Dropbox, SkyDrive, Google Drive: which one is right for you?

Dropbox, SkyDrive, Google Drive: which one is right for you?

Summary: If you're a Windows user looking for free online storage, three services stand out from the rest. Although Dropbox, SkyDrive, and Google Drive are superficially similar, there are some big differences. Here's what to look for.


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.

File sharing

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 -->


Topics: Hardware, CXO, Cloud, Google, Operating Systems, Software, Storage, Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Why choose?

    I will use all three. Consumers win. ;-)
    • Ding, ding, ding!!!

      Exactly. My most critical data can be kept all three places because eventually one of the services is going to be down. And I've also got my most reliable option...hard drive. I've currently got six 1.5 TB ultra-portable external hard drives that all fit in my laptop bag. I've also got a 3 TB external hard drive plugged into the USB port on my router, equpped with an embedded VPN server so that I can access it from anywhere on my home network or externally. I have a couple of dozen VMs that I can download and spin up from just about anywhere in a pinch. The fact that I don't have to keep them parked on my internal laptop hard drive has been great.
      • Department of Redundancy Department

        It is not IF a rotating electromechanical device will fail, but WHEN!

        I have about a dozen 3.5" portable drives and over 10 1-2TB drives on my main computer--it is like a manual RAID. I always have backups in more than one physical location as well.
      • Can you share which router you have ?

        Hi Jason, I am interested in setting up a router , with VPN ?Can you guide me ? Thanks for your help.
    • Yes why?

      I will use none of them. I want to have some level of control over my data storage with a provider that is accountable to every single customer.
    • LOL - I was about to say the same thing becasue I do

      use all three.
  • Still don't trust these companies.

    Nor would I ever put anything of a personal, or work related, nature online, and under control of advertizing companies. Being Google and Microsoft both derive income, by collecting advertising money, I do not trust either one. Drop Box is relatively new and I haven't read enough on them to form an informed opinion.
    Jumpin Jack Flash
    • With a grain of salt..

      Agreed, these are simply services for irrelevant files that are too large to email. They are running out of creative ideas to basically sell hardware that is getting cheaper by the minute. Consumers are suckers for 'ease of use' and 'unlimited' but really don't know how conniving the companies behind these services are. If you are reading this you, like me, are irrelevant to them.

      But their target audience is probably not most of us reading this but rather those users scared of keyboards but in need to 'keep up' or broke students who are forced to love the 'free' world.

      Find a good, dedicated service that does ONE thing right and pay for it!

      I have heard good things about Spideroak - been meaning to try it, and for images I use and highly recommend SmugMug.
  • Who Needs Clouds?

    For a reasonable up-front cost and no monthly recurring costs at all (other than electricity and the ISP I'm already paying for), I have 4 1.5TB drives (bought @ $100 each) in an external RAID-5 array (under $150) which came with an eSata card. RAID-5 gives me protection from any single-disk failure. So I have 4.5TB usable protected storage for under $550. External access to my array is via an FTP server I run on one of the desktops. I can access my server from anywhere with an internet connection, as well as my phone using a free FTP client.
    • You didn't say what happens when the house burns down...

      ...or are you not using any off-site backup service at all or doing it yourself?
    • Well . . .

      Well, Dropbox (or any of these services) is easier to use and setup than FTP. There's no messing around with open ports or static IP addresses or DMZs on a router.

      Also, it syncs my files without having to fire up an FTP client. On my laptop, all of the files are synced any time I have a connection. I can then unplug it and access them offline with no issues at all - any changes will be synced the next time I have a connection.

      On my phone, it's mostly the same except it's got limited space, and it won't keep files permanently unless I tell it to.

      Dropbox's popularity also means better integration with other phone apps. Many of the apps on my phone can use Dropbox directly to store and access files.

      Finally, I can even access it from the computers of other people if I wanted, thanks to Dropbox (or any of these services) having a web interface. I don't have to make sure they have an FTP client. This is something I rarely do, but can be a convenience if I forget to bring my own devices.
      • Ease of use

        Dropbox so far is the simplest and easiest to use.
        That alone keeps me using it.
        If I have a security concern, I encrypt the files.
      • @CobraA1

        Here, at least, SkyDrive works just the same as Dropbox. I have a folder on several machines that is synched into the cloud and between the machines. So far as I can tell, there is nothing to choose between them , although MSFT's 25GB is more generous.

        As has been said, with mutliple vendors giving stuff away, we all win!
    • I agree, who needs someone else's Cloud

      At Bubba Ville we use a Pogoplug device to that we connect a few TB HDD. Files/folders can be shared from our phones, and any internet connected computer. We manage our own cloud, much less expensive, we have complete control, and we do not have storage limits. Easy-Peasy Lemon-Squeezy.
    • remote vs local

      But all your drives in the same place..wouldn't you feel more protected with some remote backup in case of flood or fire?
    • That is fine until...

      ...your house burns down. For that very reason I have two independent physical backups on site and 1 off site in a bank safe deposit box. I bring it home periodically to sync it and keep it current.
      • And THAT is fine until...

        the beans, I used exactly the scheme you describe, i.e., two onsite backups and one in a bank vault that I swapped out periodically. Then came the day when both my onsite backups got corrupted AND the files I needed most -- my current projects -- were of course not on the drive in my bank vault. They never will be, unless you're "lucky" enough to have your data disaster right after your trip to the bank. That's why I started using Carbonite -- a worthy service that is reasonably secure, but not really practical for day-to-day syncing. Ideally, I want a cloud service that can handle both backup and syncing, and do so with pre-Internet encryption. Not too many candidates there and none free.
    • Clouds are more than backup!

      I backup my data periodically. The offsite location is probably not the best but it still a backup. I like cloud storage for teams of independents (that is non-corporate). Clouds eliminates emailing and helps track versions.
    • Who Needs Clouds?

      Better hope you never face fire or theft.
  • SkyDrive is now the King

    I would rather trust Skydrive, because I have been using MS software for the last 22 years and their products were around for the last 3 decades. Dropbox future is unclear and google products are a no-go area.