Cloud storage has become an integral part of our modern, mobile lives. Services such as Google Drive, iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive and Box all vie to hold our vital data on their servers, but which one is the best for you? We review the best cloud storage services and see what they have to offer.
With more and more people owning multiple computing devices – laptops, tablets and smartphones, the idea of your data being locked away in the belly of a desktop PC seems antiquated. Cloud storage has freed us from these restraints, ensuring that the files we need are available where and when we want them. Today you can sign up to a bewildering array of free services that offer to automatically upload your smartphone photos to the cloud, sync your documents across multiple devices, and enable you to work collaboratively on the web.
Sharing large files with friends is now easier than ever, as we no longer have to hope that the data we send won’t bounce back due to limits imposed by email servers. Instead we just send a link to files stored within a cloud service and friends or colleagues then have access immediately. In fact, if this is all you want to do then there are the likes of WeTransfer and HighTail that specialise in this area rather than long-term storage.
Choosing which service to use will depend on several factors - your preferred OS, how much space you need, and the levels of security your data requires. In this feature we take a look at the most popular service to see just how much you can get for nothing.
Best cloud storage services 2014: Dropbox
Dropbox is one of the only online storage solutions to offer clients for Linux and Blackberry, alongside the usual Windows, Mac OS X, Android and iOS standards - although an official Windows Phone app still remains elusive. This goes a long way to ensuring that your data can be with you, no matter what flavour of technology you want to use.
The basic, free account comes with a rather small - in comparison to rival services - 2GB of storage. For documents this is still huge, but if you want to store any kind of media – photos, music, or video - it will disappear very fast. You can upgrade to the 100GB plan for around £6 per month, but Dropbox also offers 500MB of additional free storage for each friend you get to sign up to the service - with a limit of 16GB.
Other ways to bolster your account include linking it to Facebook, Twitter, or setting up a Mailbox account (currently offering a 1GB increase). Enabling the camera upload feature will also gain you 3GB, and automatically backup your smartphone/tablet photos to the cloud. It’s also worth looking out for deals with smartphones and tablets: Samsung recently offered 50GB of free Dropbox space when you bought a new handset.
All this space becomes a moot point unless the syncing and storage actually works, but there are no worries there. Dropbox functions by creating a local folder on your device or PC that then syncs with an online version. This means you have all your data available whether you are on or offline. Files appear quickly online once you place them in the Dropbox folder on your PC, and you also have the option of making select files available offline on your tablet or smartphone (they’re all offline by default), with offline editing functionality among the best we’ve seen.
Folders and files can also be shared with friends either by sending them links (these work for non-Dropbox users) which allow them to view the data, or by Sharing the file. An important point to note about sharing is that you can’t set permissions, so files can be edited (and even deleted) by other users.
Dropbox explains that this is because getting consistency across multiple operating systems is problematic, although adding a read-only permission is on the roadmap for the future. Sharing isn’t a total disaster, though, as Dropbox backs up any changes to files for thirty days. So if you need an older version or want to undelete a file, it’s still there. Collaboration is also possible but if two people work on the document at the same time Dropbox will save two separate versions rather than combine them.
Security features include two-step authentication (always worth turning on) and all files held on the Dropbox servers are encrypted by AES 256-bit encryption, albeit employed from Dropbox’s side rather than the user, with SSL for the data being uploaded and downloaded.
Dropbox is an excellent, cross-platform solution that remains a benchmark against which others must compete. It may lack a few of the whistles and bells of its rivals, but it’s rock solid and compatible with so many applications.
Best cloud storage services 2014: Google Drive
In much the same way as OneDrive links into Microsoft products and iCloud to Apple, Google Drive is at the heart of the various online services that Google currently offers.
Free space is generous with 15GB available when you setup your Google account - or link to an existing one. In fact, as Google recently unified its services under one login ID, the chances are you already have a Drive account if you use Gmail, Google Calendar, or even YouTube.
The storage space is shared across all these services, so if you have large attachments on emails then they will count in the 15GB, and enabling the automatic photo backup to Google+ from a smartphone acts the same way.
Google exempts any photos below 2048x2048 resolution, and videos shorter than fifteen minutes, so you could always adjust the settings on your smartphone accordingly and get unlimited storage.
Unlike OneDrive and Dropbox, Google Drive doesn’t have any way of adding storage through referrals or linking your account to social media. There have been plenty of promotions, such as 10GB for free when users downloaded Quick Office, or various mobile phone deals, and the search giant does offer 100GB free for two years if you buy a Chromebook. Google Music – a separate service - allows you to keep 20,000 songs in the cloud for free and not count against your Drive storage.
Drive works in the same fashion as most cloud storage solutions, with a local folder on your PC linked to a duplicate cloud version. Versioning is supported, as is real-time collaboration on documents via the Google Docs app. Clients are available on PC and Mac, with mobile versions for Android and iOS, but Google and Microsoft’s supposed ongoing feud looks to keep the service off Windows Phone for a while to come.
On the whole, the interface across the apps is smart and simple to navigate, with a basic file tree showing where your data is kept. You can choose specific files to be available offline on the mobile versions, and these can be edited - if they were created in Google Docs - then synced when you return online. For other formats (such as Word) you’ll need to open them in another app - thus creating a duplicate copy.
Data stored on Drive is, similarly to Apple, encrypted in 128-bit AES rather than the 256-bit employed by Box, OneDrive, and Dropbox. Google asserts that it won’t pry into the content of your Drive folder unless compelled by law enforcement agencies, and you can set up two-step verification on your account to add another layer of security.
Google Drive: verdict
With 15GB of free storage, Google Drive is the most generous of all the services in this test. If you live in the Google universe then it really is an excellent storage option, particularly if you use Google Docs a lot.
Best cloud storage services 2014: Microsoft OneDrive
Much of the functionality in OneDrive (previously SkyDrive) is similar to Dropbox, with apps available to Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and of course Windows Phone users. Microsoft has also introduced a referral incentive whereby users gain 500MB of storage for every friend that signs up to an account through them.
There's also an additional 3GB offered if you link OneDrive to your mobile phone’s camera roll (are you spotting the theme here?), enabling it to automatically back up your photos online.
One deviation from the Dropbox model is that OneDrive offers over three times as much free storage, 7GB, although the referral system is limited to 5GB so it would top out at 12GB as opposed to the 18GB on Dropbox. Still, either is very useful.
The OneDrive interface is in keeping with Windows 8’s Modern UI design. Lines are clean and you can select between the boxy style or a more traditional file tree. Folders and files can be created on the web, including Office and OneNote formats thanks to tight Office Online integration.
There’s also a social element to the web version, as various popular messaging services are available to be linked to your OneDrive account. This might not improve productivity, but it will make it easy to share files with colleagues. In doing this you can set permissions for each user ranging from read-only to complete editing ability.
If you use Office 2013 then OneDrive supports saving directly to its folder and working collaboratively with others online, even when using the full Office suite. You can also continue to work on a file if you’re away from the PC Office is installed on by choosing to open it in Office Online, all of which is controlled from the OneDrive app.
One nice feature is that you can remotely access files on another PC via the OneDrive website. The target machine needs to be turned on and running OneDrive with the Fetch Files feature enabled, but once you’ve configured this it could be a handy way to control all of your data while on the move.
If privacy is a major concern then it should be noted that Microsoft reserve the right to scan your files to look for what it would deem objectionable content. This could be copyrighted material or things of an explicit nature. Apple has a similar policy, making the two potentially more intrusive than their competitors.
The recent updates to OneDrive help make it a competitive option, especially now that additional free space can be earned. Office integration is extremely useful and the Fetch File feature could become a key component once it matures.
Best cloud storage services 2014: Box
Sometimes mistaken for the similarly named Dropbox, Box has actually been around longer than its more famous counterpart, starting out in 2005. The possible reason for its less well-known stature is that for most of that time the company has focussed on the business side of the market, building up an impressive enterprise reputation.
Box still offers solid personal storage options, however, with a generous 10GB of space for any new account. This isn’t quite as rosy as it sounds though, due to the fact that Box limits the file size to 250MB.
This is markedly lower than the 10GB limits of both Google Drive and Dropbox, with OneDrive’s 2GB limit still plenty for most people. Of course 250MB is more than adequate for most documents and spreadsheets, but if large media files – particularly videos - are part of your plan then this could be a problem.
Uploading a photo library won’t be a problem for the vast majority of users, with the average top-resolution image from a smartphone generally being around 2-5MB, but video is the sticking point. The free account doesn’t support versioning (being able to restore previous versions of a file) – that’s a feature reserved for those paying a subscription.
Upgrading the Personal plan will cost you £7 per month, gleaning you 100GB of storage and a file size limit of 5GB, or you could switch to the Starter plan for £3.50 per month, which also offers 100GB, a slightly lower 2GB file size, but crucially twenty five previous versions of any file.
Functionally, Box is very good. The interface in the mobile apps (available on iOS, Android, Windows, & Blackberry) is slick and well designed. There are plenty of options for creating, uploading and sorting files.
The web portal gives you the ability to create new documents in either Microsoft Office, Google Docs, or web-based formats, which you can then edit in Box via a free, downloadable plug-in.
All your files can be assigned tasks and comments easily from the main page, which could be very useful when you start collaborating with colleagues, another thing Box does very well.
Sharing and linking features are pretty standard, but again you’ll have to upgrade if you want to allocate granular permissions. General security is the standard 256-bit encryption on the servers, with SSL for data in transit.
One of the real benefits of its enterprise background is the excellent range of apps that exist to increase Box’s versatility. There are programs that allow you to link Office directly to Box, so all files are saved there, an FTP app so you can migrate older data onto the site, and a whole host of others that are listed on the website.
There’s a lot to like about Box. The service is fast, solid, and offering 10GB of storage space certainly catches the eye. It’s just a shame that many of the best features - such as versioning - are only available to paying customers.
Best cloud storage services 2014: Apple iCloud
As you might expect, iCloud approaches cloud storage with a distinctly Apple-centric view. Unlike the other services here, iCloud isn’t really a drag and drop-style folder for anything you need to back up. Instead it is linked to various aspects of the company’s devices.
iPhones and iPads have a tightly integrated relationship with the service, which automatically stores data about purchased apps, keychain (password) settings, alongside calendar, contact, and email information.
Photo taken on iOS devices are backed up on iCloud, but it isn’t possible to do this from Android or Windows handsets which obviously isn’t ideal. You can access files from a Windows PC if you download the Control Panel software from Apple, or log on to the iCloud.com website.
iCloud also allows you to have any purchases made on the iTunes store automatically download to your library no matter which device you used to buy it. Photos are synched across all devices which are logged into your iCloud account, but not videos. One particularly neat feature is that, in addition to synching your Safari bookmarks across devices, you can also see a list of open web pages on other iDevices.
A recent addition to iCloud is iWork - Apple’s Office suite - now available for free via the website. The three apps - Pages, Numbers, and Keynote - have clean interfaces, work well up to a point, and sync with the equivalent apps on your Mac or iOS device.
This means you can start work on your iPad then continue without issue on your PC (files can be downloaded from iCloud.com in Microsoft Office formats). The functionality is a little basic, most likely so that it ties in with the iOS versions of the software, but syncing between devices and the cloud is fast and reliable.
Services such as Dropbox are designed to cater for whatever you need on whichever platform you prefer, but iCloud feels like primarily a mobile solution. Sure, files and photos synch to your Mac or PC pretty much instantly, but the real benefits are linked to apps (such as Messages) and settings, which backup their data to the cloud and allow you to restore everything to a new iPhone or iPad should your old one be stolen, fail or be damaged.
The 5GB of free storage offered initially seems generous, as purchases and photos don’t count against it. But when you start turning on all the options that make the service useful, such as backing up your device, then the space is immediately insufficient.
While iCloud is secure, much of the data is encrypted at what Apple call ‘a minimum of 128-bit AES’, with the more standard 256-bit reserved for Keychain Passwords. Apple also reserves the right to explore the contents of your files if it have cause to believe that it contains illegal or harmful material.
iCloud is something of an outlier in cloud storage terms. Unlike its rivals the service doesn’t offer drag and drop usability, and not synching videos in your Photo Stream is a major omission. Apple users will find it handy, but would be wise to use one of the other services here alongside iCloud.
Best cloud storage services 2014: Spideroak
If privacy is a major concern then Spideroak might be the cloud storage service for you. Most of the mainstream offerings such as Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and Box all encrypt your data on their servers, but Spideroak has a different approach.
Once you’ve set up your account and downloaded the desktop client (Windows, Mac, and Linux are available) you can transfer files to your local folder, which will then encrypt them before syncing them to Spideroak. This might not sound that different, but it means that your data is readable only by you, as the key is local to your machine. Spideroak calls this ‘Zero-knowledge privacy’ as the employees at the company can’t access your data and, by extension, it should also mean any interested government parties would also find it extremely difficult.
Traditionally this would make accessing files from numerous machines more problematic, not to mention sharing with others, but the team has worked ways around that. Spideroak Hive is the control centre of your storage. This app, which runs locally, is very similar to the Dropbox-style of folder on your desktop, although the interface has a little more detail.
This includes which of your other devices have the desktop app installed, and gives you access to the file tree within their Spideroak Hive folders. You can also choose local files to backup via a menu, and there are helpful stats to keep you up to date with the activity on your account.
Where rivals such as Google Drive and OneDrive are tightly integrated into wider productivity suites, Spideroak is simply there to store your files securely. This means no Office-style apps, or online collaboration with colleagues. You can easily share items and send secure links to files from the Spideroak Hive, although this involves setting up a Share ID (free and simple) as another way to protect your data. This obsession with security runs throughout the system, with strong warning messages appearing if you decide to let the app remained logged in all the time.
Some may find this annoying, but you can override any of the warnings and it’s never a bad thing to be reminded that convenience isn’t always the bedfellow of safety.
A basic free account comes with 2GB of storage, which is one of the lowest of all the current services around. But this can be quickly increased by a referral system that gains you and a friend 1GB when they sign up to the service (up to a maximum of 10GB).
Spideroak nails its colours very clearly to the mast with its focus on security and privacy. If these are the most important elements you require then it is clearly the best choice. It may lack the sophistication and integration of some rivals, but what it does it does very well.
Best cloud storage services 2014: Amazon Cloud Drive
Not to be left out in the battle of the big players, Amazon has its own cloud storage solution to take on the likes of Google and Microsoft. The focus of Cloud Drive is simpler than its counterparts, in that there are no fancy plug-ins or web-based Office suites to add productivity to your data.
Instead, it’s very much focussed on being a place to store your documents, photos and videos. The desktop app is available on PC & Mac and once downloaded it will take the form of a folder that sits quietly in the background waiting for you to drag files into it.
The free account offers 5GB of storage, which Amazon assures us will store 2000 photos, but if this isn’t enough you can pay a very reasonable £6 per year to add 20GB, with more space available up to a limit of 1TB for an annual payment of £320. In addition to the basic package Amazon also includes a music storage service - Cloud Player - which entitles you to keep 250 songs online for free. These files can be accessed on your mobile device (Android and iOS) via the Amazon MP3 app, with the option to stream or download them.
The mobile experience with Cloud Drive is very basic, and is centred around photo and video syncing. iOS and Android users can download the Cloud Drive Photos app (this acts as the generic Cloud Drive app) and have their camera roll automatically sync to Amazon’s servers when you have a Wi-Fi connection. Transfer time is reasonable, but if you use your smartphone camera often, especially for videos, then the 5GB will need to be monitored and managed lest you run out of space.
A very curious choice is to not make documents available in the mobile apps. If you add Word, PDF, or XLS files to the Cloud Drive folder on your PC they will sync with the Cloud server, but won’t appear on your smartphone or tablet.
Amazon does word its description of the app’s capabilities carefully, but you could easily miss this and then wonder why documents aren’t available in the app. Of course you can navigate to the web portal via a browser, but when you consider the other options available that keep everything in one place, the document omission is a large black mark against the service.
Amazon Cloud Drive: verdict
Cloud Drive is a confusing beast. On one hand, it’s a useful way to back up your photos and videos online - which it does well - with additional storage being very cheap. But the lack of support for standard documents is bizarre and means we can’t recommend it.
Best cloud storage services 2014: Conclusion
If you were to set up the most basic accounts on each of the services we’ve reviewed you’d have just shy of 50GB of free online storage, and even more if you included camera uploads and friend referrals.
All are not created equal though, and there are some that stand out as the best deals. Amazon’s Cloud Drive is fine for storing your photos but not much else, while Apple’s iCloud feels constrained by its iOS-only nature and the storage size which fills quickly if you turn on the backup feature. Using the free service is a no-brainer if you have an iPhone or iPad, though.
Spideroak is the obvious choice for security and privacy, which might be particularly useful if you need to store sensitive data as part of your work. OneDrive and Google Drive are both excellent solutions if you want an added dimension of productivity thanks to their associated web-based office suites.
Microsoft Office users will love the way OneDrive is deeply integrated, while Google Drive’s collaboration feature is particularly impressive. Box is a good, solid service, although its best features are only available on the paid version.
Which leaves Dropbox, one of the first online storage services and still one of the best. It’s useful, reliable, and works across multiple platforms. This is why it’s still the one we’d recommend for most people.