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It seems the cloud is hard to escape these days – both in your daily tech life, and on websites such as ours. Only last week I wrote an article about cloud-based PowerPoint alternatives, the week before an article about DOS games in the cloud and before that you might have caught me harping on about online backup solutions.
There’s good reason for the buzz – it’s both handy and a growing necessity to have quick access to your important files in this day and age. We live in a world where our constant connection to the web has spilled over into every corner of life – from the never-ending stream of email in your inbox to your smartphone that has an app for just about everything.
The “big 3” are often considered to be Microsoft, Apple and Google’s offerings – so this week we’ll be discussing the virtues of each when it comes to mobile usage.
Apple’s cloud-based storage solution, aptly named iCloud, is somewhat different to the other two in that you need to purchase an Apple device in order to use it. That said, the iPhone is the single most popular smartphone (read: phone, not platform) out there so there are a lot of people who do in fact own an iPhone but happily use Windows or Linux as their primary desktop operating system of choice. Perhaps a more pertinent consideration is whether or not the purchase of additional iCloud storage is in fact worth it, especially if you’re already heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem.
Just to refresh, you can purchase an additional 10GB, 20GB or 50GB of iCloud storage for an annual fee of $20, $40 and $100 respectively. This is in addition to the 5GB you get for free, which is then used to keep your data synchronised across all of your Apple devices. If you have a Mac and iPhone (and possibly an iPad) then this is starting to look like a good option, with iCloud now more deeply integrated than ever into iOS and the latest OS X release, Mountain Lion.
If you’re purchasing an iPhone or iPad then the 5GB of free storage should be one of the first things you set up, even if you only use it as backup. Your iPhone will automatically save a copy of all your data to the cloud whenever plugged in, connected to Wi-Fi and asleep (this feature is enabled by default) meaning you can restore a backup even if you’re thousands of miles from home, provided you have time and an internet connection.
Free storage: 5GB, limited to Apple customers only.
Extras: Find my iPhone, Find my Mac, Back to my Mac, @me.com Email, iOS Backups in the cloud.
Web access: Contacts, Calendars, Mail, iWork Documents @ iCloud.com.
Software integration: All iOS devices compatible with iOS 5 and above, Mac OS X 10.7 and above (integration into core apps such as iPhoto and TextEdit), Windows with iCloud Control Panel (limited features).
Who it’s good for: iPhone, iPad and Mac users, 5GB of free backup for anyone with an iDevice should be taken advantage of, those who use Reminders and Notes apps on their devices or appreciate having Contacts synchronised across the board.
Who it’s not good for: Users who don’t own Apple products, less useful for Mac users with tablets or smartphones which aren’t iPhone or iPad devices.
Bottom line: 5GB of complementary space is definitely worth it for iPhone or iPad users as a backup, though iCloud isn’t as flexible as the other services when it comes to file storage. Sign up anyway, just don’t expect to rely on it solely without spending more money on space.
Microsoft’s SkyDrive offering is decidedly Windows 8 in look and feel, and unlike iCloud it’s available for every major platform including iOS, Android and their own Windows Phone OS without the need for a Windows PC or other Microsoft device. You also probably already have an account which you can use – if you’re an Xbox gamer, Hotmail user or still have your MSN Messenger account credentials somewhere then you only need to sign in to receive 7GB of free space. If you signed up while the offer was still there, you had a chance to grab 25GB of space at one point.
The free storage space is the most offered by any of the free services here, with increased storage being cheap with 20GB, 50GB and 100GB upgrades available for yearly payments of $10, $25 and $50 respectively. Windows Phone 7 users will have to download the app from Windows Phone Marketplace in order to access files, but the snaps they take with their phone will then be automatically uploaded and available from SkyDrive enabled PCs, Macs and of course the Web. Windows Phone 8, announced a few months ago, is set to bring even further integration with Microsoft’s cloud storage offering though app developers have been receiving mixed messages when it comes to using SkyDrive as an iCloud-like backup solution.
And that is where the biggest differences between iCloud and SkyDrive reside. SkyDrive is able to store and create files using a drag and drop or webapp interface, from SkyDrive.com but iCloud is primarily a backup and sync tool, with no options for document creation but automatic backup of your iDevice. SkyDrive’s impressive array of cross-platform mobile applications makes accessing files from an iOS, Android or Windows Phone devices pretty easy. It’s ideal for Office users who would like to access their SkyDrive documents on the go, and makes the perfect accompaniment to a backup such as that offered by iCloud.
Free storage: 7GB
Extras: SkyDrive WebApps for Word/Excel/PowerPoint/OneNote, file sharing, group file sharing, remote access to Windows PCs
Software integration: Windows 8 (in-built), Windows 7 or Vista SP2, Mac OS X 10.7+, Windows Phone 7.5+, iOS, Android 2.3+
Who it’s good for: Windows Phone users due to photo sync, iPhone or Android users with a Windows or Mac PC, users with a lot of Microsoft Office content, PC users who will be adopting Windows 8 from the outset
Who it’s not good for: Linux users as there is no support aside from web upload, users who have been using Google Docs for a long time.
Bottom line: A great, cloud-based storage solution from Microsoft that performs an entirely different task to iCloud with a generous 7GB of space with mobile and desktop apps across the board. No file type limits and more storage than the others makes this a great choice, though backup for Windows Phone users would be nice.
Google has done some wonderful things with Google Docs, the most recent being the integration with Google Drive. If you’ve been a user of Google Docs for a while now, you will undoubtedly love the ability to store just about any file type and preview many on your mobile. Google Drive’s killer feature – aside from the ability to create documents with their fantastic tools – is the fact that only non-Google Docs files consume allotted space. You can have as many Google Docs files or convert and upload your Microsoft Office and iWork files without taking up a single MB. Any files you do want to store verbatim will come out of your 5GB allowance which is upgradeable to 25GB or 100GB for monthly fees of $2.49 and $4.99 respectively.
In terms of mobile apps, Google Drive has apps for iOS and Android but not Windows Phone. Both the recently updated iOS app and the Android edition have been graced with the ability to create create, modify and view your documents on the go (with the iOS version limited to editing and creating text documents, and the Android version devoid of presentation editing at the moment). For tablet users, it really is a great tool to have access to – and even those on larger Android phones like Samsung’s Galaxy Note might find themselves getting more done. On the iOS variant, I couldn’t peek inside a .ZIP archive I had uploaded, but the option to “Open In…” and use another program was there. The ability to sync docs offline is great, but I was left thinking I might as well use Notes.app instead. Both Windows and OS X are supported with decent desktop apps that add a Google Drive folder which syncs with your PC.
Android should probably be the best supported mobile OS here, and to a point it is. Unfortunately there are no backup solutions available at the moment that use Google Drive for storage. There is no option to automatically upload photos either (but then again Google+ does this) and I can’t help but feel Google aren’t making the most of Google Drive’s integration with the Android platform. On-the-fly editing and creation are great though, and the OS X and Windows desktop apps give both iOS and Android users the ability to drop their documents in a folder (or create them online) and access them on the go.
Free storage: 5GB
Extras: Google’s entire Docs range of tools for document creation in a web browser and via the Android app (web access also possible from iPad), integration with a variety of other apps on the web, file sharing and collaboration.
Software integration: Windows 7, Vista and XP, OS X 10.6+, Android 2.1+, iOS 5.0+ all via downloadable apps.
Who it’s good for: Android users who like to create on the go, iOS users who appreciate text document creation and editing, Chrome OS users who’ve made the switch to lightweight web apps, Windows XP users who cannot use SkyDrive, Linux users disgruntled with the lack of proper apps to integrate with their OS (access via web interface).
Who it’s not good for: Windows Phone users due to lack of a proper app, those who prefer “proper” desktop apps like Microsoft Word for creation.
Bottom line: Google’s desktop creation tools are nearly on a par with Microsoft’s dedicated software packages, though proper integration of Docs has yet to arrive on iOS or at all on Windows Phone. Android users get a great app to use, but further integration with the OS for the purposes of backup and photo storage would be nice to rival services offered by iCloud.
But What About Dropbox?
Dropbox is of course another option, but then it depends on a number of factors. The service has the smallest capacity on a free account here, starting at just 2GB but expandable to 18GB. Then again, who do you know who doesn’t have a Dropbox account these days? If the answer to that question is “lots!” then get referring and earning more space. There are desktop versions of Dropbox for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux as well as a lightweight and easy to use Web UI, a heap of apps and plenty of cool ways to use the service.
Android easily makes the best use of Dropbox, with the ability to automatically upload photos to Dropbox without opening the app. iOS users can’t do the same because Apple doesn’t let apps run in the background in such a manner, but the option is present and works when you launch the app (ultimately less useful though). Windows Phone users will be disappointed at the lack of an official app, so SkyDrive might continue to be the best bet there. Dropbox does support the ageing Blackberry platform, so if you’re still rocking a RIM device then it’s a fairly attractive wire-free sharing solution. There are also a lot of mobile apps for all sorts of platforms that can take advantage of Dropbox, check out this article for more ideas.
As for backup, there’s only one solution for Android users and that’s Titanium Backup. You will need to root your phone in order to use it, but the Pro version has an option to backup to Dropbox. The functionality is nice, but it’s not quite as straightforward as iCloud and the rooting process is sure to put a lot of users off. Still, if all you’re doing is dragging and dropping a couple of pictures and documents into a folder, Dropbox should perform admirably – and it’s free, after all.
If this post has confused you somewhat then I’m sorry, but the best answer is “use all three” or even all four. If you’re buying an iPhone, use Windows and love cloud-based Google Docs then the short answer is “all three”. If you’re an Android user with a Mac and the latest copy of Microsoft Office for Mac then the answer is “all three”. If you’re a Linux user with an iPad and Android phone then you’re always going to have a tough gig, but all three are at your service.
The real choice is between SkyDrive and Google Drive – and it boils down to creation. If you’re creating in Google Docs then Drive will suit you well. If you’re paying a premium for Microsoft’s tool then you’d be foolish to ignore SkyDrive. And if you’ve bought an iPad and would like to save your app data, photos, notes and other irreplaceable data then you’d better have an iCloud account.