this only slightly is a 10GB maximum file size, which will impact just the biggest HD movies. Film buffs get a strong start though as AVI and MKV streaming has been supported from the off and Drive has tight integration with Google Docs. This means all Microsoft Office file formats are both viewable and editable giving it flexibility only SkyDrive can match.
Google also survives a typical Google weak point: privacy. Much like the other services here it stresses that you retain ownership of your files and they will only be accessed "for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones." Promoting is the question mark here, but it would be business suicide to compromise Drive files publicly for marketing purposes.
Where Drive tends to crash is in relation to its newness. The company is well known for high profile beta testing and despite six years of rumours it launches feeling rough around the edges. Notably there is Windows and Mac OS X support, but on mobile there is only an Android app at present with an iOS app in development. In addition Drive supports no streaming playback of audio files and its desktop folder has no upload status indication so it is a case of refreshing the web browser to see if uploads are finished.
In its current form Drive may not have enough to tempt away devoted Dropbox and SkyDrive users, but it is off to a good start. Google clearly has big plans for Drive, notably future integration with Chrome OS and Android, and its cheap storage prices and huge resources make it the one to watch.
Despite the scale of this test it remains just a drop in the ocean with over 50 Cloud storage services now on the market. There is already a pattern emerging: the corporations looking to tie Cloud storage into their existing services and the independents looking to win through because of the innovation their neutrality affords.
Furthermore what this test reveals is that competition is fierce. Evolution is so rapid and new features are being added so quickly that these ratings may not last long. As a consequence of this, industry leader Dropbox may be the most popular service, but for new users SkyDrive, SugarSync and SafeSync all offer more complete feature sets and cheaper costs for additional storage. Dropbox still has the widest platform support and remains the most intuitive, but it needs to lower its pricing, increase capacity options and significantly upgrade its media streaming.
Apple's iCloud and Amazon Cloud Drive remain oddities. The former is only interested in appealing to Apple devices, but its uniqueness and complete backup service makes it invaluable for them. Amazon Cloud Drive on the other hand may be more than a year old, but it remains little more than a hard drive in the sky with only US customers benefiting from its slick media playback capabilities. For now it is one to avoid.
SkyDrive is extremely powerful and its integration with Microsoft Office Web Apps makes it the best option for those wishing to work in the Cloud. Extra storage is also great value, but its baffling decision to ignore Android will rule out millions of potential customers. It is a similar story with Google Drive as it smoothly ties into Google Docs, but has launched with rough edges, which may cool initial interest.
Ultimately then for the true neutral SugarSync and SafeSync combine the widest feature sets, smart mobile apps and independence from other services with class leading security. Against this, their web interfaces have been hit by the ugly stick, but SafeSync has the better iOS and Android apps and superior media streaming.
All of which suggests SafeSync is the winner, but the actual answer is more complex. Each service here has a different focus and as such often deliberate strengths and weaknesses. Consequently the service most applicable to you should have already leapt off the page based on your own particular needs, combination of hardware, software and technical knowledge. If it hasn't don't fear, each is evolving so quickly there is a good chance every single one will look appealing soon.