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Google Drive: The Pros and Cons

Google's online storage service has some inspiring features, but it also has some drawbacks. Let's take a look at them.

Google's long-awaited Dropbox competitor, Drive, is finally here and includes impressive search capabilities and good integration with other Google services including Docs and Google+. But if you just want to get some work done using a reliable file storage and sync service, Drive may not be ready for you just yet. And unless you're an Android user, the mobile experience for Drive is not great.

Google officially launched Drive on Tuesday featuring 5GB free online storage and the ability to buy more storage such as 25GB for $2.50 per month ($30 per year) up to a maximum 16TB for $800 per month. Similar to Dropbox, Google Drive installs a folder on your Mac or Windows PC desktop (a Google representative told PCWorld a Linux version is in the works, too). Then you just drag-and-drop files into the new folder and the contents automatically sync to the cloud as well as any other computers with Drive installed. Overall, Drive is a pretty good service and offers more free storage than the 2GB you get from Dropbox, but less than the free 7GB Microsoft offers with SkyDrive.

Here's a look at some of the best and worst highlights of Google Drive.

Confusing

Once you add Drive to your Google Account, Docs automatically disappears and is replaced by Drive instead. Not a huge deal, but I wasn't expecting it. Then when I opened up Drive, I was shocked to see that a collaborative document PCWorld uses was missing from my docs list. Usually this is the first document I see when I log in to my account, and when I went to the "Shared with me" section it wasn't there either. After a little more searching I finally found it under "All items." If you're missing documents after switching to Drive, click on the "More" dropdown menu to get to the "All items" menu to see whether it's there. Not a big deal, but it's a little annoying that Drive wipes out Docs and then rearranges some of your stuff.

Good Integration

Google Drive doesn't download copies of your files that are saved online in Google's Docs formats. Instead, you get a folder full of icons that are links to open the documents in your browser. The good news, however, is that if your computer is set-up to access Docs offline using Google Chrome, you can open these files in just one click via the Drive folder on your desktop. If you can't get offline Docs to work with Drive, try restarting your browser.

Say, for example, you had a Google Docs "file" on your desktop called "Test.gdoc." If you happen to be offline, you can click on "Test.gdoc" and open up a read-only version of the document in your browser. Try using a Chrome extension such as Write Space if you need to edit a Google Doc offline.

Google Plus now has an option to share images from Google Drive and in my tests the new feature was very easy to use. The search giant also says that Gmail integration is coming soon. In the meantime, you can attach non-Google Docs files from the Drive folder on your desktop.

Almost No Mobile Support

Only Android users can currently access Drive using a native mobile app, but the search giant says it is working hard to get an iOS version finished. If you're a dedicated Google user who prefers a BlackBerry or Windows Phone, however, it's not clear whether any Drive apps will be headed your way. For the time being, non-Android users can give the mobile site a try, but the experience is not as good as the Android Drive app. Opening an image on my Android phone, for example, was a real chore using the mobile Drive site, but was intuitive and easy using the smartphone app.

Great Search Capabilities

Google Drive comes with Google Goggles image search technology built-in, and in my tests image search results were pretty impressive. I put Google to the test by dropping into my Drive folder some photos of the Statue of Liberty and the Chrysler Building in New York City. Moments later I did a search for "Statue of Liberty" and "Chrysler Building" on the Web-based version of Drive on a separate machine.

Drive had no problem identifying both landmarks in the photos, and the files did not have any metadata such as location or handy titles to give the search engine any hints. But there were some shortcomings. A search for "Queensboro Bridge," for example, resulted in no results even though my shot of the Chrysler Building clearly showed the well-known bridge in the background. Another quirk was that when I searched for "Manhattan" or "New York City," none of my images appeared in the results, but a search for "New York" brought up all of my test images.

I also uploaded two copies of the cover image from Walter Isaacson's biography of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs who died in October. One version of the cover included the book title and author and the other image didn't. Searching for "Steve Jobs" brought up both images, but only the image with the book title and author appeared in the results when searching for "Walter Isaacson."Again, neither image had any metadata or filenames so Drive could only identify these items using the actual images.

Even though Drive's image recognition did a good job with landmarks and famous people, it failed to find other family photos I had uploaded when using generic searches such as "dog" and "baby."

Google says its image recognition technology is still in its early stages and should improve over time.

If you want to give Google Drive a try, you can get started at drive.google.com/start. Drive is currently being rolled out to all users, so check back if the new service is not available for your account yet.

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) on Twitter and Google+, and with Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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