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Why Store Your Data in the Cloud?

If you’re working from home, there are few things more important than sharing your work documents remotely with your fellow team members. Online file storage, syncing, and sharing services like those included here can play a huge role in accomplishing this. Computer systems have been steadily moving away from local storage to remote, server-based storage and processing—also known as the cloud. Consumers are affected too—we now stream video and music from servers rather than playing them from discs. By keeping your own documents and media in the cloud, you can enjoy anywhere-access and improve collaboration. We’ve rounded up the best cloud storage and file-sharing and file-syncing services to help you decide which are right for you.

These services provide seamless access to all your important data—Word docs, PDFs, spreadsheets, photos, and any other digital assets—from wherever you are. You no longer need to be sitting at your work PC to see your work files. With cloud syncing you can get to them from your laptop at home, your smartphone on the go, or from your tablet on your couch. Using one of these services means no more having to email files to yourself or plug and unplug USB thumb drives.

If you don’t yet have a service for storing and syncing your data in the cloud, you should seriously consider one. Which you choose depends on the kinds of files you store, how much security you need, whether you plan to collaborate with other people, and which devices you use to edit and access your files. It may also depend on your comfort level with computers in general. Most of these services are extremely user-friendly, while others offer advanced customization for more experienced techies.

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*Deals are selected by our partner, TechBargains

What Can Cloud Storage Do for You?

The very best cloud storage solutions play nicely with other apps and services, making the experience of viewing or editing your files feel natural. Especially in business settings, you want your other software and apps to be able to retrieve or access your files, so making sure you use a service that easily authenticates with the other tools you use is a big deal. Box and Dropbox are particularly strong in this regard.

The range of capabilities of cloud-based storage services is incredible. Many of them specialize in a specific area. For example, Dropbox and SugarSync focus on keeping a synced folder accessible everywhere. SpiderOak emphasizes security. Some cloud storage services, such as Apple iCloud, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive, are generalists, offering not only folder and file syncing, but also media-playing and device syncing. These products even double as collaboration software, offering real-time document co-editing.

Distinct from but overlapping in some cases with cloud storage are online backup services. Some of these, such as Carbonite, are all about disaster recovery, while IDrive combines that goal with syncing and sharing capabilities.

Most cloud services do offer some level of backup, almost as a consequence of their intended function. It follows logically that any files uploaded to a cloud service are also protected from disk failures, since there are copies of them in the cloud. But true online backup services can back up all of your computer’s files, not just those in a synced folder structure. Whereas syncing is about managing select files, backup tends to be a bulk, just-in-case play. With syncing, you choose the folders, documents, and media that you want ready access to and save them in the cloud for easy access. With backup, you protect everything you think you might regret losing. Easy, immediate access is not guaranteed with online backup, nor is it the point. Peace of mind is.

The Deal With the Cloud

Just to clear up any confusion, the cloud part of cloud-based storage services refers to storing your files somewhere other than your computer’s hard drive, usually on the provider’s servers. As one tech pundit put it: “There is no Cloud. It’s just someone else’s computer.” Having data in the cloud gives you the ability to access those files through the internet. Your data is usually encrypted before making the journey over the internet to the providers’ servers, and while it lives on those servers it’s also encrypted. Well-designed services don’t upload entire files every time they change. They just upload the changes, saving your connection bandwidth.

You can access your cloud files through an app or utility software installed on your computer. Once it’s installed, it usually shows a small notification icon and creates your synced folder structure that fits into Windows Explorer or the macOS Finder. You can also get to the files via your web browser. Of course, you need an internet connection for this to work, but if you temporarily are without a connection, that’s okay: The service waits until the next time you do have a connection and takes care of business then. For a deeper explanation of the cloud, see What is Cloud Computing?

Free vs. Paid

Many cloud storage services have a free account that usually comes with some limitations, such as the amount of storage or a size limit on files you can upload. We prefer services that offer some level of free service (even if it’s only 2GB) rather than a time-based trial, because that lets you fully integrate a service into your life for several weeks while you get a feel for how it works and what might go wrong with your particular setup.

What could possibly go wrong? Human error accounts for a good deal of cloud storage tragedies, but the dropped internet connection is another common troublemaker. And every internet service suffers the occasional outage. Ask around (or just look through our review comments), and you’ll hear sad stories of how cloud storage can go wrong. One of the benefits of paying for an account is that it usually comes with additional support from the provider, so if anything does go wrong, you can get someone on the phone to help you resolve the issue.

There are many other reasons to pay for cloud storage, from getting a lot more space (a terabyte really doesn’t cost all that much anymore) to being able to upload really big files. That last benefit is relevant to graphic designers, video editors, and other visual artists who often host enormous files. Other perks of paying for your cloud storage often include increased access to file-version history (meaning you can restore an important business proposal to the version you had before your colleague made a bunch of erroneous changes), more security, or more features for collaboration and teamwork.

Outlook: Cloudy

Here, we highlight only the best cloud storage services among those we’ve tested. When PCMag tests these services, we evaluate their feature sets, ease of use, stability, and price. There are other cloud storage services on the market that didn’t make the cut for this article, based on these criteria. Click on the review links below for more detailed information on each of our favorite cloud storage and file-syncing services.

Where To Buy

  • Google Drive

    Google Drive

    Pros: Leading office-suite collaboration functionality.
    Includes desktop-to-desktop file-syncing.
    Built-in OCR.
    Generous free storage space if you use Google productivity apps.

    Cons: Can be confusing to navigate the many features and rules.
    Offline editing isn’t simple.

    Bottom Line: Part productivity suite and part syncing and online storage service, Google Drive also provides excellent collaborative office-suite functionality.

  • Microsoft OneDrive

    Microsoft OneDrive

    Pros: Excellent interface

    Clients for Android, iOS, Mac, and Windows

    Well integrated with Windows 10 and Office 365

    Strong online photo presentation and management

    Powerful file-sharing and document collaborative editing

    Cons: Less free storage than some competitors

    Only allows syncing of specific folders

    Bottom Line: OneDrive, the default online storage and syncing service for Windows 10 and Office 365, offers a wealth of powerful features, as well as apps for more platforms than any of its competitors.

    Read Review

  • CertainSafe Digital Safety Deposit Box

    CertainSafe Digital Safety Deposit Box

    Pros: MicroEncryption renders bulk data breach of cloud-stored files impossible.
    Logon handshake authenticates both user and server.
    Can share files with guests or other users.
    Retains previous versions of modified files.
    Secure chat.

    Cons: If you forget password or security answers, you lose all access.
    Can only share entire folders, not files.

    Bottom Line: When backing up your sensitive files to the cloud, CertainSafe Digital Safety Deposit Box emphasizes security over all else, but it doesn’t sacrifice ease of use.

    Read Review

  • IDrive


    Pros: Easy setup.
    Unlimited devices in one account.
    Continuous backup option.
    Disk image backup.
    File Explorer integration.
    Folder syncing.
    File archiving.
    Hard drive for mailing in data.

    Cons: Slightly slower performance than some competitors.

    Bottom Line: You’d be hard-pressed to find an online backup service as full-featured or versatile as IDrive, especially for the price.

    Read Review

  • Dropbox


    Pros: Apps for just about every operating system

    Many integrations in Apps Center

    Supports collaboration

    Good features for Pro users

    Digital signatures

    Cons: Free version is skimpy on storage

    Expensive paid accounts

    Bottom Line: Dropbox is a simple, reliable file-syncing and storage service with enhanced collaboration features, but it’s more expensive and less integrated than platform offerings like Google Drive, iCloud, and OneDrive.

    Read Review

  • Box (Personal)

    Box (Personal)

    Pros: Easy to use

    On-demand file syncing

    Well-designed for collaboration

    Integrates with many third-party services

    Generous free storage allotment

    Cons: Low storage amount for paid account

    Desktop app options too numerous and unclear

    Bottom Line: Online syncing and storage tool Box is easy to use and integrates with a wide range of apps and services, but it costs more than similar products.

    Read Review

  • SpiderOakONE


    Pros: Strong privacy features.
    Unlimited computers allowed in an account.
    File-syncing included.
    Great customization options for backups.
    Good for people who like a lot of control.

    Cons: Sharing is overly complicated.
    Slow in our performance tests.
    No single restore button.
    No search in Web interface.

    Bottom Line: SpiderOakONE’s strong focus on privacy is the biggest reason to choose it for online backup and file syncing.
    It’s not great for novices, however, and its premium plans are expensive.

    Read Review

  • SugarSync


    Pros: Extremely easy to use.
    More intuitive than many other file-syncing services.
    Saves up to five previous versions of files.
    Very good apps.

    Cons: Expensive.
    No real-time collaboration.
    Slow online backup.
    No private encryption key for online backups.
    No free account tier.
    Extremely difficult to cancel an account.

    Bottom Line: SugarSync is a highly intuitive file-syncing and online backup service, with simple installation and the best control we’ve seen over what syncs where.
    But it’s not cheap, it lacks collaboration and privacy features, and its backup performance was slow in our testing.

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