There are more online storage, sharing and backup services than you can shake a stick at these days, and it can be quite confusing to decide which is right for you. Fortunately, many offer a free or trial option so you can try it out before committing.
We've split this feature into sections, comparing services that are best for: photos, music, file sharing, synchronisation, backup, large files and collaboration, so you're sure to find useful information no matter what your plans.
Truth be told, you may well need to sign up for more than one service since one that's designed to hold your music collection isn't going to double as a synchronisation tool to keep your files updated across multiple computers and handheld devices.
Again, it's well worth using free trials to see what works best for you. Many of the companies mentioned here are US-based, but we've converted the monthly or yearly subscription prices into UK pounds so you can more easily compare everything to see which is the best value for the amount of data you need to store.
Some services provide a fixed (and limited) amount of storage - typically a couple of gigabytes - if you're not paying, but some such as Dropbox allows you to earn more free storage through friend referral schemes and other activities.
For file sending services, free versions are generally time-limited, so your files are deleted after a short period of time. A particularly nifty solution if you're looking to spend as little as possible is CrashPlan. This allows you to back up your files to a friend or family member's computer (you should probably repay the favour by letting them do the same with your computer), for no cost at all.
Of course, when you do pay for cloud storage, you can expect not just extra storage space, but guarantees that your files will remain safe from deletion and prying eyes. Plus, you don't have to worry about hard drives failing or running or storing files on outdated media since that's all taken care of behind the scenes.
Whatever your needs, read on and discover the right online service for you.
Cloud storage services: Share and Synch
The cloud delivers convenience, and nothing is more convenient than synchronizing files stored on multiple computers and accessing those files from any PC, smartphone, or tablet with Internet access. We tested the top five syncing services.
Dropbox: Simplicity is one of Dropbox’s greatest strengths. Install the service on your PC, and it plops a virtual folder on your desktop (and in your Favorites list).
The folder acts just as any other folder, except that it automatically uploads and syncs the files that you put into your online account. Changes upload in real time, so you need never worry about working with an outdated file.
With a free account you get only 2GB of storage. If you want more, you have to pony up for a paid account; prices range from $10 (around £6) per month for 100GB to $50 (about £31) per month for 500GB. Pestering your family and friends to open accounts will earn you a 500MB bonus per referral, up to an additional 16GB.
One great feature: Dropbox keeps a history of file changes, so you can roll back to a previous version at any time. And the tech-savvy can come up with a million and one creative ways to use Dropbox.
For example, you might integrate it with a BitTorrent client to remotely download torrent files. First, set your BitTorrent client on your home PC to monitor a folder on your Dropbox account and to automatically open any torrent file copied to it. Then, while you’re at work or travelling, use your remote PC to copy the torrent file to Dropbox, and your home PC will begin downloading that file the next time Dropbox syncs.
On the down side, when you share a folder you can’t set a password or give some people permission to edit files while withholding permission from others.
You also can’t upload files to your Dropbox account via email. If neither of those limitations is a deal-breaker for you, Dropbox is a strong contender.
SkyDrive: Are you planning to subscribe to Microsoft’s Office 365 or buy Office 2013 when the new suites are available later this year? If so, SkyDrive is the file-sharing service for you.
To use it you must have a Windows Live account, and so must any colleagues you authorise to edit files (merely viewing shared documents does not require an account). SkyDrive allots 7GB of storage for free accounts, and you get 20GB more with either version of the Office suite.
Even without that commitment, upgrades of 20GB to 100GB cost just $10 (£6) to $50 (£31) per year, not per month. That’s great value.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has been paring down its service. SkyDrive’s free storage quota, for example, was once 25GB (existing customers were grandfathered into the original cap if they were using more than 4GB as of 1 April 2012, or if they took advantage of a Microsoft loyalty offer, which has since expired).
The company also zapped a feature that enabled users to publish their photos to SkyDrive through email. The iOS apps pick up the slack here (although the absence of Android support is annoying), but why take away a useful feature that’s already built?
Box: Anyone can register an account with Box and begin using it for free, but to take advantage of its robust collaboration and security features you must open a paid Business or Enterprise account, starting at $15 (around £9) per month, per user, with a minimum of three users.
Paying unlocks a truckload of enhancements, including Google Apps integration and other tools that business users will find practical. The admin console, for example, lets an IT administrator add users and manage in bulk their settings.
Personal accounts of up to 5GB are free; if you need more space, Box offers 25GB for $10 (£6) per month and 50GB for $20 (£12) per month – that’s the lowest storage capacity to the pound among the five services in this category.
With a Personal account, you can share your files with other people, with or without giving them editing privileges, and you can restrict sharing to collaborators only. Box also provides the option of restricting file previews or downloads, but you’re not allowed to set passwords or automatic expiration dates unless you have a paid account.
SugarSync: As sweet as its name, SugarSync is like Dropbox with extra toppings. Rather than limiting file synching to one virtual folder, SugarSync lets you sync any folder on your PC, including your Desktop folder.
Obsessive-compulsive types will love the File Manager’s ability to organise scattered files and folders from numerous synched devices into a single handy window on your desktop. You can also open a file stored on a remote PC, edit it, and save it back to that computer without consuming permanent storage space on the PC you’re using.
Road warriors will appreciate SugarSync’s support for all the major mobile platforms, including BlackBerry and Symbian. You’ll even find a mobile app built for the Kindle Fire. And you’ll rest easy knowing that your top-secret recipes and revealing photos are securely encrypted in transit and storage.
The tools for sharing files with other people are equally snazzy, although not as full-featured as what you get with Box’s Business or Enterprise accounts. SugarSync lets you share folders either as albums that anyone can view and download from, or as synched folders that require a SugarSync account. If you choose the latter, you can set permissions and passwords.
MediaFire: Unlimited storage and downloads sound enticing, until you realise that MediaFire has little else to offer, at least to free users. The biggest deal-breaker for MediaFire free users is that files vanish after 30 days. The $9 (£6)-per-month Pro and $49 (£30)-per-month Business accounts dispense with the disappearing act and hold on to files forever.
The list of negatives is long. You can’t place restrictions on shared files, no mobile apps are available, files aren’t encrypted in transit or storage, and MediaFire doesn’t keep a history of changes. With a free account files must be less than 200MB, too.
Next page: Share and Collaborate cloud services
Cloud storage services: Share and Collaborate
Emailing documents back and forth or using an FTP server to collaborate on projects is slow and cumbersome. Collaborating in the cloud is fast and easy. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it.
Google Drive: As you might expect, the assumption behind Google Drive is that everyone lives in a Google universe. If you and your colleagues often find yourselves knee-deep in Google Docs rather than Microsoft Word, Google Drive won’t interfere with your mojo.
If the reverse is true, however, Google Drive makes collaboration difficult. Upload a Word .docx document, for instance, and the file will appear as read-only in Google Drive. To make any changes, you must convert the file to Google’s document format. Now you have two versions of the same file taking up twice as much space in the cloud, and leaving everyone to wonder which file they should work on.
Office 365: Microsoft’s Office 365 consists of web versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Lync and SharePoint. The package is aimed at businesses whose employees are accustomed to using Microsoft apps, and a subscription costs £3.90 per month, per user.
The next version of Office 365 will target consumers as well as businesses, and it will be designed to run on tablets as well as on desktop and laptop PCs. Although Microsoft has not announced pricing for the new version of Office 365, but the company has stated that a subscription to the service will include licences to install Microsoft’s Office 2013 suite on up to five devices. Priced right, it could offer fabulous value.
Zoho: You might think of Zoho as the poor man’s Office 365. The service is free for personal use, and it has all the essential web-based apps, such as a shared calendar. Its interface is straightforward, and guides introduce you to various functions, such as reverting to a previous file version. If you despise Microsoft’s Ribbon, you’ll find Zoho a welcome respite. Although you need a premium plan to share files with non-Zoho users, you can collaborate with fellow Zoho account holders in real-time without spending a penny.
We aren’t smitten, though. Files are encrypted only in transit, not when they are on Zoho’s servers. And Zoho provides a meagre 1GB of storage; if you want more space, you must subscribe to a paid account at around £2 per user, per month (which also gives you a collection of features and administrative tools), and pay an additional £2 per month for another 5GB of storage.
Next page: Cloud services for sending large files
Cloud storage services: Send large files
Bounced email messages, bloated inboxes, and security concerns are some of the reasons why you might not want to send blimp-size attachments. These three file-delivery services offer an alternative means of sending large files over the internet.
RapidShare: It’s tough to overlook the elephant in the room – RapidShare is often lumped in with MegaUpload, a file-hosting service that was recently stopped for a number of alleged criminal misdeeds. RapidShare insists its business is on the level, and we have no knowledge to the contrary.
RapidShare’s greatest appeal is that the service places no limit on file sizes (at least until some clown ruins the fun by trying to send a petabyte of data). The caveat for free account holders: RapidShare will delete your files after 30 days.
Free accounts have other restrictions, too. Your files aren’t encrypted during transfer, the transfer speeds are slow, and the administrative tools are limited. You won’t have to worry about any of those issues if you pay for an account; fees range from around £3.50 to £8 per month (converted from Euro), depending on how many months you’re willing to pay for up front.
Sendspace: Don’t need a full-featured file-sending service? Consider Sendspace. Registration is optional, as is installing the desktop software. Doing both unlocks advanced features for monitoring and editing your files.
If you don’t want to register for an account or install the software, just direct your browser to Sendspace’s home page and start dragging-and-dropping files right inside your browser, or click the Browse button to navigate your hard drive and select the files that way.
Sendspace’s free service accepts up to 20 files at a time, each of which can be as large as 300MB, and it retains each item for 30 days, provided that someone downloads them at least once during that period of time.
Your attachments won’t be encrypted, and the download page is littered with advertisements, but if you’re just looking to send large files from point A to point B then Sendspace is a serviceable option.
YouSendIt: Among the file-sending services we checked out, YouSendIt is the only one that comes with both a desktop app and an Outlook plug-in.
Most of its best features are reserved for paying customers, though. Penny-pinchers are limited to 50MB file transfers, 2GB of overall storage, and few extras; per-use fees apply to other features that are bundled with the paid accounts, including password protection (£2.50 per use), a 2GB file-size cap (£6 per use), and delivery receipts (£2.50 per use). All prices are converted from dollars.
YouSendIt’s Pro plan (£6 per month) raises the maximum file size to 2GB, bumps up the storage cap to 5GB, and permits you to set file-expiration dates. The service’s Pro Plus plan (roughly £9 per month) adds download tracking, return receipts and phone support, and it eliminates the storage cap. Under all three plans, your files will be encrypted during transit and while they reside on YouSendIt’s servers.
Next page: Best cloud services for backing up your PC
Cloud storage services: Back up your PC
Back up your PC
You can lose your valuable data in plenty of ways, including hard-drive failure, theft (laptops are particularly vulnerable), and catastrophe (fire, flood or earthquake). Although the cloud can’t rebuild your home or office after a disaster, it can provide a safe haven for your files.
Mozy: With this service, you can store up to 2GB of data on a free plan – that’s enough space for 300 photos, by Mozy’s estimation. Mozy also offers 50GB of storage for £5 per month (for one PC) and 125GB for £8 per month (for three PCs). Only computers running Windows or OS X need apply: Mozy doesn’t support Linux machines.
Mozy’s desktop application is simple to navigate. The service can back up your data by file type (videos, photos and so on), or you can drill down and select specific files and folders. You get no option, unfortunately, for backing up programs or the operating system. Another major drawback is that you must perform all backups online; you can’t copy your files to an external drive and then ship your backup to Mozy. The service’s biggest sin, however, is that it permanently removes deleted files after 30 days.
CrashPlan: Of the three online backup services we examined, CrashPlan is the only one that provides a genuinely useful free account (most users will find inadequate Mozy’s 2GB of free backup space). There’s a catch to CrashPlan’s free offering, though: you must find family members or friends who are willing to host your backups on their PCs (CrashPlan allows you to back up to multiple destinations, including a local NAS device).
CrashPlan supports more operating systems than most other service providers, including Windows, Mac, Linux and even Solaris. Paid service plans, which let you back up to CrashPlan’s servers, cost $25 (around £15) per year for up to 10GB of backup storage and $50 (around £31) per year for unlimited backups.
CrashPlan’s main appeal lies in the degree of control it allows users to exert over their backups. With this service, you can manage everything from how often CrashPlan
checks for new file versions (from once a minute to once a day) to how frequently the service purges deleted files.
Power users will enjoy tweaking the software’s performance settings, controlling how many CPU cycles CrashPlan consumes while the PC is idle or when you’re working on other tasks, and even managing its outbound-bandwidth consumption.
Carbonite: Having a mirror image of your entire Windows environment (the operating system, all your programs and your data files) is great if something goes terribly wrong, and Carbonite will build such an image for you if you subscribe to its HomePlus ($99 per year, roughly £60) or HomePremier ($149 per year, about £90) plan and provide an external drive.
Once you have that image, we recommend storing the drive offsite, with a friend or in a safe deposit box. Carbonite also offers an optional courier service with its HomePremier plan, enabling you to store your backups on an external drive at Carbonite’s location (shipping charges apply). If you’d rather stick to a more basic backup arrangement, Carbonite has a $59 (£36)-per-year Home plan, too.
The service’s tight integration with Windows is our favourite feature. For example, you can right-click any file on your machine and instruct Carbonite to back it
up straight away. We also like having the ability to instruct Carbonite to take a nap during specific hours, to prevent it from hogging the internet connection at peak times. And all three Carbonite plans include unlimited storage.
Next page: Cloud services for storing and sharing digital photos
Cloud storage services: Store and share photos
Digital photography has made it possible to document nearly every event, without spending a fortune on film. But this surfeit of photos presents a challenge, too: what’s the best way to share them all?
Flickr: You’ll find a strong community on the Yahoo-owned Flickr, which is home to more than 50 million members. The user-friendly interface is easy for anyone to use, and the basic service is free, albeit with limitations.
You can upload 300MB worth of photos a month, with no photo exceeding 30MB; and you can upload two videos a month, each no longer than 90 seconds and no larger than 150MB. The Pro version has no storage limits and costs from just a pound per month if you pay for two years up front.
Flickr will compress photos only if they exceed the file-size limits; otherwise, it leaves them alone. Where Flickr feels light is in its advanced controls. It lacks a watermarking option, for instance, and you can’t specify who can download your photos.
Photobucket: Like Flickr, Photobucket is available in free (ad-supported) and paid (no-ad) versions. The free version of Photobucket lets you upload many more images than Flickr: 10GB per month.
However, you’ll also see many more ads here than on Flickr. In addition to a persistent banner ad, most pages have at least one pop-up ad. Photobucket’s Java-based bulk uploader tool conveniently recreates your system’s file structure in your browser and displays only uploadable photos, but its omission of drag-and-drop support is a drag.
SmugMug: Providing a mind-boggling array of features, SmugMug is a serious tool for serious photographers.
It’s also the right choice if you like money, since it offers the potential to earn cash if you have an eye like Ansel Adams and want to sell your photos on prints, mouse pads, coasters, T-shirts, or other items. Set your price per item, or an overall profit percentage, and watch as SmugMug helps to fatten your wallet.
SmugMug also assists you in sprucing up your photos with colour effects, watermarks and basic editing tools. You can display your photo stream in many different ways, and exert fine control over who can download your snapshots and which image sizes are available to viewers.
The catch: SmugMug is a subscription-only service, starting at $40 (around £25) per year.
Next page: Cloud services for storing and streaming music
Cloud storage services: Store and stream music
Online music lockers not only back up your music library, but also let you listen to it on most any device, anywhere you have internet access. All three of the services we looked at work on PCs and Macs; mobile device support is more fractured, however.
Google Music: This is part of Google Play, and lets you store up to 20,000 songs, with a maximum per-song file size of 250MB. Songs purchased from Google don’t count against this quota, but currently Google offers no means of buying more storage.
If you rip your CDs and encode them to FLAC, OGG or AAC, Google Play’s Music Manager for Windows, Mac and Linux will transcode your tracks to 320kbps MP3s (you’ll get a lower bit rate with a slow internet connection). What Google Play won’t do is play nice with iOS or Windows Phone 7 devices – hardly surprising.
Apple iCloud: Just as Google Play is all about Android, iCloud is limited to iOS. Fair enough, but many users will object to having to purchase an iTunes Match subscription (£22 per year) to sync their entire music libraries to iCloud. Without that, you can stream only the music you’ve bought through iTunes.
The service will stream all the tracks in your iCloud library as 256kbps AAC, regardless of how you originally encoded them (that’s fine if you encoded them at a lower bit rate, but terrible if you encoded them using a lossless codec).
Although Apple gives you 5GB of storage space, everything you store in iCloud counts against that quota. An additional 10-, 20-, or 50GB costs £13, £28 or £70 per year.
Amazon Cloud Player: Amazon Cloud Player is the most agnostic music service, supporting the Kindle Fire, Android devices, iPhones and the iPod touch.
Although an iPad version isn’t yet available, the web interface works fine on mobile Safari (albeit without some Flash functionality). It leaves Windows Phone and BlackBerry users out in the cold, though.
Amazon customers enjoy free storage for 250 songs; you can purchase storage for 250,000 tracks for £22 per year. Songs bought through Amazon don’t count against your data cap. Unfortunately, Cloud Player supports only MP3 and AAC files, leaving it up to you to convert unsupported formats.