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Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Tale of Two Drives

Well other than an attempt at being witty, this post won’t be so much of a “tale”, but more of a short story of two drives. This past week saw the release of two “new” entries into the cloud storage space. I place emphasis on “new” as both offerings aren't really new, but both have added the additional feature of a desktop app that dramatically increases their usefulness.

If you haven’t guessed already, I’m talking about the Google Drive and SkyDrive announcements. Both services have existed for quite some time now, but both have also required that you log in to their respective websites to upload and access files. With the release of their new desktop apps, they are now contenders against my cloud storage favorite, Dropbox. I mentioned recently that it would take a pretty sweet offer to draw me away from Dropbox. Well fear not Dropbox, this isn't a Dear John letter. Rather, I’d like to let you know that I’ve got some new friends joining our cloud party.

Google Drive

Oh Google Drive, your intro video speaks to me of all the new and wondrous things that I’ll be doing with your magical new service, yet you fail to mention that you’re really just the same old Google Docs that I’ve had a love-hate relationship with for many years now. You've gone and bought yourself a pretty new dress though, and I’m a cheap date, so that’s enough to bring me back for another stroll around the cloud.

With the release of a desktop syncing application and accompanying mobile apps (Android or iOS), Google is now re-branding the old Google Docs as Google Drive. Instead of uploading and downloading files solely through a web browser, it now has drag and drop simplicity through desktop folders added to its bag of tricks. If you've ever used Google Docs in the past though, you’ll find that the web interface of this new service is nearly 100% identical.

I’ve been using Google Docs for a long time now and have found it most useful for the storage of video files. Your first reaction to that statement might be that I should use You Tube for video. My hang up there has always been that I never want to lose the original source file for my video. When a video is uploaded to You Tube, the original is lost and converted into a much smaller, lower quality file suitable for Internet streaming. I was very excited when Google began offering a feature for Google Docs that allows me to store full video files and then share those files with a You Tube-esque player that can stream the video without forcing the viewer to download the original file. For example of what the player looks like, here is a very old video of me flying a Cessna 172 in Australia shared through Google Drive.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of cell-phones and digital cameras that can shoot 1080p HD video (which produces HUGE file sizes). About a year ago, I decided that I needed somewhere to backup my huge videos files in the cloud, but wanted some way to easily share those videos without having to put my files in two different places. Google Docs fit the bill with their incredibly cheap storage. Cheap that is, until last week when Google infuriatingly chose to double their storage prices. Check out the comparison below of what Google Docs storage used to cost just one week ago, and what it costs today:

Now, I understand what Google is doing from a business perspective. They've dramatically increased the usefulness of their product by adding a much easier way to access and utilize their service. As a result of that increased usefulness, they are likely to see a dramatic uptick in usage and the higher prices are there to compensate for this. I’m still hurt though. Very hurt (seriously I had a nerdy tantrum when I heard about this). Storage prices should go down over time, not increase dramatically. By removing a price tier, Google has actually decreased the usefulness of this service for me. Where I once could get 80GB of storage for $20 a year (and am grandfathered in on that plan with Google Drive), I now only have the option of 100GB for $60 a year when my storage fills up. Previously, I could have had 200GB for $10 less than the 100GB plan. I would have been much happier if the cheaper option had remained for those of us who don’t need the desktop sync client.

Update 3-13-14: Finally! Google Drive prices are now much lower!

I mentioned above that I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Google Docs for quite a while. The reason for that is that when the video sharing options work, they work great. When they don’t though, it can be maddening to figure out why. Many times I have configured all of the sharing settings correctly when sending a video to friends and family, only to hear back in some cases that my video cannot be viewed or Google is asking them to sign in with a Google account. Based on how I configured sharing, that shouldn't have happened. I ended up having to resort to some very hackerish URL modifications that I found in a forum somewhere to get things to work. That shouldn't be necessary, and may not always happen, but I still don’t trust that shared URLs are going to work for non-Google users. 

I won’t go into a full review of the Google Drive service as much has been written in the press about it this week. What I will say, is that while I consider Dropbox to be far more well designed (Google Drive’s web UI is seriously ugly), far simpler to use, and far more useful to me with its unlimited retention of deleted files (with their Pack-Rat feature), I suspect that Google Drive will hit that “good enough” sweet spot for most consumers.

It matches Dropbox spec for spec in almost every area, and despite the price increase, offers 100GB of storage for $60 a year versus Dropbox’s $99 a year, 100GB plan. .Since I’m a bit of a cloud storage snob, good enough won’t quite cut it for me and I won’t be replacing Dropbox with Google Drive just yet. However, I will continue to use Google Drive\Docs as I have for many years for video uploads and continue to use Dropbox for most other uses.

Another area where I may continue to use Google Drive is for documents where I need real-time collaboration with others. This is one area where Dropbox falls flat on its face. When two users edit a file simultaneously on Dropbox, two copies of the file are created. Google Drive, on the other hand, allows users to simultaneously edit a document in real time. Take a look at the video below that offers a short demo on how this works:

Real-time collaboration is an excellent feature that brings me to a big point I’d like to make in this post. There will likely be endless arguments on what cloud storage option is the best. It really shouldn't be about that and there isn't any reason you can’t use multiple services for different reasons. For example, some (like myself) that primary use Microsoft Office may prefer a similar real-time collaboration feature from SkyDrive that integrates nicely with Office.

SkyDrive (Now OneDrive)

Ah yes, I did say this was a tale about two drives didn't I? Well along with Google, Microsoft also announced a desktop syncing enhancement to their existing SkyDrive service this week. Very much like Google, their service has existed for quite some time as a web-only interface for uploading and accessing files. SkyDrive also offers an iOS app, and of course, a Windows Phone app.

I signed up for SkyDrive early on to play around with it, and am lucky enough to have been grandfathered in with the 25GB that they used to hand out for free. Users signing up now will only be offered 7GB. I suspect this is being done much for the same reasons that Google increased their prices; make the service more useful and more people will use it. If you even dabbled with SkyDrive in the past, check your account quickly as you may need to claim the 25GB of space that you are entitled to.  See the chart below for options on increasing the size of your SkyDrive:

Again, I won’t go into a detailed review of SkyDrive as you’ll find many such reviews on the web. What I will say is that if you use Microsoft Office and you want to collaborate with someone on a file, you may find that SkyDrive is an excellent option for your Office files. Check out this example on what SkyDrive can do for collaboration:

Another feature that might be useful to the 525 million Windows 7 users worldwide who may consider an upgrade to Windows 8 is that Microsoft plans to tightly integrate SkyDrive with their Windows 8 operating system. This could be a killer feature for many as it will make using SkyDrive effortless. See the following detailed post from Microsoft on how this will work.

SkyDrive does have video sharing capabilities much in the same way as Google Drive, though I was disappointed that there didn't seem to be any way to adjust video quality for slower Internet connections as I can do with files shared from Google Drive. On the other hand, the image sharing features of SkyDrive do look excellent. I’m not quite ready to switch away from my Picasa Web Albums that I’ve used for the past five years, but check out this post for an example of the nice image galleries that can be created on SkyDrive.

One downside I have noticed with SkyDrive, is that it has a 2GB limit per file (thankfully up from 300MB). That won't be a problem for most, but geeks..uh...I mean technology enthusiasts like myself that may choose to store huge ISO images will find it to be a problem. For the record, Dropbox has no file size limit and Google Drive's limit is 10GB per file. 

I’m still in the early stages of playing around with SkyDrive so there isn’t much more I can say about it yet. I’ve had it for a while but never found it useful enough to add to my tech toolkit until the release of their desktop app this week. I’ll be sure to update everyone if I find great uses for it in the future.

Want More?

If you just can't get enough of cloud storage and want to read a tale of 13 “drives”, see this excellent comparison on multiple cloud storage competitors from The Verge.