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Heads-up: tips for living in the cloud

updated 09:00 am EDT, Tue April 9, 2013

The good, bad, and pricey among cloud solutions

In fashion, trends come and go like breezes: quick, occasionally refreshing, and usually leaving little trace that they were there in the first place. It's the same in the world of computing, where we've gone in the space of a few years from desktops and iPods to ultrabooks and smartphones. One thing has remained constant amidst the ever-changing standards of computer form factors, though: you need a place to hold your stuff. Thus, among the fleeting fads there's one computing trend that looks like it might have staying power: cloud storage.

Of course, it's nearly impossible to say which trends will endure -- otherwise, certain predictions would never have been made during the netbook craze. Cloud storage, however, is likely to stick around for a couple of reasons.

The first is the reality of local storage: it's not cheap. Flash storage, now the standard among most smart devices (and increasingly in notebooks and desktops), is getting cheaper -- but not quickly enough to hold the many gigabytes of data we now produce and consume. Traditional hard drives are more inexpensive, but bulky and relatively slow.

The second reason is the increasing connectedness of the devices we carry. From Wi-Fi to cellular to whatever comes next, the devices we hold in our pockets, purses, and pouches are increasingly connected to the Internet.

Put those two together, and it should become clear why everybody's moving into providing some type of cloud solution. For those just now investigating whether cloud services are for you, here's a rundown of some of the best-known cloud storage options.

For Apple users, the cloud comes built-in with all of your devices. If you're buying an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or MacBook, you get 5GB of storage for music, photos, documents, bookmarks, contacts, apps, books, backups, and more through Apple's iCloud -- all accessible from a Mac or PC at no charge, and advertising-free. Snap a photo on your iPhone, it's available on your iPad and MacBook Air. Start a document on your iMac, you can continue editing it from your iPad or send it from your iPhone. Buy a song on the iPad at home, and it's ready to play off your iPhone in the car. In addition, it should be noted that iCloud's "5GB" includes unlimited amounts of iTunes Store purchases, 1,000 photos and various other exemptions that add up to many "free gigs" for certain kinds of files.

There's one catch with iCloud, though: beyond its base level, it's not cheap either. Users get 5GB and iTunes-based storage for free, but beyond that, you're going to have to pay. Apple's cloud integration may be top-notch -- which, along with the popularity of iOS devices, is why it's the most popular cloud storage service -- but it can't really compete on price if you're looking for high-capacity storage options.

Fortunately, you have a wealth of options available to you outside of and in addition to iCloud, whether you're an Apple, PC, Android, or pretty much any other kind of user. Chief among these is Dropbox, the standard among independent cloud storage providers. A free Dropbox account gives you 2GB of storage to start with, but you can upgrade that to as much as 18GB -- 3.6 times your free iCloud storage -- by referring other members. You'll be rewarded when they sign up to the tune of 500MB a pop.

If you need to go beyond that, Pro plans start at $120 per year for 100GB and go up to $500 per year for 500GB. Do the math, and there's just no way iCloud keeps up with that. There are also Team plans from third-party providers, allowing multiple users to edit and sync the same documents. And Dropbox isn't just some fly-by-night operation: it's well-established, with smooth integration across OS X, Windows, Android, iOS, and BlackBerry.

You can also go with Google Drive, which brings its own benefits. Storing your data with Google brings pretty deep integration across Google's existing services. That means when you perform a Google search from Gmail or the Google homepage, you'll see relevant documents in your Google Drive displayed as well. Google Drive also leverages Google's existing Docs productivity suite, which is web-based, so that whenever you access documents, they'll be up to date. The Docs suite also allows for collaborative editing across a range of devices.

Drive, like iCloud, provides users with 5GB of storage for free. Unlike iCloud, you don't have to buy a device in order to get that 5GB. Any additional storage you purchase will be shared across Google Drive and Google+ Photos, available on any device you load those programs onto. Google typically brings the really good features for its services to the Web first, then Android, and then iOS, but as a company they're pretty good with making sure that you can access Google services on any platform...

(...well, almost any platform.)

Price-wise, Google's one of your better bets. You'll get 25GB of storage for $30 per year, 1TB for $600 per year, and an outlandish 16TB for $9,600 per year, with different pricing tiers in between. And Google Drive is a service you're actually paying them for, so they're unlikely to give it the axe any time soon.

Never one to be left out, Microsoft also provides cloud storage with SkyDrive. SkyDrive gives you 7GB of free storage and works across Windows, OS X, the web, and with remote access. Microsoft's made its features available to iOS, Windows Phone, and Android devices, and it's integrated well with Microsoft's Office Suite, meaning you're all set if you haven't moved to one of MS' competitors.

SkyDrive also allows for displaying and sending online slide shows, captioning content, and geotagging content. Users can also share directly to Facebook and Twitter, with auto-shortened URLs.

Paid options for SkyDrive are about as low as it gets. Ten dollars a year gets you 20GB of storage, while $50 gets you 100GB of storage for a year. To compare: for half the price of what you'd pay for 50GB on iCloud, you get twice the storage on SkyDrive.

There's also Box, the simply-named cloud storage service with an enterprise focus. Box's business focus means, though, that the average cloud storage consumer might not get as much out of that service as they might with one of its larger competitors.

Box will give you 5GB of storage for free, with 25GB personal accounts for $120 per year and 50GB personal accounts running $240 per year. Business accounts start at $15 per user per month, with 1TB of storage. For enterprise accounts, interested parties should call Box.

As aforementioned, Box's business focus might make it less than an ideal option for the typical cloud consumer. The business and enterprise packages are formidable, with Google Apps integration, version history saving, admin controls, and active directory groups, as well as mobile device management. But for personal use, it's as simple as pointing out that there's no Box desktop client. If you're using the cloud to run your enterprise, you may want to take a look. If you're just looking for a remote backup for your tunes and photos, you may want to look elsewhere.

Any number of other cloud providers could also fill your needs, depending on the devices you use and how much you're looking to store. ElephantDrive has apps that work across Android, OS X, and Windows. Mega offers 50GB of storage for free, though the management has been known to get into a bit of trouble with the law. There's Sugarsync, and Bitcasa and Amazon Cloud Drive and many others. There's ZenFolio, Flickr Pro, Photobucket and 500px for photo storage, iTunes Match and Amazon Cloud Player for music storage (among others). There's Crashplan, Mozy, Safesync and iDrive aimed at online backups.

One of the amazing things about cloud storage is the wealth of options at your disposal. That proliferation of providers is one of the reasons this trend is unlikely to go away any time soon. Fortunately, it's a good trend. Unlike, say, trucker hats or netbooks.

by MacNN Staff



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