Less than a decade ago, there was one thing that every computer user recommended: Keep a physical backup on hand at all times in case something goes horribly wrong with your desktop or laptop computer. That advice still holds, but you might not want to go the old-fashioned route and keep a spare hard drive on hand at all times.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand what cloud storage is, what its advantages are, and what some of the drawbacks might be. Cloud-based storage takes the concept of a spare hard drive and moves it onto a remote server hosted by a company like Microsoft, Apple, Google, or others. The benefit of opting for this remote, Internet-connected storage service is that the files are always kept safely on a remote server. They’re not subject to the whims of personal computing and spare hard drives, which might get lost, stolen, broken, or somehow damaged. That means there’s added peace of mind in moving to the cloud.
At the same time, there are some risks to moving files from a local copy to a remote server. The most glaring risk is one of security and information integrity. Data heists and incidents of identity theft have increased in frequency as technology has become more advanced and more commonplace. Cloud-based storage solutions aren’t necessarily immune to this, though they do benefit from full encryption, tight security, and round-the-clock teams of security professionals that close security holes before hackers can find them.
With an understanding of how personal cloud storage and diligent file backups can work together, it’s time to start investigating the best cloud storage service on the market. There are both paid and free cloud storage services available from a wide array of vendors, but the five best come from companies like Google, DropBox, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon.
1. Google Docs / Drive / Cloud Storage
When it comes to free cloud storage services, Google’s offering takes the cake. The company, which offers cloud-based storage solutions through its Google Docs, Google Drive, and Google Cloud Storage products, is the most generous if you’re looking for a strictly free solution. The company offers 15GB of storage at no monthly cost, which is up to triple the amount of storage offered by its nearest competitors.
15GB of storage is enough to back up an entire, entry-level iPhone 6S Plus; it’s also enough storage to keep thousands of pictures, several videos, and hundreds of crucial documents in the cloud at all times.
Because the product is a Google offering, it integrates seamlessly into the Android operating system and most web browsers. The service works right alongside Google’s many apps, including its Docs applications, the Chrome operating system and web browser, and others. If you are invested in the Google ecosystem, there’s no need to look anywhere else. If the free tier’s 15GB isn’t enough, storage can be upgraded up to 30TB for a monthly fee.
Often considered the “original” cloud storage solution, DropBox was offering free and paid tiers of cloud storage before companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft offered anything even close to comparable. DropBox has therefore had the most time to develop its product and integrate it into a massive array of devices.
You’ll find that a DropBox app exists for all major mobile platforms, including iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, as well as for all major desktop operating systems. On mobile, files are stored only remotely; on the desktop, files are stored remotely and cached locally, so they open instantly every time. This type of local-cloud hybrid service is a great way to test the waters, and it’s one reason that DropBox’s free tier has become the choice of many novice personal cloud storage users.
Unlike Google’s generous free tier, DropBox offers only 2GB of space. That’s enough for a few hundred pictures, one high-definition movie, or some crucial documents. For a monthly or annual fee, up to 1TB of storage can be purchased for use with a DropBox account. If you’re determined to stay in the free tier, however, DropBox does offer a way to “earn” more free storage, including referring friends to the service and installing official DropBox apps.
3. Microsoft OneDrive
OneDrive is Microsoft’s latest foray into cloud storage and this competitive marketplace. The free tier sits between DropBox and Google, at 5GB, with the ability to upgrade to 50GB or 1TB of storage as needed. Microsoft is just beginning to fully develop its list of mobile and desktop-installed OneDrive apps and plugins, and they’re a bit rough around the edges on platforms other than Windows and Windows Phone.
However, OneDrive’s integration into a wide array of Microsoft products, including Office applications on all platforms, makes them a no-brainer for backing up must-have Word documents, impressive PowerPoint efforts, or highly specific Excel spreadsheets. It’s also worth noting that Microsoft’s OneDrive offers up to 1TB of free storage if you’re currently a student or educator at some colleges and universities in the United States.
4. Apple iCloud
Like Microsoft’s OneDrive, users who opt for the free cloud storage services offered by Apple will receive 5GB to meet their needs. Unlike Microsoft, however, it can be harder to access Apple’s iCloud storage space if you’re not an iPhone, iPad, or Mac user. Apple doesn’t currently have an official iCloud storage app for Android or Windows phone. The company provides only rudimentary access to iCloud storage on Windows and iOS; Mac users, however, can access a remote iCloud drive where they can save, see, and access remote files at all times.
If you’re a fan of having a fully integrated “ecosystem” of Apple products, however, there’s no better way to go than iCloud. With the ability to upgrade to as much as 1TB of storage, and automated, cloud-based backup of iDevices, photos, videos, and more, dedicated Apple users will find that this is the only service they need.
5. Amazon Cloud Drive
Amazon’s Cloud Drive product can be a bit tricky to master, at least in terms of a free tier. If you’re already an Amazon Prime subscriber, for the annual fee of $99, Amazon Cloud Drive can be used for “free,” or at least without an extra charge. This free tier for Amazon Prime customers 5GB of storage for files, photos, and videos, identical to the free tiers at Apple and Microsoft.
Users who don’t currently subscribe to Amazon Prime and its many benefits, however, have no free option at all. Their best bet is the entry-level storage plan for $11.99 per year. For this small fee, Amazon offers unlimited storage for photos and 5GB of storage for videos and other files. If you’re looking for something a bit more generous in terms of storage, a $59.99 annual plan offers totally unlimited storage for any type of file. That’s a deal that’s hard to find anywhere else, and it makes Amazon the easy choice for power users who are fully invested in remote storage.
Five Excellent Ways to Move Documents to the Cloud
Cloud storage is the “new” external hard drive, in terms of its ability to hold important files, keep them safe from the whims of operating system crashes, and provide peace of mind that essential information won’t be lost over the long-term. Free and paid tiers of storage abound at many service providers, but the free options from Google, DropBox, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon represent the five best choices in today’s marketplace. If you’ve settled on cloud storage as a backup solution, consider each of these companies’ free tiers, available apps, and unique advantages before settling on any particular service.