It is possible to have a free/cheap, good, and fast personal cloud storage service? Believe it or not, it is.
While remote file storage has been with us for decade — I had remote storage on a Unix server using file transfer protocol (ftp) and NFS (Network File System) in the 80s — cloud storage for the masses didn't really get going until 2007 when Drew Houston, Dropbox's CEO and founder, got sick and tired of never being able to "remember to keep my USB drive with me".
"I was drowning in email attachments, trying to share files for my previous startup. My home desktop's power supply literally exploded one day, killing one of my hard drives, and I had no backups," he said.
So after he "tried everything I could find, but each product inevitably suffered problems with internet latency, large files, bugs, or just made me think too much", he came up with the idea of the first popular cloud-based personal file storage service. In the six years since then, it seems like everyone is offering some kind of infrastructure as a service (IaaS) cloud storage.
These services are popping up everywhere, and they're changing prices, amounts of free storage, and additional services almost every day. Here's what's what with them in early 2013:
When you think Amazon and clouds, you probably think about Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), the biggest public cloud service. But Amazon's services aren't just for corporations.
Amazon Cloud Drive provides 5GB of free storage. When it was first introduced, you could also use it to stream music. Now that functionality is in a separate service: Amazon Cloud Player. With this latter service, you can upload and steam up to a rather minimal 250 songs to Windows PCs, Macs, and Apple and Android devices.
You can access Amazon Cloud Drive from either the web or use a Windows app (Vista and 7 only, it currently has neither Windows 8 or XP native support), Mac, or Android devices. This app though, only adds the ability to upload files. For most of your file work, you'll still be in a web browser.
If you want more storage, Amazon offers several tiers of storage, ranging from 20 to 1,000 gigabytes at a price of 50 cents per gigabyte. So for instance, 20GB will run you $10 per year.
As a standalone cloud storage service with some extras, Amazon is OK, but to really like it, I'd need it to be more fully integrated with my desktops and devices. If your Kindle Fire is your main computing device, Cloud Drive might be your best choice, but most people can do better.
Apple iCloud comes with 5GB of free storage, but it's more than just storage. Music, apps, books, and TV shows you purchase from the iTunes store, as well as your Photo Stream, can also be stored and streamed from it, and none of the purchased media counts against your storage quota.
Apple iCloud also works hand in glove with iTunes Match. Match, which is built into the iTunes app, lets you store your entire music collection, no matter where you got your tunes, for just $24.99 a year. Even if you didn't buy the music from Apple, it doesn't count against your storage limits.
In addition, Apple's iCloud gives you not just storage and an online music server, but Apple's wireless services as well. These include contact synchronization, its own email service, mobile backup, and location awareness.
That sounds great, but it can actually be very confusing, even for dedicated Apple fans like Chris Maxcer of MacNewsWorld, who found that iCloud's constant syncing of files from all his devices with full read/write permissions and an inability to tell what was on the cloud and what wasn't, had him wanting to throw his "iPhone into the street", and then to run out in traffic so he could stomp it into oblivion. I feel his pain.
Basic iCloud services are available via the web on any platform. To really use it to its full potential, you need to be running a Mac with Lion or above or an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch running iOS 5 or better. It also runs reasonably well on Windows with the latest version of iTunes. What about your Mac running Snow Leopard or an older version of Mac OS X? You're out of luck.
Additional space is priced at $20 per year for 10GB, $40 per year for 20GB, and $100 per year for 50GB.
I'd love to love iCloud. I can't. Apple has integrated iCloud into Mac OS X and iOS, but managing your files can be amazingly confusing, and Apple's integration of cloud and your local devices is far from perfect. If Apple gets it right, iCloud will be the killer app for Apple fans, but it's a long way from there.
This service is more of a business-collaboration and work-flow solution than a storage service. If that's what you want, it's well worth considering. For example, the business editions of Box come with robust permission options that lets you call the shots on who can view and edit various files.
In addition, the business versions of Box include access to a variety of work programs, which are integrated with Box's cloud storage and services. These include Box OneCloud, for improved mobile work-flow, and Online Workspaces. There are also a variety of business-specific apps.
Box's basic free version offers 5GB of free storage. You can sync files between your Windows/Mac PCs and the cloud, and vice-versa with the Box Sync program. Box also supports Android and iOS devices. It does not, however, integrate with your file systems.
The personal editions also offer 25GB for $9.99 a month and 50GB for $19.99. Business edition starts at $15 a month for a whopping 1,000GB of storage.
If you have a use for its business applications, Box may be just what you want, but it wouldn't be my first choice for personal storage.
Dropbox wasn't the first cloud-based storage service, but it was the one that popularized it. Unlike many of its competitors, Dropbox doesn't need a web-browser interface. It will run natively on almost any PC, including Linux computers or devices running Android or iOS.
What I really like about Dropbox is that I can use it just like it was any other network drive, with pretty much any file manager on any operating system. Unlike the other services, there are no extras. Dropbox offers file storage without any frills. Sometimes that's all you need, and since it lets you easily get to your most important files no matter what device you're using, I find it extremely handy.
Dropbox only comes with 2GB of free storage, but you can get more storage by bringing new users to Dropbox. If you want more room, Dropbox charges $9.99 a month, or $99 annually for 100GB, and similarly priced deals for up to 500GB. There's also a Dropbox for teams with variable pricing that starts with a shared TB of storage for five users.
Even with the free additional storage, Dropbox isn't cheap if you need a lot of storage. On the other hand, it continues to be my favorite because it integrates so easily with every computing device I use. In addition, even if I don't have an internet connection, I can use any files stored in it because by default, it syncs with all my local devices. If it were only cheaper, it would be perfect.
Google Drive takes the tried and true Google Docs cloud-based office software and adds simple, easy to use file storage to it. As Google has continued to improve Drive, I've grown to quite like it.
Like Dropbox, Google Drive automatically syncs with the cloud so that everything is consistent across all of your devices. Also, like Dropbox, it integrates with Windows and Mac file systems. I'm sorry — and annoyed — to report that, despite many promises, Google Drive still doesn't natively support Linux. Come on, Google, get off the stick! Google Drive does, however, support Google's own Chrome OS, Android, and Apple's iOS.
Another nice feature is that Google Drive enables you to share and collaborate on any kind of file, including documents, music, images, and videos. Any content you create in Google Docs doesn't count against your storage quota.
Speaking of storage, Google Drive comes with 5GB of free storage. 25GBS will run you a mere $2.49 a month, and 100GB will cost you $4.99 a month. And, if you really wanted to, Google will rent you as much as a mind-boggling 16TB (that's terabytes folks!) for $799.99. Google also offers business storage options.
For my purposes, since I'm a Linux desktop user, Google Drive is "close, but no cigar" to being my cloud storage service of choice. You, however, may find that it's exactly what you need.
Who wouldn't want 50GB of free storage? That's what MediaFire offers for free, but before jumping into it, there are a few points to consider.
First, MediaFire's free version includes ads — ick — and you can only upload files of up to 200MBs in size. That's fine for most purposes, but you can forget about using it for archived backups of your system or video. You can also only download files from a folder one at a time — you can't download an entire directory at once.
These restrictions go away with the subscription versions. These start at a $1.50 a month with a year's subscription. This level doesn't add any storage, it just frees you of some of MediaFire's restrictions. The other plans, Pro for $4.50 a month, and Business for $24.50 a month, give you 250GB and 1TB of storage respectively.
On the plus side, MediaFire supports Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows on the PC side of life, and Android and iOS on devices. Alas, even with its MediaFire Express program, it doesn't integrate with your file system.
Still, that's a lot of storage for nothing. MediaFire's not my favorite, but I can certainly see why some people like it.
The good news about Mega is that, yes, they also offer free 50GB storage, and Mega's not as bad as when I first reviewed it. For example, I was actually able to upload files in time measured by the clock instead of the calendar, and you can now reset your password without losing access to your files.
The bad news? It's still slower than slow. How slow is that? With a 100MB internet connection and text files, I was seeing upload and download speeds in the 10Kbps range. It's also still doesn't have file system integration.
Curiously, if you want to buy storage, you can't do it through Mega. You have to rent your storage space via a Mega reseller. Prices start at 10 euros per month for 500GB of storage. At this time, February 2013, there doesn't appear to be any North American Mega resellers.
You know how some things sound too good to be true? Mega's promises are too good to be true. Skip this service. Eventually, I think Kim Dotcom will get this service running right, but that day isn't here yet.
Like most of the cloud services, SkyDrive lets you save, share, and access files, but on most operating systems, you must use it through a browser — IE by choice, but it will work with others. However, SkyDrive does work hand-in-glove with the Windows 8 file manager. It also works well in partnership with Microsoft Office. Like Google Drive, it comes with its own cloud-based office software: Office Web Apps.
It also has a feature that troubles me; SkyDrive will let you grab files from any PC that's associated with your account and pull them into the cloud remotely. That's great if you left your PowerPoint presentation at home. That's not so great if someone gets your Microsoft account login information and your phone for SkyDrive's two-factor authentication code and decides to start downloading your Quicken finance files. You can turn this function off, but it's set to be on by default. This seems like a potential security hole to me.
On the plus side of the ledger, SkyDrive, with 7GB of free storage, offers more free storage than many of the other services. If you want 20GB more, it will cost you $10 a year. 50GB is $25, and 100GB is just $50 annually. Price right SkyDrive is a bargain, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Microsoft's business cloud service Azure just suffered a major cloud storage failure.
For Windows users, SkyDrive has become the cloud storage solution of choice. The price is great, it works really well with Windows 8 and, along with Box, it's the only service that works natively with Windows phones. Just be very careful when you use that ability to download remotely from your PC.
You say you want privacy for your cloud storage? Well, Mega promises that, but I feel better about SpiderOak's chances of delivering it. SpiderOak has no clue what you're storing. The client software, which supports Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X in PCs, and Android and iOS, encrypts everything before it hits SpiderOak's servers. Just be sure to make a note of your password because SpiderOak can't help you with that either.
SpiderOak is meant mostly for business use, but it also offers a 2GB free service, and an affordable personal plan that offers 100GB for $10 a month. For businesses, SpikerOak offers a service that starts at a terabyte for $600. It's one down side is that I found it to be a bit slower than the others when downloading or uploading files. It was not, however, anywhere near as slow as Mega.
The service can only be accessed through its secure client software. You can't use it via a web browser or by your native operating system. SpiderOak is designed for security first and foremost.
It's not for everyone, but if security is your first concern, then SpiderOak is well worth your consideration. It also makes a fine cloud-based backup service.
You might think that this service would be for Ubuntu Linux users, or at least Linux users only. You'd be wrong. This service, which offers 5GB of free storage and music streaming, is also available on Windows XP or higher and Mac OS X 10.6 or higher. Ubuntu One is also available on both Android and iOS.
You can get more storage on Ubuntu One with a flat fee of $3.99, or $29.99 a year for each additional 20GB of storage.
I want to like Ubuntu One, but I've found that it has trouble running on Windows 7 and 8 at times, but not XP. If all I needed was a simple storage service that also included music streaming, for $3.99 a month, I'd be fonder of Ubuntu One. For me, though, there are better services.
And the winner is...
So which is the best? I use all of them, but when it comes to the bread and butter work of cloud file serving, Dropbox is still the best of the best.
No, Dropbox doesn't have many bells or whistles. No, it doesn't offer the most storage for free or the least amount of money. All it does is let me create, add, delete, move, copy, edit, whatever file and directories just as if they were any other file on my system. It doesn't matter if I'm using Linux, Mac, or Windows, or most smartphones or tablets; it just works with my device's native interfaces. That means I don't have to think about how to use it, I just use it. That makes it a winner in my book.
That said, with Apple, Microsoft, Canonical (Ubuntu's parent company), and Google with Chrome all integrating their cloud services right into the operating system, for now, Dropbox is still the best personal cloud file storage, but eventually, I see operating systems with built-in cloud storage integration surpassing it. Google and Microsoft, in particular, seem to be doing a good job with this. Dropbox won't go away though. We'll always need a universal, easy-to use cloud storage service.
Updated: SkyDrive's upload from PC option includes two-factor authentication to make it safer.