Why Use an Online Storage Service?
The top performers in our review are IDrive, the Gold Award winner; Google Drive, the Silver Award winner; and Dropbox, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a service to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 services.
Drive through most U.S. cities and you'll pass by a handful of storage unit facilities. These are typically non-descript cinderblock buildings with hundreds of single-car garages where people store everything from excess clothing and mattresses to cars they no longer use. The point of these facilities is to securely store all of the items you can't keep at your house or apartment. If you've never had too much stuff, you may have never noticed these industrial-looking buildings. The same goes for online storage services: If you've never filled your hard drive, you probably never needed to pay much attention to online storage services.
In principle, online cloud storage services are much like storage units, only on a virtual level. Instead of renting a storage space in a nondescript cinderblock building, you're renting hard-drive space on an enormous server farm. Using a desktop app and an internet connection, you're able to upload and retrieve your files. With the best online storage services, you can store all of your data with your account, not just the excess data that won't fit on your computer's hard drive. In essence, it is a hard drive that exists on the internet.
Online Storage Services: What is the Cloud?
The most popular term for online storage is the "cloud." But for many, the concept of the cloud is as abstract as an actual cloud is intangible. But there is an analogous correlation between the two: The clouds you see in the sky are condensed water vapor collected from water sources all over Earth via evaporation. Eventually, water precipitates back to water sources where the cycle begins again. In a way, cloud storage represents the collective storage of data that is continually within a cycle of moving back and forth between the source and the cloud.
The best cloud storage providers facilitate this cycle quickly and easily. Personal cloud storage should be easy to access, but it should also provide excellent security features. In our cloud storage comparison, we found that many services offer unlimited cloud storage, which means there's no limit to the amount of storage you have online. It's like having a hard drive with unlimited space. With unlimited cloud storage, you never have to stress about which files you have to delete in order to free up storage space.
Cloud Storage vs. Online Backup Services
It's common to mistake online storage services for online backup services, and vice versa. And it's easy to see why – both industries advertise storage as one of their most important features. Many of the features are the same, and it's possible for a service to be both an online backup service and a cloud storage service. In fact, many services use the terms interchangeably. But there is an important difference, which is made apparent by asking one simple question: Can you treat the service like a virtual online hard drive?
Online backup services like Carbonite create mirror copies of your files, which the app then uploads to the service's online servers. This means that if you change the file, the changes are added to the servers, creating a new version of the file. But this also means that if you delete the file from your computer, the online backup app removes the file from your account, though you generally have a 30-day grace period to restore files before they're permanently deleted. In other words, with an online backup service like Carbonite, your backup storage is limited to your computer's hard drive even if you're paying for unlimited storage. You can't dump files into your online storage account to free up space on your computer.
On the other hand, online storage services, rather than creating mirror copies of your files, require you to manually delete files from your online account. This allows you to delete files from your computer while allowing you to restore them whenever you want. In this way, your laptop could have a 250-GB hard drive, but you could have 1TB or more on your cloud storage account. If your laptop is stolen or the hard drive dies, your cloud storage still acts a protection for your files because the data is located on a separate server. In this way, an online storage service can also be an online backup service. Unfortunately, the reverse isn't true – a true online backup service like Carbonite can't act as your online storage service.
Choosing the Best Personal Cloud Storage for You
When you sign up for home cloud storage, you generally have the choice between several personal cloud storage plans. Many of the personal cloud storage services in our review start with a free plan, which usually limits you to between 2GB and 15GB of storage. These free services are excellent for users that just want to protect their most important photos. These plans are also great for users that have files and documents that they want to sync between all of their devices, thus eliminating the need for a USB drive to transfer files from one computer to another.
The best home cloud storage plans offer unlimited online storage for unlimited devices, which means that you can sync and store files from all of the computers, phones and tablets in your home. With these plans, you never have to worry about exceeding a certain limit and getting hit with fees. You never have to choose whether to delete a file or not in order to save space. However, these plans are the most costly plans, though the overall value is usually the highest.
Other home cloud storage plans have tiers that limit your storage or the number of devices you can connect to your account, or both. For example, Google Drive features a tier of plans that range from 100GB to 30TB.
For small business owners, you should consider our business cloud storage review. Every service in our review offers cloud storage specifically for businesses. The best business plans offer scalable storage that you can customize to meet your company's needs. These plans also offer advanced features that you generally don't need with the personal or family plan, such as unlimited file versioning and unlimited bandwidth for file-sharing purposes between employees and clients.
Choosing the Best Online Photo Storage for You
For a long time, family photos were stored in thick albums on a bookcase. And that was the problem with film – it took up space. As digital cameras took over, so did the digital photo. Digital photos allow you to take thousands of high-quality photos without taking up space on your bookcase. But these digital photos need to be backed up and protected, just like any other digital file. Online picture storage is like having a bookcase of albums in the cloud.
The best online photo storage services provide an online web portal where the photos can be viewed and shared in full resolution. You can organize photos into albums, add captions, and send them to family and relatives. Every cloud storage service in our review is capable of storing photos, but some services are better than others.
When you sign up for Google Drive, you're also signed up for Google Photos. With Google Photos, you can organize all your photos into albums and collages. You can even create shared albums, allowing friends and family to add photos. OpenDrive and Dropbox also have similar features built within their online portal.
Secure Cloud Storage: How Secure is the Cloud, Really?
Any time you entrust your personal information, documents and photos to a third-party service, security is a concern. Many people have concerns with cloud file storage exactly for this reason. They don't want to risk having their personal information and files stolen. Headlines about companies being hacked often fill the news. Sony was famously hacked, so was Target and many other companies. The most secure cloud storage services make your privacy a priority.
To find the most secure online storage service, you need to start with the encryption. The best cloud file storage services encrypt your data in layers. You should always choose encrypted cloud storage with SSL transfer encryption, because this ensures that nobody can see your files if they hack into the servers or the network. Encryption is like armor around a file. Without the encryption key, hackers can't view the file.
However, encryption doesn't protect you from brute force attacks. This is a hacking method designed to obtain your password or PIN, either through deception or complicated software. The most common brute force attack method is to send you a link, usually through email or text, saying there's something wrong with your account. The link sends you to a login page that looks identical to the cloud storage service. You enter your password to log in but still can't get in. Meanwhile, the hacker has recorded your password and can access your account. It's like you've given them the key to your front door – they can now walk right into your account, bypassing any encryption protection the cloud service offers.
One way to guard against this is to encrypt your files using a third-party app. If the cloud storage service offers the option, you create your own encryption key. In both instances, you control the encryption key, which must be entered to decrypt the files. And only you have possession of that key.
Another way to guard against brute force attacks is to choose a secure cloud storage option that utilizes the two-factor authentication, also known as two-step verification. This method requires two steps to log in: When you enter your password, you're directed to a second page where another PIN is required. The PIN is sent to you via text message or email. In this way, the login requires your presence and attention. Even if a hacker gains access to your password, they can’t gain access to your account without your phone or email.
Online Storage Services: What We Tested, What We Found
When you open your online storage account, the first action you'll take is to upload all of the files that you want stored. Unfortunately, uploading hundreds of gigabytes of data can take weeks or months depending on your internet provider and the service you've chosen. If you're using an online storage service as part of a backup strategy, which is common, then the upload and download speeds are critical, because this represents an anxious time when your data isn't protected.
The best online storage services provide fast upload bandwidth and quick access to your files. We also evaluated the desktop app's ease of use. Most online storage apps are designed to work in the background, but that doesn't necessarily translate to less headaches for the user.
Before testing, we evaluated 23 online storage services. Services with a low value, such as MyOtherDrive, were eliminated because they cost too much per computer to contend with the top cloud storage services. After the cost evaluation, we tested 18 cloud storage services for upload and download speed. We also looked closely at the ease of use for each service. Of the services we tested, the best-performing services made our comparison of the top 10 cloud storage services.
Several variables influence upload speed. On your end, your modem and your internet provider influence your upload speed. Many internet providers impose bandwidth caps or slow your bandwidth to a trickle if you exceed a specified amount of data each month. On the online storage service's end of the transaction, the upload speed can vary according to the amount of traffic on the service's network, which means the speed fluctuates throughout the day.
To test the upload speed, we started by creating multiple data sets. Each data set was a different size and had a different file count. The data sets comprised common files – documents, photos, videos, music and spreadsheets. We wanted to make sure that we used a different data set for each round of testing. This ensured that each online storage service was tested with the same data set during each round of testing.
To account for fluctuations in network traffic on the service's end, we performed tests at all hours throughout the day and ran tests on the weekend. To account for upload bandwidth on our end, we continually measured the bandwidth of our internet and only performed the test when the upload bandwidth was within a specific range for each service. We also performed each test on the same computer so that the processor and memory was the same for each service.
We timed the upload from the initiation to completion and then calculated the MB per minute. Using this average, we calculated the number of weeks it would take for you to upload 1TB of data to the cloud storage service if the upload was uninterrupted. The best cloud storage services were able to potentially upload 1TB in less than a week while the slowest services would conceivably take over seven weeks.
It's important to note that these results aren't definitive. For example, it's unlikely that you'd let the upload run uninterrupted for weeks. In addition, your network bandwidth is likely different from ours. As a result, these speeds are indicative of the service's performance and should be treated as a comparison. You may experience faster or slower speeds.
The download speed is similar to the upload speed, except instead of transferring data to the online storage service, you're retrieving it. The same variables exist with the download speed as with the upload speed – your network provider's bandwidth and network traffic on both ends. To test this, we mirrored the upload speed tests but in reverse. We performed each test multiple times on the same computer and the same network. We also tested this at various times of the day, including late at night and on weekends. The speeds are an average of these tests calculated to represent the time it would take to download 1TB.
As with the backup speed tests, it's important to note that you may experience faster or slower results. The goal of a test such as this is to provide a comparative platform – each service was tested in the same environment with the same download bandwidth on our network. Considering the average speeds as applied to 1TB of data, assuming that the speeds would remain constant, the service with the fastest download speed, SpiderOakOne, could potentially complete the restore in less than a week. The slowest, Microsoft OneDrive, would take over a month to download the same data.
Ease of Use
Online storage is meant to be very easy to use. With many services, the desktop app is little more than a folder you add files to. With other services, the app is full of tabs and features that you could easily get lost in. As such, the best online cloud storage services are easy enough for a novice user to master.
The difficulty in measuring ease of use is the inherent subjectivity of it. What you may think is easy may, in fact, be difficult for another user, and vice versa. Ease of use is unique to each individual's experience and technical aptitude levels. Still, we evaluated each service's desktop app according to a specific set of criteria that we deemed important for a novice user – very few steps in the upload and download process, clearly labeled features accessible from the desktop app, a non-reliance on symbols and smooth operation that completes tasks without any problems.
The easiest cloud storage apps have one to three steps between initiating an upload or download of files. Fewer steps means there's little chance a user could make a mistake. In addition, features need to be easily accessible from the app. With many services, you can only access features, such a downloading a file, through the web portal or right-clicking the icon in Windows' control panel notification area. Also, you shouldn't have to guess what a feature is by the symbol that represents it. Instead, the feature should be clearly identified with text. Finally, the app needs to perform without issue. If it's buggy, then troubleshooting the issues is left to the user, which presents a major obstacle to a novice user.
After evaluating each service's desktop app, we graded the evaluations from the perspective of a novice user. The highest grade represents the easiest apps for a novice user with little technical experience. The lower the grade, the greater the learning curve. It's important to remember that ease of use is relative. If you have a high level of experience and technical aptitude, then you might find that services with the lowest grades are easy for you to master.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained accounts for the services in our comparison either on loan from the companies or through retail purchase. The services had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. The results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What Else Is Important in Selecting an Online Storage Service?
Some online storage services are spartan with their features – you can basically upload and download files. Other services are packed with features, most of which are superfluous to the average user. However, some are more important than others. Below are features you should consider:
There are entire services build around online file sharing, but many of the cloud storage services we reviewed allow you to share files on a very basic level. To share a file, you create a URL that you copy or send to whomever you want to share it with. The URL directs them to a webpage where they can download the file. This is a great feature if you want to share family photos or documents.
Most cloud storage services offer some degree of device syncing. With some services, like Dropbox and iCloud, the desktop app is built around this concept – a folder that is mirrored on all of your devices. When you change a file on one machine, the change is automatically uploaded to the cloud and then downloaded to the other devices. Sync folders eliminate the need for a thumb drive to transfer files between machines. You edit a document on your laptop and then move to your tablet and the changes are reflected there.
Third-Party App Integration
Some cloud storage apps are much more than a place to store and protect files. Some services, like Dropbox and Google Drive, are designed to integrate with a host of third-party apps. These apps can range from photo-editing apps, which edit the apps directly within your account, and accounting apps that help manage your financial spreadsheets. The purpose of third-party app integration is to give you more options for how you use your cloud storage account. However, allowing third-party apps access to your account has some security risks, so you have to weigh the advantages over the potential pitfalls.
Help & Support
Most online data storage services are easy to use, but having solid help and support options is always a plus. Some companies offer FAQs, tutorials, forums and a knowledgebase that offer a wealth of information that you can search for answers before contacting customer support. In case you need to contact customer support, most services offer telephone, email and live-chat options.
Online Storage Services: Our Verdict & Recommendations
Admittedly, IDrive has an online backup focus, but you can use it for online cloud storage as well. Not only does IDrive provide exceptional value, it was also one of the best-performing apps in our download and upload tests. In addition, it comes with file-syncing and sharing features, and the security protocols are exceptional, which is why it earned the Gold Award in our review of the best online storage services.
Google Drive received the Silver Award because of its great performance and good value. The integration with your Google account makes it a very versatile cloud drive service. Dropbox earned the Bronze Award with fast upload and download speeds and comprehensive cloud access features, though it lacks some key security features.
Amazon Cloud Drive is another cloud storage service worthy of mention. It has one of the highest values in our comparison and the performance is very high. It's also one of the easiest apps to use. However, it lacks some key cloud access features, like device syncing and file sharing, though you can supplement the service with other Amazon apps to fill these gaps.
Online storage services provide peace of mind by protecting your data on remote servers, but these services also provide you with an easy way of accessing and sharing photos, documents and more. You can free up space on your hard drive while ensuring you'll never lose your personal files. To learn more, read our articles on online storage services.