Get Your Head in the Cloud: A Guide to Your Cloud Storage Options

By Evan Dashevsky, dealnews contributor

Desks are for chumps. At least, as far as our computers are concerned. Today's pocket-sized devices are far brawnier than the clunky desktop-laden behemoths of only a decade ago. In fact, the very concept of a dedicated table-bound PC is fast becoming a quaint notion from grandpa's time. In 2010, shipments of smartphones outstripped PCs for the first time and tablets are on pace to do the same.

Thanks to our ever-shrinking devices, the virtual world follows us everywhere we go. Ev-er-y-where. And not only do we access the web on the go, we do it across multiple devices. The most efficient way to organize one's poly-gadget digital life is to move the bulk of it into the cloud: that ethereal place that seamlessly syncs files across multiple platforms and keeps them safe and secure, even as our array of digital doohickeys and techno whuzzlenots march towards inevitable failure and/or obsolescence.

Here we present some of the leading (and often free) cloud storage options for all your digital doings.

The Big 5 in Cloud Storage Options

Google Drive
Google recently unveiled its long-rumored cloud storage service, Google Drive. The service allows users to store and sync files across various devices and operating systems. Drive is designed as an entry point for Google Docs (which is, at its best, an in-a-pinch Microsoft Word stand-in, but is useful for cloud storage in its own right), but the new service will also allow users to upload images, PDFs, videos, and audio files.

With lots of Google R&D moolah behind it, Drive has several bells and whistles you won't find in other services, notably its supercharged search function. Users can search for phrases found in any document. And we mean any document. The company's Optical Character Recognition will not only examine terms in standard text documents, but it will also pick out phrases found in photos, scans, and PDFs. So if you were to, say, scan in a physical newspaper page, Drive will allow you to search through the text as if it were a digital doc, like your own personal microfiche (young'ns click here). Even more impressive, the service boasts the ability to recognize visual objects, a sort of Google Goggles for online storage. For example you could search "Eiffel Tower," and Drive will pull up your photos from your vacation in Paris; this visual search tech will surely improve over time, and as any Goggles user will note, the tech is still very much in its early stages of development.

Drive also boasts other goodies such as access to previous versions of documents in the past 30 days (with the free version), which makes it beneficial as a collaborative tool. Google Drive is also running as an open system, so various third-party applications will allow users to do additional things like send faxes, edit videos, and create website mockups.

Unlike most other Google products, Drive comes packaged with some price restrictions. Users are allowed 5GB of storage for free (any text documents which are translated into Google Docs will not count towards this quota, neither will photos stored in Picasa). If you think you'll need more space, you can upgrade to 25GB for $2.49/month, 100GB for $4.99/month, or for crazy superusers there's a 1TB plan for $49.99/month. As a bonus, when you upgrade to a paid Drive account, your Gmail account storage will also expand to 25GB.

Founded in 2007, Dropbox has been the preferred online file-hosting service of in-the-know interneteers and Irish rock stars the world over.

Dropbox provides simple drag-and-release synching across multiple devices and platforms. The interface is refreshingly intuitive, acting as a shared drive that can be accessed via one folder across multiple devices or via the Dropbox website. Accounts begin at 2GB of storage for free (but look for this to change with added competition from Google), while tiered pay subscriptions start at $9.99/month (or $99/year) for 50GB and go all the way up to $19.99/month (or $199/year) for 100GB. Last year the company unveiled Dropbox for Teams, which is designed for collaboration and coordinating between multiple users. Pricing for Teams begins at $795/year for five users, but comes with unlimited storage and unlimited version history.

And what appears to be a direct response to Google Drive's recent unveiling, just this week Dropbox introduced their Camera Upload function, which gives users the ability to instantly back up photos and videos via the Android app or desktop clients. Android users can automatically upload images and videos on the fly (no middle steps required), while cameras and other devices can automatically upload files when connected to a computer with a Dropbox app. Camera Upload users are given 500MB of free image/video storage, but are granted additional 500MB allotments as each section is filled, up to 3GB. This storage space is for Camera Upload only, and comes in addition to the complimentary 2GB, which connoisseurs of elementary math will note matches the complimentary 5GB allotment from Google. Thank you, market competition!

Amazon Cloud Drive
Just a week after Google Drive was unveiled, Amazon debuted its Amazon Cloud Drive desktop application for its cloud services. Previously Cloud Drive was accessed via browser only, but the application now removes that step when uploading new files and folders. However, managing those files — organizing, moving them around — will still require using the browser. And as such, you cannot view your library of content via the application either. It is strictly there to facilitate uploading.

Amazon Cloud Drive offers the first 5GB of storage for free, and all songs purchased through Amazon are automatically backed up in your cloud without detracting from your storage limits. If you think you'll need more space, you can upgrade to 20GB for $20/year, 50GB for $50/year, and so on at $1/GB up to 1TB for $1,000/year. Note that paid subscriptions allow for unlimited song storage, regardless of the file's origin. However this offer is currently available only "for a limited time," so there may come a day when Amazon will phase it out and you'll need to move these non-Amazon music files if you don't want them to count toward you storage totals.

Microsoft Skydrive
Skydrive is Microsoft's gladiator in the cloud storage arena. While part of the Windows Live suite of online services, Microsoft Skydrive is compatible with both Macs and PCs as well as on iOS, though it doesn't yet have an Android app (but can be accessed via Microsoft's OneNote Android app).

Skydrive offers many of the same features as Dropbox, but is tailored to function with other Microsoft products such as Office, Bing, and even Hotmail. The service has one of the most generous free plans, offering gratis storage up to 7GB. You can also purchase premium plans starting at an inviting $10/year for an additional 20GB, $25/year for an additional 50GB, and $50/year for an additional 100GB.

Apple iCloud
Apple's cloud service, the not surprisingly-dubbed iCloud, updates the company's MobileMe service that stores and syncs contacts and bookmarks across Apple devices.

iCloud is best utilized as a media storage service, as it allows users to backup and sync various types of media and apps across devices (read: all the content you purchased through iTunes). While still mostly geared towards Apple users, the service also will work with PCs running Windows and can facilitate syncing between Outlook and Internet Explorer. You can also use iCloud to store and edit documents from Microsoft Office, but Apple tries their darndest to get you to do it via its suite of iWork apps.

iCloud is mostly a service that will be of interest to those who regularly use at least one Apple device and plan to continue to do so. One notable of the iCloud is its iTunes Match function that allows iTunes users to "scan and match" all their MP3s, including those directly copied from CDs and "other sources." There is an annual fee of $24.99 for the service, but even if canceled, users can keep any matched tracks they download to other devices.

iCloud offers 5GB of free storage (purchases from the iTunes store do not count towards this quota), per user and larger tiers of storage can be purchased starting at $20/year.

Lesser-Known Storage Services to Consider

There are also a number of lesser-known cloud services. Sugar Sync offers 5GB of storage for free and has tiered systems that range from 30GB for $4.99/month (or $49.99/year) up to 100GB for $14.99/month (or $149.99/year).

Mozy offers a variety of personal cloud storage plans that range from $5.99/month to $9.99/month depending on how many computers you have. This is one of the only cloud plans we've found that bases its prices per machine.

A startup by the name of Box (not to be confused with Dropbox), which somehow got its hands on the mouthwateringly simple URL, offers free personal storage accounts of up to 5GB and has for-pay tiered personal, business, and enterprise accounts with larger storage sizes as well.

Hans Solo-inspired Carbonite offers unlimited storage and back-up for individuals at rates that start at $59/year. The service essentially offers a kind of hardware mirror, so if you accidentally erase a file, you can restore from an online backup and into its rightful place. The same method applies if your whole shebang fails or is stolen.

GoAruna is like many other services in that it offers 2GB of storage for free and a tiered system above that. However, the service has been specifically tailored as a distribution center so you can readily share files. You can even use it to send files via email for free (for files less than 250MB) without even signing up for an account.

As our devices evolve and become smaller, they also become more fragile and more disposable. Throw into the mix the fact that wireless connectivity is also growing and becoming more ubiquitous, and we predict that cloud storage will become a convenience more consumers will demand in their digital lives.

Readers, are there any other cloud storage services that we missed that you use?

Front page photo credit: Tech Genra

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I somehow managed to get a 50 GB box account for free (maybe through you guys?), and it works really well. One thing I like is that deleted files are kept for 30 days (or until you empty the "trash").
 Sandisk tried to do that, but their app is horrible.
When is someone going to develop an app that takes all of those companies offering small amounts of free storage and offers a single integrated 'front door' to them.  That way you could have 20gb or more of free stroage that was easy to use.