This April, the Rocket Yard is providing you with tips and hints on backing up all of your data — not only the information that’s on your desktop or laptop machine, but your iPhone and iPad as well. In the first Backup Month post, readers were introduced to the helpful 3-2-1 Rule. The second special post focused on three of the most popular applications for backing up your Mac. In today’s post, we’re looking at cloud storage. Wikipedia defines cloud storage as “a model of data storage where the digital data is stored in logical pools, the physical storage spans multiple servers (and often locations), and the physical environment is typically owned and managed by a hosting company.”
For the majority of Mac and iOS users, having a full backup of all of their data online isn’t a necessity, but ensuring that important documents are backed up is critical. That’s where cloud storage services can come in handy, creating a “drive in the cloud” that synchronizes with a counterpart on the Mac. There are a number of options available here, including Dropbox, Apple’s own iCloud, Amazon Cloud Drive, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive to name a few.
The “old man” of the cloud storage world is Dropbox, a company that started up in 2007 after one of the founders became upset that he kept leaving a flash drive with his files on it at home. The service is compatible with most operating systems and platforms, making synchronization of important files between devices a snap. The service is free for up to 2 GB of file storage; after that point, subscription plans are available that allow up to 1 TB of storage at $99 per year. Additional services for business ($15/user/month) are also available.
What I personally love about Dropbox is just how easy it is to use. I can save a file to my Mac and know that it’s also being synced to the cloud without needing to do anything else. Any changes to that file are reflected immediately, and Dropbox also sells versioning capabilities (saving all versions of changed documents) as a $39 annual add-on. On the Mac, the software adds a folder into which just about any other folder can be dropped. A menu bar icon provides one-click access to the Dropbox folder and to the web-based version of Dropbox, which can be useful when sharing documents with others.
A growing number of mobile and Mac apps now synchronize through Dropbox, and the official Dropbox iOS app is a wonderful way to grab files from an iPhone or iPad and share them with others.
After a somewhat shaky first try at cloud storage with MobileMe, Apple bounced back in October of 2011 with iCloud. Signing up for iCloud with an Apple ID (or creating a new Apple ID) provides a user with 5 GB of storage for free, shared across all devices that are using the same Apple ID. Since just backing up iOS devices can easily exceed the 5 GB limit, Apple offers a tiered pricing structure with 20 GB for $0.99 per month, 200 GB for $3.99 per month, 500 GB for $9.99 monthly, and 1 TB at $19.99 monthly. There are no discounts for paying annually, and storage is charged monthly.
iCloud is “baked into” OS X and iOS, with support for a number of Apple and third-party services that now sync through iCloud. In Finder windows on OS X, an iCloud Drive icon is visible and displays folders for all apps that are using the drive for storage. iOS apps that are companions to OS X counterparts often include a way for users to open, view and save documents in iCloud Drive. Some good examples are the Apple iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, Keynote), all of which have OS X and iOS native apps as well as a web-based version for use on Windows and Linux machines. Through Time Machine support, iCloud Drive does provide a method of versioning. The iCloud Drive is also available by pointing any web browser to iCloud.com and logging in with an Apple ID.
Amazon needed lots of storage for electronic books, music, and video being sold to customers, and has huge data centers that have a ton of capacity. So the company decided to open up access to its customers who wanted to store other information in the cloud like documents, photos and videos. Cloud Drive is free for up to 5 GB of storage, and then offers unlimited storage capacity for photos for $11.99 per year (free if you’re an Amazon Prime customer) or unlimited “everything” storage for $59.99 per year. There’s an OS X app for saving and retrieving documents, and an iOS app makes it simple to automatically back up photos and videos from your iPhone or iPad.
Sadly, the only thing that the Cloud Drive Mac app allows you to do is add files to the drive. There’s no way to mount the drive on your Mac for saving files directly to it; instead, you drag and drop them onto the Cloud Drive app user interface. Amazon Cloud Drive is also available through a web browser.
Google Drive works similarly to both iCloud Drive and Dropbox in that a drive volume can actually be mounted on Mac OS X and used as storage from a Mac. Whether you access the drive or its associated online apps from a web browser or through the Drive app, you not only have access to documents but can edit them as well. The Drive app enables syncing of folders on your Mac with their cloud counterparts.
Google Drive is very inexpensive. The first 15 GB of storage are free, 100 GB costs just $1.99 per month, and a full 1 TB of storage is only $9.99 monthly. On iOS devices, access to your data is through the free Google Drive app. As with Amazon Cloud Drive, you can set up the iOS app to back up all photos and videos from the Photos app on iOS to your Google Drive storage.
Last, but certainly not least, is Microsoft OneDrive. Oddly, Microsoft differentiates between OneDrive — for your personal files — and OneDrive for Business, which provides storage of work files for collaboration or out-of-office access. Regardless of which you’re using, the OneDrive app for iOS makes accessing your documents from iPhone or iPad a cinch. 15 GB of storage is provided for free, while 100 GB is $1.99 monthly, 200 GB $3.99 a month, and 1 TB costs just $6.99 per month. That last plan also includes access to Office 365, meaning that you have access to full working versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint for the same fee.
Like some of the other services described here, OneDrive can be mounted on your Mac, making it simple to synchronize files between Mac and other devices.
As with so many services, there are a few things you wish to keep in mind while thinking about a cloud storage service to use. First, and probably the biggest thing to think about, is the cost. Unless you have very few files that you wish to keep a copy of “in the cloud”, chances are quite good that you’ll quickly exceed the free allocation provided by most of the services listed here. Some Mac owners try to skirt the issue by storing photo files on one cloud storage service, documents on another, and so on. But unless you have a really good system for remembering where you’re storing certain documents and keep an eye on how close you are to your free storage limit on each account, it’s quite easy to run over your limit and start incurring charges.
One other thing to consider is the speed of your Internet connection. If you have limited bandwidth or extremely slow upload/download speeds, you may find that synchronization of your local files with the cloud is unreasonably slow. There’s almost nothing worse than telling a co-worker she’ll have to wait for a few hours for a video file to synchronize so that she can use it (trust me, I’ve been there…).
Finally, unless you have enough local storage to keep a synced copy on each one of your devices, you will need an Internet connection to be able to access your cloud data. While this doesn’t sound like much of an issue in this world of almost-ubiquitous Internet access, it can be frustrating to try to call up a document from a mobile device only to realize that you’re nowhere near a Wi-Fi hotspot and your cell coverage is nonexistent.
Personally, I use a dual solution. For most of my cloud storage needs, I use a Dropbox Pro account and still have a lot of space available. However, for all of my photos and documents created in the iWork suite, I use a 200 GB iCloud account. It’s fairly easy to keep track of what is stored on each account, and Apple’s new iCloud Photos Library makes it easy for me to have my huge photo library on every Apple device I own.
Do you have any favorite Cloud Storage services that haven’t been discussed here? If so, please share that information with us in the comments below.