Review: What to expect from Mega's free 50GB of cloud storage

50GB of free storage sounds great, but Kim Dotcom's new Mega cloud service still has many bugs.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Who wouldn't want 50GB of free Internet storage? Dropbox is all fine and well, but it starts with a mere 2GB of free space. Kim Dotcom's newly launched Mega cloud storage service with its free 50GB of storage sounds much better, but how well does it really work? Let me open by saying it's a long, long way from perfect.

Mega may be great some day, but for today expect to spend a lot of time staring at a semi-frozen display.(Screenshot by ZDNet)

To get your free 50GBs of storage, you first must register your account with a valid e-mail address. Once you've done this — and it may take a while, since the system is heavily over-burdened — you'll get a link to use to log in to Mega.

You can use any Web browser to access your new storage so long as its actively supporting JavaScript. Mega recommends Chrome, but I was also able to use it with Firefox. However, Internet Explorer 10, Windows 8's default browser, is known to freeze up after uploading approximately 100MB of files.

Even with Chrome, I found the site often locked up on me. In particular, Mega promises that, if you don't close your current browser session, you can restart interrupted uploads and downloads . It didn't work for me. I will say, however, that getting an estimated upload time of infinity was one of the more amusing error messages I've ever seen.

Once you make it into Mega, you're presented with a typical file folder-style display. You can upload both single files or folders. You can also download files at the same time as you're uploading others. Unlike more sophisticated cloud storage services, such as Dropbox, Mega's storage won't integrate with your file system. You can only access your files via a Web browser.

That may change soon. Mega is opening its application programming interface (API). The functionality already appears to be there to integrate Mega with your PC's existing file system.

For now, you can either drag and drop files into Mega from your file manager or use the site's upload buttons. If you're using Chrome, you can also try to drag and drop directories. Regardless of how you do it, be ready for long waits. In these early days, Mega is anything but fast.

Once loaded, you can right-click on a file to get a link for it or download, rename, move, copy, delete, or reload it. You will also be able to drag and drop your files into new Mega folders.

Mega does indeed appear to give you 50GB of free storage. Your files, however, may not be the files that are actually stored on the cloud.

To quote from Mega's terms of service, "Our service may automatically delete a piece of data you upload or give someone else access to where it determines that that data is an exact duplicate of original data already on our service. In that case, you will access that original data." So, for example, if you saved a copy of Star Wars to Mega and someone else had uploaded the exact same video, only his copy would be saved, and when you accessed "your" copy, you'd really watching "his" copy.

There's nothing new about this, of course. Apple uses the method with iTunes Match, as does Amazon with its Cloud Player service. What we don't know, however, is how Mega does it because Mega also only stores encrypted files and the company stated that it doesn't have access to your encryption key.

To be exact, when you get a Mega account, you choose a password. This password also serves as your symmetric encryption key. By "symmetric," Mega means you use the same Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) 128-bit key that's been derived from your password to both encrypt and decrypt your files and folders. This coding and decoding is all done on your computer.

Indeed, Mega doesn't keep your password/encryption key at all. If you lose your password, or it's hacked, Mega can't help you. Your files will be, for all practical purposes, toast. Even if you know for a fact that you'll never forget your password "password," you may find that you can't log in anyway. While it didn't happen to me, I've heard reports of users finding they couldn't log back in, even though they knew they were using the right, simple password.

So, how can Mega know that your files are an exact duplicate of another user's? We don't know. There are many theories, such as these discussed on Y Combinator, but, for now, we're all just speculating.

Personally, I take Mega's warning about the safety of your data seriously: "You must maintain copies of all data stored by you on our service. We do not make any guarantees that there will be no loss of data or the services will be bug free."

That aside, if you want to share your files privately with someone, Mega uses far stronger encryption: 2,048-bit AES asymmetric encryption. This means there's both a public and private key pair. With this, you should be able to securely share files with friends.

You can also use this method to share file directories with other users who also have Mega accounts. If you choose to share files or directories this way, you also control how much access your colleagues have to your shared data.

Of course, you should be able to share files with URLS that have your password embedded in them. With these, anyone who has the link can download the file.

I say "should" because once you start trying to use Mega, you'll quickly find that the system is totally swamped. Dotcom is well aware of the problem. He tweeted, "The massive global PR around the #Megalaunch is simply to big to handle for our start-up. I apologize for poor service quality." He then added, "We are working 24/7 and expect normal operations within 48 hours. Lesson learned... No fancy launch event for Megabox ;-)"

So, exactly how overwhelmed is it? "If I would tell you how many signups we had since the launch you wouldn't believe it. I can't believe it. So, I won't tell you." Maybe Dotcom can't, but what I can tell you is that, at best, I was seeing upload speeds of less than 1 Kilobit per second from my 5 Megabit per second Charter cable Internet connection. A lot of other basic functionality, such as simply being able to obtain the URL of an uploaded file, frequently failed for me.

The long and short of it is that Mega may prove to be a useful, free service ... someday. For now, it's very much a work in progress. If you want good, free, and reliable cloud storage today, go to Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft SkyDrive. If you have to have 50GB of free storage, check out MediaFire's offering. But as for Mega, you'll be better off holding off for at least a week before trying it. You'll be glad you waited.

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