Because not all cloud storage providers are created equal, we looked at current offerings from Amazon Cloud Drive, Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, and SugarSync, pinpointing the services with the best attributes for accomplishing specific tasks. Along the way we assembled tips and hints for performing advanced cloud storage tasks such as merging multiple free cloud services into one massive free megacloud.
With so many new and improved online services vying to become your preferred online repository for documents, photos, music, and video files, why settle for just one? Use them all. Here are 15 awesome ways to get the most out of the free cloud storage craze.
You have many options for sharing a single music collection among several different PCs, such as using the Home Sharing feature in iTunes or online services like iCloud or Google Music. Another alternative is to drop your music collection into your cloud storage folder and have your desktop jukebox program (such as Windows Media Player) point to that folder as the default music location. Then, once you install your preferred cloud's desktop client on all your PCs, you'll instantly download your music to multiple computers. Depending on the size of your song collection, you may have to pay for extra storage to fit all of it in the cloud.
Another option is to use the recently released desktop client for Amazon Cloud Drive. Cloud Drive does not place a new folder on your desktop as Google Drive, Dropbox, SkyDrive, and Ubuntu One do. Instead, Windows users can right-click any folder and select Amazon Cloud Drive from the 'Send to' menu option to sync to Amazon. The downside with Cloud Drive is that you can access your files only via a web browser.
Music on Google Play, formerly known as Google Music, offers free storage for 20,000 songs, and any tunes you purchase from the company's music store do not count against your limit. You can listen to songs via Google's Music app for Android 2.2 or later, or you can use the web interface.
If you're a Windows user and you want all of your documents available in the cloud, you can turn a cloud storage folder into your Windows 'My Documents' folder. I did it using a subfolder inside Dropbox with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.
If you save your to-do list as a plain-text file, you can then sync your list across all your devices - including your PCs, smartphones, and tablets - by using cloud storage. Just drop your Todo.txt file into your Dropbox, Google Drive, or SkyDrive storage, and you can then access it anywhere you have an internet connection and a text editor. You can also turn your plain-text list into an interactive smartphone app, with help from Todo.txt Touch for Android and iOS.
Since you carry your smartphone everywhere you go, you've probably filled it with snapshots you never want to lose. Many cloud storage providers can help you back them up. If you have an iPhone, you can use iCloud to back up your last 1,000 photos and sync them across your devices. Windows Phone users can find a similar feature for SkyDrive. Google+ for Android has an Instant Upload feature that automatically sends your snaps to Google's social network; your photos will remain private until you choose to publish them in a post. Dropbox recently added an automatic photo upload feature to its Android app, and Canonical's Ubuntu One offers automatic uploads for Android and iOS.
Why bother searching through many months' worth of email to find attachments when you can just save everything to the cloud? Many desktop mail programs will let you specify where attachments should be saved. Then, whenever you download an attachment, it will go to a single folder that you can access anywhere.
Microsoft's SkyDrive offers remote access to all your Windows PCs, including attached external drives, that have the SkyDrive desktop client. During installation of the desktop client, you will be asked to authorise remote access. After the client is installed, log in to skydrive.com on a web browser from another computer.
A beta service called URL Droplet lets you send documents (such as PDFs and spreadsheets) found on web pages directly to your Dropbox, no manual download necessary. Simply sign up for URL Droplet and authorise the service to access your Dropbox; URL Droplet uses the Dropbox API, which means the service never sees your account password. Next, paste a link to the online document, and click Save. The file will appear in Dropbox and sync across all your devices.
The free service Send To Dropbox lets you hand out a public email address so that people can send things directly to your Dropbox. You can have the service automatically create folders and subfolders based on the email subject, the sender's email address, or the date the document was sent. You can also tell Send To Dropbox to unzip archived files automatically and include copies of the email messages sent.
Dropbox keeps a snapshot of every saved file over the past 30 days; if you delete an all-important paragraph and want it back, you can recover it as long as you saved a version of that file to Dropbox in the past month. Go to your Dropbox folder, select the file you want to see, and then right-click it and select View Previous Versions from the context menu. This action will take you to a web page listing your latest file saves for that document, including the revision date and who changed the file. Dropbox typically shows only ten changes per page, so click the Older> link to see more changes from the past 30 days.
Cloud storage helps you access your files anywhere you can get an internet connection - except when it comes to video. Since streaming video takes up more bandwidth than downloading a document or streaming music, how much you can stream depends on your cloud provider. During my testing with a 315MB, 77-minute M4V file, Dropbox streamed the entire content when I used the service's mobile apps. But I could not watch the video in a mobile browser, and on my PC I was able to stream only a 15-minute preview.
If security is a big concern for you, consider encrypting your data before sending it to the cloud. The easiest way to do this is to use Spideroak, an encrypted cloud-backup service that lets you back up specific files to the cloud and then sync them across multiple devices.
If you have files spread across a number of cloud storage accounts, such as at Amazon S3, Box, Dropbox, Picasa, SkyDrive, and SugarSync, look to Otixo. Through this service, you can connect them all, and then drag and drop files between your various cloud providers, no file downloading necessary. It works on almost any browser, including on mobile devices. Otixo is free for up to 250MB of bandwidth usage each month, or $10 for unlimited access to the service.
Various cloud storage services have different social networking capabilities for sharing images. If you want to share photos on Google+, then Google Drive is your easiest option (no surprise) since Google+ photo sharing is built in. SkyDrive users can post photos directly to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and email from SkyDrive's Web interface, although your friends will have to visit SkyDrive to see the full-size versions.