The Cloud

“Cloud” is one of the current buzz words in the computer world. So many companies like to spout off phrases involving the word, and now it’s becoming a hot topic in the consumer area thanks to Apple and iCloud. But like “Web 2.0”, Cloud doesn’t mean anything different or new from what we’ve already had for decades: network- and internet-connected computers.

For the everyday “normal user”, the cloud has two great offerings: file sync and backups. Plenty of systems were around before Apple and Microsoft came into the game, and one of the most popular is Dropbox. Once the software is installed on your system, you’ll have a special folder that you can copy/move/etc. files to, and once there they are uploaded to their servers. Once uploaded, you can either access those same files on their website, or if you install Dropbox on another computer it will download those files there.  You can also share files and folders with other Dropbox users.  Again, it’s a very simple solution for people to use: what’s in the folder is synced and online.

It’s exactly how Microsoft’s Skydrive works.  Compared to Dropbox, there are some disadvantages to using Skydrive.  First, the system requirements for Skydrive are much higher; on OS X you must be running 10.7 (Dropbox still supports 10.4), and on Windows you must be running Vista SP2 (Dropbox still supports XP).  If you’re on the latest and greatest this won’t matter, while there’s still plenty of users all over the world who haven’t upgraded.  Of course, Dropbox also supports Linux, something I doubt will ever come to Skydrive.  When I tried Skydrive on my system, it seemed to work ok at first.  Uploading went fairly quickly considering I had about 4GB (on Skydrive I do have 25GB of free space, while on Dropbox I’m currently around 6GB).  Once synced it was easy to work in its folder as well as on the website.  The biggest downfall happened the next time I started up the computer.  After logging in, Dropbox took a few seconds to check for any changes and show the green checkmark, while Skydrive took over a minute.  During this check, Skydrive also used far more CPU and memory than Dropbox did at its peak.

Google Drive works a little differently, although not as much now that there is a client software that can be installed.  Originally, Google Drive (re-named from Google Docs) was online only; after logging into Google, Gmail, etc. you could choose the Docs section of their website, which would list all of your files.  This was limited to Docs-compatible files, namely text documents, spreadsheets and presentations.  Now images, PDFs, etc. can be added.  The desktop software, like Skydrive, can only be run on Windows and OS X.  Its system requirements aren’t as restrictive: XP and 10.6 are supported.  Unlike the other services, for Google Drive the desktop software is optional.  If you want, you can use it like Google Docs was originally: to create and edit documents online.  This may bother some (me included) as there’s no local copy of files saved, but it does make it far easier if you need to enable sharing and such.  I personally haven’t used their desktop software so I can’t attest if it makes their ecosystem any better or easier to use than the alternatives, but I would at least install the desktop software to have a local copy of the files, which I could then back them up myself.

On the Google Drive and Skydrive websites, office documents can be edited using the company’s respective software.  Google’s has been very popular as a lightweight alternative, especially for Word.  Microsoft has been working on an online version of Office for awhile, but it’s been recently integrated with Skydrive.  It is a bit heavier than Google’s offerings, so depending on your needs it may be too much.  For simple edits, it’ll be hard to beat Google Docs.  Dropbox, on the other hand, is strictly a “file server”; there are no built-in apps to edit text/Word documents, etc.  Again, depending on your needs this can be good or not.  As mentioned in a previous post I’ve been working a lot more with plain-text files.  With Dropbox installed on all 3 OS’s, I can go to each system and open those files with my preferred text editor.  You could do the same with Skydrive and Google Drive, but if you’re not using the native software to edit certain filetypes (.doc and .docx for example) you may either end up with weird appearances or worse, a corrupt file.

One thing to note about these three systems is their mobile apps: all 3 are quite excellent.  I like Dropbox’s as it allows a PIN to be setup, so even if your phone itself is unlocked you don’t have to worry about someone accessing your data easily.  The Skydrive app, while its desktop equivalent isn’t available on Linux, is available on Android, and it’s one of the most well-designed apps I’ve used.  It has a strong Metro appearance, and from what little I’ve used it’s very easy to navigate and use.  It’s also far easier to browse images in the Skydrive app compared to Dropbox, as the icons are larger by default.

So which cloud service to use?  There’s ups and downs to all services, and for file syncing and backup any are better than not using anything (unless you already back-up your data, which of course you do, right?).  If you plan on collaborating with many people and don’t need a heavy office suite, it’s hard to beat Google Drive.  If you do need to use Office but you already have a “proper copy” installed, then you may get by using Dropbox; otherwise if you do need full Office support and don’t have a copy then Skydrive may be the best for you.  If you’re running Linux, then Dropbox may be one of the few or only options out there. There are plenty of other services out there as well (SugarSync, SpiderOak, etc.) and all of them offer a trial, so feel free to try as many as possible before deciding. Welcome to the cloud!