Hands on with Google Drive (Review)

Google's free cloud storage is finally here, and it looks pretty darn good. But, Google Drive is far, far, more than just storage. It's combines free storage and Google Docs into a nearly seamless cloud-based office suite.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Google Drive is Not just storage, it's storage and a collabrative, cloud-based office suite.

Google Drive is Not just storage, it's a cloud-based collaborative office suite and more besides.

It took Google long enough. We've been hearing rumors for years that Google was going to release personal cloud storage, the Google Drive. Well, wait no more, the Google Drive is here. But, it's much more than just that. It's a nearly seamless integration of free and cheap storage with Google Docs.

To install Google Drive as a local client—ala the Dropbox model where the cloud drive appears in your operating system's file manager as just another directory—you need to have either a Mac or Windows system. Mind you, Google Drive also will work just fine with Linux... but only from your Google Drive Web page. I'm not happy about that.

To get the program, or to use it on the Web, you'll need to have a Google account. With Google's recent privacy changes, not everyone will want to do that. Personally, I don't have a problem with Google's new policy. But , as Zack Whittaker points out, nothing on anyone's cloud drive should be regarded as being all that private when push comes to shove.

A walk through Google Drive (Screenshots)

If you're OK with all that, the first step is to go to the Google Drive Start page. From here, you click on the Go to Google Drive button on the upper right. If you have a Windows or Mac, you can then download the Google Drive application. This will give you a local Google Drive client that will then keep your files synced between your local PC and your cloud-based Google Drive.

Specifically, the Google Drive client works with XP, Vista, Windows 7 and, on the Mac, with Snow Leopard and Lion. You will also need a recent version of the Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Safari Web browsers. You can also download a Google Drive client for Android smartphones and tablets running Android 2.1 or higher. In my case, I've found Google Drive to work well with my Verizon Droid 2 smartphone running Android 2.3. Native client support for both iOS and Linux is coming.

To start with the basics, on Windows and Macs, Google Drive works pretty much just like Dropbox. But, one thing did stand out immediately. Uploading and downloading files on Google Drive is insanely fast. With my 100Mbps down and 6Mbps up connection I was seeing uploads close to wire speed and downloads as fast as 20Mbps. As my fellow ZDNet writer Jason Perlow, who's tinkering with Google Drive with me, said “This is sick.” It is. With speeds like these, and a fast Internet connection to back them up, you could easily put say your 20GB worth of family photos up on Google Drive.

By default, all your Google Docs--Documents, Spreadsheets, Forms, Drawings, Presentations, and Fusion Tables--will sync to your Google Drive folder, unless you disable this preference. Any files and directories you place on your local Google Drive will also automatically sync with your cloud-based Google Drive. Again, you can choose not to let them all sync over. The controls to do this are very simple.

Once on your local drive though don't think you can edit a Google Docs' document on your PC. You can't. Oh, it's easy enough to hack your way into editing them, but there's still no Google Docs off-line editing capability. That, Google says, will be coming real soon now. I hope so. As is, if you're connected to the Internet, when you open a Google document on your PC it will invoke your default Web browser and its default Google Docs application.

Using the Web interface, Google Drive's online interface defaults to showing you all your files in alphabetical order. I could live without that, especially since it doesn't give me an option to sort them in time order. You do, however, have the option of viewing just recently used files and the "activity list," which puts both your, and as partner's recently edited files at the top of the list but gives you the option of hiding files or directory--collections in Google jargon—that you don't want to bother with. And, since this is Google after all, you can always search for just the right document with built-in Google Drive specific search options.

In addition, Google includes a unique, as far as I know, feature. You can upload PDFs and scanned documents and it will try to translate them via optical character recognition (OCR) into Google Docs. The results are... well let's just say Google did warn us that a lot of work still needed to be done here.

Google is trying to make Google Drive more than just a direct competitor for the newly remodeled Dropbox, Microsoft SkyDrive, or other cloud storage providers. As Stephen Shankland over in CNET points out “Google's service goes well beyond rivals because of integration with Google Docs, Google+, Gmail, and other services.”

For example, on the Web, Google Drive is so well-integrated with Google Docs that its subsumed it. Once you start using Google Drive when you head to your Google Docs bookmark you'll find yourself in Google Drive. That's not a problem though because they fit even more closely than hand in glove, skin on flesh might be a more apt metaphor.

That's not insignificant. In fact, I would say this underlines that while you could just think of Google Drive as just another cloud storage offering, but it's far more than that. Google Drive can be used as the center of your cloud-based office work. From it, besides working on your own documents, spreadsheets and presentations, you can work collaboratively with others.

This is more though than just say taking turns writing and editing with partners on a document. Say, you have a video you want to show your customers and get their feedback on it. Instead of e-emailing it to them, you can place it on your Google Drive, share it with them, and they can watch it and them comment on it within Google Drive. That alone makes it a powerful group work tool.

Or, say you want customers to see your photos and images in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. No problem. Share them in Google Drive and they can see and comment on them... even if they don't have either program. You can also send them Google Drive links via Gmail in lieu of sending clients massive e-mails.

Finally, Google Drive also automatically backs up your documents as you change them. This gives you simple, but effective version control. You can, of course, also delete your revisions. In any case, after 30-days of no use, Google will automatically delete the revisions.

Best of all, this works extremely smoothly. The only trouble I encountered in my four hours of working with it was a crash of the Windows XP client after firing two GBs worth of files through it. The files themselves were undamaged and the program started right back up again and worked smoothly from that point on. On all the other platforms I tested it on, Windows 7, Mac OS X Lion, and Linux Mint, I never saw a single glitch.

Additional office and creative programs are already available specifically for use with Google Drive. These include LucidChart, a diagramming program; WeVideo, a video-editing program; Docusign, an e-signature program; and because some technologies just won't die, HelloFax, which enables you to Google Drive files as faxes and receive faxes as Google Drive documents. While Google Drive will work with the big four top modern browsers, most of these applications require Google's own Chrome browser.

I've barely touched the surface of Google Drive, but I already know this is a ground-breaking service. It's not just more, free cloud storage, although it is that too. It's invites businesses to a unified cloud-based way of doing work within the company, with partners, and with customers. And, as Shankland also pointed out, while the 1st 5GBs are free, at Google's low prices--25GB for $2.49/month, 100GB for $4.99/month or even 1TB for $49.99/month—he and I can both see individuals paying for additional storage and the services that come tied with it. For the first time, Google is moving beyond “advertising-subsidized services” to a mass-market paid software as a service (SaaS) model.

Many people are writing about what Google Drive will mean to Dropbox. Certainly Dropbox and other cloud storage companies have reason to worry, but I think Microsoft is the one who really has something to worry about. Forget about SkyDrive, if I were Microsoft I'd be worried about what Google Drive might do to Office 365 and SharePoint Online. Oh, and what's this? Microsoft has just upped SharePoint Online's storage and cut its prices. Funny that.

Some people think Google Drive is mostly about customer retention. Their logic, and its flawless, is that if you store all your data with Google, of course, you'll be more likely to do everything else with Google. I think it's more than that though. I think it shows Google going after Microsoft's Fort Knox: the office suite.

The boys at Redmond know Google Drive isn't really about storage, it's about SaaS and moving everyone's work to the cloud. They won't go down without a fight. Working on the cloud isn't for everyone, but for those who are comfortable with trusting their work to the Internet, Google Drive is going to be a very compelling offer. And, how Microsoft and all the other business office software and service companies react is going to make the next few years very interesting indeed.

Personally, I can already see myself using Google Drive a lot to work with my co-workers. But, until there's a native Linux client, I'm not retiring Dropbox.

Related Stories:

Free storage for you: Google Drive to arrive today

Microsoft ups storage quotas, slashes add-on storage pricing for SharePoint Online

CNET: Google Drive: It's slick, integrated...and not exactly free

Google Drive: Go anywhere you want (in our car) If you have something to hide from the government, don’t use Google Drive

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