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.
Cloud storage services
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 Plus, you don't have to worry about hard drives failing or running or storing files on outdated media since that's all taken care of behind the scenes.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