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cloud storageMicrosoft SkyDrive has been around for a while, but was recently given a fairly significant update. We took some time to talk to Microsoft about the new features and play with it all, so here’s a breakdown of what you can expect.

You’ll need a Windows Live account to start making full use of SkyDrive. For those too lazy to read – there’s 25gb of storage, web-based versions of popular Office apps, collaborative editing, and an iPhone app you should probably avoid for now.

Web-Based Office Apps

In SkyDrive, you now have access to cut-down versions of popular Office apps, to both create and edit documents without the need for a full offline Office suite (though you can at any point open your SkyDrive files in regular Office apps, then seamlessly save back again). Personally, I’m not a fan of Google Docs, so if your documents are predominantly MS formats and you’d like to move into the cloud without the hassle of importing and exporting etc, this is a great solution – and free.

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The web-based versions work across OS, taking advantages of new HTML5 standards rather than Silverlight, so that’s something to keep in mind if someone mails a Word document to your shiny iMac when you don’t have Office for Mac.

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Collaborative Editing

You’ll be pleased to know that the cloud versions of Office now support collaborative editing, or at least a hybrid form of it. First up – this feature isn’t as advanced as say Google Docs, where you can see collaborators typing in real time and changes are done at a character level. Instead, SkyDrive takes the approach of locking certain parts of the document – a paragraph will be marked as being edited for instance. Once changes are available to view, you need to manually click the update changes button.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a huge step forward in a world where Office documents are still the norm in many companies – and changes at the paragraph level are more than sufficient for most of us. It’s a shame it doesn’t work asynchronously though as manually refreshing things is quite tedious.

Public Share Links and Edit Privileges

Along with collaborative editing comes an easy way to share your files and folders. Three levels of links are available – public, can edit, and view only. You can either share this straight out to your Facebook and Linked In status, or get a regular URL to share in Twitter etc.

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Although links can be freely shared and anyone given the link can view the documents, users wishing to edit the document will still need to either have or create a Windows Live ID (and the link will need to have been set with edit privileges enabled).

On the downside, the share links are ridiculously lengthy. I can’t help thinking that some kind of automated link shortening service would have been really easy to add. As it is, a simple view-only link to a photo comes out like this:!107&parid=86D16A5E767798C4!102&authkey=!AArcUia4KgCYgbI

25GB Totally Free Storage

Even if you don’t need collaborative features, SkyDrive’s free 25gb is a generous cloud storage locker. It doesn’t sync with your files, so you can offload files totally to the cloud if you want, or just use it for backup. The interface is very Explorer-like so Windows users will feel right at home, but it also works just fine on a Mac. We had a few issues during testing with Chrome though, so stick to Firefox or Safari (or Explorer if you insist).

iPhone App

Unlike Apple’s iCloud service, Microsoft has made a big effort to make the SkyDrive available on other devices. Unfortunately, the SkyDrive app for iPhone is decidedly under-developed – the user interface is confusing at best; files must be uploaded one by one as there’s no mass-upload feature; a manual refresh is often needed to keep it in sync with the web-based version; and worst of all – if you take a photo directly within the app, and it fails to upload (as it often did in my testing), the photo is lost forever – it doesn’t get saved to your Camera Roll as you would expect. I’m afraid I really can’t recommend the iPhone side of SkyDrive until a good update is released. If you must, take the photos with the Camera app first, then do the Choose Existing dialog to upload it.

If you have ventured to try the app out, and can’t for the life of you figure out how to delete a photo from the SkyDrive iPhone app – you need to click the “share” button in the top right and change the thumbnail view to a “Details view“, then you can swipe left to right to reveal Delete on the item.

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Though I didn’t get a chance to play with SkyDrive integration on Windows Phone 7, I think it’s safe to assume it’s a more fulfilling experience than the iPhone app; and I think we can also say that SkyDrive is likely to be strongly integrated into the upcoming Windows 8.

SkyDrive is obviously Microsoft’s answer to iCloud and Google Docs, and while iCloud is still the stronger platform in my opinion, it’s limited to Apple devices. SkyDrive is cross-platform for the most part, and has made a valiant attempt to integrate with iPhones too – hopefully an update will tackle the problems I’ve outlined.

For Windows users and Windows Phone 7 owners – SkyDrive is a clear winner. Even if you’re not a big fan of Microsoft stuff, you can’t argue with 25GB free space. The collaborative editing feature may not be as intricate as Google Docs, but it’s a welcome feature none the less and more than sufficient for most users.

Have you had a chance to play with the new SkyDrive yet? What do you think? How do you compare it to Google Docs, or iCloud?

**Editor’s note, 14th February 2012 : some details in this article have been edited after further information was received from Microsoft**

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