A few days ago, a good friend (@jamesbasile820) and I were discussing the best way to share files among students and faculty members that doesn’t involve expensive, maintenance-intensive on site servers. I’ve had quite a bit of experience with a variety of storage solutions given the nature of my job, so I decided it was time to put the most popular free cloud storage to the test. Keep in mind that FREE is the key word here: this is a review of cloud storage and file sharing for individuals and small groups, not paid storage or redundancy solutions for entire districts.
I work at an iPad 1:1 school, so my allegiance to all things iOS effects my rankings. Every site/app has been tested on a MacBook, iPad with Retina Display, and iPhone. A few were even tested on an HTC Evo 4G (yes, it’s old) and an iPad Mini (which I fell deeply in love with…but that’s another post). I’m also fortunate enough to teach at St. Francis College in a one-to-one iMac classroom, so I’ve been able to make use of these services in more than one environment.
I’m going to count down from five, with a few honorable mentions thrown into the mix. I think all of these sites and apps provide an incredible free service, so you won’t find a negative review in the bunch. Each service will be rated on six categories: interface, usability, sharing, features, and drawbacks (which is rated from zero to negative five). The highest possible score is 25.
Many of these services offer free space for achieving certain levels of usage, sending referrals, etc. This discussion centers around the amount of storage you can expect to start out with, not the amount of space you get if you shill to thirty friends every couple of days. I hate doing that stuff and I assume I’m not alone.
As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Please share your choices in the comments or via Twitter (@fogarty22).
If you’re not up for 5000+ words on cloud storage, here’s a chart:
5. (tie) Mega – Say what you will about Kim Dotcom, he’s providing users with FIFTY GIGS of free storage, which is completely ridiculous. The only reason MegaUpload’s successor isn’t higher in the rankings is because it presently lacks apps for any platform. It’s also kind of irritating to constantly be lectured about using Chrome. I use Safari. Stop yelling at me.
Oh, and see the picture below? Get used to it.
Interface: 3. The website is easy to use, but it hasn’t been very stable since the day of the absolutely bananas launch party (here you go!). There aren’t any apps to speak of, so there’s only one way to do things: through a bland browser interface. Mega supports bulk uploading, but only via Chrome (Mega REALLY wants you to use Chrome). I understand and appreciate the fact that Chrome supports HTML5 better than many of its brethren, but are people going to switch browsers just for your service? Speaking as someone who averages a browser swap every three years, I say the answer is no. And if you’re asking me to run two browsers simultaneously, I’m asking you to figure out a better way for me to use your site.
Usability: 2. The site works fine on a desktop or laptop, but you’re limited to uploading pictures via the iPad (and you’ll have to download Chrome). The lack of app support means Mega won’t be accessing any APIs in the near future, so you won’t be opening or editing files in other apps. In other words, if you lose your password, you lose your files (I’ve been told that this changed very recently, but the site is down so I can’t confirm). Heavyweight encryption is great, but most of us aren’t storing the Pentagon Papers in our cloud folders. Your pictures of cats will probably be fine no matter which service you utilize. On the other hand, if you’re Julian Assange, I think I’ve found the cloud storage solution you’ve been dreaming about.
Sharing: 3. Again, Mega offers a basic suite of options, and there’s really nothing notable about how they allow you to send links to others. You’re files get sandboxed in their site (as is the case with most of these apps and services); you won’t be able to send direct links. Instead, the recipient of your link will have to open the file you are sharing by clicking a link that will launch Mega’s web file interface. A common requirement (and one shared by every service on the list), but one I absolutely loathe, as it makes a lot of simple stuff much more difficult.
Features: 1. I would call 50GB of free storage pretty special (and it’s certainly a feature). Unfortunately in most other respects, this is as bare bones as cloud storage gets. Encryption and anonymity are the other major selling points of Mega, but again, I’m not trying to share Die Hard 9 with a gaggle of college frosh pseudo-pirates. I see the value of Mega’s cryptographic key system, which gives the user total control of how his/her students or peers access shared files, so I tacked on a point for that.
Drawbacks: -1. Signing up for a Mega account is sort of like marrying a gangster. Sure, the perks are amazing, and maybe a few of your friends look at what you have with envy…but at the end of the day, do you feel totally safe? Are you prepared to be Karen to Mega’s Henry Hill? More to the point, do you want to be the one who makes your students aware of this type of anonymous file sharing? Using storage provided by Kim Dotcom might make you (or your students’ parents) uncomfortable, given the wanton piracy his previous web venture enabled and encouraged. I’m more offended by the lack of apps than anything else.
Free space: 6. Out of 5. Did I mention the 50 free GB? Mega is offering more storage than all these other sites combined.
Why not use this as a back up for your back ups? Unlike many of the competing services, Mega allows you to upload any size files you like. I’m able to store dozens of student films there without a problem. The visuals are drab and the interface will never be accused of being fun, but it provides a heck of a lot of space for free, and if you become a world class bootlegger (the movies and music kind, not the Arnold Rothstein kind), the encryption is there to shield your daring exploits from prying eyes. NOTE: please don’t become a world class bootlegger.
5. (tie) Google Drive – How do I express this delicately?
Google Drive has a great personality. It’s a fantastic tool for storage and collaboration, and the fact that it comes built to work with Google’s arsenal of productivity tools means you’ll find innumerable ways to use it. Versatility is its biggest strength.
Interface: 0. But is it ever ugly. Dreadfully ugly. Like the designers had been locked in a basement poring over Excel 3.0 spreadsheets since 1991. I’m sure Google pays hundreds of people much more than I will ever make to ensure that their products are aesthetically appealing. I have a suggestion: fire them all. Let them go, herd them onto the brightly colored, whimsically outfitted Google Canoe-gle, and set sail for the Island of Misfit Devs. The visual components of Google services seem inspired by Microsoft’s Office suite’s aesthetic nadir, and their color choices are based quite explicitly on my twenty month old daughter’s toy collection. Google’s design team might exist in a bizarro universe like the pig-faced doctors and nurses in the Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder”.
I feel better getting that off my chest. There is some good news: Google (like most of its competitors) provides you with a Drive folder easily accessible from a Finder window and your menu bar. It’s easy to upload multiple files, but sending a link to an actual file location is impossible (well, possible with a lot of tweaking, but impossible for the average user).
Usability: 3. like all things Google, it’s usable but not enjoyable. While that may seem like a strong indictment, I don’t think most of these choices are a lot of fun. A few, like SkyDrive and Box, aspire to be more than a folder in Finder, and Google Drive might be one of the aspirants. Its present iteration just falls woefully short of that goal.
The iOS app is fine. It’s got a simple navigation bar on the left (My Drive, Shared with me, Starred, Recent), and a list of files in the selected folder dominates the remaining space. Files have to be open to view, as there is no preview feature. The app is also not at all intuitive. You have to click on a file’s link to see it, but once you do so you have to close the viewer in order to share, edit, or move it. It’s not a good system, especially when you compare it to SkyDrive or Box’s apps, both of which allow you to work with a file once you preview it.
Sharing: 4. Google Drive’s permissions management allows for some sophisticated document management (like allowing editors to add additional collaborators). Built-in sharing options are limited to Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, and Google+. The ability to send direct links with a few tweaks tacked another point onto Drive’s score, but check out the instructions I found in a link on the Google Drive forum: http://yaitguy.blogspot.ie/2012/08/direct-link-to-shared-google-drive-file.html.
That encapsulates what I mean by “usable, not enjoyable”.
Special features: 4. Google Drive may not have the appealing visuals or advanced sharing options of some of its competition, but it is relatively simple and comes packed with extras. You can store, edit, duplicate, and share out of Google Drive without any stress. You can repurpose your files into blog posts, your images into webpage backgrounds, and your audio files into podcasts ripped to Feedburner, all with a few clicks.
Drawbacks: 0. There isn’t much wrong with Google Drive that a makeover wouldn’t fix. But there is something wrong with Google as entity that colors my opinion: I’m uncomfortable with how my personal information is used by the “Don’t Be Evil” guys, which means I’m MUCH less comfortable with how they might use my students’ data. If that stuff doesn’t bother you and you’re colorblind, you might fall in love with Google Drive.
Free space: A solid 3 on our scale. You get 5GB.
Here’s how I feel about most of the stuff Google offers: if you have to go with a free service or suite of services, I get it. In that case, it makes perfect sense to rely on the most well-developed, dependable option available, consequences be damned. But if there’s any choice in the matter, I’d rather avoid the word processor apparently built using the guts of a netbook-optimized Word 97 clone, the slideshow creator with twenty preternaturally bland templates, and the program icon reminiscent of New York’s recycling logo.
Honorable Mention: iCloud – iCloud offers no sharing options, a clunky interface, and the ability to save just a handful of file formats. But it’s not really intended for collaboration, so it gets a pass here.
4. CX.com – few people are aware of CX, but the folks behind the service are supporting 10 free gigs of storage with a simple web interface and a nice, compact iPad app. It’s relegated to the 4th spot because it’s damn near impossible to figure out how to sign up for free space via their website, and because the service they are offering is quite similar to what everyone else is offering. CX doesn’t seem to be competing with the single-user services on this list; it would much rather become your enterprise cloud storage solution. Nevertheless, this is a service worth checking out, featuring creditable desktop integration and an efficient iOS app. There is a great deal of untapped potential here.
Interface: 3. The website and app both feature some pretty bland design choices. The app is particularly dull, and once you click your way to My Stuff, you aren’t presented with a lot of options. While it’s nice that CX lets you comment on files, that doesn’t make up for the inability to open files in other apps without viewing the file. I do like that files you favorite can be viewed offline without any work on the user’s part, so I added a point for that. The desktop app offers a wider selection of file options than the app, as it provides a menu bar icon and Finder-accessible folder that allow the user to upload files of any size.
Usability: 3. Once I cracked the code and got my 10GB (Protip: go through the app), I was able to upload and download through the app and site with relative ease. My major issue with the site’s usability boils down to this: too many extra clicks. Once you log into the website, you’re taken to a Dashboard page instead of a file or folder GUI. The page feels extraneous for people who aren’t collaborating on anything at the moment, and a little part of me dies every time I have to needlessly navigate through extra nonsense to find my file browser. Luckily, the site supports bulk uploading and has a ridiculously simple interface, so once you click on My Stuff it’s easy to manage your files.
CX’s app has my least favorite interface of the bunch. Just like the site, the app opens to reveal your Dashboard, which is not where I want to be. Select My Stuff and you get an interface not unlike Dropbox and Box, just with fewer options. If you tap a file, you are presented with sharing options, a comment field, and a view button. Tap to the right of a file and you get sharing options (which are limited) and “open in” options (even more limited). Nothing to see here, move along.
Sharing: 3. This is supposed to be CX’s strong suit, but unfortunately the site’s sharing options aren’t much better than any other offering. Sharing and groups are a priority, because as I mentioned earlier these guys want to provide an enterprise solution, not a few GB-per-user file locker. To that end, they’ve included one-click sharing through Twitter, Facebook, and email, but of course no direct linking.
Features: 2. CX.com is exactly what you expect a cloud storage service to be. It’s best feature is the 10GB, followed closely by the group sharing options. The ability to comment on files right in the file browser pane is a minor but welcome addition.
Drawbacks: -1. When you launch the app, you are presented with four options: Dashboard, My Stuff, Groups, Offline Files. Click on Groups and you’re told you have to go to cx.com to create them. That’s a bit of a hassle, and with competitors like Google offering easier mobile management options, a little thing like this could end up being a deal breaker for you or your institution. The app is good, but it’s only useful for certain tasks. Why would a one-to-one school accept having to use two devices to manage files?
Free space: 5. 10GB is quite generous.
CX was the first service I tested extensively for the purpose of writing this, and based on my experience it deserves to be more widely used. This virtually unknown commodity is offering more with less fanfare than almost any other product available. It’s stuck at number 4 because the app is lackluster and despite the fact that lately, I use it more than I use Dropbox (which probably reflects the value of 10GB to a power user rather than any significant differentiation on the part of the service). The relatively basic sharing features might chase the serious user away, but for most people CX will do exactly what it’s expected to do.
3. Dropbox – There’s much to love about Dropbox: it’s integrated into everything, it allows you to preview files in a floating window, and the Android and iOS apps are beyond reproach. As someone who participated in this year’s DropQuest (don’t ask), I’m definitely an enthusiastic supporter. But it wouldn’t be number three if all was well and good with Dropbox.
Interface: 5. A clean, simple design expressed brilliantly in site and app form. When you log in to the website, you’re taken to a list of your files. Your options are robust, but users with basic computer skills never have to know how much you can do from this page. It’s incredibly easy to click the Link icon to share a file through Facebook or Twitter. The file preview window accommodates all the basic file types you would expect, but as an iWork suite user, I am disappointed that Pages and Keynote files can’t be previewed. Of course hardly any of these services allow for that, so that’s not a major cause for concern. The other major benefit: like Skydrive and Google Drive, Dropbox has a useful desktop app and menu bar icon, so you can access your cloud storage just like you open files on your hard drive.
Usability: 5. It works flawlessly with other apps. If you’re working in a one-to-one computing environment, you’ll end up telling students to use Dropbox for two reasons: it’s easy and it works. Mega has its 50GB, Google Drive has its feature-rich built-in app suite, and SkyDrive has its visually striking web interface, but none of that trumps usability. And that’s where Dropbox shines. It comes as close to passing The Mom Tech Test as anything on this list.
The app is also a pleasure to use. Box and Dropbox both rely on left-pane file navigation and a center preview window, and while I might find SkyDrive’s approach to file listing more visually stimulating, this is just as effective. Sharing and downloading options are available directly above the preview pane, which means less taps or clicks. Always appreciated!
Sharing: 4. Deep and relay easy to use. Twitter, Facebook, and email sharing are all one click away. (Side note: are tons of people doing collaborative work via Facebook, or is this just so people can more efficiently store and share pictures of food?). Sharing individual files or entire folders is easy as can be, but you will trap your collaborators in Dropbox’s walled garden, and direct linking is not a possibility. Sharing through the app is almost fun. Almost.
Features: 3. Finally, a plethora of security options that are actually useful to regular people! Dropbox can easily show you every computer and app with access to your files and keeps tabs on your logins. You’ll also really like the fact that so many apps seamlessly interact with Dropbox. You can send files from Dropbox to almost any other app, and many apps support saving to Dropbox including popular word processing apps like Pages and Office2 HD.
Free space: 1. Two lousy GB unless you have the time for quests, searches, and journeys to Mordor. Or you can avoid all that by using any other service on this list.
Drawbacks: -2. The purpose of this post is to direct you to the most and best space. Since Dropbox is a great service, it belongs on the list. But 2GB is not enough for most people, and I don’t want to make a game of increasing the size of my piece of the cloud. I’ve spoken to some users with 20GB of free space (@MrCasal, I’m looking at you), others with a bit more than 2GB. I’m at 4.2GB after two years as a user. The reason for the disparity? Dropbox wants you to do their marketing for them by signing up friends, tweeting about the service, and flying a small prop plane over the beach with a Dropbox banner waving confidently in the breeze. Dropbox will come to your house and beat you with soap in a sock if you don’t tell your friends about it. Dropbox will cut your power so no one will know what it did. Dropbox wants you to spread the word so more people can sign up and get less space than is available through literally every other service on this list.
Does your mom want to store a few files in the cloud from her iPad? Sign her up for Dropbox. Are the students at your one-to-one iPad school relying on thumb drives? Dropbox will make an excellent replacement. Need to access a handful of files on a regular basis? Dropbox by a landslide. Way too much time on your hands and a desire to “game-ify” storage space? Dropbox (and maybe a hobby or two) FTW.
Need space? You won’t find it here (Mega is offering twenty-five TIMES the amount of space, and even Google Drive is more than doubling the paltry 2GB Dropbox provides). Want groups? Look elsewhere. Good permissions management? Not happening. Link/file commenting system? Nothing to see here. Dropbox is great for the simple stuff, but limited if your needs are more sophisticated than the average person.
Honorable mention: Amazon Cloud Drive – Amazon offers 5GB absolutely free and provides a desktop app, but it’s relegated to the honorable mentions for two reasons: no iOS app and no file structure integration. In order to view your files, you can click the little cloud icon in your menu bar, but all that allows you to do is launch the Amazon Cloud Drive web interface. So why bother with the menu bar icon at all? There is one thing Amazon gets right that nothing else does: context menu integration. Right clicking or two-finger tapping any file As presently constituted, Amazon Cloud Drive can’t complete with the best of what’s already out there.
2. Box – Box was the first cloud storage site to count me as a user, and seven years later I still find myself using it on a regular basis. It’s easy to use, intuitive, and app users start off with 10GB of free space. Box isn’t flashy when compared to high profile competitors like Dropbox and and Mega, but it does everything as well or better than they do.
Interface: 5. Simple, uncluttered, and smooth, and that goes for the app and the website. It’s really easy to upload, download, and share files via Box, and some actions that require a great deal of time and effort through other clients are reduced to one or two clicks with Box. Box and Dropbox utilize similar interfaces on both their apps and websites, so if you’re familiar with one, you can use the other.
Usability: 5. The iOS app is a delight to use and is packed with features rivaled only by Dropbox. The ability to Open In a variety of apps is great, but even better is the ability to Open and Edit a multitude of file types with the app of your choosing. No other service offers anything like this, so it’s both a special feature and an unbelievably useful tool you won’t know how to live without after using it once or twice. The website is also fantastic, and is one of the only storage sites that offers people the ability to comment on links and files in your cloud folders. This might not sound all that important, but you can now upload a worksheet for your students and monitor real-time feedback while they work on it.
The desktop app is also functional and adds a folder entitled Box Documents to your file hierarchy (how they missed the chance to call it “Box Dox” I’ll never know). Click on a folder in the web interface, select Sync, and you now have…well, the same basic syncing ability as every other client on the list, with the extra step of having to select which folders to sync through the website.
Sharing: 4. You can share files with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn users with one click through the site. The app limits sharing options to sending links, a problem at least partially obviated by the array of Open In options. Still, it would be nice for the app to mirror and enhance web options, and in this case it doesn’t. Like everything but Google Drive, direct links are available only to paying customers.
Features: 5. Box is one of the few services that allows comments on shared files, which I find incredibly useful and helps shift this from pure storage to a collaborative file locker. The option to add apps for file editing is also outstanding, and the security options rival those offered by Dropbox, including two factor authentication and an easily accessed list of account logins.
Drawbacks: -2. Other than the lack of direct linking (a problem endemic to free cloud storage), Box is a fine service and will fulfill most of your cloud storage needs. Box Sync seems like a half-finished idea, and I expect its functionality to be expanded in the near future. Until then, it isn’t quite as good as it should be, but it’s most certainly good enough for most users.
The deciding factor for some might be the paltry 250MB maximum file size. You might wonder if you’ll ever need 50GB of unfettered space, but I assure you there will be big files you want to upload in the near future, if there aren’t already. Students in my Film classes routinely create files bigger than 250MB, which means Box will never be my primary storage option. Which is a shame, because everything else about the service is pretty good.
Free space: 5. You get either 5 or 10GB free. Most of the folks I know who use Box have 10GB free because if you download the app and create an account, that’s the default amount of starting storage. No BoxQuest to worry about.
NOTE: As I was posting this, I logged into my secondary Box account to find that it had been bumped up to 50GB.
Then I learned that new users were being treated to 50 free gigs just for signing up through this link. If this holds true for the long term, Box and SkyDrive will change positions in my rankings. For now, I’m leaving things as is.
Box aims to become a small business/enterprise solution, but it’s offering for individuals is agile and impressive. It looks and acts like Dropbox, but with five (or 25, depending on the promotion) times the space and a refined commenting system. The 250MB file size limit detracts from an otherwise stellar offering.
Honorable Mention: OHMAHGAWD THAT’S EVERNOTE‘S MUSIC!
This is a smackdown, after all, so why shouldn’t we have an unexpected entrant interrupt the proceedings? Evernote is unbeatable when it comes to accepted file types, sharing options, browser integration, tagging, and just about everything else. For a modest sum (5 bucks a month, though you can get bundled deals for MUCH less from MacHeist, among other places) you get 1GB of file transfers, unlimited total storage space, the ability to drag virtually any type of file into a note, and the freedom to share your notes or notebooks with the click of a button.
Evernote is simply the best organization/storage app of any kind. The research for this post was organized in Evernote by clipping webpages and dragging different file types into notes, then grouping those notes into notebooks and stacks. You can email directly to your account, clip web pages via browser extension, or log in via the website or the app of your choice.
As far as apps go, nothing on this list touches Evernote’s Android app. It’s better than its iOS counterpart, though that’s meant to be a compliment to the former rather than an insult to the latter. Evernote isn’t really a cloud storage service; the purpose of the app is to provide linked and synced devices across a variety of platforms. But using Evernote just for notes would be a waste of this incredible service’s broad functionality.
Evernote didn’t win (or even make the formal competition) for two reasons: 1) the paid service (while cheap) is the best way to go, and these are supposed to be free options, and 2) the note size is limited to 100MB even with a paid account, which means I occasionally have to break a Keynote or video up into pieces.
1. SkyDrive – If you need a cloud storage client that can do everything well, Skydrive is the most compelling and ultimately the most usable candidate on this list. You’ll get bulk drag and drop uploading, great looks, and an impressive roster of features. You can use the superb iOS app to do anything the website can, and the level of control you exert over permissions (force a sign in to view files, allow peer editing, etc.) is outstanding. There’s nothing SkyDrive gets wrong. SkyDrive performed so well in every testable way that it has me considering buying a Windows tablet to play with. THAT’S how good SkyDrive is.
Interface: 5. it’s beautiful! It’s easy to use! It’s everything Google Drive isn’t! If your folder has images or videos, SkyDrive pulls a still and makes that the tile image. That kind of loving attention to detail shines through in everything from the gorgeous, tile-based file display on iOS devices to the one-click ability to share in every way imaginable via the website.
Usability: 5. SkyDrive’s website blows every other service’s out of the water. It’s not only appealing to the aesthetes in the audience, it’s highly functional and packed with options. You can select your file and embed with one click while you chat with people via the site’s Facebook integration. The chat serves as a fluid commenting system, which might appeal you more than Box or CX’s static and comparatively antiquated commenting systems.
The app and website are both a pleasure. The only real drawback I could find is the fact that in order to work with files through the app, you had to open them in SkyDrive’s preview window (that and the unnecessary capitalization of the D in SkyDrive). Otherwise, the service just works. It’s easy (does it pass TMTT? No, but only Dropbox is close there), it’s visually appealing, and it does EVERYTHING.
Sharing: 5. Sharing individual files or whole folders is as easy as clicking a little box in the top right hand corner of the file’s tile from the website. Prefer to embed a file or folder? That’s achievable with one click, too. Things get a bit more complex through the app since it requires you to open a file preview before offering you download, share, open in another app, or recycle bin functionality, but this is a minor quibble, given how streamlined and thoughtful the rest of the app is. This isn’t like CX making you slog through an Activity screen before getting you to your files; this is one extra click for myriad useful options.
Features: 5. Did I miss anything? One click website sharing, deep embedding options, phenomenal app support and integration, permissions management, Facebook integration, plenty of free space…I think that about covers it.
Drawbacks: 0. Unless you are still fighting the antitrust wars of the 1990s, there’s no reason not to use SkyDrive, and quite a few reasons why you should.
Free space: 4. 7GB, no strings attached.
Verdict: with 24 out of 25 points, SkyDrive is our winner. Now go download it and see for yourself.