For many of us, the cloud has changed the way we work and play. Thanks to well known services like Gmail, Dropbox, Facebook and Instapaper, practically our whole lives, photos, documents, contacts and more, are online. So isn't it time to take control?
A little tweaking can turn the cloud into a more powerful and personalised place. All it takes is a few simple browser addons and other tools to unlock the full potential of the web's most popular services.
Here, in no particular order, are 10 essential tools to help you make the most of your cloud experience. In this story, we're focusing on tools you would use on your computer itself, either through a web browser or with software you download and install, rather than mobile apps you would use on a smartphone or tablet. That said, however, some of these tools do offer a mobile component as well.
One important note before we begin: Keep in mind that the nature of these tools requires them to be granted a certain level of access to your data. Particularly on the corporate IT front, you may need to seek approval before installing any utility that can process sensitive information. Be sure to review the permissions listed for every application and use it only if you and/or your employer are comfortable with the level of access it needs.
When you're browsing the web and see something you want to save for later, the cloud is often an extra step away. With many services, you first have to save a file to your local hard drive, then move it to your cloud storage service. That extra step is eliminated with Cloud Save, a free extension of Google's Chrome browser from developers antimatter15 and KRowland.
Cloud Save integrates a host of cloud-based services into your browser for quick and easy access. All you do is right click on any link or image, anywhere on the web, and find the "Cloud Save" option in the contextual menu that pops up. From there, you pick the service of your choice, and your file is floated directly over to your favorite storage service.
Cloud Save supports Dropbox, Google Docs, Box.net, Amazon Cloud Drive, Windows Live SkyDrive, SugarSync, Facebook, Picasa, Flickr and several other services.
If full synchronisation between Google Docs and your PC is what you're after, Syncdocs is the tool you need. Syncdocs natively integrates Google Docs into Windows 7, Vista or XP, keeping your computer's word processing folder continuously synced with your Google Docs account.
The nice thing about Syncdocs is that it's seamless and transparent. Once you have it installed on your PC, you'll never have to think about it again. The program runs in the background, instantly pushing any changes you make on your local system to Google Docs and vice versa. You can even collaborate in real time with other Docs users while working in your PC's word processing program.
Syncdocs can actually sync any type of file, office-oriented or not, you just tell it which folder to watch (only one, but you can nest folders to include as many files and subfolders as you want), and anything that's added or changed there will automatically be updated in the cloud. The only limitation is the amount of storage space available in your Google Docs account. By default, personal Google accounts come with 1GB of storage for files that aren't in Google Docs format, with additional space available for purchase. Files that are in Google Docs format don't count toward the storage limit.
Syncdocs will keep up to 250 files synced for free.
Don't let its strange-looking name scare you: IFTTT, short for "If This, Then That", is a robust tool that can add layers of powerful automation to your cloud-hopping adventures. As a browser and OS-agnostic web service, it connects directly to other web-based services and interacts with them on your behalf.
IFTTT lets you define any number of "if this happens, then do that"-style rules, using a combination of triggers and actions. You could, for example, tell the service to watch your Facebook page and automatically upload to Dropbox every photo in which you're tagged. You could set it to automatically save any stories you star in Google Reader to Instapaper or Evernote. You could even instruct the service to grab any photo you upload to Facebook and automatically send it to Picasa too.
IFTTT currently supports about a dozen different services, including Dropbox, Facebook, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Talk, Instagram, Instapaper and Twitter. It also offers support for phone and SMS-based interactions, allowing you to receive a text message anytime your boss sends you an IM, or get a phone call anytime a new item pops up in your company's RSS feed.
The possibilities with this tool are practically endless, and best of all it's completely free.
Keeping your life in the cloud is great, except when the cloud isn't there. Enter Gmail Offline, Google's recently revamped method for accessing your inbox while offline.
Gmail Offline is a simple extension of the Chrome browser. Once installed, you run the utility once to initialise it, and that's it: You can then read messages, manage your inbox and compose new mail without an active Internet connection. The free extension will automatically sync your changes the next time you're online.
Google now offers offline capabilities for Google Docs and Calendar as well. Those services, however, have to be activated separately. Just click the gear icon in the upper right corner of the screen on each service and look for the link to set up offline access.
Want even more pieces of the cloud integrated into your computer? This Windows app allows you to map a wide range of cloud storage services as local drives, giving you easy PC-based access to all of your files and information.
Gladinet supports most of the big-name services: Amazon Cloud Drive, Box.net, Google Docs, Picasa, Windows Live SkyDrive and so on. The free starter edition will let you set up any number of those services as fully functional local drives, complete with drag-and-drop functionality and all the bells and whistles you'd get with a regular Windows folder.
If you want to perform more advanced functions, such as using a cloud storage service to sync a local folder across multiple PCs, you'll have to pony up 50 bucks for Gladinet's professional edition.
Give Google Calendar a jolt of electricity with Checker Plus, a free Chrome extension that takes the service to a whole new level.
Checker Plus lets you keep up with Google Calendar even when you don't have it open in a browser window. The app puts a customisable icon next to Chrome's address bar. Hovering over the icon shows you a list of your next few appointments. Clicking on it brings up an interactive view of your full calendar, allowing you to peruse and manage events without ever leaving the web page you're viewing.
Checker Plus gives you customisable event reminders that appear on your desktop too, it can even read event details aloud as part of its notifications. And the app makes adding new events a snap: You can right-click on any email or highlighted text from a web page and copy the info directly into your calendar from there. You can also add new events from Chrome's address bar, either by typing or by speaking the details aloud.
Cloud email gets an IQ boost with Boomerang, a browser-based addon for Gmail.
Boomerang lets you write messages in advance and schedule them to be sent at specific times in the future. It also allows you to "snooze" items in your inbox, temporarily sending them away; Boomerang then brings the emails back to your attention at a time and date you specify.
Boomerang has one other nifty feature worth mentioning. It can monitor outgoing messages and remind you to follow up if you don't receive a response after a certain number of days.
Boomerang integrates directly into Gmail by way of a Chrome or Firefox extension; you can also access it extension-free by going through Boomerang's mobile website. The service is free, though after a one month trial, you'll be limited to 10 actions per month and no mobile-based access unless you decide to sign up for a subscription plan.
No matter how much you may like Gmail and Google Calendar, sometimes you need to use a desktop tool like Outlook or Lotus Notes. A little IMAP magic can get your messages synced, but what about all your other data, you know, calendar, contacts and tasks?
That's where CompanionLink comes in. Its software wirelessly keeps the app of your choice in sync with Google, letting you view, edit and add information as if your desktop were part of the cloud service. CompanionLink supports both one way and two way syncing, so you can keep your local data in sync with Google's servers, too, if you want.
The company offers a variety of other syncing options, too, including software that works with services such as GroupWise, Zoho and Salesforce. On the mail server side, it offers product options to connect with Windows Live in addition to Google. CompanionLink's programs are currently available for Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7, with Mac support said to be coming soon.
Google's new Chrome Remote Desktop tool, still in beta, lets you access and control any PC remotely, right from your browser. All you need is the free Chrome extension, no additional software is required. That means the service works seamlessly on practically any operating system, Windows, Mac, Linux or even the cloud-centric Chrome OS.
Chrome Remote Desktop currently requires someone to accept the start of a new session manually on both sides. As such, it's geared primarily toward troubleshooting someone else's computer, a boon for all of us who act as the family helpdesk. Google says it plans to eventually expand Chrome Remote Desktop to allow for unmanned remote access too, which should make the tool even more useful.