OneDrive tips and tricks: How to master Microsoft's free cloud storage

If you haven't checked out OneDrive lately, you're missing out. Over the past two years, Microsoft has methodically added a raft of new features that can help you back up personal files and photos. In this post, I show you some of the most useful options for saving and sharing files and folders.

Video: Cloud storage: Your best options

If you're not using the OneDrive cloud storage feature built into Windows 10, you're missing out. It's taken several years, but Microsoft has methodically developed OneDrive into a solid, reliable, tremendously useful service that gives you 5GB of cloud storage for free; if you have an Office 365 account, you get a terabyte of online storage with your subscription.

Also: Microsoft readies OneDrive for Business feature

In this article, I explain how to use some of OneDrive's most important features. Even if you're an old hand with OneDrive, you might be surprised, because several of the features I describe here are new in 2018.

For those of us who use a PC and mobile devices every day, the advantages are profound:

  • You can synchronize files between the cloud and a local folder.
  • Using client software available for just about any platform, you can access files from multiple devices.
  • Your backed-up files offer ransomware protection, allowing you to recover previous saved versions from the cloud.
  • You can easily share files, photos, and even entire folders with friends, co-workers, and family members.

(And, if you're philosophically opposed to cloud services, you can stop reading right here. I won't be offended. Personally, I think the benefits are well worth it, but if you disagree, feel free to follow these instructions to disable the service and remove the icon from File Explorer.)

OneDrive or OneDrive for Business: What's the difference?

OneDrive is a consumer service tied to a Microsoft account. It includes a free tier that offers 5GB of file storage. You can upgrade the available storage to 50GB for $2 a month, but the best deal is an Office 365 Home or Personal subscription, which includes 1000GB (1TB) of storage for up to five users. (For details, see OneDrive plans.)

OneDrive for Business is an organizational account tied to Office 365 Business and Enterprise plans. If you have one of these plans, you also get a terabyte of personal storage. The difference is that your personal storage is under the control of your organization's administrator, whereas OneDrive consumer accounts are under your direct control.

Also: Microsoft takes aim at Google, Box, Dropbox with OneDrive switch offer

Both flavors of OneDrive use the same sync client. This article is primarily about the OneDrive consumer service and the OneDrive client software in Windows 10.

Several of the features I describe here require making changes in the OneDrive Settings dialog box. To get to OneDrive Settings, open File Explorer, right-click the OneDrive icon in the navigation pane, and then click Settings.

1. Set up your local sync folder.

When you first sign in to OneDrive, you get a chance to choose the folder where any files you choose to sync from the cloud will be stored. The default location is a folder called OneDrive in your user profile. That location is usually OK, but you can and should choose a different location if you have a secondary drive (formatted using NTFS) that has more storage than your system drive.

Also: Microsoft brings 'Known Folder Migration' feature to OneDrive

(If you've already set up OneDrive and want to move your files to a new location, follow the instructions here: "Windows 10 tip: Move your synced OneDrive files to a new location.")

Next, choose which folders you want to make available locally. Open OneDrive Settings, click the Account tab, and then click Choose Folders. Note the option at the top.

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That box at the top doesn't sync the files themselves; it just makes them available in File Explorer.

The default is Make all files available; even if you have hundreds of gigabytes of files in the cloud and limited local storage, this is still the correct option, because of a feature (introduced in Windows 10 version 1709) called Files On Demand, which I'll get to next. (If you prefer to keep some folders offline only, without listing them in File Explorer, go through the boxes one by one.)

2. Set up Files on Demand.

Files on Demand is a signature feature of OneDrive in Windows 10. It gives you the ability to browse through your entire collection of OneDrive files using File Explorer even if those files are not synced to your PC. (Dropbox has a similar feature, called Smart Sync, but it's only available on its $200-a-year Professional plan.)

Also: What's the best cloud storage for you?

If you open a file, OneDrive downloads it immediately (that's the "on demand" part); you can also mark files to be available even if you're not connected to the internet. To use this feature, right-click any file or folder and then click Always keep on this device. A solid green icon in the Status column shows which files are available offline.

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The solid green checkmark indicates files that are available locally even when you're offline.

If you no longer need to keep those offline copies, right-click the file or folder and then click Free up space to remove the local copies. (They remain available in the cloud and on demand.)

3. Sync your Desktop, Pictures, and/or Documents folders.

This feature appeared a few months ago with little fanfare and is tremendously useful. You have the option to redirect any or all of three system folders that are part of your user profile to the cloud instead. The effect is the same as if you had changed the default location of the Desktop, Documents, or Pictures folder to a folder with matching names in your OneDrive folder.

Also: Microsoft SharePoint tip: Clean up OneDrive syncing TechRepublic

To make this change, open OneDrive Settings, click the AutoSave tab, and choose the option you prefer for each of the three folders.

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Keeping these system folders synced to the cloud is an effective way of backing them up.

After you make the change, OneDrive moves files from the respective folder in your local profile to the matching folder in OneDrive and merges any existing files from the cloud-based folder. Any changes you make to the files in the OneDrive folder on any device will be synced to all your devices.

4. Share a file with two clicks.

If you have a file stored in OneDrive and you want to share it with someone else, there's a super-fast way to accomplish that task. Right-click the file in File Explorer and then click Share a OneDrive link. OneDrive generates a short link and copies it to the Clipboard, ready for you to paste it into an email message or a chat window.

Also: Microsoft trumps Google, Dropbox in business cloud storage wars TechRepublic

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This notification lets you know the link to your shared file is copied to the Clipboard.

Anyone who has that link can open and edit the file, so use this option only when you're sending a file to a trusted friend or colleague.

5. Share a file with extra security.

Quick links are convenient, but you might want a little more control when sharing a file or folder from OneDrive. For example, you might not want the recipient to be able to edit the file, or you might want the link to expire so it can't be reused if someone stumbles across it in an old email. Or perhaps you want to protect the shared link with a password (which you should share with the recipient separately from the link itself, of course).

Also: Save space with OneDrive's new feature CNET

You can do any or all of those things by right-clicking a file or folder in File Explorer and then choosing More OneDrive sharing options. That opens OneDrive in your web browser with the Share dialog box open for the object you selected, as shown here.

onedrive-more-sharing-options.jpg

Set an expiration date of just one or two days to prevent links from being reused later.

Adjust whatever options you want, then click to get a link or open an email window. Use the More button to share a link with Facebook, Twitter, or another social media service.

6. Create a shared folder for your family or teammates.

One of the easiest ways to use OneDrive for file sharing is to set up a dedicated folder that you and other people can use to share files. This option works great with for sharing with friends or family members your family, with a small office, with a project team.

In OneDrive, create the folder you want to use for sharing. Give it a name that will make its purpose immediately obvious even if someone else sees it in their OneDrive: For example, you might call it 2019 Budget - Shared Files. Sync that folder to the cloud and send a shared link to that folder with the other person (or persons) you want to share it with. (Make sure you allow editing.)

Also: Five factors to consider when moving to Office 365 CNET

Your friends or co-workers receive a link that takes them to OneDrive on the web, where they can click Add to my OneDrive.

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When you add a shared folder to OneDrive, your changes show up for anyone with access to the folder.

That adds the shared folder to their OneDrive. It shows up in File Explorer automatically, and any files either of you add, edit, or delete are automatically synced to everyone else in the group.

That's just a sampling of things you can do with OneDrive. If you've got favorite tips or tricks, feel free to share them in the comments section, or click my by-line and send me a note.

Previous and related coverage:

Google Drive paid consumer storage plans become Google One

The update makes Google's consumer storage plans more competitive against options like Dropbox and Microsoft's OneDrive.

Craving unlimited cloud storage? That all-you-can-eat buffet is shutting down

Microsoft, at one point, offered an unlimited storage plan for OneDrive. Until it cancelled it.