Since the advent of the internet, the technology industry has been steadily moving away from local storage to remote, server-based storage and processing—what is known as the cloud. Look at music and movies: We used to play them from local media, but now they're streamed from servers. By keeping your own documents and media files in the cloud, you can reap the same advantages of anywhere-access and sharing. Productivity gains and reduced local storage requirements are additional benefits. 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 smartphone on the train, from your tablet on your couch, and from the laptop in your hotel room or kitchen. Using a service like those included here 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. Some services are extremely user-friendly, while others offer advanced customization for more experienced technophiles.
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 coediting.
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.
In fact, most cloud services 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 pick the documents you might need and keep 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 software installed on your computer (once it's installed, it's usually pretty much invisible), though you need an internet connection for it to work. If you temporarily don't have an internet 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 they provide 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.
The Best Cloud Storage Services
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 many more cloud storage services on the market that didn't make the cut for this article, however. If you love a particular service that we didn't include, please be sure to let us know about it in the comments. Click on the review links below for more detailed information on each of our favorite cloud storage and file-syncing services.