War of the Cloud Drives
Today, users have many choices for synchronizing files and backing important memories and personal assets including music, pictures, notes, business documents, and other personal or business files. Recently Microsoft and Google have upped the ante against Dropbox and Apple with their latest offerings. The offerings range from free to premium services, also known as the “freemium” model. Amazon also has some interesting benefits, such as unlimited music storage which I have started to use. Finally Box which also competes in the space for “personal” cloud storage may be better suited for company or team based scenarios. In this post I will cover some of the pros and cons of each and some common scenarios for usage. I will also discuss what you get for free, and what some extra charges will get you an how much it will cost (measured in gigabytes per month).
I’m a Dropbox user. I also have used all of the other services to one degree or another either purposefully or unknowingly. All of the vendors want you to use their cloud drive service, although some of the vendors make it easier or more difficult based on your usage scenarios. In this post, I will discuss some of my usage scenarios. I can’t describe all possible usage scenarios but I can discuss the ones that may be more common.
Usage scenario #1: I need a place to store my important documents that are easily accessible from any device and will be “backed” up without thinking about it.
Usage scenario #2: I need a place to store a ton of music files because I ripped my entire CD collection and no longer listen to music using a CD player.
Usage scenario #3: I have a ton of pictures that I need to store.
Usage scenario #4: I need to share specific files with specific people
Usage scenario #5: I need to take notes and get access to my notebook from any device any time.
Each company offers a free storage plan. Dropbox offers the least, but includes referral incentives to get up to 18 GB. They also incentivize by offering to give you more space if you store your photos taken from your phone using an auto-upload feature. I’m at around 6 GB currently (which is more than Google, Amazon, Apple, and Box provide for free). But it is not as clear cut as that. For example Google gives you 5 GB but that doesn’t count the 1 GB of free image space via Picasa or the 10 GB of space via Gmail. Apple gives you 5 GB total for backups, images, email, and everything, but you get free storage of any media that you purchased from them (movies, books, and songs).
After analyzing all of the plans from each vendor, I calculated the number of GB granted by each vendor either with a monthly or annual charge and normalized the cost to a monthly cost per GB. The spreadsheet is accessible on SkyDrive here and available for online viewing or download. If a company offered both a monthly or an annual rate (such as Dropbox) I used the cheaper of the two. One thing that surprised me was that Box was so expensive compared to the rest. They probably are more interested in the business or corporate plans since box’s price sheet seems to be emphasizing these two enhanced plans. Another thing that surprised me was how cheep Microsoft is compared to the rest. This is not even considering the 25 GB bonus they are handing out which I describe later on in this post.
Of the six companies I compared, they all have paid storage in the 20 to 100 GB range (with Apple and Box both capping out at 50 GB for personal space). But two companies went well beyond that range. Amazon goes up to a terabyte (1,000 GB), and Google goes up to 16 terabytes of personal storage for a fee.
25 GB Free Storage from Microsoft
The most interesting free plan today is Microsoft SkyDrive, which not only is offering the most amount of free space (7 GB versus 5 GB for most of the others). But also, Microsoft recently bumped the free storage from 7 to 25 GB for existing SkyDrive users. If you are not sure if you are a SkyDrive user or not, log in to http://live.com using your Windows Live ID account and click on the SkyDrive link at the top.
Then on left menu you will see how much space you have on SkyDrive. Another thing that is interesting about Microsoft SkyDrive is that recently, like Google, Microsoft has added SkyDrive as a native Windows application that will synchronize files very similar to how Dropbox works. The SkyDrive app is also available for Mac, Windows Phone, iPhone, and iPad. Currently there is no SkyDrive app for Android, but there is a OneNote app that will give you access to your notes stored on SkyDrive.
Cloud document synchronization applications to compete against Dropbox is not a new concept for Microsoft. In fact there is another product called Windows Live Mesh which I have been using for a while that works very similarly. The one thing that is different about Live Mesh is that you are able to do peer-to-peer synchronization of massive amount of files without wasting any cloud space.
So now, Microsoft, Google, and Dropbox, all have apps that integrate with Windows that allow you to seamlessly sync your files into the cloud.
So these three companies handle “scenario #1” I mentioned above which allows me to back up my documents without thinking about it so I can access those files from other devices. This is true if you are a Windows user. Of course if you are a Macintosh Lion user, you can also include iCloud in this list. Apple iCloud allows you to synchronize documents, mail, contacts, bookmarks, and Photo Stream. There is an iCloud Control Panel for Windows, but it only allows for synching mail, contacts, calendars, tasks, bookmarks, and Photo Stream, not documents.
Amazon’s Cloud Player (Unlimited Music Storage!)
I’ve been using Amazon’s Cloud Player (and as a result Amazon’s Cloud Drive) for almost a year now. I’m an old fart who made the shift from vinyl records to CD’s in the 90’s and finally sold off my entire vinyl collection around 10 years ago. It was around then that I began making the transition from CD’s to MP3’s. After I finally ripped all my CD’s to MP3 format I was encumbered with the process of storing, backing up, and moving these files around from device to device in order to listen to music. So I have a ton of music that I paid for and collected over decades that I would like to keep and listen to. I like iTunes, but because it has
a tendency of making files proprietary (correction 5/17: iTunes has been DRM free since 2009) and only syncing music with Apple products and devices, I end up using it as a secondary source for my music where the primary source is an MP3 repository that I can listen to on Windows Phone, Android, Amazon Fire, as well as iPad, iPod, and iTouch. So when I purchase music, instead of buying it from iTunes (unless I have a gift card or credit that I need to use), I prefer to purchase my music DRM free in the form of platform agnostic MP3 files from Amazon. (note 5/17: I was able to take some songs purchased this month from iTunes using a gift card and upload them to Amazon Cloud Player and play them on my Kindle Fire, meaning that iTunes songs are no longer proprietary an locked down with DRM) The great thing about Amazon is that not only is it often cheaper than Apple, but I also can listen to it without downloading it to a local device storage by using the Amazon Cloud Player. Also, like Apple, I get free automatic storage from Amazon for all my music.
The great thing about Amazon Cloud Player is that you get 5 GB of free storage, so I uploaded many of my favorite songs up to Amazon Cloud Drive so I can listen to it from my Android phone over Bluetooth Audio directly to my car stereo while I’m driving or using headphones while I’m programming. But, the 5 GB was limiting. I got much of my music, but not all of my favorite music up there and was stuck at 5 GB. Any new purchases from Amazon would be added, but I couldn’t add any more songs from my existing music collection without deleting some music off the cloud to make more space. When researching for this blog post, I noticed a great perk to using Amazon’s paid Cloud Drive storage plans: UNLIMITED MUSIC STORAGE (all caps because I’m screaming). So yesterday I paid $20 for the 20 GB for a year. I then proceeded to upload all of my favorite songs up to Amazon and I don’t know for sure, because Amazon doesn’t total the storage that doesn’t count toward my plan, but I believe I have between 10 and 15 GB of music online now. The crazy thing is that my storage went from 5 GB at 99% full to 20 GB at 0% full. That’s right, I haven’t used any of my 20 GB. In fact, I could keep uploading all of my music, even the stuff I don’t like, and keep it all online at no additional cost. But I specifically only uploaded my favorite music because I like to put the cloud player on “shuffle all songs”. That way, I only the music I like gets played.
Amazon’s Cloud Player works for me because I have an unlimited data plan on my 4G phone, so I don’t have to worry about data usage. But even if you don’t have an unlimited data plan, the Amazon Cloud Player for Android has a nice feature that allows you to download selected songs, albums, or artists to your device, so you can listen to it from your device instead of from the cloud. Also, if you are current or future Kindle Fire user, all of your music is instantly available on your tablet without any extra installation or fuss. That was one of the greatest delights when I received my Kindle Fire, having all my favorite books and music so easily accessible. Also, the great thing about Amazon music, unlike Apple iTunes, is that if I ever decide to switch to another vendor for music listening or storage, I can download all my music and take it with me. All of the iTunes songs are encoded with DRM (digital rights management) preventing you from using non-Apple products for listening to your music. My vinyl records and CD’s were not locked down to a specific turntable manufacturer or compact disk player maker. Why should the music I buy now be locked down to only Apple devices? Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPad, iTouch and other Apple products. Apple makes great quality devices. But, unless you are an Apple only person (or family) where you only use Apple for all of your digital content from computers to telephones to television shows and movies, then their proprietary lock down practices get in the way.
Both Apple and Amazon offer free storage of music when you purchase from them. This can be a deciding factor on which company you choose to expand your online storage by paying, but I find both Apple and Amazon a bit cumbersome for storing Word or Excel documents online since neither have a “Dropbox like” integration with the operating system.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am a Dropbox user. One of the great things about Dropbox is that they are not Apple, Google, Microsoft, or Amazon. Each of the other companies (not counting Box) have a vested interest in you using their devices. Apple sells iPhones, Google has Android phones, Microsoft has Windows Phone, and Amazon sells Kindle Fire. Each of those companies want you to buy their products, so they will likely support their platform first. Dropbox wants to be like plumbing or water. They want to be part of the infrastructure like the Internet. They have seamless integration with almost all devices. I did have to go a bit out of my way to install Dropbox on my Kindle Fire, but I was able to get it to work.
Now that Microsoft has a SkyDrive app for iOS, I may consider replacing Dropbox with SkyDrive, but the fact that as of this writing there is no Android app for SkyDrive, I’ll probably be sticking with Dropbox for the near future. Another consideration for moving off of Dropbox and to SkyDrive is security as described by Ed Bott from ZDNet. Also, if you use Windows Phone, currently there is no Dropbox app for Windows Phone and SkyDrive would probably be your best bet.
I have found that both Dropbox and Microsoft SkyDrive make it easy to share documents with other people. I don’t know how well the others fare in the file sharing scenarios.
Google Drive is very new and has an app for Android since Google also makes Android, but as of the product launch and as of this writing, there is no Google Drive app for Windows Phone or iOS (the operating system for iPhone, iPad, and iTouch). So Dropbox, once again, proves to be a platform agnostic choice.
I covered the first two scenarios (storing and syncing documents, and storing music). The other scenarios I touched upon lightly here and there. I don’t personally have a solution for storing all my pictures, but if you have a good solution let me know in the comment section below. For sharing files, I’ve found that Dropbox works very well. For notes, I really like OneNote, so SkyDrive is a great choice. But currently I’m using Dropbox to back up and sync some of my OneNote notebooks. If you like the native integration plus the web based online editing feature for note-taking, then OneNote and SkyDrive make a nice match. I also have been dabbling with Evernote since it is available for many devices, but since it is not a Cloud Drive and only stores notes, it is a bit outside the scope of this article.
There are six great vendors today competing for your Cloud Drive usage. They have free offerings plus additional paid storage. They all have different pros and cons. Currently, I’m sticking with Dropbox for files, Amazon Cloud Drive for music, iCloud for all the stuff that Apple puts there automatically, and SkyDrive for my OneNote documents, and I am strongly considering moving from Dropbox to SkyDrive for other files now that I have 25 GB of free storage.
I wrote this blog post to share with you the research I did to help me decide which vendor (or vendors) to use for Cloud Drive storage and synchronization. If you found this helpful, let me know by adding a comment. If I forgot something or made a mistake in my calculations, or you simply disagree with some of my reasoning, please let me know below by posting a comment. I would love to hear from you.
Other comparison articles to help you decide:
- The Verge: Google Drive vs. Dropbox, SkyDrive, SugarSync, and others: a cloud sync storage face-off
- USA Today: Storage wars: Comparing cloud-based services
- Wikipedia: Comparison of online backup services
- GottaBe Mobile: Google Drive Vs. Dropbox: Cloud Syncing Showdown
- iMore: SkyDrive vs. Dropbox vs. Google Drive: best cloud storage option for iPhone and iPad users
- Network World: VMware takes on Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive
- ZDNet: Dropbox, SkyDrive, Google Drive: which one is right for you?