What Cloud Storage Service Is Best for You?
Amazon, iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive all have upsides
Chances are you’ve wrestled with how best to protect your digital information.
With all the files you likely have on your laptop, smartphone or tablet, including important documents and irreplaceable photos and home movies, you need a backup for when — not if — something happens, like a nasty virus, power surge, corrupted drive or lost or stolen gear. Having at least two — three is better — copies of important files or folders is critical.
Along with local backup, like an external hard drive, memory card or USB stick, a cloud account is an increasingly popular solution.
Benefits of cloud storage
• Cloud services can protect your data from local threats, such as a flood or fire, by keeping a copy securely hosted on servers in another place.
• Every time you snap a photo — after you conveniently set your phone — it will automatically upload a copy to the cloud.
What about using an external hard drive instead?
Investing in an offline backup solution is also a smart way to protect your files.
A local option, like an external hard drive or solid-state drive, means you still have access to your backup even if you don’t have an internet connection or if your connection goes down, and an external drive has no recurring monthly costs. You can purchase a 2TB brand-name hard drive — Seagate, Silicon Power, Toshiba, Western Digital all make them — for less than $60 online.
Hedge your bets and use both a cloud account and an offline drive.
• Large files can be sent from your cloud account. That’s better than trying to attach a huge file to an email, which then may not go through.
• All your backed-up stuff can be accessed securely from virtually any internet-connected device. Most cloud services have free apps that make it easy for you to download or upload files.
• To back up files, you don’t need to plug anything into your device, which can be challenging on a smartphone or tablet.
• A few gigabytes (GB) of cloud storage backup are free to start and cost a couple of bucks a month, depending on how much storage you want.
Note: The space that each digital file takes up varies. An average document is quite small — it's usually just text — so tens of thousands will fit in 1GB of storage, which is equivalent to 1,000 megabytes (MB). A high quality photo can be as much as 5MB, so 1GB can store 200, and likely more, high-resolution images and far more standard-quality photos. The size of music files also varies by quality but is about 2 to 5MB per song. Video files are bigger than audio files, and video compressions, or how much they're shrunk in size, can vary greatly. But you can fit about five high-resolution movies on a 1GB drive or about 15 to 20 TV episodes.
So if you’re sold on cloud backup, which service should you go with?
Here are some thoughts to help you decide from among some of the biggest players — including Amazon, Apple iCloud, Dropbox, Google Photos/Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive — and a high-level look at what you get with each service.
Be aware: If you cancel your subscription with a cloud provider or don't pay, the service will contact you via email with a warning about losing your storage after a certain date. Companies always have a grace period to relocate any content that exceeds the storage limit, but it varies by provider. Usually it's 30 days or the end of your current billing cycle, whichever comes first. Then you will be downgraded to the free plan.
Amazon Drive/Amazon Photos: A part of Prime
Whether you use the app for mobile devices or computers, Amazon Drive for iPhone/iPad or Android gives you access to your photos, videos, music and documents, which you can edit. You get 5GB for free to use however you like over multiple devices.
Need more storage? Additional plans start at $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year for 100GB.
If you’re primarily interested in photos, Amazon Prime members, who now pay $15 a month or $139 a year, receive unlimited photo storage. It's baked into every Amazon Prime account, along with other benefits.
The Amazon Photos app for iOS, updated this past fall, lets you easily search your Amazon cloud drive to see photos and videos in several categories, including people, places or years. You get 5GB of video storage as part of your membership. Additional video storage plans start at $1.99 a month. Amazon Photos is also available on Google Play for Android devices, Windows and Macs, plus Amazon smart screen devices such as Echo Show and Fire TV.
Apple iCloud: iPhone, iPad, Mac get it automatically
iCloud is integrated into iPhone, iPad and Mac computer operating systems.
iCloud also works with a Windows PC — a one-time download — or you log on to iCloud.com. Android phones don't have an iCloud app available, but users can go to iCloud.com.
Since users get only 5GB of free storage, expect a message about running out of space at some point, especially if you’ve enabled photo and video backup on a compatible phone or tablet. You can opt to buy more storage, called iCloud+. You can't earn additional storage like you can with Dropbox and OneDrive, but costs for additional iCloud storage are 99 cents a month for 50GB, $2.99 for 200GB and $9.99 for 2 terabytes (TB). A terabyte is 1,000GB.
iCloud also lets you sync bookmarks, contacts, calendars, documents, email and media among devices. If you pay for one of the iCloud+ plans, you get a Hide My Email feature, which generates a random email address whenever you fill out an online form or sign up for something, to help avoid spam in your main inbox, and HomeKit Secure Video support, which allows you to view the last 10 days of activity for up to an unlimited number of compatible indoor or outdoor cameras, depending on your plan.
Dropbox: Earn free space
The granddaddy of cloud services, Dropbox supports multiple operating systems and has a clean and simple interface.
But Dropbox Basic offers only 2GB of free storage, much less than other cloud providers. Referring friends, linking to social media and opting in to other promotions can significantly increase your storage without paying.
You can upload files from your phone, tablet or computer and send large files to people even if they don’t have Dropbox accounts. You can edit Microsoft Word or Excel files from your mobile device. If you like, you can have all your photos and videos automatically upload to Dropbox.
Dropbox Plus starts at $9.99 a month for 2TB, plus family plans are available for up to six users.
Google Photos/Drive: Integrated into Android
Android users get Google Drive as part of their operating system, and Google Drive is also available for Chromebook, iOS, Mac and Windows. It offers up to 15GB of free storage, ample for most casual users. Plus it works seamlessly with Gmail, which is ideal for large attachments, and Google Photos.
Once your files or folders are uploaded, you can easily invite others to view, edit or leave comments, which is similar to other services. Along with fast search, you can enable offline viewing of specific files, scan paper documents and more.
Unlike Dropbox and OneDrive, you cannot earn additional storage. More storage costs $1.99 a month, $19.99 a year for 100GB; $2.99 a month, $29.99 a year for 200GB; or $9.99 a month, $99.99 a year for 2TB.
Microsoft OneDrive: Part of Windows 10 and 11
Just as Google Drive is part of Android, and iCloud is built into iOS, Microsoft’s OneDrive is included in Windows 10 and 11. In fact, when you set up a Windows computer for the first time, you’ll be prompted to create a OneDrive folder in Windows Explorer. A Mac version is available, too.
If you’re an avid Windows user, OneDrive is for you. It’s even listed as a yellow folder in Windows Explorer, so you can drag and drop files between your cloud account and local drives — internal or external.
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With the OneDrive app for phones and tablets, you’ll get the same 5GB of free storage or 100GB for $1.99 a month. An annual Microsoft 365 Personal subscription at $69.99 a year includes Excel spreadsheet, Outlook email, PowerPoint presentation, Teams messaging and Word document software, and you’ll get 1TB of OneDrive storage. Microsoft 365 Family, $99.99 a year, includes the Microsoft Office apps and provides 6TB of storage for the family or up to 1TB per user.
Features include options to upload your new photos and videos automatically; receiving notifications when a shared document is edited; finding photos on your OneDrive easily, thanks to automatic tagging; and annotating and signing PDF files stored online.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.