Best cloud storage: Dropbox vs Google Drive vs iCloud and more
7th Aug 2012 | 22:46
What's the best online storage service for you?
Dropbox vs Microsoft SkyDrive vs Google Drive vs Apple iCloud vs Amazon Cloud Drive.
The internet hasn't just changed how we work, it's revolutionised it. Cloud storage services now enable us to securely store and access our important data online so that we can start working on a laptop or desktop PC and continue on a tablet or a smartphone.
This device independence means that we can choose how, when and where we work, confident that we can access our documents and data anytime, anywhere thanks to online storage. The question is: which is the best cloud storage service for you?
As ever, it depends what you need and what systems you currently use. The four tech giants - Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple - all have their own cloud storage services for storing and backing up your files online. And Dropbox has long been a popular solution that works just about everywhere.
However, since Microsoft lost a trademark dispute with BSkyB in July 2013, the SkyDrive name will be phased out, though the service will continue. We think it will probably be called Microsoft Drive.
Many other similar third-party tools are available too - if you have a recommendation, let us know in the comments. For now, let's compare the front-runners...
Dropbox vs SkyDrive vs Google Drive vs iCloud vs Amazon Cloud Drive: the key info
- Free space: 2GB (plus up to 16GB for referrals)
- Premium space: US$99 per year for 100GB
- File size limit: Unlimited (via desktop app)
- Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, BlackBerry
- Best for: Seamless document syncing
- Try Dropbox
- Free space: 7GB
- Premium space: £32/US$50 per year for 100GB
- File size limit: 2GB
- Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows Phone
- Best for: Windows/MS Office integration
- Try Microsoft SkyDrive
- Free space: 15GB
- Premium space: $59.88 per year for 100GB
- File size limit: 10GB
- Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android
- Best for: Storage space and web apps
- Try Google Drive
- Free space: 5GB
- Premium space: £70/US$100 per year for 50GB
- File size limit: 25MB free/250MB paid
- Platforms: Mac, iOS, Windows
- Best for: Heavy iTunes/Mac users
- Try Apple iCloud
Amazon Cloud Drive
- Free space: 5GB
- Premium space: £32 per year for 100GB
- File size limit: 2GB per file
- Platforms: Mac, iOS, Android, Windows
- Best for: Photos and music
- Try Amazon Cloud Drive
Dropbox vs SkyDrive vs Google Drive vs iCloud vs Amazon Cloud Drive: storage space
All of the major cloud storage services offer free and premium paid storage options. But the amount of storage space you get can vary wildly. The premium space figures quoted above are only one example of several price plans available on each service.
Dropbox provides 2GB of free storage, although the Dropbox referral program gives you and any person you successfully refer to Dropbox an extra 500MB of space per referral, up to a maximum of 16GB (making 18GB in total).
Amazon's Cloud Drive and Apple's iCloud give you 5GB of space for free. If you have ever shopped with Amazon or bought a song from iTunes with an Apple ID, your storage is ready and waiting for you.
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Microsoft's SkyDrive offers 7GB-worth of space (accessed via a Microsoft account) and Google Drive sets you up with a meaty 15GB, albeit spread across Gmail, Drive and Google+ Photos (if your photos are larger than 2048 x 2048 pixels).
There are premium options available too if you need more space than the free allocation provides. Dropbox Pro offers 100GB, 200GB and 500GB storage options, while Dropbox for Business cranks that up to a roomy 1TB and above.
Microsoft's SkyDrive sells 50GB and 100GB storage plans, Amazon Cloud Drive offers a range of options from 20GB to 1TB, and Apple's iCloud has upgrades to 10GB, 20GB and 50GB.
It all feels small compared to Google Drive, which offers 100GB (US$4.99 per month) of extra space for heavy Google users, scaling all the way up to 16TB of storage (US$799.99 per month).
Dropbox vs SkyDrive vs Google Drive vs iCloud vs Amazon Cloud Drive: syncing
Free storage capacity shouldn't be the defining factor, however. Dropbox might only offer 2GB of free space, but you might find it more convenient than the 15GB offered by Google Drive.
Why? It's how these cloud storage services synchronise your data and make it accessible via multiple devices that matters.
Dropbox, SkyDrive, Amazon Cloud Drive and Google Drive all provide downloadable desktop clients for Windows and Mac computers (with Dropbox offering an official Linux tool too).
Each app designates a folder on a computer's hard drive and anything you save inside it is automatically synced to the cloud and invisibly copied to other computers running the same software.
Dropbox pioneered this file syncing approach and it still seems like a magical solution, effortlessly distributing documents between PCs, Macs and mobile devices. Google Drive, Amazon Cloud Drive and SkyDrive all ape the Dropbox approach, yet still don't match its simplicity and speed.
All of which leaves Apple's iCloud. It's the least flexible of the five, tightly integrated into Mac OS X and iOS. There's no desktop app - iCloud's focus is centred around being an invisible syncing and backup solution, enabling you to share iTunes purchases, photos, documents and web browsing sessions across Macs, iPhones, iPods and iPads.
Dropbox vs SkyDrive vs Google Drive vs iCloud vs Amazon Cloud Drive: access
In addition to downloadable desktop clients for Mac OS, Windows and Linux computers, the leading cloud storage services also offer web and mobile access to your data.
Dropbox is best when used on the desktop, but it's also accessible via a simple web interface, plus through iOS, Android and BlackBerry apps. You can't edit documents, however.
SkyDrive offers web (with editing functionality), iOS and Android apps, and it's currently the only one of the cloud services featured here that's available officially for Microsoft's Windows Phone platform. That might make your decision for you.
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Google Drive is at its most powerful via a web browser, and its easy accessibility and document editing functionality has since spread to include Android and iOS apps. A Chrome web app also enables handy offline access, making it ideal for those occasions when you want to work on a file but can't get an internet connection.
Apple's iCloud is baked exclusively into iOS and hasn't yet been made available for other platforms. A basic Windows tool has been released that covers some syncing functionality, however. If you have a Mac or any iOS device, it's the best way to back up your data and make content accessible across different devices.
While you can access Apple's iCloud via the web, it only enables you to view your mail, contacts, calendar entries, notes and reminders that you have backed up onto the service. This is also where you'll find the Find My iPhone feature, which enables you to track down a lost iOS idevice and/or erase its contents.
Dropbox vs SkyDrive vs Google Drive vs iCloud vs Amazon Cloud Drive: security
How safe are these services? Convenience is irrelevant if you can't trust in the security of your data when you store it online.
Dropbox stores files online using AES-256 standard encryption and uses 256-bit SSL when uploading them to its Amazon S3 cloud storage servers. Your files are also backed up in case of data loss and, because you're always syncing files that are stored on your computer, you always retain a local copy.
It's worth pointing out that Dropbox also supports a version history feature. It automatically retains previous versions of a stored file for 30 days, so you can roll back documents to earlier iterations if needed. The Packrat feature (an extra $39 per year), gives you an unlimited version history. It comes as standard if you upgrade to Dropbox for Business.
Version history or revision history is also included in Google Drive. But while files are SSL encrypted between your computer and Google's servers, they are stored on those servers unencrypted.
Google is considering adding on-site encryption in the wake of the NSA/Prism affair. Until then, if you're worried about sensitive files or data, you can manually encrypt them with third-party tools such as Boxcryptor.
Files uploaded to SkyDrive and Amazon Cloud Drive are also encrypted in transit but not encrypted on the server. SkyDrive keeps up to 25 previous copies of a document in its version history. Amazon's Cloud Drive lacks this feature.
Finally, Apple's iCloud uses 128-bit AES encryption to protect calendar, contacts, documents, reminders, photos and bookmarks, both in transit and on the server.
Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive and iCloud also offer the option of two-step verification to add an extra layer of security to your account.
Dropbox vs SkyDrive vs Google Drive vs iCloud vs Amazon Cloud Drive: apps
When it comes to working online with these cloud storage options, Google Drive is easily the most flexible. The service evolved from the excellent Google Docs and so the ability to create Word-style documents, spreadsheets, forms and drawings is baked in as standard.
Its in-document chat and real-time editing functionality (a feature that debuted in Google Wave), make Google Drive ideal for mobile and collaborative working. Documents can be shared easily, downloaded and exported. There's also the option to connect other apps, such as DocuSign to enable electronic signatures and Picmonkey for photo editing.
The big benefit of SkyDrive is its Microsoft Office integration and files can be saved and synced to the cloud directly from Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint.
The web app features stripped down versions of these Office stalwarts for basic document editing. Microsoft recently beefed up the sharing options too, enabling you to select and share multiple files with ease.
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While Dropbox doesn't offer browser-based apps, it does have that flexible web interface listing all of your folders and files. Many file types - PDFs, documents, video, photos and music - can be viewed in the browser, even if there are no editing features. Sharing files with friends or colleagues is as easy as passing along a URL, whether or not your recipient uses Dropbox.
There are no file sharing or collaboration options in iCloud - it's not in the same league as Google Drive and Dropbox. While there's no online file explorer to view your document content, web-based versions of Keynote, Pages and Numbers are on the way.
Finally, Amazon's Cloud Drive has default folders for documents, pictures and video. It's a digital storage/backup space rather than an online business suite - so you can view but not edit the documents you upload. The Cloud Drive works alongside Amazon's Cloud Player, which gives you a separate chunk of storage space to import 250 songs.
Dropbox vs SkyDrive vs Google Drive vs iCloud vs Amazon Cloud Drive: verdict
It's difficult to compare all of these products directly against each other. Apple's iCloud, for example, includes access to all your iTunes purchases, SkyDrive plugs neatly into MS Office and Google Drive is part of a much larger suite of Google products. But that doesn't mean we can't make some business recommendations...
iCloud is a no-brainer for anyone with an iOS device or a Mac - it provides peace of mind to know that there's a constantly updated mirror of your important mobile data. But you'll find that 5GB fills up fast when you use it to back up an iPhone or an iPad. Own both? You'll need to buy more storage space or leave one of your devices unprotected.
Likewise, Microsoft's SkyDrive is primarily of interest to PC owners and anyone who uses Microsoft products. It integrates well with Windows 8 and Windows Phone, syncs MS Office files beautifully across computers and features web-based versions of Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint that work surprisingly smoothly. There's also a clever remote access option, which enables you to access your SkyDrive-enabled PC and retrieve files from it.
Amazon's Cloud Drive feels like a 'me too' service and, although Amazon added Dropbox-a-like file syncing in April 2013, it works best as a digital locker for your favourite photos, music and videos. If you need to store, edit and share documents, you'll be better served by either Dropbox or Google Drive.
Google Drive is a powerhouse, built on the foundations of Google Docs and benefitting from powerful search functionality, real-time collaboration and simultaneous editing, plus handy desktop shortcuts and offline access via a Google Chrome web app. This feature was written and edited in it.
Which leaves Dropbox... Right from its early days, Dropbox has felt like a native operating system feature. On its release in 2008, it made carrying your work around on USB memory sticks a thing of the past. If you work on multiple computers or collaborate on documents, Dropbox's lightning-fast syncing and automatic file backup makes it our number one pick.