Just about everyone who uses a computer or mobile device has some of their data in the cloud. Whether you simply sync your contacts, calendar, and reminders via iCloud, use Google Docs for productivity, or store all your files in Dropbox, you have entered the age of decentralized data.
It’s possible to work with all your files and data in the cloud these days. If you use Microsoft Office 365, you could store all your spreadsheets and presentations on OneDrive. If you use Google Docs, all your text files can be on Google Drive. If you use Apple’s iWork apps—Pages, Numbers, and Keynote—you could store all these apps’ documents on iCloud Drive. And if you still work on a computer, you could have all your files in Dropbox. (Well, not all; not your music files, videos, or apps.)
These various cloud storage providers make it possible to store lots of files in the cloud, ensuring they are accessible on all your devices, at any time. (Well, almost; you need internet access, and being out of range for cellular access often could be a reason to not store files in the cloud.)
In this article, I’m going to help you discover which cloud storage service is right for you, and compare the four major cloud services for file storage and access. Bear in mind that the providers in my cloud storage comparison are not your only options, but they are the four main players, and they all offer easy access across platforms.
If you use a Mac or iOS device, then iCloud Drive is at your fingertips. It is part of the OS X Finder, and an iOS app gives you quick access to files you’ve stored there on your iPhone or iPad. You can even install iCloud on Windows, which offers similar integration with the Windows Explorer (as well as syncing of data, such as contacts, calendars, bookmarks, and more). And if you’re using a public computer, you can access your files via a web browser at icloud.com.
If you own a Mac or iOS device, you get a free 5 GB on iCloud Drive. If you need more storage, you can purchase it for the following cost (US prices):
Note that you share this storage with any other iCloud-compatible apps and services. So your iOS device backups count against these amounts, as do your iCloud Photo Library, and your iCloud email. And with macOS Sierra, you may need more storage, if you want to take advantage of some of its new features, such as storing your Desktop and Documents folders on iCloud Drive, or using Optimized Storage, which offloads infrequently used files to the cloud.
Dropbox is one of the easiest to use cloud storage providers. Unlike iCloud, it only stores files; it doesn’t sync data (though some apps do sync data to Dropbox). Dropbox is available for just about every platform, be it iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Mac, Windows, and even Linux.
On a computer, Dropbox creates a folder and keeps it in sync with all your devices. It’s one of the simplest services to use, and also offers advanced features such as shared folders, and the ability to copy a Dropbox link to allow someone to download a file you’ve stored in your folder. Many desktop and mobile apps feature tight integration with Dropbox, and you can access files from the Dropbox website, making it one of the best choices for cloud file storage.
A free Dropbox account gives you 2 GB, and you can purchase more storage: You can get a Dropbox Pro plan, offering 1 TB, for $9.99 a month. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in-between the paltry 2 GB and the comfortable 1 TB. There is also a Business plan, with unlimited storage, for companies with large teams sharing files.
Unlike the other cloud services in this article, Dropbox only offers file storage. iCloud Drive, Google Drive, and OneDrive are each part of a broader system offering email, photo storage, data syncing, and more (each service has different features).
Google Drive is a lot like Dropbox. It creates a folder on your computer, where you can store files, and apps on mobile devices let you access the contents of this folder. Individual Google apps, such as Docs, Sheets, and Slides, store there files on Google Drive as well. You can use Google Drive on Mac and Windows, and on Android or iOS devices. You can also use Google Drive with a Chromebook, or through a web browser.
With 15 GB free, Google lets you feel comfortable right away. Note that this storage applies to files, your Gmail account, and Google Photos (if you use those services), but not Google Docs. You can create and store as many as you want, and if you need more storage, Google lets you go large. Here’s how much it costs:
Google Drive is practical and easy to use, and offers the largest amounts of storage for those who need it.
Microsoft OneDrive is an adjunct to the company’s Office 365 productivity suite, available on subscription. Offering a service similar to that of Dropbox and Google Drive, OneDrive lets you store and access files and photos on Mac, Windows, iOS, Windows Phone, and Android. If you have a Windows PC, then OneDrive is already installed. If you have a Mac, you can download an app from the Mac App Store; unfortunately, this app has a slew of bad reviews at the time of this writing.
OneDrive offers 5 GB free, and 50 GB for $1.99 per month:
If you use Office 365, you can get a subscription to these apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote) with 1 TB OneDrive storage for $6.99 a month, and $9.99 a month for five users, each of whom gets 1 TB. Business plans are also available.
OneDrive’s limited storage—at least if you don’t want to shell out for Office 365—makes it less interesting than other services. However, if you do need Office 365, and 1 TB storage, the $6.99 plan is a bargain, compared to the prices for 1 TB with iCloud Drive, Dropbox, or Google Drive.
Some cloud storage services tie you into an ecosystem. If you use a Mac and/or an iPhone or iPad, you’ll need iCloud storage for your data, your photos, and to back up your iOS devices. But what if you need more, or something different? Is iCloud Drive the best option? How about Dropbox or OneDrive?
Given Dropbox’s flexibility and ubiquity, I use that for my cloud storage. I’m not a big user of Apple’s iWork apps, and, even when I do make Pages and Numbers documents, I generally store them in Dropbox, if I want cloud access.
If you’re a Google Docs user, and if you use an Android phone and/or a Chromebook, then Google Drive is a natural fit. And if you’re an Office 365 user, Microsoft’s OneDrive is probably ideal for you. But with either of these services, you may still want more iCloud storage, if you back up iOS devices, or if you use iCloud Photo Library.
For many people, there is no One Cloud Storage Service to Rule Them All; it’s a combination of different services that, together, meet your needs. Fortunately, all these services offer free tiers, so you can try them out and see which works best for you. For most users, the free storage offered by Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive will be sufficient. The exception is iCloud, whose 5 GB gets cramped if you have a lot of photos, or more than one iOS device to back up.