In Pictures: 9 free personal Clouds

Personal Cloud services allow users to store data, share it among devices and collaborate with teams

  • A personal cloud service lets you share photos, music and documents among all your devices easily and quickly, but the way that sharing happens depends on which cloud service you choose. We looked at nine personal cloud services: Apple’s iCloud, Bitcasa, Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, MediaFire, SpiderOak and Ubuntu One.

  • If you have an iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch or a Mac, you have iCloud available. ICloud is also available for download for Windows 7 and 8 users. iCloud provides storage for photos and documents you want to share between devices. You can share photos with others using Photo Streams. Your iOS devices can also be backed up to iCloud, which is handy if you need to replace a device or do an upgrade.

  • Using iCloud from an iOS device or a Mac requires little effort since it’s already built in. Using iCloud on a Windows 7 or 8 machine requires that you download the iCloud Control Panel. ICloud does not have a provision for ad hoc storage of documents on Windows or Linux desktops. And you can’t share music with other people via iCloud.

  • Bitcasa bills itself as an infinitely large drive that never runs out of space. In reality, you get 10GB for free, but infinite space costs $99 a year. The Bitcasa app is available for Windows 7 and 8, and there are specific apps for Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone and RT. Bitcasa says that you can get to your data on their Infinite Drive from any device with a browser. I can confirm that it worked on any mobile device I tried including a BlackBerry Z10 running QNX.

  • Bitcasa supports syncing with other drives on your computer in real time. Bitcasa also bills itself as a way to do away with your existing backup devices. Bitcasa will not let you sync a network drive to the cloud, although you can copy the contents with a single mouse click. You can, however, sync an external drive. You can share your content with others by creating a URL that can allow them access to a folder or a file. Overall, Bitcasa is fast, effective, reasonably priced and highly flexible.

  • Box offers personal cloud services, but the company normally presents itself as a corporate platform focused on collaboration. Box is available for mobile devices running iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry, and you can download Box Sync for Windows and Macs. While Box will sync with any folder, you have to drag the folder to a folder on your Desktop called “My Box Files.’’

  • The real focus for Box is collaboration. When a group is using Box, they can see each other’s updates, leave comments, make changes and suggested changes. In addition, you can control how others get access to the files and control whether it’s through a link, a download or a shared workspace. You can also control who gets access by limiting it to just you, specific people or specific domains. Box uploads are quite fast because Box has developed an upload accelerator which works much like a content distribution network.

  • At its core, Dropbox is a place in the cloud where you drop stuff. That stuff can be pretty much anything from music to photos to documents. It’s a great way to keep files that you may want available for your mobile devices, and for files that you may want to share. Dropbox includes apps for most computers and mobile devices including Windows, Macintosh, some Linux distributions, iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Kindle Fire. There is a third-party app for Windows Phone.

  • Dropbox includes version tracking which can be extremely useful for collaboration because it will let you see who made which changes, and it will let you roll back to an earlier version of a file if you need to. The version history covers the last 30 days of the document or other file. Dropbox works by creating a folder on your computer that it syncs with the cloud storage. That syncs with other devices that you have running Dropbox. You can also reach your Dropbox storage through the company website.

  • When you download Google Drive, you get additional Google apps whether you want them or not, at least on some platforms. For example, you can download Google Drive on a Windows computer only as part of a package that includes Google Sheets, Google Slides and Google Docs. On the iPad, you can limit your download to Google Drive. Google Drive is available for Windows and Macintosh computers, Android and iOS phones and tablets. Google Drive is also available on the Web using nearly any Web browser.

  • Folder synchronization works in Google Drive in the same way it works with the other personal cloud services. Google Drive is also tightly integrated with Google Docs which you can use on the Web even if you don’t have the app on your computer or mobile device. In use, Google Drive works quickly, and Google gives you a number of features including an effective search utility for your Drive contents. Google also gives you good visibility into your file activity. Uploads are fast and Google lets you preview the contents of a file without having to open it.

  • Everyone who has a Microsoft account gets a SkyDrive account, all you have to do is sign in to SkyDrive on the Web. SkyDrive is a file sharing site, a folder syncing site, a cloud storage site, and even a backup site for some products. If you have a Windows Phone or a Windows tablet, your photos are likely stored on SkyDrive already. Any device can use the SkyDrive Web page, but there are apps for Windows, Macintosh, Android, iOS and Windows Phone that let you automatically sync your files. SkyDrive is tightly integrated with a number of Microsoft applications including Microsoft Office.

  • The Fetch feature of SkyDrive is designed to allow you to download any file on a remote computer, not just files that are synced in the SkyDrive folder. If you go to a meeting and leave your PowerPoint slides on your office computer, you can simply fetch them remotely, even if they’re not synced into the SkyDrive folder. We found no limitations as to the sort of file that can be stored in SkyDrive. Even large Adobe Photoshop and raw camera files files loaded and previewed properly. Microsoft says that you can store and play animated GIF files using SkyDrive, however you can not stream music files.

  • MediaFire allows you to stream music and video files directly from the website. However, some file types aren’t supported or in some cases even recognized. In addition, large uploads appeared to be somewhat slower than with other services we tested. On the other hand, this is the only service in this review that lets you stream audio and video files directly from the website. MediaFire also allows you to create a public drop link that allows users to send files to your MediaFire storage without having to log in.

  • Business users will like that MediaFire supports custom branding, so you can put your own logo on the file site, and you can incorporate the FileDrop widget on to your company Web page. The professional and business versions allow you to upload entire folders, which you can’t do with the free version. MediaFire includes apps for Windows, Macintosh and Linux as well as for Android and iOS devices. The fact that MediaFire Express was still in beta may explain some inconsistencies in how the service performed.

  • Privacy is SpiderOak’s hot button. According to the company, the site is so secure that even they can’t break in and see a user’s data. So that means if you forget your password, your data is locked away forever. SpiderOak adheres to the Zero Knowledge Privacy standard, which is based on the idea of having really secure information that’s encrypted at every stage starting with the user’s computer through transmission and into storage.

  • You cannot easily save items to the SpiderOak website, and when you upload items, it must be through the SpiderOak App. Unfortunately the SpiderOak website cannot preview files, including image and document files, as long as they’re in the SpiderOak Hive folder. However if the same files are saved to the root directory of the SpiderOak file tree, then some types –notably JPEGs - can be opened. Other types of image and document files still won’t open there.

  • Ubuntu One is the new cloud storage product from Canonical. It’s available to users of Ubuntu Linux, but there are also versions for Windows, Macintosh, Android and iOS. You can also use Ubuntu One on the Web. This service is still under development, and it shows. Some features that are commonly available in other cloud services either don’t exist or exist only in slightly unusual ways with Ubuntu One. For example, if you simply visit your files in the cloud and click on them, there’s no preview feature.

  • Music streaming is only available if you buy the streaming app, which is optional. The Ubuntu One apps create a folder on your computer or mobile device with which you can sync files. However for Windows users that’s a significant limitation in that the only files that Ubuntu One will let you sync are those that are located in your Home folder. This follows the Linux convention where users don’t normally have any accessible space anywhere outside of the Home directory. In Windows, however, the Home folder is a relatively recent development, and storage of data files elsewhere is common.

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