Best Cloud Storage

David Murphy

Best Cloud Storage: 15 online cloud storage services compared

The convenience of cloud storage is undeniable: your data and media at your fingertips from any Internet-connected device—what’s not to like? And there’s certainly no shortage of options to choose from, most of which are totally free up to a certain capacity. The trick is deciding which cloud service to use. After all, there are notable differences between them. Some are ideal for security mavens who want to preserve their anonymity (and the anonymity of their data). Others are better for folks just looking for a massive dumping ground for a ton of data. And still others are geared toward those keen on sharing all sorts of files with their friends and colleagues. In this roundup, we’ll break it all down for you and identify the best cloud storage services. We’ll also show you how to encrypt files that you store online and how to combine multiple cloud-storage accounts into one unified pot.

Author's note: This article was originally featured in our November 2013 issue of the magazine — which means that it was actually written a quite bit before then, given just much time the publishing process actually takes.  Certain details might be inaccurate as of March 2014 (when it was posted online), up to and including the fact that Mega and MediaFire both have desktop apps for file synchronization right now.  As to why Google Drive didn't make it onto our list, we plead the Fifth.

Amazon Cloud Drive

The free iteration of Amazon’s Cloud Drive nets you 5GB total of space to work with, but there’s a bit of a catch: Don’t go expecting to upload huge files to the service, as you’re capped to a maximum of 2GB per file. If you need more overall storage, you’ll be ponying up in various increments up to and including $10 a year for 20GB of space, $50 a year for 100GB, and a whopping $500 a year for a full terabyte of cloud storage (oof!).

Amazon’s Cloud Drive presents a pleasing list of your files in its online app, though we wish it was more integrated with the company’s other cloud storage offerings.

On our benchmark—a 132MB transfer of 24 total files—Amazon clocked in at 3:15 (min:sec). That’s not the speediest of upload times among all the cloud services we tested; worse, the files you upload to Amazon don’t appear to be encrypted once they hit the server.

Amazon Cloud Drive operates as a simple downloadable app for your PC that syncs a folder’s worth of files to your online storage, in addition to a web-based tool for managing your files in the cloud. The latter comes with a ho-hum player that lets you view your pics, listen to your tunes, or watch your movies—it ain’t pretty, but it works.  Annoyingly, Amazon only lets you share a single file at a time with friends via pre-generated URLs. www.amazon.com

Apple iCloud

Yes, Apple’s iCloud is technically a cloud storage service—and then some, once you factor in the service’s ability to synchronize your contacts, calendars, notes, and more across your various iOS-friendly devices.

You can’t really do much with iCloud if you’re not an Apple aficionado.

However, if you’re using a PC—and just a PC—then you really have no need whatsoever to install Apple’s meager iCloud app. You can only really sync files from your iOS devices’ Photo Streams to your PC (or, conversely, photos from a specified PC folder to your iPad or iPhone). Otherwise, it’s not like Apple’s giving you a folder for dumping files into that will somehow synchronize with other PCs you’ve installed the iCloud app onto.

If you do own multiple Apple devices, iCloud’s feature set (and device integration) is pretty awesome in most ways, save for its price—beyond the 5GB you get for free, there is a yearly fee of $20 for an extra 10GB of storage, $40 for 20GB, or $100 for 50GB. To Apple’s credit, the company doesn’t count iTunes movies and music purchases against your total storage quota. And the core offerings—mail, contacts, calendar, and notes synchronization—should hardly chip away at your free 5GB. Additionally, Apple stores your information using 128-bit AES encryption at minimum. www.apple.com

Bitcasa

This desktop- and web-based cloud service delivers a pretty hefty amount of free storage—10GB—in addition to everyone’s favorite caveat: no restrictions whatsoever on the file sizes you want to throw into your online pool. And if you need more room, Bitcasa offers a single, awesome option for supplementing your pool: $99 per year for unlimited capacity.

Bitcasa dumps an “Infinite Drive” onto your system as a new drive letter. Whatever you toss in heads up to the cloud but, unlike Bitcasa’s peers, the files aren’t automatically mirrored on your local hard drive. A built-in caching mechanism ensures that you still have access to your most-used files when you’re offline, and you can adjust just how big your cache is via the app. As for the app’s performance, it took us a mere 19 seconds to send 132MB of files on up—a killer transfer time.

Bitcasa’s cache is a critical part of its offline functionality, and we’re glad for it!

You can mirror folders on your hard drive if you want more standard cloud-sync functionality, and your data always remains protected on Bitcasa’s servers with 256-bit AES encryption. Sharing your files is as easy as viewing them; you can watch movies, listen to music, or view your stored pictures using Bitcasa’s web interface. www.bitcasa.com

Box

Ten free gigabytes of storage await those who sign up for the free version of Box.  However, you’re limited to storing files no larger than 250MB each on the service—practically a sneeze in the cloud-storage world.  Adding more oomph to your online offering incurs a monthly fee of $9.99 for 100GB on a personal account or, if you sign up for a "Starter" small business plan, $5 per user for pooled storage of 100GB in total.  Doing so bumps you up to a file size limit of 2GB per.

For some inexplicable reason, Box has decided to make simple media streaming a paid-for, add-on service.

Box offers four different apps for getting your PC to play with its cloud storage; it seems a bit overkill to have users piecemeal together the functionality they prefer. We couldn’t get the “Box for Office” app to play with our copy of Office 2013, and the standard, folder-synchronizing “Box Sync” app took 3:51 on our transfer test—that’s quite lengthy for a single app.

There’s no way to view media files you send to Box via its web interface; the service is designed for adding, editing, and sharing documents and text. To that end, we do enjoy how the “Box Edit” app allows you to start new files and edit them using the office apps on your local desktop, before they’re automatically saved up to the cloud when you’re done. www.box.com

Cubby

This no-nonsense cloud app—desktop and web—offers up 5GB of free storage with a single file-size limit of 2GB. Adding more storage will set you back anywhere from $3.99 per month for 100GB to $39.90 per month for a full terabyte, but Cubby demands that you buy a year’s worth of capacity up front. (In other words, you’re locked in.)

Cubby is simple, quick, and easy to use, and you don’t even have to change up your existing folder structure if you don’t want to.

To sync your files with the cloud, you can drag them into a new “My Cubby” folder the app creates, or you can right-click existing folders within your drive’s hierarchy to add them to the synchronization list—a pleasant feature for those who don’t want to move data around. Cubby protects your files with AES 256-bit encryption on its end, but the speeds of the synchronization leave a little to be desired. The service clocked in at 3:46 to shoot our 132MB batch of test files up into the cloud.

Sharing your stored files with others is as easy as sending a provided link to files or a folder to your friends. Cubby also incorporates media playback and version tracking into its web app, automatically deleting old versions of your files as you start to fill up space. www.cubby.com

Dropbox

Dropbox gives you a total of 2GB to start with; additional storage can be had for a not-so-insignificant $99 per year for 100GB, $199 per year for 200GB, or $499 per year for 500GB. Adding version-tracking to your Dropbox tacks on another $39 annually.

Dropbox stashes a single, simple folder onto your hard drive (which you can change, if you prefer). Anything you throw into this folder gets synchronized into the cloud and protected with AES 256-bit encryption. You can modify how much bandwidth you want the app to eat up when it’s uploading and downloading, and even “selectively sync” certain folders on certain computers. An added “LAN sync” feature speeds up the process by copying files from your other Dropbox-friendly, networked sys-tems instead of pulling them from the cloud—although it only took Dropbox a mere 7 seconds to sync up our 132MB file test.

LAN sync has saved us so much file-syncing time on our home network, it’s almost impossible to measure.

Sharing folders and files with others is as easy as copying a link that Dropbox provides, but your friends will have to have Dropbox accounts if you want to collaborate within a single folder that’s shared among all. The Dropbox web app seamlessly lets you view your photos, rock out to your music, and watch your movies directly in your browser.
www.dropbox.com

MediaFire

The desktop app for Media-Fire is a bit worthless. Its primary purpose is to provide you with a means for copying files—one at a time—to the service’s online cloud storage. Even then, MediaFire is fussy: At one point, we thought we were deleting and uploading fresh sets of files, but the service was instead keeping triplicate copies of our benchmark test. The only redeeming quality of MediaFire’s boring desktop app is how it lets you take screenshots of your PC and upload them directly to your cloud storage, but that doesn’t appeal to most people.

Our test file transfer took a whopping 8:40 to jump up to the cloud. Manipulating these files via MediaFire’s web interface felt sluggish, and the online storage itself is a bit slow to refresh with newly uploaded files. A built-in media player lets you listen to music and watch videos, but shrinks the latter down to a fixed size—so much for our 720p video.

We’re not exactly sure why a cloud storage app needs a semi-comprehensive screenshot feature, but it’s there nevertheless!

MediaFire does offer a generous free capacity of 10GB, but restricts your uploads to 200MB per file unless you pony up for a paid version of the service (starting at $49.99 annually for 100GB of storage).
www.mediafire.com

Click the next page to read about Microsoft OneDrive, SugarSync, and more!

Microsoft OneDrive (Formerly SkyDrive)

Ah, OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive). If you’re using Windows 8, you’ll probably have noticed that access to the OneDrive cloud is baked into the OS by default. It’s also a downloadable app for the more traditional “sync files in a folder to the cloud” kind of access—which we greatly prefer.

OneDrive’s online media player (no audio!) is one of the best we’ve seen of the major cloud service providers; you can even tag
your friends.

The free iteration of OneDrive gives you 7GB to play with, but your files are limited to a maximum size of 2GB each. Bumping up your storage costs $10 a year for 20GB, $25 for 50GB, or $50 for 100GB. There’s no additional encryption for anything you slap into OneDrive, and there’s certainly not a great deal of speed for files synchronized via the desktop app. Our 132MB transfer test clocked in at 3:56.

We do, however, love OneDrive’s “Fetch” feature—if you set up the desktop app correctly, you can actually tap into your computer from afar and access any file on any drive within your system. It’s a crazy-convenient way to access files without having to put them into OneDrive in the first place, and you can stream videos or view pictures from the OneDrive web app itself. (No audio files, though; sorry!) www.onedrive.com

SpiderOak

We wish we had more to report about this allegedly super-secure cloud storage app. However, it’s so secure, that it didn’t let us into the cloud service no matter how much we tried to run through the fairly simple-seeming account setup process.

The major boon to Spider-Oak is that it’s designed as a “zero-knowledge system.” The company has no idea what you share to the service; a benefit to user anonymity unless you forget your password, forever locking your ability to access the ultra-secret data you’ve stored.

Part of the process involved with generating encryption keys for SpiderOak is that you must run the associated desktop app before you can access your cloud storage for the first time. Try as we might—and we let it run overnight, even—our app just sat at the third step of SpiderOak’s setup process. That’s supposed to be the part where the app downloads your account information from SpiderOak’s servers; in our setup, it was the Achilles’ heel that turned our feeble attempt at accessing cloud storage into a bit of rain. Don’t waste your time with this one. www.spideroak.com

SugarSync

The free iteration of Sugar-Sync is a little bit buried on the cloud service’s website, but signing up nets you five free gigabytes of storage with no limit to the size of files you can place within your online cloud. Additional storage isn’t cheap: $74 per year for 60GB, $99 for 100GB, $249 for 250GB, or $399 (!) for 500GB.

We appreciate SugarSync’s hybrid approach— synchronization and cloud-only storage.

Installing the desktop app slaps a new “SugarSync Drive” into Windows Explorer, with three folders to play with: Magic Briefcase, Mobile Photos, and Web Archive. The first is your general, speedy dumping ground—it took all of seven seconds for SugarSync to upload our 132MB batch of test files. The second is where mobile pictures you take will end up if you enable AutoSync. The third is a cloud-only directory whose contents don’t eat up actual space on your hard drive.

SugarSync’s web app holds up to five versions of the files you’ve synchronized into the cloud. Sharing and downloading zipped copies of your folders is super easy; viewing videos or listening to music is not, as SugarSync doesn’t come with a web-based player for your media. All of your files are, however, protected with 256-bit AES encryption within SugarSync itself. www.sugarsync.com

Ubuntu One

Yes, even the Linux folk have their own cloud service. Technically, you do as well, given that it’s accessible via a downloadable PC app or web-based interface. Developer Canonical grants users 5GB of free storage, with a 5TB limit on the size of individual files you can upload to Ubuntu One. Additional storage costs $29 per year for every 20GB you want to add to your cloud; tapping into the service’s music-steaming companion app tacks a $4 monthly cost onto the bill.

Sharing files via Ubuntu One is a pain-free process; uploading them, not so much

Canonical might want to work on the speeds of Ubuntu One’s desktop app. At about nine minutes into a simple 2.1MB file transfer—yes, that little—we decided to give up, lest our full benchmark test start to rival 24 Hours of Le Mans. What good is a cloud service that takes so long to handle simple file uploads?

Selecting new folders to synchronize to the cloud, as well as sharing them, is just a few mouse clicks away within Ubuntu One’s intuitive desktop app. Even if you get your media files uploaded before the next millennium, however, know that Ubuntu One comes with no way to watch movies or listen to music via its web interface. U-bummer. www.one.ubuntu.com

Tresorit

Don’t get confused; a “tresor” in Tresorit terminology simply refers to a cloud-synchronized folder. The service’s handy downloadable app helps you create new “tresors” and convert existing folders on your hard drives to “tresors,” which you can then share with others by tossing an email their way via the app itself.

Unfortunately, only Tresorit users can be granted access to your files, limiting the app’s overall potential.

Unless they also install Tresorit, however, they can’t access what you’ve sent them. Tresorit works decently as a single-user cloud backup system, although it’s a bit on the slow side—it took 4:09 for our test files to transfer over, and the Tresorit app doesn’t give you any status indication at all as to how many files you have left to upload or even the speed at which they’re zooming along.

There’s also no web-based version of Tresorit for you to use to tap into your cloud storage. While you get 5GB to play around with, you’re limited by a 1.5GB file size cap and, er, your 5GB total—as we go to press, Tresorit is still working on offering storage expansions for its users. www.tresorit.com

Mega

Mega is the Fort Knox of file uploaders, using AES 128-bit encryption alongside 2048-bit RSA keys to maintain the anonymity of files both stored on and shared via the service. (Just don’t lose your password, or you’re stuck.)

Even Mega’s sharing aspect is driven by its hyper-awareness toward security; we approve.

A free sign-up gets you 50GB of space with absolutely no restrictions on the size of files you’d like to upload to the service. Adding more space costs annual fees—and it’s in Euros: €99 for 500GB, €199 for 2TB, and €299 for a whopping 4TB of storage. Transferring files to fill your massive amounts of space might take a bit of time, however. Mega took 4:02 to upload 132MB. If you want, you can set a speed limit for your uploads to conserve bandwidth, and you can even have Mega skip files in a batch if you’ve previously uploaded them, to save a bit of time.

Sharing files is as easy as right-clicking a file or folder, selecting Get Link, and sending along the encrypted link to anyone who needs your files. You can also just send the link sans encrypted key, if you want to post something public and have certain people contact you for the final bit they need to access the file. www.mega.co.nz

iDrive

Though it certainly uses the cloud, iDrive operates more as a backup-and-restore app than a true “cloud synchronization” app like so many of its aforementioned peers—or distant cousins. First, the details: You get 5GB of free storage when you sign up, capped at a maximum file-size limit of 10GB per. Adding more storage costs $49.50 for 150GB, $149.50 for 500GB, and $299.50 for 1TB, per year.

iDrive’s “Archive Cleanup” will automatically delete files on your cloud storage when they no longer exist on your hard drive— a beautiful backup feature.

Selecting files and folders to back up to your iDrive can be a bit cumbersome via the desktop app, and sending files to cyberspace isn’t the speediest of routines. We clocked a total transfer time of 2:48 for our benchmark files; you’ll spend far more than that clicking through iDrive’s interface when deciding what you want to back up.

iDrive does allow you to share backed-up files with others using randomized links; you can also access your files via iDrive’s web app and listen to your music, although there's no provision for watching videos. We like how you can remotely log into your iDrive on a PC via the web to change your to-be-backed-up folders. It’s as convenient as iDrive’s built-in AES 256-bit encryption is stress-
reducing when it comes to keeping your data secure. www.idrive.com

Google Drive

Egg on the face. Here we were, so busy trying to find other cloud-storage services, that we neglected to take a look at the one we use on a not-so-infrequent basis. Here's a quick overview: Google Drive gives you 15GB of free storage space for, well, just about everything. It synchronizes excellently with Google's other products -- a must-have if you want to share huge files via Gmail, for example. Maximum file sizes top out at 10GB, and that which you upload can be easily shared with others via links or direct invites. A handy little app lets you access your cloud storage right from File Explorer itself -- convenient!

Click the next page to read our summary and info on how to beef up your cloud storage security.

The Cloud-Storage Standouts: A Summary

As you can see, cloud storage apps tend to pick and choose from a wide assortment of potential features and, unfortunately, a wide range of speeds. It’s hard to find a perfect diamond, but we were most pleased by the luster of one cloud app in particular: Bitcasa. It’s fast, encrypted, offers more storage than most services for the low, low cost of nothing, and gives you access to an unlimited total capacity for a price that would net you considerably less on other cloud services.

If you care more about security than speed, Mega’s your ticket. You don’t get a downloadable app with which to synchronize to its servers, but you do get a ton of storage with an almost obsessive focus on security and encryption through all stages of the uploading (and sharing) process. Even Mega’s owners seem quite confident of the service’s capabilities, offering up cash rewards (up to €10,000!) for anyone who can expose vulnerabilities that might otherwise open up a user’s files to pilfering.

Though we weren’t keen on Box as a general cloud service, we have to tip our hat to its functionality as an office-themed cloud app. It’s not the place where we’d want to stash our critical files, movies, music, or any of that, but the service’s tie-ins to

Office apps (or Google Docs!) alongside its role-based sharing capabilities make Box an ideal choice for those looking for a cloud service geared toward business-based storage and collaboration.

Encrypt Thyself: Beef Up Your File Security With Boxcryptor

Sure, a number of cloud-storage providers offer powerful encryption on their end—designed to give you a little peace of mind by preventing the very providers hosting your files from knowing their exact contents. But is that really the case? Dropbox, for example, says it offers 256-bit encryption, but it’s highly unlikely the service encrypts your files locally before passing on the indeterminate 0s and 1s to its servers.

In other words, what good is encryption if a cloud storage provider knows the key? That’s where a free app like Boxcryptor ( www.boxcryptor.com ) comes into play. Install the app and set a password—and make sure you don’t forget it because, if you do, you’ll have no way to decrypt the files you encrypt.

Boxcryptor lets you know that your files and folders are encrypted by displaying their names in a lovely shade of green.

Like most cloud-storage apps, Boxcryptor creates a new drive letter within Windows Explorer. Only, instead of listing your files and folders, the Boxcryptor volume lists the various other cloud service apps you have installed on your system—like Dropbox, for example.

Stick with us.

When you go to view these “services” within the Boxcryptor volume, you’ll be staring at the standard synchronized folder you’re used to looking at. Only, now, you can use Boxcryptor to encrypt files you’ve already synchronized—or, one step better, create a new encrypted folder whose contents is automatically encrypted by the app prior to being synchronized with whatever cloud provider you prefer.

Why do we like this method better than, say, TrueCrypt? It’s more seamless and “drag-and-droppable,” unlike TrueCrypt, which requires you to unmount your entire encrypted volume for the synchronization process to occur—which can get a bit annoying.

Wuala

LaCie is big on security, offering up AES 256-bit encryption for any file you store on its Wuala cloud service (and going to great lengths to let you know that, no, they aren’t peeking at your files). You get 5GB free to start with on Wuala, and an individual file-size limit of 40GB. More storage starts at $39 yearly for 20GB and caps out at a mighty 2TB for an annual fee of a mere $1,999.

Wuala allows you to fine-tune your file sharing, so long as your friends are also Wuala users.

Like Tresorit, there’s no web-based Wuala interface for you to use (save for when you’re sharing files or folders with others via the app’s cleverly named “Secret Web-links”). You can synchronize your files to the cloud simply by dragging-and-dropping them in the new W: share drive that the app creates. And Wuala’s speedy, too: It took the app just 26 seconds to sync up our 132MB benchmark files.

If you don’t feel like dragging-and-dropping, you can also have Wuala synchronize the contents of folders on your hard drives to new folders within Wuala. Popping offline still allows you access to files you’ve recently downloaded, but it’s possible you won’t be able to access your entire cloud setup. www.wuala.com

Combine Your Cloud Storage

So, you want to go the free route. As in, you want to sign up for as many different cloud storage providers as you can get your hands on and find some magical way to mash them together into a single, unified chunk of storage.

The messy way of doing this involves installing each service’s desktop app and mentally assigning each to a particular subset of your files—perhaps Dropbox for your MP3s, Bitcasa for your movies, and Box for your documents, etc. It’s not pretty, but it’s certainly one way to beat the cloud-storage game without having to pony up a single penny.

Jolidrive presents a no-fuss method for combining your cloud storage providers, but you can’t really do all that much with your data once combined.

Let’s get fancier.

There’s a web-based app called Jolidrive ( www.jolicloud.com ) that allows you to access a number of different cloud services via one convenient portal. The best part of the equation is Jolidrive’s cost: absolutely free.

Once you’ve signed up for the app, you’re presented with a screen that allows you to combine your cloud storage accounts with your master Jolidrive account. Supported cloud storage services include a number of those mentioned in this article—Box, Dropbox, MediaFire, OneDrive, SugarSync, and Ubuntu One (to name a few).

CloudKafé’s interface is a bit more Windows 8 Metro than Windows 7 Explorer, which may or may not be to your file-browsing liking.

The one bummer? Jolidrive is akin to read-only access: You can’t move files around your various cloud services, nor can you even use Jolidrive to upload files—downloading and streaming only.

You’ll find that this is the one unfortunate caveat of a number of similar, free services. CloudKafé ( www.cloudkafe.com) is another web-based, mash-everything-together cloud-storage organizer—one with a user interface that bests Jolidrive in some aspects. It allows you to share items from your various cloud services by dropping them into a CloudKafé “basket,” which you can then allow others to access by emailing them a link via CloudKafé itself.

The paid-for web app Otxio ( www.otxio.com ) does allow you to copy-and-paste files between connected cloud service providers, but it’ll set you back a one-time fee of $39.99 for doing so. And note that we said “copy-and-paste,” not move—the latter being the more desirable way to interact with one’s individual cloud services.

We love Otxio’s interface and feature-set, in that the app allows you to perform all the basic functionality (downloads, deletions, sharing, and uploads) that you’d otherwise expect to find in your individual cloud services. Like CloudKafé, you can create individual “spaces” of files—groupings of data that can be populated with any of your files from your individual cloud services—which you can then share with others.

Otxio packs some powerful functionality into its cloud-storage combining, but don’t expect a free pass.

That said, Otxio isn’t perfect; its file-uploading feature only allows you to stick one file at a time (no folders) into a particular cloud service. What we wouldn’t give for a batch uploading feature (or, at least, the ability to upload full folders). Still, it’s a small price to pay to be able to ride on the free coattails of the web’s more popular cloud storage providers.

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