If you’re looking for free (or cheap) online storage, you have a bewildering assortment of options.
For Windows users, though, three services stand out from the crowd.
Dropbox, Microsoft’s SkyDrive, and Google Drive are superficially similar: You get several gigabytes of free storage just for signing up. By installing a small Windows app you get the ability to synchronize that storage with the hard drive on your PC, where you can manage them using Windows Explorer. You can sync files and folders with other PCs and Macs, access them from mobile devices, and share them with other people.
But when you dig deeper and get past those similarities, you can see important functional differences between the three services. Reviewers love to turn this sort of comparison into a horse race where they can declare a winner. But depending on how you plan to use an online file storage service, one might be a better fit than others. In this review, I look in detail at all three services to help you make the right choice.
See the companion screenshot gallery: A deep dive into Dropbox, SkyDrive, and Google Drive
In this analysis, I focus on the way each of these services (and its associated apps) handle four common online storage scenarios. Each of the three services has a different approach, with strengths and weaknesses and design choices that make sense when you think about each company’s business model.
Backup, sync, and remote access
The simplest scenario of all is personal file backup. Keeping your important files in a folder that is continually synchronized with an online storage service gives you a backup security blanket. If your local drive crashes, you can recover those files quickly and easily.
A side benefit of this approach is that it allows you to access files easily from multiple devices. If you have a desktop PC and a notebook, for example, you can start working on a file in your office. Whatever changes you make are synchronized to the online copy. Grab your notebook, head off to the airport, and you can pick up where you left off—as long as you have access to an Internet connection. Because all three services have apps that allow access from mobile devices, you can accomplish the same task with a tablet or a mobile phone.
Document creation and editing
Both Google and Microsoft offer the ability to create and edit a variety of document types directly in a web browser. With Dropbox, you can view common formats but you need third-party apps to enable the same editing scenarios.
Online viewing and editing means you don’t need to worry about whether you’ll have the right app installed—if you can open your online file storage location in a browser, you can get your work done.
This capability enables some important collaboration scenarios as well. Each of the three services allows you to share a file with another person (or a group of people). So if you’re passing around a presentation or a spreadsheet, each member of the team can make changes and add comments.
The ability to set up sharing for specific folders and control access to those folders on a per-user basis makes it relatively easy to share files online with friends and co-workers.
The simplest benefit, of course, is replacing large email attachments with simple links. Having a password-protected central folder makes team-based collaborative scenarios possible as well, with fewer version-control headaches.
And, of course, the ability to make a shared file available to the general public makes it possible to use an online file-sharing service as an FTP alternative.
Photo uploads and galleries
Both Dropbox and SkyDrive have made substantial investments in their respective services’ capabilities for uploading, organizing and sharing digital photos. These capabilities include strong links to social media services such as Facebook and Twitter. Google Drive is a laggard in this respect. It offers very good photo-sharing capabilities in Google+, but those features aren’t integrated with Google Drive, and Google’s integration with other social media is weak.
I’ve put together a gallery showing off the capabilities of each service. On the next page, you’ll find facts and a capsule review of each service.
Page 2: Facts, figures, and features -->
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Default storage: 2 GB, with additional space for referrals and activities
Additional storage: Free; Pro packages available in tiers of 50/100 GB for $99/$199 per year
Online document editing: No
Private/public sharing: Yes
Photo features: Yes
Native clients: Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, BlackBerry
Dropbox has a visual style all its own. Its online file and folder listing is the opposite of cluttered, and once you learn how a few simple icons work, you're pretty much home free.
Dropbox does what it does exceptionally well, and it is relentless in its keep-it-simple focus. New additions to the feature set make it much easier to view and share photo galleries on line.
I’ve expressed concerns over Dropbox security before, but there’s no question about their commitment to ease of use. If you don’t mind the pressure to convert all your friends into Dropbox users and you’re willing to upload lots of photos, you can get up to 16 GB of additional useful online storage.
Default storage: 7 GB (25 GB free as a “loyalty reward” for current users)
Additional storage: Extra storage available in 20/50/100 GB increments, at $10/$25/$50 per year, respectively
Online document editing: Yes, with Office Web Apps
Private/public sharing: Yes
Photo features: Yes
Native clients: Windows, iOS, Windows Phone, Mac; Android apps via third parties
It used to be Windows Live SkyDrive. Now it’s just SkyDrive. SkyDrive has been radically redesigned in the same way Windows 8 has been reimagined.
Your online storage maps to a single folder on your PC, Mac, or mobile device. Whatever you put in there can be accessed online via any browser and optionally synced to other PCs using a Windows utility that Microsoft finally released last week.
A unique SkyDrive feature allows you to remotely connect to a PC where you’ve installed the SkyDrive PC client and “fetch” files that aren’t in the SkyDrive folder.
By Microsoft’s standards, SkyDrive has an extremely clean interface. If you’re used to the minimalist Dropbox UI, though, you might be overwhelmed, at least initially.
Office Web Apps are an especially good match for the new sync utility, and SkyDrive’s photo gallery features are exceptional as well. SkyDrive’s fatal flaw until now has been a disconnect from Windows itself. The fact that it finally syncs with Windows (and other platforms) makes it practically a brand-new service and worth a strong look.
Default storage: 5 GB
Additional storage: Extra storage available in tiers from 25 GB ($30/year) and 100 GB ($60/year) all the way up to 16 TB ($9,600 per year)
Online document editing: Yes, with Google Docs
Private/public sharing: Yes
Photo features: No (photo sharing is through Picasa and Google+)
Native clients: Windows, Mac, Android
Google Drive is brand new. So new, in fact, that Google is still restricting access to it. You have to click a request to get your Google Drive, and—for now—you have to wait a day or more before you can actually sign in.
You don’t have to look very hard to see that Google Drive is Google Docs, repackaged. Collections are replaced by folders, and there’s a new My Drive link that lets you browse the contents of files. But otherwise everything looks the same.
With the new Windows app installed, you can sync your files with Windows Explorer.
But that’s about it. In fact, the Drive part of Google Drive is as bare-bones as it gets. It’s ideal for backup, but it has no photo capabilities and only rudimentary sharing outside of Google Docs. And, naturally, it doesn’t allow Facebook connections, as both Dropbox and SkyDrive do.
If you’re already a devoted Google Docs fan, Google Drive is a convenient way to add backup and sync features to a service you already use. But if you’ve resisted the urge to go Google headfirst, you’ll do better elsewhere.
There are, of course, other online storage options besides these three. In a follow-up post, I’ll examine Box, Office 365, and other business-class services.