In 2007, Drew Houston, Dropbox's CEO, got sick and tired of misplacing his USB drive, so he created the first personal and small business cloud storage service. It was a radical one in its day. Today, everyone and their uncle seems to be offering cheap or free cloud storage.
Also: How to sync multiple cloud storage services for free TechRepublic
That's great! Except, well, how do you choose which one is right for you? It used to be that most people decided simply on the basis of how much free storage space they got. That's simple, but it only tells part of the story.
The real value from a cloud storage service comes from how well it works for you. As you'll see, some work much better with some operating systems and business plans than others.
It's odd. Amazon does a great job with its cloud storage service Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) for developers and IT. But Amazon Drive for personal and business users has never been a first-tier storage service.
- See it now: Amazon Drive
Mind you, it has gotten better. At long, long last, Amazon Drive has sync services for Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows. Alas, it doesn't have a Linux client.
On the plus side, Amazon moves files by using block-level file copying," aka "differential sync" or "delta sync." With this method, which Dropbox uses as well, when you sync a file you only send and receive the differences, the delta, between files. This makes syncing files much faster on these services than their rivals.
Amazon Drive also includes features taskbar notifications. These enable you to keep an eye on your file transfers, It also enables you to throttle sync speeds when you're busy with say a bandwidth hungry video-conference in the foreground.
This cloud storage service used to offer an unlimited plan. But Amazon dropped that plan in 2017. Today, Amazon Prime member get 5GB of storage for use with Amazon Drive and unlimited photo storage with Prime Photos. If you want more, Amazon's current annual storage plans start at 100GB) for $11.99 and 1TB for $59.99. At most, you can get 30TB for $1,799.70.
My bottom line is, if you're an Amazon Prime member, Amazon Drive is worth it. If you're not, keep looking.
Sure, you can get a free Box cloud storage account with 10GB of storage, and for $10 a month with the Box Personal Pro Plan, you get 100GB of space, but that's like using a Rolls-Royce to pull a U-Haul trailer.
- See it now: Box
Where Box really shines is as a groupware or work-flow application. Used that way, it enables you to share files with colleagues, assign tasks, leave comments on someone's work, and get notifications when a file changes.
The Box Business Plan for small and medium-sized businesses offers unlimited storage integrates with Google Docs and Office 365 and costs $15 per month per user.
Besides unlimited storage, the Business Plan lets you have files as large as 5GB. It also works with Active Directory (AD) and single-sign on (SSO).
Box excels at file privacy and data encryption. You get full read/write permissions control over your files and directories. In addition, you can also hook up Box to numerous business applications such as Salesforce and NetSuite. This really is a cloud storage service for business users.
Like the other services, you can use your files via Box's website and even create basic text documents. To make it shine, you'll need the Box Sync and Edit apps for Windows or Mac OS X. It also comes with Android, iOS, and Windows Phone apps that will enable you to view, upload and share files. Box is also now integrated directly with Google's Chrome OS or Chromebooks users.
Box is best suited for a business IT buy. Its real value comes if you deploy it in your company not just as a way to store and share files but to run team projects.
Who doesn't use Dropbox? Sure, its free storage is only 2GB, but you can use it on any platform. You can get to your files from Dropbox's website, desktop applications for Mac, Windows, and Linux, their native files systems, and the iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Kindle Fire mobile apps. It's a snap to set up, and you don't need to worry about syncing files for a second.
- See it now: Dropbox
It's also easy to add free storage for nothing. Take the Getting Started tutorial, and you get 250MB more room. Get a mobile app and turn on the automatic photo upload feature, and ta-da you get 3GB of extra space. You can also earn 500MB for each friend you get to sign up for Dropbox for up to 16GB in all.
If you need more storage -- a lot more storage -- Dropbox Business plans starts at 3TB for $12.50 a month. If you need even more Dropbox offers unlimited storage starting at $20 per user per month. All these plans comes with a 30-day free trial.
Where Dropbox shines the most is its sheer simplicity -- and the simple fact that you can use it on almost any platform you care to name.
If you value simple, fast, and easy, Dropbox should be your first choice. I don't need to tell you that. You're probably already using it.
Google Drive used to be just storage. But then Google took its online office suite, Google Docs, and pasted them together. Now, for simply having a Google account, you get 15GB of free storage and an excellent office suite. It's good enough that many businesses and every Chromebook user is now using it as their complete cloud-based office.
- See it now: Google Drive
Still wedded to Microsoft Office and not Google Docs? No problem. With a Google Chrome extension, you can view and edit Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files with Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
Need more storage? No problem. Google Drive storage prices starts at $1.99 per month for 100GB, or for $2.99 a month you get 200GB a month. For a 1TB, you pay $9.99 per month, and 10TB costs $99.99 per month. You can go all the way up to 30TB for $299.99 a month. With all these plans, you can share your storage with your family.
In addition, if you buy a new Chromebook you can get more storage. With any Chromebook you'll now get a free 1TB of storage for two years. If you buy a high-end PixelBook, you get free storage for three years.
After the free deal expires, you still get to keep the storage you use. So, for example, if you use 500GB of your free 1TB, after a year and a day, you will still have 500GB of free storage.
If you want to build your business around Google Drive, you can do that too. Google Drive for Work includes unlimited storage for files, folders, and backups for $8 per user per month plus $0.04 per GB. With it, you can sync all your business files, including Microsoft Office files, across your computer, smartphone, and tablet to access your work whenever you need it.
There are apps for Google Drive for Android, iOS, Mac OS X, and Windows. Annoyingly, there is not a Linux app, even though Google Drive is built into Chrome OS, and Google has promised us a Linux app for years. There is a third-party app, InSync, which I highly recommend, but I still want a Google Drive native Linux app.
Recently, Google updated and renamed its macOS and Windows application to Backup & Sync. This gives you the power to sync or backup almost any file or folder on your computer.
For G Suite users, there's Google Drive Stream. This storage service streams files to a machine from the cloud rather than syncing them between the device and the cloud. This service turns Google Drive into more of a hard-drive replacement than a cloud storage service add-on.
If you're a Chromebook or Google power user, I don't need to sell you on Google Drive. It's the best cloud storage option for you. Personally, while I've use all these storage services, Google Drive is the one I use every day.
Apple's cloud entry is awkward. iCloud Drive shows to its best advantage when you use it with Apple's latest and greatest gear, but even there it's quirky.
- See it now: iCloud Drive
Apple's iCloud comes with 5GB of free storage, if you're using it from a Mac or an iDevice. If you're using it from Windows, you can get 1GB. For 99 cents per month, iCloud offers 50GB. For $2.99, you get 200GB, and 2TB costs $9.99 per month.
Like Google Drive, iCloud Drive is also integrated with an office suite, albeit it's only Apple's beginner's office applications: Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.
Unlike the other services, there is no business version of iCloud Drive. While it supports Windows, it also, even now, doesn't support Android.
Perhaps, iCloud most annoying "feature" is the confusion between iCloud and iCloud Drive. They're not the same thing. For example, Contacts, Notes, Photos, and Reminders get backed up to iCloud, but TextEdit, iMovie, and Mail data lives in iCloud Drive.
In addition, iCloud Drive, in my experience, is prone to be slow and quirky. I've had trouble syncing files between my Macs and iDevices. Eventually, I think iCloud Drive will be for Apple users what OneDrive already is for Windows, but it's still having teething problems. However, as a business solution? It's not there now, and I doubt it ever will be.
iDrive is for everyone who likes to combine a cloud backup service with cloud storage. While it's main job is for backing up personal and small businesses, it also works well for personal cloud storage.
- See it now: iDrive
iDrive starts its offers with 5GB for free. That's OK, but if you want to make the most of it for backup, the real deal is in its Personal iDrive offerings. These start at $52.12 for 2TB for a year or an even better deal of $74.62 5TB annually. There are also business packages with unlimited users, but the price goes up for less storage. For example, it's $74.62 for 250GB.
Another real nice feature is, unlike many other cloud-backup services, iDrive doesn't lock you down to a single computer. You can use one account to backup your Windows and macOS desktops, your Android smartphone and iPhones and tablets, and network drives. There's also a Linux backup option, but it's meant for Linux servers. There is no Linux personal storage.
iDrive also enables you to retain deleted files and old file versions for a comprehensive backup solution. Still, another plus is that iDrive backups are done continuously and in real time, so once the initial setup is complete, you're off the hook for backing up your devices.
If you want to make your backup, or storage, is safe from prowlers, iDrive gives you the option of using a private AES 256 encryption key. And, when they say "private," they mean private. If you lose the key, neither they nor anyone else can get to your files. Of course, that also means any snoopers can get to them either.
So, if you're looking for a personal or sole-proprietorship backup, iDrive demands a long, hard look. It's both easy to use and inexpensive.
- See it now: Nextcloud
In short, if don't trust your data to Apple, Google, Microsoft, or anyone else, this is the the do-it-yourself way:
You can use Nextcloud to set up your own cloud storage either on an office server or off your own external servers. NextCloud, while easy to set up for a Linux power-user, might prove a challenge for some. Still, if you want real control, it's hard to beat.
Nextcloud comes in both a free and a business edition, Nextcloud Files. This version offers basic support for up to 50 users for 1,900 Euros a year. The code's all open source, so if you feel up to the challenge, you can run it all yourself.
How much storage can you get with it? How much do you want? I have a 4TB Nextcloud drive in my office and another terabyte off my co-hosted server rack. There are Nextcloud desktop clients for Linux, macOS, and Windows and mobile apps for Android and iOS. You can also use the WebDAV protocol to directly integrate Nextcloud drives into your local file system.
Nextcloud is more than just an easy way to set up a private Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) cloud. The Nextcloud suite of programs also include Nextcloud Talk for private web-conferencing and NextCloud Groupware, for e-mail, calendaring, and contacts
This cloud storage solution is for anyone who wants the maximum amount of control over their cloud and doesn't mind doing some extra work to get it just right.
Formerly SkyDrive, Microsoft's OneDrive is what Apple wants iCloud Drive to be when it grows up. Starting with Windows 8, OneDrive is baked into the operating system.
- See it now: OneDrive
As far as a Windows user is concerned, OneDrive is just another directory in the file explorer. Talk about it easy! Anyone can use it on the web, with a desktop app for Mac and earlier versions of Windows, and with OneDrive apps for Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and Xbox. Yes, Xbox.
OneDrive comes with 5GB of free storage. Office 365 users get an extra terabyte for starting with the $6.99-per-month subscription. If you're an Office 365 user, this is a no brainer. You can also add 50GB to OneDrive for $1.99 per month. Like Google and Chromebooks, Microsoft also offers free storage if you buy a Microsoft Surface device.
OneDrive's real selling point is, besides working hand-in-glove with Windows, it also works closely with Microsoft Office programs. With Office 365 you can also collaborate with others in documents and spreadsheets in real time with your partners.
If you want to take OneDrive into your business, Microsoft stands ready to help with OneDrive for Business. This is not a storage plan, per se. But, like Google Drive has been merged into Google Docs, OneDrive for Business is a marriage of OneDrive and Office 365. With Office 365 Business, Business Essentials, or Business Premium plans, the prices start at $5 a user per month with an annual commitment. With any of these packages, you get 1TB of storage per user.
There's no question who will get the most from OneDrive. It's anyone who's wedded to Windows and Microsoft Office. If that's you, starting using it already. You'll be glad you did.
What's the best cloud storage for you?
It depends on what you use and what you want to do with it. All of these services give you more than enough free or cheap service for small business purposes. In short, don't be distracted by how many free gigabytes of storage you get; it's not that important.
Personally, I prefer Google Drive and Nextcloud, but then those meet my needs best. For you, it may be a different story. To sum up:
- All-in-one office/cloud/workflow: Box, Google Drive, or Nextcloud
- Apple users: Amazon, Dropbox, or Google Drive (until iCloud Drive matures)
- Backup: iDrive.
- Ease of use and multiple devices: Dropbox
- Google users: Google Drive
- Linux users: Nextcloud
- Users who place high value on having data control: Box or Nextcloud
- Windows users: OneDrive
So, get out there, find a service and start saving and backing up your files to the cloud. It will make your life much easier.
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