Cloud Storage: 5 Alternatives, What’s in It for You?

Cloud Storage: 5 Alternatives, What's in It for You?

It’s cloud storage week, with Dropbox rolling out an update that improves how its users can share things, Microsoft’s SkyDrive getting dedicated desktop apps and a revamped feature set, and Google Drive finally making its long-awaited debut. The market suddenly got much more competitive perhaps even before we all realized it was necessary.

Although there are many more options out there, some serving specific niches, we’ve hand-picked what arguably are the most high-profile and consumer-friendly cloud storage services currently out. We took them for a spin to see how well they stack against each other, first with a brief overview on the table below and later in better detail, with impressions and commentary to give you a better idea of which one may fit your needs best.

Dropbox Google Drive iCloud SkyDrive SugarSync
Free storage 2GB 5GB 5GB 7GB
(25GB limited time offer)
5GB
Additional storage (price per year) 50GB ($99);
100GB ($199)
25GB ($30);
100GB ($60)
10GB ($20);
20GB ($40);
50GB ($100)
20GB ($10);
50GB ($25);
100GB ($50)
30GB ($50);
60GB ($100);
100GB ($150)
File size limit 300MB via browser, unlimited from desktop 10GB 25MB free accounts, 250MB paid users 2GB
Desktop apps Windows, OS X, Linux Windows, OS X Windows, OS X Windows, OS X Windows, OS X
Mobile apps iOS, Android, BlackBerry Android, iOS iOS Windows Phone, iOS iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone
Web interface Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Version tracking Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Multiple folder sync No No No Sort of Yes
Sync over LAN Yes No Yes No No
Stream to mobile Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Public sharing Yes Yes No Yes Yes
File/folder collaboration Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Password protect file sharing No No No No Yes
Dropbox

Dropbox wasn’t the first cloud-based storage service in the market, but it certainly was the one that pioneered the seamless one-folder synchronization approach that everyone is following now: toss any file into a preset folder and it automatically appears in any other device connected to your account. Make an edit and everything synchronizes instantaneously. Famous for its simplicity and ease of use, Dropbox doesn’t fall behind when it comes to features either, with a version tracking system, easy sharing, collaboration options, and more.

Performance-wise Dropbox offers more flexibility than most competing services. You can tweak how fast it uploads and downloads files, which is great if you don’t want it to steal bandwidth from other important things, and if two devices are on the same network they will sync much faster over LAN.

 

 

The Dropbox client works the same on every major platform — Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, BlackBerry — and you can also access your files through its clean and capable web interface on any device with a browser. Another key strength is that its popularity has led a lot of third-party developers to integrate Dropbox synchronization functionality into their apps and services using the public API.

Its main drawback? Dropbox offers just 2GB of storage for free, which compares unfavorably to rivals, but you can bump that up to 18GB without spending a dime by referring new users (at 500MB bonus space apiece). Paid storage is also expensive: 50GB or 100GB of extra storage costs $9.99 or $19.99 a month.

Google Drive

The debutant Google Drive offers the same drag-and-drop synchronization capabilities as Dropbox on the desktop, with clients available for Windows and OS X, but its web portion is more robust than the latter. On the web, Drive ties in with Google Docs and another handful of Drive apps for Chrome to support up to 30 types of files, allowing you to view or edit images and videos, work on documents, and more, right inside the browser.

Sharing capabilities are also present, but as far as I can tell you can’t set permissions from the desktop client, so you’ll need to go to the web app and click through a few options depending if you want to send by email, share with other users, or make a file public. You can set files as view-only or make them editable.

 

 

Search is also a big part of Google Drive — again, from the web interface — allowing you to search by document type, owner, and other advanced filters. There’s even OCR capabilities built into the service so Google will scan any images on your Drive account for text and make them searchable, or if Google can decipher the contents of your pictures (a landmark, for example), you can just search by subject and it will come up in the results. That’s a neat feature indeed, although it might turn off more privacy conscious users — especially after checking the TOS.

Google Drive is also available on Android and the iOS client is supposedly on the way. It comes with 5GB of free storage (Google Docs files don’t count towards that limit), and offers upgrade options like $2.49/month for 25GB of extra storage, $4.99/month for 100GB of storage, and 200GB for $9.99/month.

Apple iCloud

Apple’s iCloud lacks many of the features available in cloud storage services like Dropbox or SkyDrive, but still stands to grab a good chunk of the market for a simple reason: its deep integration with iOS. In fact, almost 70% of the 350+ million iDevice users have access to iCloud, with over 100 million using it already.

If you are into the Apple ecosystem this one is a no-brainer. It’s virtually transparent to the user and can keep your mail, contacts, calendar, documents, backups, and more, synchronized and stored in the cloud. Apple’s iWork suite as well as various third-party OS X and iOS apps come with iCloud sync capabilities built in, but aside from those you won’t be able to just throw any type of file into your account. It’s definitely a more streamlined yet closed way to manage your stuff in the cloud.

 

 

Your music, movies, apps, books, and TV shows purchased from iTunes are saved to the cloud but don’t count against your free storage, and you’ll be able to stream that content to your iPhone and iPad. Pay an extra $25 a year for iTunes Match and you’ll be able to store and stream music obtained from other sources, too.

The web interface is more limited compared to other cloud services but it’s there in case you need to quickly check up on you mail, contacts or iWork documents from a browser, or to use the handy “Find My Phone” feature. Otherwise it’s available on Mac, Windows and iOS and comes with 5GB of storage for free.

SkyDrive, SugarSync, Our Picks

SkyDrive

Microsoft’s SkyDrive has been around for a while but just recently it received a major revamp that puts the service in the spotlight once again. New dedicated apps for Windows and OS X integrate into the OS with a folder where users can drop files into. The service now includes the synchronization abilities of Live Mesh as well as its unique “fetch” feature, which enables you to remotely access any file on your computer, even those outside the default SkyDrive folder. Mobile apps are available for iOS and Windows Phone.

 

 

Like Google Drive, SkyDrive’s web interface lets you create and edit documents within the browser for Microsoft Office products like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, and everything is searchable powered by Bing. You can also share files and folders with groups or via public links and set them as view-only or allow edits.

Overall SkyDrive is a very well-rounded cloud storage solution. It comes with 7GB of space, which is already enough to beat the other contenders in this round-up, and if you signed up before April 22 you can bump that to 25GB. Extra storage is also the cheapest all around at $10, $25 and $50 per year for 20GB, 50GB or 100GB.

SugarSync

Another well-established cloud storage provider and perhaps one of the most feature rich services you will find. SugarSync is among the very few that lets users pick folders all over your computer to sync, rather than having users reorganize stuff and throw everything into a single folder. This allows very fine-grained control over what to sync to each device connected to your account.

That extra flexibility brings some added complexity that might turn off novice users — it’s not rocket science but it is a bit more work to manage compared to services like Dropbox that require almost no user intervention.

 

 

Other features include uploading via email (with Outlook integration), no file size limits, media streaming to mobile devices, and the ability to share files and folders with specific users or publicly, with the option to password-protect said files. There’s also version tracking but versions are only saved for 5 days versus 25-30 on all others.

SugarSync is available on Windows and OS X desktops and just about every mobile platform. You get 5GB of free storage out of the box, while additional storage can be had for a monthly fee of $4.99 (30GB), $9.99 (60GB), $14.99 (100GB), $24.99 (250GB), or $39.99 (500GB).

Making some picks

The great thing about having many free cloud storage options is that we don’t really need to pick one single winner. Rather, you should pick whatever meets your needs and has the stronger support for the platforms you use. If you are running low on space you could even combine two or three while sticking in the free tier.

In my case, combining iCloud and Dropbox works just fine. The first because I already have a couple of iDevices and using the cloud to backup my data is as simple as flipping a switch. The second because I’ve been using it for years to store my day-to-day work files and other important stuff I may need access to while on the go. A service like SkyDrive could replace Dropbox for me, but for now at least, since I’m not running low on space, not even the free 25GB are enough incentive to switch.

If I were to pick some winners, however, I’d go for something like this:

  • Ease of use without sacrificing features: Dropbox.
  • Best deal on free and paid storage: SkyDrive
  • Fine-grained control and vast feature set: SugarSync
  • Best browser experience (and no-brainer if you use Google Docs a lot): Google Drive
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