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What to do when your free cloud storage fills up

Giving away scads of free cloud storage is all the rage these days, but when you've hit your limit, your options are few

With the launch of the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, Microsoft is joining the promotional cloud-storage craze, giving buyers 200GB of free storage for two years.

Like other tech companies that have offered similar promotions, Microsoft hopes you'll use cloud storage to ease the burden your device's somewhat skimpy flash storage drive. In a blog post, the company boasts that 200GB is "enough space to take a photo, every hour, from the moment someone is born, to the day they graduate from college."

Microsoft and other companies (like Google and Dropbox) don't like to talk about what you'll do after the promotion runs out. If you switch to a paid storage plan at that point, they'll rejoice--but the recurring cost of such plans can be high, and if you're not prepared to pay, you and your uploaded content could be in an awkward situation when the free ride is over.

So before you start uploading your entire digital life into sky storage, let's take a closer look at how SkyDrive, Google Drive, and Dropbox deal with your files after their promotional plans expire. The cloud can turn mighty dark indeed when your time is up.

SkyDrive

Microsoft says it won't delete your files when the two-year SkyDrive promotion ends. You can continue to download and share those files, but you won't be able to add any new files to your collection unless you clear space for them.

Here's the bigger caveat: When you go over the limit, your files will revert to read-only mode when you access them through SkyDrive. That means you won't be able to edit your documents in Office Web Apps, or to sync your documents to SkyDrive when editing them in Office. This limitation could cause trouble if document syncing across devices is a major part of your workflow, and a Microsoft spokesperson wouldn't say whether users will receive any advance warning when their free storage is about to go away.

Should you be unwilling or unable to relocate your files from SkyDrive after the promotional period ends, you'll have to pay $100 per year to maintain the 200GB of storage. SkyDrive's cheapest plan, providing 27GB of total storage, costs $10 per year.

Google Drive

Over the past year or so, Google has used the attraction of free Google Drive storage as a hook for its Chromebooks. Most Chromebooks come with 100GB of free storage for two years, and the luxury Chromebook Pixel includes 1TB of storage for three years--on top of the 15GB that all users get for free. In addition, Google recently gave away 10GB of storage for two years to anyone who linked Quickoffice to Google Drive.

Like SkyDrive, Google Drive won't delete your files after the promotion ends. You'll still be able to access, share, and download those files, according to Google's support page, but you won't be able to add any new files until you either clear space or purchase a plan that covers the amount of space you're using.

Gmail users need to treat Google's promotional offerings with caution. Going over your limit means that you won't be able to send or receive email "after a period of time," according to Google's support page. Google will provide warnings in advance of expiration of the free storage period, but a company spokesperson would not specify the length of the grace period users will have before their email gets cut off. Likewise, syncing between your Drive account and the Google Drive folder on your local hard drive "stops completely" when your plan expires.

If you decide to pay for Google Drive storage beyond the free period, you should know that plans start at $5 per month for 100GB, and you'll have to pay $50 per month to maintain the same 1TB of storage that comes with the Chromebook Pixel.

Dropbox

Although Dropbox isn't in the hardware business, the company has partnered with device makers such as HTC and Samsung to offer free cloud storage with their phones. These promotions may last a couple of years, and some offer as much as 48GB of extra storage.

Dropbox's support page says that it won't delete files after you've reverted to a regular free account. You can still access those files from your computers, tablets, and phones, and from the Dropbox website. But if you try to add new files to the Dropbox folder on your PC, they won't sync, meaning that you won't be able to access them from other machines. Similarly, you won't be able to upload new files via Dropbox's apps or website.

Dropbox isn't tied to vital tools like your email or Office applications, which should help limit the potential fallout from an expired free plan. On the other hand, its paid plans are more expensive than those for Google Drive and SkyDrive. Pricing starts at $10 per month for 100GB of storage.

Just plan ahead!

Having lots of extra cloud storage can be convenient for shuttling large files across your devices. But don't fall into the habit of considering these promotions truly free.

In all likelihood, your phone or tablet won't have enough local storage to contain all the files you've been putting in the cloud. Consequently, when the promotion ends, you'll need a PC with ample storage or an external drive for backups, or you'll have to start paying recurring fees for cloud storage--and you'll have to make a decision fast if you don't want to disrupt your work. You know what they say about free lunches.

Speaking of food metaphors, check PCWorld's handy-dandy guide to supersizing your free cloud storage to 100GB or more. Setting up that much space entails jumping through a few more hoops than does buying a device with a time-limited storage offer, but the storage you end up with also has far fewer strings attached.


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