Storing your files in the cloud has many advantages. You can view your files from any phone, tablet or computer that’s connected to the Internet, and the cloud can also provide backup for files so they’ll never disappear if your phone gets lost or your computer crashes. Using the cloud is a no-brainer, but picking which service to use is a bit more difficult.
For that reason, I’ve compiled a guide to the most popular cloud storage services, covering how they work and their strengths and weaknesses. I’ve also highlighted some lesser-known options if you want to get away from the mainstream.
Editors’ note, August 24, 2015: This post has been updated to reflect the current prices and features of the services mentioned.
Cloud storage comparison
|OneDrive||Dropbox||Google Drive||Box||Amazon Cloud Drive||Copy|
|File size restrictions?||10GB||10GB with website, none with Dropbox apps||5TB||250MB for free plan, 5GB for paid personal plan||2GB*||None|
|Can I earn extra free storage?||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||Yes|
|Paid plans||$2/month for 100GB, $4/month for 200GB, $7/month for 1TB||$10/month for 1TB||$2/month 100GB, $10/month for 1TB||$10/month for 100GB||$12/year for unlimited photos, $60/year for unlimited files||$5/month for 250GB, $10 for 1TB|
|OSes supported||Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone||Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, Kindle Fire||Windows, Mac, Android, iOS||Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, BlackBerry||Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Kindle Fire||Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS|
*There is no file size limit with desktop apps.
**Amazon Cloud Drive offers limited free storage with an Amazon Prime subscription.
Before we get started, just a note about Apple’s iCloud Drive. I didn’t include it here because the service is not available for Android and it’s really meant to be used within the Apple ecosystem, meaning if you use Mac computers and iOS devices together. If you do use mostly Apple products, it’s a solid choice for cloud storage. For a full run-down of its features, pricing and availability, check outCNET’s guide to Apple iCloud Drive.
OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive)
First up is OneDrive, Microsoft’s storage option. Those who use Windows 8 and 8.1 have OneDrive built into their operating system, where it shows up in the file explorer next to all of the files on your computer’s hard drive. However, anyone can use it on the Web, by downloading a desktop app for Mac and earlier versions of Windows, or the OneDrive Android, iOS, Windows Phone and Xbox apps.
You can store any kind of file in the service, including photos, video and documents, and then access them from any of your Windows PCs or mobile devices. The service organizes your files by type for you, so it’s easy to find what you need.
The Android, iOS and Windows Phone apps all have automatic photo uploads, meaning that when you shoot a photo with your phone, it’s automatically saved to your account. OneDrive’s biggest strength is that it works closely with Microsoft Office apps, such as Word or PowerPoint, so when you launch one of those applications you’ll see a list of recent documents saved to OneDrive. If you have an Office 365 subscription and open a document saved in OneDrive, you can collaborate on it in real time with other people. You’ll even be able to see the changes they make as they make them.
Microsoft is hoping that OneDrive will be the place where you store your photos, and the company is working on technology that will eventually sort all of the photos you take based on how important and meaningful they are. For instance, if you take a photo of your kids, a picture of a special meal and a shot of your parking space so you can find your car later, OneDrive would be able to understand the importance of each picture, save the ones it thinks are the most useful, and trash the rest. That’s still big-picture stuff for OneDrive, but it gives you an idea of the direction Microsoft is moving in.
Where it excels
- Works seamlessly with Windows devices because it’s built in to the Windows operating system.
- It’s easy to open and edit files from OneDrive in Microsoft’s other applications, such as Word or Excel.
- Signing up for OneDrive gets you a Microsoft account, which gives you access to Outlook, Xbox Live, and other Microsoft services.
Where it falls flat
- OneDrive’s automatic file organization doesn’t always put files in the correct folders.
Best for: If you have a Windows PC, tablet and phone, and need to get to your files from any device with little effort.
Dropbox is a favorite in the cloud storage world because it’s reliable, easy to use, and a breeze to set up. Your files live in the cloud and you can get to them at any time from Dropbox’s website, desktop applications for Mac, Windows and Linux (Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora or compile your own), or the iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Kindle Fire mobile apps.
You can store any kind of file in Dropbox, by either uploading to the website or adding it with the desktop apps. Those apps live in your file system so that you can easily move files from your computer to the cloud and vice versa by dragging and dropping them into your Dropbox folder. The service automatically and quickly syncs your files across all of your devices, so you can access everything, everywhere. There is no size limit on files you upload to Dropbox with the desktop or mobile apps, but larger files can take several hours to upload, depending on your connection speed.
Dropbox gets a lot of praise for its clean design, and rightfully so. Though I am not a fan of Dropbox’s website because the design is very basic and it doesn’t give you many options to view and organize your files, its mobile apps and desktop apps are beautiful and easy to navigate.
Dropbox gives its users plenty of opportunities to get extra storage to beef up the paltry 2GB you get when you sign up. If you participate in the quick Getting Started tutorial, you get 250MB. Turn on the automatic photo upload feature on any of the mobile apps to get 3GB of extra space (you can get only 3GB total, not per device). You can earn 500MB for each friend you refer to Dropbox who actually signs up for the service, up to 16GB total, or 32 referrals.
Where it excels
- Dropbox works equally well on PCs and Macs, Android and iOS.
- The service is so simple and elegantly designed, that it’s easy for anyone to master.
- Its desktop applications seamlessly blend with your computer’s file system.
Where it falls flat
- Dropbox’s website doesn’t let you control how your files are displayed.
Best for: Simple sharing when you use tons of different kinds of devices.
Google combines a complete set of office tools with cloud storage in Drive. You get a little bit of everything with this service, including a word processor, spreadsheet application, and presentation builder, plus 15GB of free storage space.
If you already have a Google account, you can already access Google Drive. You just have to head todrive.google.com and enable the service. You get 15GB of storage for anything you upload to Drive, including photos, videos, documents, Photoshop files and more. However, you have to share that 15GB with your Gmail account, photos you upload to Google+, and any documents you create in Google Drive.
While you can access any of your files from the Drive Web site, you can also download the Drive desktop app for Mac and PC to manage your files from your computer. You can organize all of your files in the desktop app, and they’ll sync with the cloud so you can get to them anywhere.
Drive is built into Google’s Web-based operating system Chromium, so if you have a Chromebook, Google Drive is your best cloud storage option. Like other cloud storage services, Drive has apps for iOS and Android for viewing and managing your files from your phone.
Google Drive has the benefit of a built-in office suite, where you can edit documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, even if you created the document in another program. The service also a large collection of extras, such as third-party apps that can send faxes or sign documents.
Google also recently introduced, an online photo locker, where you can organize photos into albums. Google Photos is built into Drive in a separate tab, but you’re really better off going straight to googlephotos.com to see and organize photos. However, you don’t need to download the Google Photos app on your phone or tablet to back pictures you take there. The Google Drive app can take care of that.
What I like most about Google Drive is that you can drag and drop files into the Drive Web site and they’ll be uploaded automatically. You can also preview attachments from Gmail in Google Drive, and save those files to your cloud.
Where it excels
- Google Drive requires very little setup if you already have a Google account.
- If you use Gmail, it’s easy to save attachments from your e-mail directly to Drive with just a few clicks.
- The app can automatically back up your photos on its own, without the need for the separate Google Photos app.
Where it falls flat
- If you use Google Drive’s tools to create documents, spreadsheets or presentations, you must export those files to edit them in another program.
- You have to share your storage space with Gmail, so if you’re inbox is overflowing, you’ll get less cloud storage space.
Best for: Google diehards, or anyone who wants a few office tools with their cloud storage.