Cloud Services - Which cloud? (Part 1)

6/13/2013 10:44:12 AM

‘In the cloud’ is the new place the cool kids keep all their stuff. There is no cloud, of course, just what we used to call servers on what we used to call the internet. But by using the “C” world, providers mean to indicate that your stuff can be effortlessly uploaded and downloaded, as long as you have an internet connection, as if it was already stored inside your Mac or iOS device, with none of the real swearing that used to accompany, the third attempt to get a folder of work to transfer intact from one location to another.

Apple’s inexorably named iCloud is provided free of charge, with limited storage, to everyone who buys an apple computer or device. It’s really useful for syncing emails, photos and other information between all the Apple kit you use, and Windows PCs too. Since cloud services are supposed to be seamlessly integrated, it’s a great advantage that Apple makes the hardware and the software and the cloud that you use; and much of the time it behaves exactly like we always wanted computers, to behave, keeping all your stuff at your fingertips without you having to worry about how it works.

At the moment, iCloud works primarily with Apple’s own apps, including the Mail, Calendar and Contacts programs

At the moment, iCloud works primarily with Apple’s own apps, including the Mail, Calendar and Contacts programs

However, iCloud doesn’t handle every function you might need. Most glaringly, it has no general-purpose facility to just pick any file and make it be in the cloud, so that you can access it from elsewhere. The Apple service that used to do that, iDisk has been discontinued, and iCloud now only deals with specific kinds of files largely because iOS has no concept of a general file system or file browser, only data that belongs to individual apps. (Whether this admirably simplifying approach is sustainable is a question we can’t yet answer).

At the moment, iCloud works primarily with Apple’s own apps, including the Mail, Calendar and Contacts programs that are included with all Macs and iOS devices and , if you have them, GarageBand and the iWork suite (Pages, Numbers and Keynote). There’s also the Photo Stream option that automatically makes photos taken on one iOS device appear on others, on your Apple TV, and in iPhoto or Aperture on your Mac.

Unfortunately, it isn’t much use for people rely on Microsoft Office or other non-Apple software. There’s an option to manually upload individual Office documents and other types of files to your iCloud account from your Mac, but it’s a bit of chore, and not something you’ll want to use on a regular basis.

Served up: you can also log in to your account on any of these services using a web browser on any Mac or PC

Served up: you can also log in to your account on any of these services using a web browser on any Mac or PC

That’s where other service such as Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive and SugarSync can prove really useful. They may not do the seamless system syncing that iCloud excels at, but you have iCloud for that already. They o allow you to store a wider range of file types in the cloud, and often add other features that iCloud lacks, such as the ability to share a folder of files with other people rather than just between your own devices. And they work just as well with Windows PCs, if you those too. So it’s well worth signing up for at least one of these services and using it as a complement to your default iCloud account.

The question we’re here to help you answer is: which?

Like iCloud, these other cloud services all provide a limited amount of storage completely free, then allow you to pay a subscription for additional space fi you need it. a good first step is to try to estimate how much storage you’re going to need – but in practice you really won’t know until you try it and see what you end up using it for.

Google Drive and SugarSync both offer 5GB free of charge, the same as iCloud. Dropbox starts at just 2GB, while Microsoft offers 7GB free with SkyDrive – a strange amount to pick, you might think, unless you were just looking for a number that sounded bigger than 5GB.

Microsoft SkyDrive

Microsoft SkyDrive

Prices for additional storage vary quite a bit, but none of the others are as expensive as iCloud. Apple offers a maximum of 50GB extra storage with iCloud at $105 a year. Not only is that eye-wateringly expensive for the nowadays cheap commodity of server space, but if you have several iOS devices on the same account, and generate a lot of material (bearing in mind content that Apple already stores, such as apps and iTunes purchases, isn’t counted), you just might still be scrabbling for space to back everything up.

Microsoft’s SkyDrive, by contrast, charges $24 a year for 50GB or $48 for 100GB – just under a quarter of the price. Google Drive is slightly more expensive, at around $60 a year for 100GB, while Dropbox charges $150 (about $96) for that amount. Only SugarSync breaks through 50% of Apple’s cost per gigabyte, at $225 (about $144) for 100GB. Remember all these charges are per year.

The catch with SkyDrive is that you have no choice but to pay for a full year in advance, as with iCloud, while Dropbox, Google Drive and SugarSync all offer a monthly payment option. Which can be handy if you have a special project on that uses more data, or are planning a trip away and need remote access to more of your files than usual, just for a few days.

The latter three services also offer special multi-user accounts for business, with prices quoted depending on the amount of storage you require and the number of users.

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