Review: Using files made easy with online storage

Associated Press Modified: May 2, 2012 at 4:46 pm •  Published: May 2, 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) — Moving digital files between your work and home computers can be a pain. Add smartphones and tablet computers to the mix, and you've got yourself a giant headache.

Google Inc. unveiled its solution to the problem last week, while two other companies, Dropbox Inc. and Microsoft Corp., improved their existing offerings. The idea is to leave your files on their computers, so that you can access them from any Internet-connected device, wherever you are.

That means you can stop emailing big files to yourself, and you can stop carrying those USB thumb drives that fill up quickly, especially when transferring photos and video. These services also make it easier to share documents with others.

The three services I tried are free, though you'll have to pay if you need more than your allotted storage.

Google Drive, Dropbox and Microsoft's SkyDrive share many core features.

You can store just about any type of file — photos, videos, songs, spreadsheets and more — on distant servers operated by those companies. All you need is a Web browser and an Internet connection. To upload a file to the online storage service, you simply move the file's icon to the browser window. The original file remains on your computer.

To access a file from another computer, you simply go to the service's website and log in. You can make changes on that computer and move the file back online. You can create Web links to entire folders or specific files for sharing.

You can install free software to simplify these transfers. The software creates a special folder on your computer for that particular service. Anything you add to it will automatically get transferred to your online storage. If you or colleagues make changes from another computer, the original version gets automatically updated.

A subset of features is also available through apps for mobile devices. You can pull up photos and other documents on the go, though it's not designed for making too many changes.

One drawback with all three services: You can lose metadata associated with these files. Attributes such as the file's creation date can change in transfer. The contents aren't affected, with one major exception I'll discuss as I compare the individual services.

— Storage

The services give you plenty of free space for word processing, spreadsheets and other basics, but not enough for extensive storage of photos and video.

You get 2 gigabytes for free on Dropbox, 5 GB on Google Drive and 7 GB on SkyDrive. Those who used SkyDrive before April 23 can claim 25 GB of free space, though others might be eligible too. Dropbox lets you earn additional free space by recruiting friends or performing such tasks as installing Dropbox's software.

Signing up for additional free accounts gets cumbersome, so count on paying if you need more. An extra 100 GB will cost $50 a year on SkyDrive and $59.88 on Google Drive, while 100 GB including the free space will cost $199 on Dropbox. Cheaper plans with less storage are available.

Winner: SkyDrive, with the most free storage and cheapest upgrade plans.

— Sharing

All three let you share content by creating links.

On Dropbox, friends with that link can view the content, though you'll have to go through extra steps to create a "shared folder" for others to edit documents.

With SkyDrive, you can give people editing capabilities with that link. In fact, you can give some people a view-only link and others a link with editing privileges. You can share via email and decide whether recipients can edit documents. You can also post content to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks directly from SkyDrive.

Google Drive also lets you choose whether links come with editing capabilities. But unlike SkyDrive, you can't create view-only links for some and editing links for others. It's one or the other for particular files and folders. You can also email items as attachments or as a link to your Google Drive account.

Dropbox and SkyDrive can automatically turn the photos you share into galleries, so that friends can view them through an interface that resembles what you'd get on Facebook or a photo-sharing site.



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