When I started messing around with computers we carried our ideas around on 5 1/4 inch floppy discs. They were big, awkward and less that 100% reliable. It was early days for the internet, there was no cloud, and if you wanted to send material to someone you usually PUT THE DISK IN A BOX AND MAILED IT.

We’ve come a long way. With the maturing of cloud storage platforms — meaning your data is kept on remote servers enbling you to access it from anywhere and share it with anyone—we can all access free storage that provides plenty of space for the average home and small business user.

Access your files anywhere Image credit: Malwarebytes Labs

Of course there are catches: potential privacy concerns, upselling of paid offerings and a lack of features on some of the free plans. Despite this most of us now can’t imagine life without cloud storage and many of us have several accounts. So what’s the best choice for you?

  1. DROPBOX

I can still remember when an interstate colleague first shared a file on Dropbox. I was hooked. You could not only store documents, photos, media, etc on the cloud but syncronise them with apps for all your devices. Dropbox could also appear as an extra drive in your computer’s file directory. Such features are commonplace now, but Dropbox retains and edge in straightforward and seemless multi-platform integration. Dropbox has also added more colaborative features over time, including the built in editor “Paper”. There are a few drawbacks, particularly the measley 2 Gb basic free allowance and the relatively high cost of paid plans (USD12.50 per month for 3 Tb at the time of writing). And for me the interface has also become a little clutterered and counter-intuitive over time. But the sheer ubiquity of Dropbox means for many it remains the first choice for cloud storage, synchronisation and file sharing.

2. GOOGLE DRIVE

If Dropbox’s free 2 Gb is a deal breaker for you, perhaps the 15 Gb on offer from Google (the largest free allowance of the main cloud providers) will be more to your taste. On the paid (GoogleOne) plans 2 Tb will set you back USD10 a month. Chances are you already have a Google account, so you don’t need to do anything to sign up for Drive, just set it up from the main Google apps menu. The Google drive interface looks clean, though it’s arguably not as feature rich when compared to Dropbox. And as you would expect it comes already integrated in the G-Suite of applications (Gmail, Google Docs, etc). There’s a lot to like with Google Drive, but many people will still think twice about entrusting personal documents to a company with a bit of a mixed record on respecting people’s privacy.

Dropbox, Google Drive and Onedrive and the best known cloud services

3. MICROSOFT ONEDRIVE

It makes sense if you’re deeply embedded in Microsoft’s product ecosystem (Word, Outlook, OneNote, etc) to use the native storage solution — just as most Apple users will make some use of the flawed iCloud platform. And if you’re one of the millions of Microsoft Office365 subscribers, you get a substantial 1 Tb of included storage for your $99 a year (the basic free allowance is 5 Gb otherwise). OneDrive is a good product, particularly if you’re looking for somewhere straightforward you can plonk your files online. The interface is easy to navigate, but again not as feature rich as Dropbox. It’s good for collaboration with other Microsoft users, though less ubiquitous than DropBox or Google. Whether you trust Microsoft with your confidential material is a matter of individual judgement.

4. SYNC

Several business cloud providers such as iDrive and Box also offer free personal plans, which makes sense in terms of supporting the wider takeup of their products. My favorite of these options comes from Sync.com. Sync’s selling point is that it offers end-to-end encryption and a range of other security features such as remote sharing wipe and device lockout. The interface is in a similar design to Dropbox and has good set of features including collaboration tools and version recovery. You get 5 Gb on the free plan while 2 Tb will set you back $96 a year.

Cloud storage can appear as an extra drive on your computer Image credit pCloud

5. pCLOUD

pCloud is another provider that is primarily oriented towards the business market, but which has some attractive features for personal users. It offers a feature rich interface with a reasonable 10 Gb on its free plan, plus the option of end-to-end encryption for the security conscious. Another great feature is the “lifetime storage” plan where you can buy e.g. 2 Tb for life for USD350. This is excellent value if you’re looking for long term photo or media backup. pCloud is pretty well established, but is little known in the consumer market, so if collaboration with friends / family / co-workers is a high priority, you may get more out of other providers.

A final word on security. Unlike Sync and pCloud, the most popular cloud providers DO NOT give you end-to-end encryption of your data. That makes it potentially more vulnerable to hacking e.g. “man in the middle” attacks. You can get third party software that integrates with the main cloud providers to encrypt your files, e.g. Boxcryptor which works with Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive. If you have some basic networking skills another alternative is to run your own personal cloud using a product such as NextCloud. This means you are using your own network accessible storage (NAS e.g. hard drive) as cloud storage by making it accessible anywhere on the internet. Just remember to keep another backup of your stuff off-site!

Well that’s it for now: please let me know your thoughts via alex@yourtechcoach.com.au — maybe you’ve discovered an hidden gem among cloud providers that isn’t mentioned here?

Next week — Getting online: you guide to Australian domains and hosting

Technology adviser, dog lover, amateur musician and cook.