Beyond Dropbox: Shopping the cloud

Is it time to drop Dropbox? My subscription is nearly up, so I'm re-evaluating four major alternatives - Copy.com, Google Drive, Microsoft Skydrive, and SugarSync - for price and features. Which is the best, and which is the best for me?
By Larry Seltzer, Contributor on
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What's the best deal in the cloud?

[Correction: An earlier version of this story stated (on page 6) that SkyDrive did not provide access to deleted files. It does, in fact, have a Recycle Bin available through the web interface. I apologize for the error.]

Later this month my 200GB annual subscription to Dropbox will expire and I've decided it's time to play the field. Come with me as I evaluate the major personal cloud services for price and features and see what works best for me.

No two ways about it, Dropbox has been good to me and has drastically changed by computing habits for the better. It no longer matters what computer or device I'm on; I always have access to almost everything I might need. I even install certain programs (such as the Sysinternals tools) in my Dropbox folder so that I can more easily have access to the current version from any Windows PC.

But in a very important sense, all the major cloud services are the same:

  • They all give you storage in the cloud
  • They all have a free option with a few GB up to as much as 18GB
  • They all create a local folder which is mirrored with the cloud storage (although some allow flexibility for which folders to replicate locally)
  • They all support multiple platforms, but some support more than others
  • They all support undeleting of files

Clearly there are feature differences, but there are vast pricing differences which I will explore in more detail.

I want to consider all the factors, but the choice I make in the end may not be the right one for you. My platform support needs and my price-sensitivity may be very different from yours.

On that subject, I think there's a case to be made that, in very large part, cloud storage is a commodity, and therefore price is the dominant factor. It's not the only factor for me, but it's definitely the dominant one. If all you need is a few GB then any of them can be free and then features and platform support become more important.

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The contenders

I will be considering the following products:

I'm leaving a couple major products out of my evaluation. Many people think of Apple's iCloud when considering cloud services, but it's not really this type of product. iCloud is more of a set of synchronization protocols. It's invaluable for users of Apple devices, but it doesn't solve the storage need and support for it off of Apple platforms is (to put it kindly) weak.

I'm also not considering Box, one of the more famous companies. The best reason not to consider them is that they are not really focused on the personal market. Yes, they have a free 10GB personal plan, but their focus is on businesses with teams of multiple users. I had tried Box in the past and hated their software. It may be better now, but that doesn't matter.

I'm also not considering BitTorrent Sync and a number of other services (some free) which require static synchronization. I only want the ones where the cloud works just like a local drive.

I have done no formal testing on these products, and performance testing of them would be quite a logistical challenge. I've used most of them in real world situations and the only times I've found myself sitting and waiting for files to synch was when I was moving many GB of data at a time. In other words, they're all fast enough for me, at least on my Internet connections.

I'm presenting the products in the next five pages alphabetically by name.

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Copy.com, which the company says is still a beta, comes from Barracuda Networks, the security software and appliance company.

If you don't need a lot of storage, copy.com could easily be the best deal. At 15GB free they are tied with Google Drive, but they also offer 5GB per referral, making them the best free deal out there. After that, the pricing gets weird. They have only two plans: 250GB and 500GB.

Storage (GB) $ monthly $/GB monthly $ annual $/GB annual
15GB, 5GB/referral $0.00 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
250GB $9.99 $0.04 $99 $0.40
500GB $14.99 $0.03 $149 $0.30

The pricing of these plans is the lowest per GB of any cloud service here. But since their cheapest paid plan is 250GB, the least you can pay is $99 per year. If you need more than you can get from the free plan, but don't need anywhere near 250GB, it's just not a good deal.

They allow the user to select which files to synch and which not to, to move the Copy folder wherever he wants, they even have a Windows Phone app. What's not to like? The pricing. At least for me. If you actually need 250GB or more (or only 15GB or maybe a bit more), or money just isn't a problem, then Copy may be the best deal out there.There is a lot to like about copy.com: They have a "fair storage" policy, which means that the allocation for storage shared among multiple users is split among them. For instance, a 12GB folder shared by 4 people costs each 3GB of their budget.

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Dropbox is the gold standard in consumer cloud storage and priced accordingly. Only SugarSync matches it in price (and is, in fact, more expensive per GB in the less expensive plans).

Dropbox has "Packrat" which allows you to undelete files, but it costs another $39 per year. Only Dropbox dares to charge extra for this. Oddly, the Packrat cost is fixed no matter how much storage you buy, so the penalty diminishes relatively the more storage you buy..

But Dropbox works really well and there are clients for a wide variety of platforms. The software on Mac and Windows is about as straightforward as can be. There is no official client for Windows Phone, but there are several free third party apps. It's a safe choice.

Storage (GB) $ monthly $/GB monthly $ annual $/GB annual
2GB (up to 18GB with 500MB referrals) $0.00 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
100GB $9.99 $0.10 $99 $0.99
100GB + Packrat $48.99 $0.49 $138 $1.38
200GB $19.99 $0.10 $199 $1.00
200GB + Packrat $58.99 $0.29 $238 $1.19
500GB $49.99 $0.10 $499 $1.00
500GB + Packrat $88.99 $0.18 $538 $1.08
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Google Drive

In terms of pricing and range of plans, Google Drive is hard to beat. Nobody comes close to their range, nor does anyone offer anything like a 16 TB plan. They also offer monthly billing at the same flat rate as annual (making annual pointless if you ask me). It's not the cheapest, but it's not off by much.

If you're plugged into the Google ecosystem, then Drive is a natural solution. Obviously Google Apps works with it directly. Google Drive really could be a good solution for me. There's no official Windows Phone client, but there are several unofficial ones (such as  this one) that seem to do what needs to be done.

Storage (GB) $ monthly $/GB monthly $ annual $/GB annual
15 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
100 $4.99 0.05 $59.88 0.60
200 $9.99 0.05 $119.88 0.60
400 $19.99 0.05 $239.88 0.60
1000 $49.99 0.05 $599.88 0.60
2000 $99.99 0.05 $1,199.88 0.60
4000 $199.99 0.05 $2,399.88 0.60
8000 $399.99 0.05 $4,799.88 0.60
16000 $799.99 0.05 $9,599.88 0.60
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Microsoft SkyDrive

[Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that SkyDrive did not provide access to deleted files. It does, in fact, have a Recycle Bin available through the web interface. I apologize for the error.]

SkyDrive was a real me-too service until the latest generations of Microsoft software came along. Office and Windows 8.1 make SkyDrive first-class peers. Both work easily with files on SkyDrive. I'm a big OneNote user, and it's far easier to work on SkyDrive with the mobile versions of OneNote than with other services.

With Windows 8.1 Microsoft adds support for "smart files" on SkyDrive. These are smaller, locally stored thumbnail versions of files stored on SkyDrive that behave like the full-size versions. They cut the amount of storage and bandwidth necessary on the local device. This can be a major benefit on mobile devices which often have limited storage.

SkyDrive is also the second-least expensive product per GB, behind Copy.com. SkyDrive does not offer monthly billing, and only recently added a 200GB plan. (Note in the chart that the numbers are 107, 207, etc. because they add the 7GB you get for free.) The low upper limit may be a problem for some, but not for me.

Storage (GB) $ monthly $/GB monthly $ annual $/GB annual
7 N/A N/A $0.00 $0.00
27 N/A N/A $10.00 $0.37
57 N/A N/A $25.00 $0.44
107 N/A N/A $50.00 $0.47
207 N/A N/A $100.00 $0.48

Another problem element for SkyDrive is Microsoft's confused strategy relative to SkyDrive Pro, their business-oriented cloud storage service. Pro is, behind the product name and logos, an entirely different service from the consumer SkyDrive. It is, in fact, largely a renaming of SharePoint Workspace. If you have accounts on both SkyDrive and SkyDrive Pro (as I do) you need to use different client access software and different accounts for both. The storage is completely separate and even the user accounts are unrelated. SkyDrive Pro is integral to the more expensive plans for Office 365. You can work with SkyDrive Pro from the mobile OneNote apps, but it's a pain in the butt.

It may be that Microsoft limits the storage capacity of SkyDrive in order to push users into SkyDrive Pro. If that's right, it's a really bad decision. It's much easier for a consumer who needs more storage to change services than to add on SkyDrive Pro.

Microsoft lost a trademark battle over the name SkyDrive and it's possible, maybe even likely, that the name will change soon. I'm rather surprised that it didn't change before the release of Windows 8.1.

Microsoft makes SkyDrive clients for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

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SugarSync is a tempting option from a feature standpoint. The most interesting feature (to me) is their Outlook attachment client: It plugs into Outlook and, rather than sending attachments through the e-mail system, puts them on your SugarSync share and includes a link. For heavy Outlook users this could make SugarSync a good option. Note that HighTail (formerly YouSendIt) offers a similar feature with their (not cheap) paid plans. I expect that, before too long, this capability will become de rigueur for companies, like Microsoft and Google, who offer both cloud email and cloud storage.

SugarSync allows not just undelete, but they maintain the last 5 versions of a file, and only the most recent version counts against the storage limit.

But SugarSync is really expensive, in some configurations the most expensive option here. Their prices don't get good until you get their business-oriented (1 to 3 users) 1TB plan and, at that point, they're even cheaper than Google Drive.

Storage (GB) $ monthly $/GB monthly $ annual $/GB annual
5 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00 $0.00
60 $7.49 0.12 $74.99 1.25
100 $9.99 0.10 $99.99 1.00
250 $24.99 0.10 $249.99 1.00
1000 $55.00 0.06 $550.00 0.55

SugarSync has an interesting client collection: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, and Windows Mobile (NOT Windows Phone, and no third parties have picked up the slack there). 

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Gold, Silver and Bronze

Tying it all together, I have to say I'm most impressed with Google Drive - in the abstract. They're not the least expensive, but their combination of price and plans is head and shoulders above the rest. Most of the other services are trying to game you into buying a plan that's better for them, than for you. Not Google. Google's platform coverage is excellent, if not everything I need.

I'm also very impressed with Copy.com. The reason they're not #1 is that I feel manipulated by their restrictive plan structure. Like I said, if what Copy offers (free/15GB, 250GB, 500GB) is good for you, they go for it. They've got an impressive service.

Third place was a tough decision. I seriously considered all of the remaining three products: Dropbox, SkyDrive and SugarSync at different times for different reasons. I'm choosing SkyDrive in spite of the their major disadvantage, that they max out at 207GB. The main advantage it has over SugarSync and Dropbox is the huge price differential. And if you're a Windows/Office user, SkyDrive has extra appeal.

SugarSync fails to medal in this event, mostly because of price. It could be a lot higher. But it could be worse. It could be Dropbox.

Dropbox is the market leader now, and they've done a good job with their product, but I have to think things will get a lot more competitive in the next few years. Windows users will have SkyDrive in their faces from now on and Google users have good reason to use Google Drive. That's a big chunk of the market. Maybe they should have taken Steve Jobs up on his offer.

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The One I Choose

If I weren't a total cheapskate I would probably go with Copy.com. As highly as I regard Google Drive, it's not the best choice for me.

Given that I'm currently using 48GB of my 200 capacity on Dropbox I think I can get away with 100GB as a plan, but I'll also price out 200GB. I can't get exactly what I want from everyone, but if those are the sizes I was shopping for, here's what I would have to pay.

  About 100GB Plan Annual About 200GB Plan Annual
copy.com 250GB $99 250GB $99
Dropbox 100GB $99 200GB $199
Dropbox w/PackRat 100GB $138 200GB $238
Google Drive 100GB $59.88 200GB $119.88
Microsoft SkyDrive 107GB $50 207GB $100
SugarSync 100GB $99.99 250GB $249.99

SkyDrive works better for me. With the way I use my cloud storage, it works just fine.

This is what works for me. You choose what works for you. Just don't assume Dropbox is the best deal.

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