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Cloud-Based File Synchronization Services

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by Wayne A. Thorp, CFA

These days “the cloud,” like so many other technologies, has made our lives significantly easier. While most have probably heard the term, there is still a lot of confusion about what it is and how we can use it. Without getting overly technical, cloud computing, or simply the cloud, refers to a collection of hardware and software resources that are delivered as a service over a network, usually the Internet. Chances are you are already using some form of cloud computing, especially if you have an email account with a Web-based service such as Yahoo! or Gmail. In these cases, you don’t have email software installed on your computer. Instead, you log into your email account remotely, with the requisite software and storage residing on the service’s computer cloud.

In surveys conducted in our weekly CI Emails, many of our readers use multiple platforms to access email, the Web and files: computers, tablets, smartphones, etc. While I am more the exception than the rule, on any given day you can find me working away on any of my two desktop PCs, two notebook computers, three tablets and my iPhone. It used to be if I wanted to work with an electronic file, say a Word document or Excel spreadsheet, I would copy the latest version to a USB thumb drive and copy it to whichever system I was using at the time or I would email copies to myself. The problem with that was I ran the risk of not having the most recent version of the file. On many occasions I had to revise a file to incorporate changes I had made on different versions of it.

Luckily, the applications of cloud computing are virtually boundless. One way in which I use the cloud on a daily basis is file synchronization. These services allow you to save files and access them across multiple platforms. In this Online Exclusive article, we discuss one area of cloud-based computing—file synchronization services—as well as compare the key players in the marketplace.

What Is File Syncing?

With file synchronization services, my days of trying to keep track of the latest version of a file between different PCs is a thing of the past. Now, I can save a document, say a Word file or Excel spreadsheet, into my “cloud” folder on one computer and then go to another system and access the file, edit it, re-save it and then access the current file on another device. The file-syncing feature ensures that no matter where I am accessing the file, I have the latest version.

File syncing sounds much more complicated than its implementation is. In most cases, you can be signed up and syncing files on the cloud in a matter of minutes. Usually, you can get some amount of storage for free (a discussion of the top services will come a bit later). There is typically some software to install to enable the file synchronization functionality; once it’s installed, you specify which files to sync and the service saves a copy of those files on the cloud. As you access and modify these files, the service then “syncs” the most recent copy to the various devices you use to access them. Depending on the service you choose, you may be able to track the history of a document.

With a cloud syncing service, you don’t have to worry about leaving an important file behind. As long as you have access to the Internet, you can retrieve your files (but even some syncing services store specified files locally, too). Frequent travelers can access important files from any Internet-connected device (something especially useful for business travelers). You can also use a file synchronization service to upload and access photos across multiple platforms.

With the advancements in file-syncing services, I can save a file on the cloud and then access and edit it on multiple devices.

There is one caveat to being able to access and modify files across multiple devices. Let’s say you created a file in Microsoft Word and synced the file with a cloud service. In order to open that file in its original format, you need to have Word installed on the other devices from which you wish to access it. Alternatively, you can have a program or app that allows you to open and modify Word documents, although the level of formatting that is preserved may vary. The same goes for spreadsheet files, PDF files, etc. Otherwise, the best you may hope for is the ability to view the document but not actually edit it.

Cloud Storage Versus Synchronization

It is worth mentioning that there is a distinct difference between services only offering cloud storage and those that offer the added capability of file syncing. While all services offering file syncing offer cloud storage, not all cloud storage services offer file synchronization.

You can think of a cloud storage service as an Internet-based hard drive where you can store electronic data, such as music or photos. There are more archive solutions than file-syncing services, which allow you to access “current” files, modify them and be able to access the newly updated files across multiple systems or platforms.

This article focuses on cloud services that offer file synchronization.

Choosing the “Best” Service

As I tried out several file-syncing services for this article, it became apparent that there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. As we find in the comparison articles we publish in Computerized Investing for various categories of investment software and websites, the overriding factor is what you are trying to do. This will dictate the best service that is right for you, which may be different for someone else.

For this article, however, I viewed the services from a standpoint of someone looking to store files—word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, etc.—sync them across multiple computers and devices and share them with friends, family or co-workers. Having been a long-time user of one such service, Dropbox, I was on the lookout for features that might lure me away.

In order to choose a file-syncing service, here are some factors to consider.

Capacity

Most services offer some level of free storage along with a tiered subscription structure based on how much additional space you need. Advanced features can include version tracking.

Of the services compared here, Dropbox starts you off with the smallest amount of free storage—2G (gigabytes). However, it does tack on additional storage for each referral you make to the service.

Five gigabytes of free space appears to be the norm, based on the services I looked at for this article; although, Microsoft’s SkyDrive starts you out with 7G for free. For many users, this may be more than enough. However, if you do need more space, it is important to look at the pricing options available to you.

Compatibility

Probably the biggest factor when selecting a cloud storage and file-syncing service is the “ecosystem” you rely on. If you are like me, you are using multiple platforms—Windows, iOS, Android, etc. It is important, therefore, to pay attention to each service’s availability on different platforms.

Dropbox is versatile and can be used across Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android and Blackberry. If you are a heavy user of Google Documents or Microsoft Office tools, then Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive, respectively, may be the best options for you.

Thus, you need to consider the devices on which you’ll want to use a file-syncing service, and make sure it is available across all those devices.

Content Management

One way services are trying to differentiate themselves from the competition is with content-management tools. Instead of merely storing and syncing your files, services such as Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive offer tools that allow you to create and edit text documents, spreadsheets and presentations using cloud-based applications. This means you don’t need to have specific software installed on your computer or device.

Cloud-based apps are particularly attractive options if you don’t want to spend the money on productivity suites such as Microsoft Office.

Local Storage & Offline Access

One thing you may not realize with cloud storage services such as these is that, while they back up your files to the cloud, the files may also reside on your local computer. This is both an advantage and, potentially, a hindrance. The advantage of having the files saved on your local PC as well as in the cloud is that you can still work with a file even if you don’t have an Internet connection. This is a good thing when flying at 30,000 feet in an airplane (assuming your airline doesn’t offer in-air Wi-Fi). You can create a file and save it to your synced folder or edit a synced file and syncing will take place the next time you are connected to the Internet. Amazon Cloud Drive, Dropbox and Google Drive give you offline access to your files.

The “downside” of this is that you are still using hard disk space. Depending on the systems you are syncing files across, this may be an issue. My primary desktop system has 700G hard disk, so my 100G Dropbox Pro account isn’t overly burdensome. However, on my HP Folio 13 Ultrabook, I have only about 40G of free hard disk space.

If you are in a similar situation, it is a good idea to pick a service that allows you to choose which files or folders you want to sync.

Privacy & Security

Two areas of concern among our readers in regard to cloud computing are privacy and security. It only makes sense, since you are relinquishing some level of control by storing your data on a third-party server.

Right now, the biggest concern for cloud storage providers is illegal content, such as child pornography. Be sure to read the terms of service to see what is allowed and what isn’t. In their efforts to keep illegal data out of the cloud, some popular storage providers scan the data they are storing. While they are required by law to respond to known or suspected instances of child pornography, not all take proactive measures.

Per their terms of service, most providers reserve the right to actively search data. Ultimately, it comes down to an interpretation of who owns the data. Those services that actively scan the data they store believe they own the data on their servers. Be aware, however, that the issue doesn’t end with child pornography. In the future, services may start searching for pirated media files.

It also pays to be aware of how the various cloud providers are safeguarding your data. Security takes on various forms when talking about storing data on third-party servers. First, does the service provide backups of the data they are storing? One of the primary reasons for using a cloud storage service is to protect your data and files in the event of a computer crash on your end. But what happens if the crash happens on the other end? Is your data protected? Chances are, there is no guarantee that your data is safe. There are companies that provide secure backup services, but that would be the topic of another comparison article.

It’s also helpful to be protected against ourselves, as we are often our own worst enemy. There are times we may be working with a file and make changes that, in retrospect, were not needed or desired. The ability to revert back to previous versions of a file is a handy option to have.

One final element to consider is how well your data and files are protected. This includes both protection of data as it is being relayed between your device(s) and the cloud as well as protection of data as it is being housed on the servers. At a minimum, data should be protected while in transit with SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protocols as well as encryption. Getting back to the issue of privacy, if a company’s terms of service state it has the right to scan your data and report illegal activity to authorities, that usually means they have a master encryption key that allows them to analyze your files for embedded data.

The bottom line is to be sure to read the terms of service before signing up with any cloud-based storage service. Furthermore, don’t expect to use a cloud storage service for illegal activities without getting caught.

Major Players

Do a Google search for “cloud storage” and dozens of services will appear. Instead of merely providing a comprehensive list of providers, I’ve chosen to take a closer look at the major players in the arena: Amazon Cloud Drive, Apple iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive and SugarSync. The comparison grid lists the main features of each.

Amazon Cloud Drive

Amazon Cloud Drive was initially started as a counter to Apple’s iTunes for Amazon users to store and stream MP3s purchased from the online retailer’s music store. Over time, Cloud Drive has evolved to a true file storage service. Last year, Amazon separated Cloud Drive from Cloud Player, which allows users to access music and video stored on their Cloud Drive (we will be focusing on Cloud Drive for this article). In May of last year, Amazon took another step forward by releasing a desktop app for Windows and Mac that allows users to drag and drop files within a client folder instead of uploading files via the Web. At that point, however, Cloud Drive didn’t offer file syncing. That feature didn’t come about until April of this year with the introduction of “File Sync” for the Cloud Drive desktop app.

Cloud Drive’s terms of service do state that Amazon has the right to access your files, and they do not guarantee the safety of your data, something I find a bit troubling. Setting up Amazon Cloud Drive was pretty straightforward, although it took the longest of the services compared here because the executable you need to download from the Amazon website is 62M (megabytes) and takes a few minutes to download, even over a fiber connection. If you already have an Amazon account, you are good to go. If not, Amazon accounts are free. With a free Cloud Drive account you get 5G of storage. The Cloud Drive desktop app is compatible with Windows XP or later (including Windows 8) and Mac OS 10.6 or later. After installing Cloud Drive on my Windows 7 desktop and Microsoft Surface Pro Window 8 tablet, a Cloud Drive shortcut was automatically added to my Favorites, and Cloud Drive was added to the system tray.

The Cloud Drive folder has three default folders: Documents, Pictures and Videos. This is the same view when accessing Cloud Drive via a browser. You can add new folders, rename them or delete them. You can drag files into the Cloud Drive folder to sync them as well as save them to that location. You can also upload files from a Web browser. I could not find an option to pick and choose which files or folders to sync on my local PC. This may be an issue for those looking to limit the size of their synced files on certain computers. Also, when viewing the drive via a browser, there is a search box in the upper-right corner to easily locate files stored on Cloud Drive. Lastly, you can share or stop sharing individual files via a Web browser. You click the check box next to a file or multiple files and then select More Actions and then Share. This will generate a Web link that others can use to access the file(s).

Amazon Cloud doesn’t have a dedicated app for iOS or Android. But I was able to access files on my Cloud Drive via my Safari browser on my iPhone. There is a Cloud Drive Photos app for Android that allows you to access and upload pictures from your Android phone or tablet via your Cloud Drive.

At the bottom-left of your Cloud Drive Web page, you are given how much storage is in use. You can also see this by hovering your mouse over the Cloud Drive system tray.

Unlike Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive, Amazon Cloud Drive lacks any content management tools or apps, so you will need to have programs already installed on your desktop or apps on your mobile device to read and edit content such as text documents.

With Amazon Cloud Drive you get 5G of free storage, which appears to be the norm among many providers. You can buy extra storage, with 20G of storage costing $10 a year. You can purchase a maximum of 1,000G (one terabyte or T) for $500 a year.

If you purchase a lot of music from Amazon, Cloud Drive may be the service for you, as purchases can automatically be uploaded to your Cloud Drive. You can then stream them over your computer or devices via Amazon Cloud Player. Also, the first 250 songs you import from Amazon do not count against your storage limit, and there are Cloud Player apps that allow you to stream your music over mobile devices. While Amazon Cloud Drive has come a long way since it was first launched, especially with the added functionality of file syncing, I didn’t find anything that really made Amazon Cloud Drive stand out from the others I looked at.

Apple iCloud

Apple’s iCloud service is really for those who live exclusively in the Mac/iOS ecosphere. It is built into every new iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, etc.) and every new Mac, which means there is no software to install on your Mac.

File syncing is done at the program or app level, without any dedicated folder like the other services highlighted in this article. Instead of remembering which folder you saved a file to, all you have to do is remember which app you used to create it. If you have the same iCloud-enabled apps on more than one device, iCloud automatically keeps the documents you create, and data used by your apps, up to date across all your devices. iCloud is built into such Mac programs as Keynote (presentations), Pages (word processing) and Numbers (spreadsheets).

The problem with this approach, however, is that it is more difficult to access files across different apps. Once you create a file in a given app, plan on editing it in that same app across different devices. This approach also means there is no direct method of sharing files or collaborating with others. I find all of this rather un-Apple.

To get iCloud, you need an Apple ID. If you own a Mac or an iOS device, you should already have one. If not, drop everything and sign up for one now! iCloud gives you 5G of free storage, and you can purchase additional storage if you need it. Fifteen gigabytes costs $20 year; 25G is $40 a year; and 55G costs $100 a year.

It is worth pointing out that Apple’s terms of service state that it can, at any time, review the data synced with iCloud, and under certain circumstances might share that information with legal authorities.

As an iPhone user, I do like Photo Stream with iCloud. After enabling Photo Stream on my iPhone, any pictures I take with my iPhone automatically appear on all my other iCloud-accessible devices, including Macs and Windows PCs. I also periodically backup the entire contents of my iPhone and iPad to my iCloud account in case I lose or damage the devices. When I had to replace my iPad due to a faulty SIM card, I was able to restore the entire contents of it onto my new iPad using iCloud.

For Windows users, Apple does offer an iCloud Control Panel program that is compatible with Windows Vista SP2, Windows 7 and Windows 8. However, “all” this does is sync your mail, contacts, tasks and calendars with Outlook as well as sync your PC with Apple’s Photo Stream. In terms of word processing, presentation or spreadsheet files, there is no syncing between Windows and iCloud.

Since I do the bulk of my file creating and editing on Windows, iCloud has zero appeal from a file- syncing standpoint. It is, however, great to be able to back up my iPhone and iPad to iCloud, making restoration a snap. For Apple users, however, it is a different story, as iCloud is integrated into all new iOS and Mac devices as well as major Apple apps for creating text documents, presentations and spreadsheets. If you are someone who works exclusively on Mac/iOS, iCloud is ready and waiting for you to use.

Dropbox

I have been using Dropbox for several years now and haven’t switched because it works. While at the time I started using it, Dropbox was probably the undisputed leader in cloud-based file syncing, it has fallen behind some of its competitors in terms of the amount of free storage offered, pricing and content management.

Dropbox offers the widest operating system integration; it’s compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems as well as iOS, Android and Blackberry mobile platforms. Much like Amazon Cloud Drive, you download an installation file to put the Dropbox client on your computer. The installation then places a Dropbox folder in your Favorites and a Dropbox icon in the Windows system tray. From there, you simply drag files into a Dropbox folder or save files to a Dropbox folder. You can also access your Dropbox folders from a Web browser.

Dropbox has some of the best iOS and Android apps for accessing your stored data. Using various document readers, media players and text editors, I was able to access most of the files I saved in my Dropbox from my iPhone, iPad and Google Nexus tablet. For those looking to access files across multiple platforms, including mobile devices, Dropbox gives you some powerful options.

With Dropbox Basic you get a relatively paltry 2G of free space. However, Dropbox offers a number of ways to increase your amount of free storage. You get 1G of additional space for each person you refer to Dropbox, up to 32G. You also get 125M each for connecting your Dropbox account to your Facebook and Twitter accounts and another 125M for following Dropbox on Twitter.

Compared to Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive, Dropbox doesn’t have any content management tools. However, the company has been hinting that the situation may change in the future. At a press conference earlier this year, a Dropbox spokesperson said that the company plans to push away from being a personal-storage product to becoming a service that brings content to wherever people need it.

Paid Dropbox Pro subscriptions also carry significant price premiums over other services: 100G for $9.99 a month or $99 a year; 200G for $19.99 a month or $199 a year; and 500G for $49.99 a month or $499.99 a year.

With the “Pack rat” service, which costs $39 a year, Dropbox offers unlimited undo history and undelete. This is an excellent feature, as it safeguards files you delete and saves old versions of a file in case you need them later. Even without the Pack rat add-on, Dropbox keeps snapshots of every change in your Dropbox folder over the last 30 days.

You have two different means of sharing files and folders within Dropbox. You can either share a link to files and folders or you can create a shared folder. By sharing a link to files or folders in your Dropbox, you can share your files with anyone, even if they don’t have Dropbox. Anyone who uses the link can preview the files and folders through their browser. Alternatively, you can share a folder in your Dropbox with others so that you can collaborate with them on the same files and folders. We use this feature extensively in the office when several of us are contributing to the same publication or project. However, this doesn’t offer the true collaboration that you get with Google Drive. If more than one person is working on a document within a shared folder, the changes are not integrated into a single document. Instead, Dropbox creates “conflicted” copies of the file with the date in the file’s name. While this ensures that changes aren’t lost, it does then require some work to merge the changes into a single document.

One unique option Dropbox offers is the ability to limit the amount of bandwidth the service uses for uploading and downloading files from the desktop client. Furthermore, Dropbox only transfers those parts of a file that change during revisions. So instead of transferring an entire file that may be hundreds of megabytes in size, Dropbox only transfers the changes, which may be significantly smaller.

Looking though Dropbox’s terms of service, I didn’t find anything too shocking. Dropbox will look through your data for illegal activity if presented with the proper legal documents from authorities. If you upload pirated files, Dropbox reserves the right to delete them. Furthermore, Dropbox doesn’t guarantee the safety of your data on their servers.

As I said during the introduction, I went into this looking to see if I could find a service that could unseat Dropbox as my go-to cloud storage and file-syncing service. For what I do, Dropbox is perfect. It is easy to use and reliable. However, the relatively small amount of free storage space and price points for additional storage are turnoffs. Whether or not Dropbox remains my preferred cloud storage and file-syncing service remains to be seen.

Google Drive

Google Drive is a rebranding of the former Google Docs service, with added features such as file synchronization. It is one of the few file-syncing services to offer a free online office suite that seamlessly incorporates cloud-based file syncing (Microsoft’s SkyDrive is the other). Google Docs first started out as an alternative to Microsoft Office and has grown into an impressive one-stop shop for creating, editing, saving, syncing and collaborating on documents.

With Google Drive you can create new word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations via a Web browser. Google Drive works with a number of apps that you can install from the Chrome Web Store. With these apps, you can edit images and videos, fax and sign documents, manage projects, create flow charts and more.

A free Google Drive account only requires a Gmail account, and it gives you 5G of free storage. You can buy additional storage; prices are some of the more reasonable among the services highlighted here. Subscriptions start at $2.49 a month for 25G and go up to $799.99 a month for 16T.

You can access your Google Drive via the Web or you can install a client on your Windows (XP, Vista, 7 and 8) or Mac (Mac OS 10.6, 10.7 and 10.8) computer. This places a Google Drive folder on your computer and a Google Drive icon in your system tray. There are also Google Drive apps for Android and iOS. Like most of the other services in this article, once you install Google Drive you have a dedicated folder that you save or copy files to in order to keep them synced across multiple devices. You can also choose to sync only select folders on your Google Drive.

When uploading files to Google Drive via the Web interface, you have the option of converting them to Google’s file formats to edit them online. Perhaps even more useful, however, is the ability to export files you create or edit via Google Drive to more standard formats such as .doc, .rtf, .pdf and .csv. The Google Drive Viewer allows you to view over 30 file types in your browser, which, according to Google, includes HD video, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop files—even if you don’t have the source programs installed on your PC. Outside of Microsoft SkyDrive, Google Drive is a good means of editing Microsoft Office documents without needing Office installed on your system, although you may lose some formatting in the process. If you convert files to the Google Docs format, they do not count against your storage limit.

For those looking for true collaboration, Google Drive fits the bill. In other words, no matter who’s editing the showed document, everyone always sees the most up-to-date changes. When more than one person is working on a document, all changes are made in real time. In fact, this may well be the most useful, and unique, feature of Google Docs. If you wish to share a file or folder, all you need to do is send a link from Google Drive in Gmail and the recipient will have the latest version(s) of the file(s). You can limit permissions to view or comment only or allow others to edit.

Google Drive tracks changes you make as well, tracking versions as far back as 30 days. You can also choose to save a previous version so you always have it.

A relatively new feature added to Google Drive is offline access, meaning you can still access and edit a Google Docs file even if you don’t have an Internet connection. One catch is that you have to be using the Chrome browser or a Chrome OS device. Once you have set up offline access, you can view Google documents, spreadsheets, presentations and drawings without an Internet connection. Offline editing is limited to Google Docs documents, presentations and drawings (not spreadsheets). You can also view other files in your Google Drive, such as PDFs, Microsoft Office files and images. Any changes you make to synced files while offline will automatically sync when you reconnect to the Internet.

In reading about privacy concerns with cloud-based storage systems, it seems that Google gets most of the bad press. Google has an all-in-one privacy policy that applies to all of its services—Gmail, Google+, Google Docs, Google Drive, etc. Some people are worried about the policy’s seemingly wide reach, which they interpret as giving Google the right to do pretty much whatever it wants with uploaded data. Google has issued clarifying statements that “what belongs to you stays yours.” When you get down to brass tacks, however, Google’s privacy policies are really no different than those of Dropbox, iCloud or SkyDrive. As a writer for PCMag.com put it, if you are comfortable using Gmail, you shouldn’t have a problem using Google Drive.

Google Drive is an intriguing offering because it is actually part collaborative office suite and part cloud-storage file-syncing service. It offers a good amount of free storage space and its subscription prices are more than reasonable compared to the competition. Since I already have either Microsoft Office or Open Office installed on all of my desktop and notebook computers, Google Docs isn’t something I use very often. Besides, Microsoft SkyDrive offers free Office apps that allow you to edit Office documents via the Web (we will discuss this a little later). As a file-syncing service, though, it does a good job. Uploading files is easy and the Google Drive Viewer is a means of previewing a wide array of files without needing a lot of different programs installed. It is also a nice touch to be able to export Google Docs formats into more widely-used document formats. I found the iOS and Android apps to be intuitive as well, although with these apps you can only create new documents and spreadsheets, not presentations or drawings.

Bottom line, Google Drive is a good service, especially for someone who is new to cloud storage and uses the Chrome OS or prefers the Chrome browser. While it doesn’t offer enough to pull me away from Dropbox, it more than holds its own.

Microsoft SkyDrive

Often accused of being late to the party, Microsoft was actually one of the first cloud storage providers when it launched Windows Live Folders in August of 2007. Over the years, the service has evolved into SkyDrive. Like Google Drive, SkyDrive offers cloud storage and file syncing as well as a suite of online tools to create and edit a variety of files via free Office Web apps.

You can access SkyDrive via the Web as well as on your computer by installing the SkyDrive desktop app. The desktop app supports file syncing and is compatible with Windows Vista SP2, 7 and 8 as well as Mac OS 10.7 and 10.8 (but not 10.6). There are also apps for Windows Phone, Android and iOS for accessing your files on a mobile device.

SkyDrive gives 7G of free storage space, a step up from the 5G most other services offer. Subscription costs for additional storage are the lowest among the services highlighted in this article: 27G for $10 a year; 57G for $25 a year; and 107G for $50 a year. In order to get a free SkyDrive account you must first have a Microsoft account, formerly Microsoft Live. The account is free.

Installing the SkyDrive desktop app puts a SkyDrive folder on your computer as well as a SkyDrive icon in the system tray. From this item in the system tray you can choose which folders to sync.

SkyDrive.com is the Web interface for SkyDrive and is where you can create and edit Microsoft Office documents. Having used Office for nearly 20 years, I prefer these free Web apps over what you get from Google Docs. I also found these Web apps to be more robust. Currently SkyDrive offers apps for Word documents, Excel workbooks, PowerPoint presentations, OneNote notebooks and Excel surveys. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that these Web apps functioned on my Safari browser on my iPad and the Firefox for Android browser on my Google Nexus tablet. For editing Word documents on an Android smartphone or iPhone, there is the OneNote app. I was also surprised to find that the SkyDrive Web interface was streamlined and intuitive, two things Microsoft products are often not accused of being.

One unique feature the SkyDrive desktop app for Windows offers is Fetch files, which you can use to access all your files on a computer, even those not in a SkyDrive folder, from SkyDrive.com. You can even access network locations if they’re included in the PC’s libraries or mapped as drives. When you browse a PC’s files remotely, you can download copies of files to work on. You can also stream video and view photos in a slide show. To access files on your PC remotely, make sure the PC you want to access is turned on and connected to the Internet. SkyDrive also needs to be running on that PC, and the Fetch files setting must be selected. This feature is not available on Macs.

You can share files and folders with SkyDrive via links. In February, Microsoft made a change whereby you no longer have to have a Microsoft account before accessing a file via a share link that is sent to you. However, you can still choose to require people to sign in to access a shared file. When you are sharing a document using Office Web Apps, you can see who is currently working in the document. When you make changes to a shared document that others are currently editing, the other users receive an alert that changes have been made. Instead of automatically updating collaborative files like Google Drive does, the users must save the file they are currently working on to receive the latest changes.

SkyDrive automatically keeps track of the previous 25 versions of all documents. It also allows you to restore or download an older version through the file’s version history.

SkyDrive has also been integrated into Windows 8, the latest version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system. When you log into a Windows Phone or Windows 8 PC, SkyDrive can sync settings and apps on those devices. This means that when you log in, SkyDrive will reproduce a previous machine you’ve set up: color and background themes, user photo, browser favorites and history and more. Also on Windows 8, there are a number of apps that have SkyDrive integrated into them.

Microsoft is a little cagey when it comes to how it handles your privacy and is always quick to state that it doesn’t comment on internal practices. However, it is no secret that Microsoft Research’s PhotoDNA Project is automated software that helps law enforcement and Internet service providers track down child pornographers. Undoubtedly that software is scanning SkyDrive accounts looking for illegal material. Beyond that, the company says it has “strict internal policies in place to limit access to a user’s data…”

About the only disappointing thing about SkyDrive is that you can’t access your files without an Internet connection. Since Dropbox and Google Drive offer offline access, I hope SkyDrive adds this feature in the future.

I was thoroughly impressed with Microsoft SkyDrive. If you deal with a lot of Microsoft Office documents, this is the cloud storage service for you. Office Web Apps allows you to create Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, even on tablets. I found this to be much more robust than Google Docs. The Fetch option is a unique feature that allows you to access files on other systems, even if they aren’t in a SkyDrive folder. Lastly, the 7G of free cloud storage and inexpensive subscription costs create a little separation between SkyDrive and the rest of the pack. If I were new to cloud storage, this would be the one I would choose.

SugarSync

The last service we looked at for this article is SugarSync. The biggest difference between SugarSync and the other services highlighted here is that you can use it to sync any folder or file on your computer. What this means is that you can access the contents of any system you have synced with SugarSync. If you don’t wish to sync all your files and folders, however, the desktop client still installs a My SugarSync folder that automatically syncs all files and folders that you put in it.

SugarSync offers 5G of free storage, but it is buried underneath offers for fee-based storage with a 30 -day free trial that requires your credit card. Furthermore, if you don’t use your free SugarSync account for 90 days or more, it may be deleted. To sign up for a free account that doesn’t require a credit card, go to www.sugarsync.com/free. Like Dropbox, SugarSync allows you to boost your free space amount by referring your friends. For each free account a friend opens, both of you receive an additional 500M of free storage, with maximum bonus space of 32G. However, when a friend opens a premium account, you both get an additional 10G of space, and there is no limit on how much extra space you can acquire with these types of referrals. Subscriptions are a little pricey compared to some other services: 60G for $7.49 a month; 100G for $9.99 a month; and 250G for $24.99 a month. All first-time subscribers have 30 days to cancel without being charged, but it still requires you to provide your credit card information.

In order to sync your files on a Windows PC or Mac, you need to install the SugarSync Desktop App. While you have the ability to sync any and all folders, the desktop app still also installs a SugarSync folder that syncs the files you place in it. However, one thing I don’t necessarily like when installing the SugarSync desktop app on my Windows system is that it automatically assigned a drive letter to the SugarSync Drive. Luckily, you can turn this off within the Desktop App preferences. The installation also puts a SugarSync icon in the system tray.

When you open the desktop app, you can see all of the folders synced to your account or just the folders from the individual computers you’ve installed SugarSync on. Syncing additional folders besides the My SugarSync folder is extremely easy: simply drag the folders into the gray box at the bottom of the desktop app or select folders from the folder tree.

SugarSync offers multiple means of sharing and collaborating. You can share public links for any file or folder and share it on Facebook, Twitter, email, etc. Recipients can click on the link to download the file or folder without having to register or sign in. You can also create Shared Folders for collaborating with others. You can send an email invitation to join your shared folder. Folder members can then sync a shared folder directly to their own computers to edit files locally. Updates are then reflected for everyone whenever the edited file is saved. You can also share a folder as “read-only” so recipients can view the files but not make changes to them.

The SugarSync apps for iOS, Android and Blackberry allow you to sync folders or files to your smartphone or tablet for offline access. You can make changes on your mobile device and then sync the changes back to the cloud and your other devices the next time you are connected to the Internet. When opening a synced file on both my iPad and Google Nexus, SugarSync listed the apps I had installed that could open the selected file.

SugarSync allows you to view and restore previous versions of your files. SugarSync keeps the previous five versions of all your documents.

SugarSync is more along the lines of Dropbox and Amazon Cloud Drive in that it doesn’t offer any content management tools. It is strictly for cloud storage and file synchronization. You will need to have the programs and apps installed on any device you use to open and edit the files you sync.

The SugarSync privacy statement is pretty clear-cut. SugarSync doesn’t allow access to your data by third parties unless required by law or if you give permission to another service to access your files. SugarSync also states that it will not share your personal information with third parties without your consent.

After using SugarSync, I was surprised it hadn’t come across my radar sooner. For someone not needing a suite of online tools to create and edit documents, SugarSync would be my choice over Dropbox. Both services are easy to use and reliable, but SugarSync edges out Dropbox with more free space and more reasonable prices for additional storage. It’s also hard not to like the ability to sync all files and folders on a computer, not just those in the client folder.

Conclusion

There isn’t one cloud-based file synchronization service that is truly “the best” for everyone in all situations. Each service has its advantages and disadvantages. As we said earlier, the ecosystem in which you operate will go a long way toward determining which service is the right fit for you.

If this article shows you nothing else, it’s that there is an easy and inexpensive means of backing up important files to the cloud and sync them across multiple devices quickly.


Discussion

Alan from NJ posted about 1 year ago:

This is an excellent overview of an issue almost all of us will need to understand. It's difficult to imagine seeing an article that's better researched or more clearly written. Thanks, Mr. Thorp and AAII.


Wayne Thorp from IL posted about 1 year ago:

@Alan:

Thank you for those very generous comments. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

Wayne A. Thorp, CFA
Editor, Computerized Investing


Brooks Nolan from TX posted about 1 year ago:

Dear Wayne! Congratulations on a most remarkable article. It is very comprehensive in operational or utilization scope, at a really ideal level of technical depth for quick understanding, seemingly unbiased and very, very easy to comprehend. This is a true AAII service. There are many, many published papers on this subject, and I personally think yours is one of the absolute best. Many thanks – Homerun!
Brooks Nolan


Thomas from IN posted about 1 year ago:

Good article, Wayne. Very well laid out, and you covered all the major players.
Hope to see more articles online for the upcoming wave of tech savvy among us.


Anthony from AZ posted about 1 year ago:

I use Google Drive, MS Skydrive, Box.com and Sugar Sync. From the perspective of automatic sync over three PCs I use in three different States (yes I travel a lot) Sugar Sync is a real blessing. I do not know how I would do without it


Charles Mattson from NY posted about 1 year ago:

This was a very clear, well written and well researched article. It is one of the best that I have ever read on AAII. I was also glad that I did not have to log on to my AAII account to be able to read the whole article. Thank you, Wayne. Keep up the good work.


Matt from CA posted about 1 year ago:

I use both Google Drive and Dropbox continuously (and MS Skydrive and Box.com occasionally). I like Google Drive for the reliability and the low price for large storage quantities (I use 100GB), but on my aging laptop, the Google Drive Sync client will quite often exceed 30% of available CPU power. Strangely, even when pausing the Google drive Sync client, the system load it imposes will often remain very high for several minutes.

The Dropbox client, by comparison, seems to impose only negligible resource requirements.


Jonathan Brown from CA posted 11 months ago:

Thank you, this is a first rate summary of options. I tend to use iCloud as a first order but have also used Dropbox and Skydrive and Box. I have also used Cubby - which allows 5 gigs and like many others as you sign up friends you get an extra gig of storage.

A couple of other comments. I like iCloud in part because of the iWork software (which competes with Google's Drive and Skydrive). I have spreadsheets, keynotes and pages documents all at the ready on all my devices. That is possible on the other services but since I am an Apple user I am more comfortable with the ecosystem. Among the three Skydrive is the least useful from my perspective (but then I have grown tired of the Office interface). The Google drive option is a bit clumsy. But I understand that the native web based apps on iCloud are also a bit less friendly than the native Mac options. For a Mac user each of the other services allows you to send a doc out and have the Mac read it. For iCloud you have a number of options to move docs to non-mac users. Since a good deal of what I produce in documents and spreadsheets is proprietary - I generally output to locked PDF. In the end I think this is a matter of personal preference.

I have used all of the above on my tablet(s) and found each works fine.

One final comment - I have begun to default to iCloud but I think one good suggestion is to primarily concentrate on one service - it is just simpler to not have to remember where all your docs are. I expect that as time goes on some of the services will sort out and also that storage capacity fees will begin to drop a bit.


Peter Asprey from CA posted 11 months ago:

Wayne: As usual for your writings, this is a timely and excellent article. I read it with delight. I use SkyDrive, Google Docs, er whatever they call it, and DropBox.

It is worth mentioning that with Office 360, the "rental version " of Office ($99/year) you get 20G extra of SkyDrive space. For me, a heavy Excel, Word and OneNote user, SkyDrive is a no brainer.

I believe that "...only disappointing thing about SkyDrive is that you can’t access your files without an Internet connection..." is erroneous. The SkyDrive folder on my Windows 8 PC is accessible whether or not I have Internet access. It works similarly to DropBox's mechanism. I came to a different conclusion on which is best. I now use DropBox only for a special sharing of music with another player, but moved everything else to SkyDrive, which I find to be cheaper, more complete, intuitive, and aligned with my focus on MS Office. Perhaps most important is that I can "point" to an excel file on SkyDrive from my blog post and users see it as a live spreadsheet that they can manipulate in their browser. Not to get to rosy, it does NOT support Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) or I'd move all my non-sensitive apps there!

I'm not a Mac user. It fascinates me that the Apple's iCloud offering ties the output of an APPLICATION to whether files are in the cloud or no(if I understood). This could NEVER work for me! Some of my Excel files are for sharing; some never! Folder based seems more logical! The SugarSync approach of designating any folder/or file for synching is obviously the most flexible. SkyDrive's "Fetch" folders are a good idea and useful, but would be better implemented, IMHO, the Sugar has done it--at least as an option. Fetch DOES allow access to a HUGE amount of local data remotely.

RE: "As a writer for PCMag.com put it, if you are comfortable using Gmail, you shouldn’t have a problem using Google Drive."
This is a weird statement! It implies that what you email is, security wise, equivalent to what you keep in your most "secret" spreadsheets! I would NEVER grant access to all my financial information that I might WANT to share across devices with Google (or any other service who feels that it has the right to rifle through my files.) This shows that Cloud Storage is just not there yet. NO ONE has the right to my files except me, whether stored on my machine, in transit, or stored in the Cloud.

Thanks again for a great read.

Pete Asprey
9/14/2013


Larry Culpepper from MA posted 11 months ago:

Be aware that the usual current version of Dropbox is not perfect for syncing iPhoto libraries. Apple requires that photo libraries be stored on Mac OSExtended formatted disks. Otherwise the photo library can become corrupted. Also, in the past if the photo library was being accessed on two Macs concurrently this created problems for the cloud syncing. They are developing an advanced version (2.3.29 currently) that does support iPhoto syncing. Visit the dropbox user forums for more info.

Also,Dropbox cautions that the disk on which Dropbox resides must boot right at startup - eg not a USB drive that may have a delay. Otherwise, Dropbox may initialize and get confused and delete files from the server since it does not seem them on the local computer. All is not lost, since they can be recovered from the Dropbox archive.


Mary Kennedy from MI posted 11 months ago:

I am a SugarSync junkie. One thing I like about it is that I can add a new folder from computer A while I am out of town using computer B. So if I figure out too late that I need something else from A, there is a good chance I can still retrieve it.


Abe Almonte from Florida posted 10 months ago:

Thank you so much. This article helped me (and friends and family) understand more about this kind of service. Thanks again for the great information.

Abe Almonte
Florida


lb from fl posted 9 months ago:

Which one has the best security? Which one has the best privacy policy?


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