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Online storage reviews

Get your head in the cloud with our review of 12 popular data storage and synchronisation services.
 
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01 .Introduction

cloud-service-lead
  • Cloud services store your data online so you can access it from other computing devices.
  • Where and how securely files are stored is important.
  • Cloud sync services duplicate your files but not like a backup program/service.
Cloud storage services are designed for convenience and peace of mind. They offer anywhere-access of your files via smartphone, tablet, laptop and desktop. In doing so, they put a copy of your files on secure remote file servers via the internet, effectively giving you a backup that protects against data loss.

But does cloud storage have a darker lining? Concerns about data security and privacy threaten to rain on the parade. We look at these 12 popular services that will sync your data across desktop and mobile devices:

After our testing had concluded, Microsoft announced a name change for their cloud service from SkyDrive to OneDrive. At the time of writing little information was available and a launch date had not been released. Meanwhile SkyDrive continues to operate and has remained in our test as a result. Click here for more information on OneDrive.

Video: Pros and cons of the complex world of cloud storage services

We get into the cloud and check out data storage and synchronisation services.

How do they work?

These services come in a variety of flavors but our tests specifically looks at those that synchronise (sync) your data to the cloud and across online devices (tablets, laptops, smartphones etc). These services automatically duplicate and update your files across multiple devices. They do this by installing a “hot folder” on your desktop, that communicates with one or more servers run by the cloud service provider. All files stored in the hot folder can be accessed via a web portal linked to that account. Most services allow only one sync folder but some such as Cubby and CloudMe  let you select several folders you want to sync to the external servers. If, for example, you turn your computer’s My Documents folder into a hot folder, every file you store in My Documents will sync to the cloud. In most cases, the hot folder(s) will automatically synchronise when new content is added.

How we test

Ease of use: is evaluated on desktop and mobile platforms. We examined the difficulty in downloading and installing desktop user (client) software, the quality of help services, navigation, folder structure and the ease of use in moving files between folders. Services with high ease of use scores offered a simple installation process, comprehensive tutorials, FAQs or help services and a clear interface that was easy to navigate.

We tested the upload and download performance of each service by recording the time required to upload and download 100MB of data, but this did not contribute to the final score. Our results found that most services on test transferred data at a similar rate, between 28 to 34 minutes when uploading and three to three minutes 20 seconds when downloading. The only exception was Wuala, which took seven minutes 28 seconds to download. These results should be used as a general indication only, as performance will vary depending on the time of day and your internet connection speed.

 
 

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Before you dive into the cloud it's important to look at any extra features and the amount of storage offered by each service.

Feature laden

Unless you want to stick to storing and syncing, a few extra features can enhance your experience in the cloud. Live document editing and third party integration can streamline on-the-go work and sharing particularly with social networking sites. Of course, you may be content with a service that strips things back to the bare essentials without any of the complicated bells and whistles, meaning the lack of features could be a feature in itself.

Dropbox is arguably the best-known sync service. It takes a relatively bare bones with very few functions outside storage and sharing, but even an absolute beginner can start syncing files in next to no time. The trade-off is a lack of versatility. There is only one hot folder for example.

Extra features tend to vary between services but most include a document viewer and file versioning (see jargon buster) while others let you edit files in the cloud and even stream media. Google Drive for example lets you access and edit files via Google web apps. It includes robust Office-style apps that are compatible with many file types.

Just how big are we talking here?

Fancy features are a nice touch but the essence of cloud servers is storage space and with a free account, bigger is usually better. Most services on test start you off with 5-10GB for free which is often enough for storing your most important documents. If you’re thinking of syncing high quality photos, audio and video files you may want to consider a service with more space. MediaFire and Google Drive give you 12 and 15GB respectively just for signing up. You can often earn more free storage space by referring friends to the service or you can buy more space with a monthly/annual subscription.

But before you open up your wallet it’s important to consider the practicalities of buying more storage. Every time your magic folder syncs you’re adding to your monthly upload/download limit which can quickly cap out if you don’t stay vigilant. Although 50GB of cloud storage may sound great, if your ISP limits you to 25GB per month then you’re unlikely to completely utilise the space.

On most days you’re unlikely to be uploading massive files, but on the rare occasion that you need to send a few gigabytes to the cloud, you need to know whether your service puts any restrictions on file sizes. Amazon, Cubby and SkyDrive don’t allow files any larger than 2GB for example, whereas Drive lets you store anything up to 10GB in size.


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