Best cloud services compared: Google vs Microsoft vs Amazon vs Apple vs Dropbox

12th Aug 2013 | 10:16

Best cloud services compared: Google vs Microsoft vs Amazon vs Apple vs Dropbox

Email, storage, synchronization, mobile apps and more

Cloud services compared

It's amazing how quickly things change. A few short years ago cloud computing - getting everything from software to songs and soap operas from faraway servers - was just a buzzword, but now everybody's at it.

We're tuning into Netflix for the final episodes of Breaking Bad, catching up on Luther via iPlayer and streaming music via Spotify - and increasingly, we're using the cloud to store our stuff too.

Cloud computing isn't a new concept - it's been around since the 1960s - but its rise was limited by one crucial factor: connectivity. Storing everything in the cloud is a great idea, but it's not much cop if your connection isn't up to scratch or if you can't get online at all.

Thankfully for most of us the days of dial-up modems and crappy GPRS mobile connections are long gone, and our connections are fast enough and reliable enough to make the cloud part of our everyday lives.

It happens so often we're barely aware of it. Uploading smartphone snaps to your photo stream, to Facebook or to Flickr? You're using the cloud. Checking webmail? Cloud. Twitter? Cloud. Getting ebooks for your Kindle? Cloud.

Daily operation

It's quite possible to do all your everyday computing in the cloud, and there's even specialist hardware to do it: Google's ultra-cheap Chromebooks, which the firm describe as "a new model of computing", run an operating system that's little more than a web browser.

With cloud computing all the important stuff happens online, and that means cloud computing's as happy on a titchy tablet or a smartphone as it is on a traditional desktop or laptop PC.

That represents a massive change in the way we use our devices. Our data used to be stuck on a single machine, our music, games and music only playable if we had the discs handy. Now, our data and media is accessible everywhere.

We used to buy software that was tied to a single computer. Now, we can work or play from anywhere there's an internet connection.

We used to need high-powered hardware to get the most from software. Now, the speed we need isn't in the processor, but in the link between us and our ISP.

Easy does it

The big benefit of that is convenience. Take Netflix, for example: its cloud-based media streaming goes wherever you go, so you can watch a programme or film on your PC, on your tablet, on a Smart TV or via a cloud-connected Blu-Ray or DVD player, or on your phone.

You can create a document in Google Drive on a PC or Mac (or Chromebook) and access it from any other computer, or via a smartphone or tablet app. You can save a document to Dropbox and access it from anywhere.

The future of computing is clearly cloud-y, and the giants of tech haven't been slow to notice. Google was an early adopter, of course, but Amazon was quick to spot the potential too - and today its cloud services power everything from Amazon's own music and movie streaming to banks' online offerings.

Microsoft uses the cloud for online entertainment and the mighty Microsoft Office, and Apple has iCloud for its Macs and iOS machines. The most recent survey by Strategy Analytics reports that 27% of US consumers have used iCloud, 17% Dropbox, 25% Amazon Cloud Drive and 10% Google Drive; smaller players such as Samsung and LG, who offer their own cloud services, account for two to three percent each.

However, more than half of those surveyed had never used any kind of cloud storage service, and that means there's a huge market that's still wide open.

The Strategy Analytics report had another interesting statistic to share: 90% of Apple, Amazon and Google cloud users store music - and even Dropbox, which isn't marketed as a music service, is used for music by 45% of its users. As SA director of digital media Ed Barton said: "Music is currently the key battleground in the war for cloud domination."

Should you keep your music in iTunes, or embrace Amazon? Would your world domination plans be best stored on SkyDrive, or whatever its new name will be (it's just been sued by Rupert Murdoch over the "Sky" bit), in iCloud or Google Drive?

What's best for your family photos and memories of your big nights out? Can a single cloud provider cater for your every need? Let's find out.

Cloud services compared: Google

Google Drive

As you'd expect from the creator of the Chromebook, Google is taking a "100% web" approach to everything it does. Those aren't our words; they're from Robert Whiteside, head of Google Enterprise UK, Ireland and Benelux, and he told us that Google's uptime is 99.948 percent: that means just seven minutes of downtime per month.

Google has spent a lot of time refining its many cloud services, and there have been a few changes - so for example Google Docs has been rolled into the wider Google Drive service. Drive has three price plans: free, which gives you 15GB of total storage; $4.99 per month for 100GB; and $9.99 per month for 200GB.

That storage is shared across three Google properties, Drive, Gmail and Google+ Photos, but it's only used for certain things: the documents, presentations or spreadsheets you build in Google Drive don't use any of your storage capacity, and neither do photos in Google+ if they're smaller than 2048x2048 pixels.

Google also offers a version of Drive for business users, Google Apps for Business, which starts at £3.30 per user per month plus taxes. That provides 30GB of storage, guaranteed uptime (99.9%) and you can upgrade the storage to as much as 16TB.

Getting collaborative

Google Docs - now integrated within Google Drive

Google Drive is designed to do two things: create and share documents, and share files. By default you can create a new document, presentation, spreadsheet, form or drawing, and you can also connect third-party apps to add features such as note taking, mind mapping, diagramming and even interior design.

Files you store on Drive can be accessed from phones and tablets with the Google Drive apps, and there are also desktop apps for PC and Mac that can automatically synchronise files between your computer and your Drive.

Google's own apps aren't as comprehensive as, say, Microsoft Office, but they aren't supposed to be: they're fast, easy to use and make commenting and collaborating effortless, and if you team them up with Google Mail and Google Calendar you're covered for most everyday business tasks.

That's work taken care of. What about play? Google Play is the entertainment arm of Google's cloud offerings, and it has five types of content: Android apps, movies and TV programmes, music, books and magazines.

The movies section offers both purchases and rentals, and the music section enables you to upload your own library as well as listen to songs you've purchased from Google. You get enough room for 20,000 songs, and music you buy from Play isn't included in your total.

Google Music Standard is free, and you can add Spotify-style streaming music with Google Music All Access. That's £9.99 per month or £7.99 if you sign up before the 15th of September.

Google's cloud computers

Samsung's Google-powered Chromebook


We've already mentioned Google's Chromebooks, which are designed as thin clients for Google's many online services. Sergey Brin called them a "new model of computing", but are they ready for prime time?

Forrester Research says yes, especially for business users: speaking to business IT decision makers in the UK, Canada, France, Germany and the US, 28% of respondents said they were interested in Chromebooks.

The attraction is their simplicity: according to Forrester analyst JP Gownder, where deploying Windows PCs "requires time and effort from infrastructure and operations (I&O) professionals... Chromebooks require very little imaging; pilot users say any given device can be configured for a new user in under 15 minutes."

Low overheads, coupled with Chromebooks' ultra-low cost and their suitability for mobile working, mean they're ideal business machines - unless you're doing business in China, where Gmail and Google Apps don't work.

Cloud services compared: Apple

Apple iCloud

The late Steve Jobs promised that "we're going to demote the PC and the Mac to just being devices. We're going to move your hub, the centre of your digital life, into the cloud."

He was talking about iCloud, which would provide easy access to your documents, important information and iTunes library, and which Apple no doubt hoped would erase the memory of its former cloud service, MobileMe.

The media side of iCloud works very well indeed across Mac and iOS devices: you can buy a song on iTunes on the desktop and it'll magically appear on your iPhone or iPad, and if you've bought a movie or TV show on one device your Apple TV knows about it and knows where you left off. You can store your entire iTunes library in the cloud and stream it too, but unlike rivals such as Google Play Music the Apple version isn't free: iTunes Match, as it's called, is £21.99 per year.

From later this year there will also be a Spotify-style music streaming service for music you don't own, iTunes Radio, and if you're an iTunes Match subscriber your experience will be ad-free.

Down to business

iCloud - still in its infancy

What about documents and data? iCloud gives you 5GB of storage (purchases don't count towards that total, and neither do the photos you share via iCloud's Photo Stream service), with additional storage weighing in at $20 per year for 10GB, $40 for 20GB and $100 per year for 50GB.

iCloud will sync your calendar, contacts and email between devices, can be used to save web pages for later reading and, if your chosen apps support it, it can be used to sync files too. Apple's own Keynote, Pages and Numbers support Documents in the Cloud, as do Garageband, Preview and TextEdit, but many Mac users prefer the more fully featured and more widely supported Dropbox.

iCloud is about to be revamped: when iOS 7 ships later this year there will be new photo sharing features enabling friends and family to add content or comments to your photo and video streams, and iCloud Keychain will create passwords and securely store credit card and account logins for you. There will also be new, web-based versions of Apple's iWork apps, which are already available to iCloud users as public betas.

If iCloud sounds less ambitious than Google's cloud offering, that's because it is: Apple and Google are approaching the cloud from very different perspectives.

Google wants everybody to use its cloud offerings so it can sell ads, but Apple wants to use its cloud offerings to sell hardware. As a result its focus is much narrower, and it's not particularly interested in doing great things on non-Apple devices.

Cloud services compared: Microsoft

Microsoft SkyDrive - soon to be renamed

Microsoft's been doing the cloud computing thing for decades: Hotmail (later Windows Live Hotmail, and now Outlook.com) was one of the first web-based email services, and Microsoft bought it back in 1997 when nobody really knew what cloud computing was. Its Azure platform powers many big businesses, and Xbox Live brought all kinds of entertainment to the Xbox.

When Google Docs first appeared, Microsoft didn't see it as a threat, but that belief has clearly changed: today, Microsoft offers a range of cloud-connected Office services including the online Office Web Apps (free for home and school users) and the subscription-based Office 365.

Like Google, Microsoft has been revising its various cloud offerings, so for example its Live Mesh file syncing service was retired earlier this year. File synchronisation is now handled by the soon-to-be-renamed SkyDrive.

Office on the go

Microsoft Office in the browser via Skydrive

SkyDrive is rather similar to Google Drive: you can use it to share and synchronise files between different devices, and you can create Word documents, Excel workbooks, PowerPoint presentations, OneNote notebooks and Excel surveys inside your browser. You get 7GB of storage, with additional space charged at £16 per year for 50GB and £32 per year for 100GB.

SkyDrive apps are available for Windows Vista onwards, for the Mac, for Windows Phone, Android and iOS, and like Google Drive there are also third-party apps that can use SkyDrive for synchronisation. Examples include sketching apps, document scanners, PDF managers, notepad apps and document signing apps.

When it comes to entertainment in the cloud, Microsoft's track record has been patchy: its MSN Music was relatively unsuccessful rival to Apple's iTunes and was shut down in 2006, and its next attempt was tied to the supposed iPod-killing Zune music player. Just to keep things nice and confusing, the latest incarnation is called Xbox Music even though it isn't limited to the Xbox.

Xbox Music works across multiple platforms: the web, Windows 8 and Windows RT, Windows Phone 8 and the Xbox 360. It's a Spotify-style streaming service with offline access, and it costs £8.99 per month or £89.90 for a year (plus the cost of an Xbox Live Gold account if you want to use the Xbox Music Pass on your games console).

There's also a companion service, Xbox Video, which offers movie rentals and purchases and which once again works on PCs and tablets (Windows 8 and Windows RT only) as well as on the Xbox. Unlike rivals there's no ebook service: Microsoft's e-reading offering, Reader, was canned in 2011.

Cloud services compared: Amazon

Amazon Cloud Drive

Amazon isn't just the world's biggest retailer. It's one of the world's biggest cloud services providers, and its servers power some of the internet's favourite services.

In 2011 it decided to join the consumer cloud party too, and since then it's quietly added some very useful cloud-based features. The most recent example is Amazon's AutoRip, which automatically adds MP3 versions of CD or vinyl records you've bought to your cloud music player - and which checks through your purchase history to AutoRip CDs and records you've bought in the past.

AutoRip isn't perfect - it can only rip the records it has the digital rights for, so don't be entirely surprised if your prized 1977 punk rock B-sides collections aren't covered. But it's still a clever and appealing feature, enabling you to stream music you can't remember you bought or just listen to new purchases before the postman delivers the CD.

As CEO Jeff Bezos put it: "What would you say if you bought CDs, vinyl or even cassettes from a company 14 years ago, and then 14 years later that company licensed the rights from the record companies to give you the MP3 versions of those albums… and then to top it off, did that for you automatically and for free?"

The centrepiece of Amazon's consumer cloud services is Cloud Drive, which offers 5GB of free storage and comes with desktop (PC and Mac), iOS and Android apps. If 5GB is insufficient you can add additional storage, with plans available from 20GB (£6 per year) to 1,000GB (£320 per year).

On stream

Amazon Cloud Player

You also get Cloud Player, Amazon's online music streamer, which you can access via the web or via iOS and Android apps. The free version is limited to 250 songs, with the option to have up to 250,000 songs for £21.99 per year.

In the US Amazon additionally offers Prime, a mixed bag of benefits that costs $79 per year and offers unlimited Kindle ebook lending as well as access to Amazon's Instant Video service. Non-US customers don't get the video option: while Amazon owns the streaming video and DVD service LoveFilm, it currently keeps it at arm's length. Amazon also has an App Store for Android - not just the customised Android that powers its Kindle Fire devices, but ordinary Android too.

Cloud services compared: Dropbox.

Dropbox

Steve Jobs famously tried to buy Dropbox, but the nine-digit offer was rejected. Jobs then dismissed the whole thing - "He said we were a feature, not a product", recalls Dropbox's Drew Houston - and decided to stomp the fledgling service into the ground.

But, despite Apple's best efforts, Dropbox isn't letting itself be stomped: last month its user numbers reached 175 million, and the firm has supplemented its file and folder APIs with data APIs, enabling mobile app developers to share data as well as files over the service.

That's important because, unlike some rivals, Dropbox is multi-platform. You can install it on a Mac or a PC, on a BlackBerry or a Kindle Fire, on an iPhone or iPad or Android device.

Universal file system

Different Dropbox options

You can use it to sync and access music files, photos or movies, or you can use it as a hard drive in the sky, or you can use it for any other kind of of content: for example, apps such as the excellent Scrivener writing program work with Dropbox so all your notes and scribbles are available from any device, while Unbound and Heliog offer beautiful image browsing for your Dropbox photos.

Free accounts start with 2GB of space, and you can earn additional space by referring others: you get 500MB extra space for each referral, and you can get up to 18GB in total without paying a penny. Pro plans start at $9.99 per month for 100GB, $19.99 for 200GB or $49.99 for 500GB, and business plans start at $795 per year for five users.

You can also opt for Packrat, which saves old versions of files in case you need to refer to them later. That's $39 per year.

You can't fault Dropbox's ambition. The firm wants to become "the spiritual successor to the hard drive", the glue that binds all our different devices together and delivers what we want where and when we want it. Perhaps Steve Jobs should have raised his bid a little higher.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 317. Read PC Plus on PC, Mac and iPad

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