Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Online file storage: what are the best options in the cloud?

Author: Riley Alexander, MD, MBA

Storing your files in the "cloud" has become a mainstream activity in the last couple of years and because of this, the options to do this have really expanded. Many of these services operate on a tiered service plan with an initial allotment of storage for free and yearly subscription fees for additional gigs of space to dump files into. I have used many of these and really started to implement them into my daily usage much more in the past few months so I'll offer my opinions of what I've used.

Dropbox (
Without a doubt, this is the most widely-used cloud storage option...and for the most part, for very good reason. This service has been around for awhile now and the increased competition has mostly shown how good the service is. Dropbox doesn't offer a huge amount of space for free, 2 gb, but this is plenty for documents and work-type materials. You can earn free additional space for referring people who sign up as well. The big perk of Dropbox is its usability. It syncs across all devices, desktop and mobile, and has a lot of interoperability with other apps on the market that only enhance its usability. Dropbox creates its own folder on any of your computers that is the same across all devices and acts like a local drive for all intents and purposes--except for that it syncs with all your devices automatically when you add stuff. Sharing particular folders is a snap and provides a very quick and secure method to share files with friends/colleagues. The biggest caveats to Dropbox are its limited amount of free space and the rather costly premium plans compared to the competition.

Sugarsync (
I have to say, I've only been using this for about a week now, but am completely in love with this service already. A free account nets you 5 gb from the start, which is over twice what Dropbox offers. Importantly, it, like Dropbox, syncs across all devices automatically and with ease. The big difference between the two is that Sugarsync does not create its own folder to place folders and files in to for syncing purposes, it simply has you choose local files on your device's drive to sync. In addition to this, you can choose to have any or all of your devices "truly sync" the folders you chose to Sugarsync, i.e., the folders from you work computer will now show up in the documents folder of your home computer and any changes made on one will automatically be synced and reflected on the other.

If you're like me and constantly forget about your Dropbox folder on your computer when working on documents...this is a big plus. In addition, this method allows you to place things in your documents folder and de-sync them from Sugarsync when you are no longer working on that project as opposed to moving them out of the Dropbox folder when it's full/you're done with it. Sugarsync's method just works with my personal workflow much better. But this is why having options is a great thing, right?

I have to give credit to a Lifehacker poll on favorite file storage service for motivating me to try this, but I'm sure glad I did. (And if you're curious, Dropbox won the poll with a commanding lead).

iCloud (
As a Mac and iOS user I was very excited to see what iCloud had to offer when iOS 5 went live this past fall. Unfortunately, it's been mostly a disappointment. It does offer 5 gb of space for free and will backup your mobile device. However, it is the least geared towards file storage out of the bunch and is not nearly as friendly for it. I almost think of it as a Gmail account (it has its own built-in email with a rather nice interface) that plays very nicely with Apple products. Unfortunately, while I use a Mac at home, I use an old Windows laptop at work a lot and I do not use Apple office suite. Considering these things, iCloud does not provide a lot of value to me and I hope Apple works to improve its integration.

Windows SkyDrive (
Now that I covered Apple's entry, let's discuss Microsoft's solution to cloud storage. I will admit that I haven't used Skydrive much...there's that Mac user thing mentioned above. As you might imagine, Skydrive plays pretty nicely with Windows and Office. You can save directly to it from Office 2010 and you can sync files and folders across computers like Sugarsync, but with only 5 gb using "Windows Live Mesh" and it only works between PCs. It's looking like Skydrive will get incoporated even more in the upcoming Windows 8 and should get even better. It does offer a lot of free space, 25 gb is 5x or more compared to all the above-mentioned for free and you can access it over the web via Mac, it just lacks a lot of the deep features that make Dropbox and Sugarsync so nice. If you're a relatively device agnostic user like me (or just have to use a Mac or PC for work and can't do anything about it) Skydrive and iCloud are probably not your optimal solutions.

Box (
Box is really the only other cloud storage maker I've had experience with that's currently out there. I will admit, I jumped at signing up for Box right after the release of iOS while they were giving away 50 gb of free storage for free and it was not a trial--you keep for as long as Box is around. I wasn't passing that up. Now from this experience, to me Box is my source for dropping the big stuff. 50gb is a lot of space to use and it makes for a good place to place important media that take up a lot of space. It's web interface is actually quite polished and you can tell it's built around collaboration. Now, unfortunately, there is one big caveat in the "free" package offered, which is normally 5 gb...there is no syncing included. There are apps for both Windows and Mac, but these require a paid subscription. In addition to this, Box does have a whole suite of "apps" that add a great deal of productivity. It's certainly worth checking out and if you're an iOS user, the 50 gb offer is either just expiring or soon too so hop into the App Store and download now. Otherwise, it seems very geared towards a business client who can rationalize paying for the features.

Google Docs
Google Docs, the web-based office-suite is also a cleverly disguised online storage medium. You only get 1 gb of space, but it's with something you probably already use and is easy to access and provides drag and drop file uploading. The interface is rather primitive for a file hosting site, but certainly does the job. The big caveats are the limited space and the fact that it still gets hit as "personal storage" by many hospital IT departments (the most backwards IT departments of them all) and may be blocked when you need it most on rotation.


Online file storage sites are growing in presence constantly. Many right now are somewhat OS-specific, but the best are of the OS and device agostic type. If you're new to the game, I recommend staring with either Dropbox or Sugarsync. You can't go wrong with either.

About the author:

Dr. Riley Alexander is a pathology resident at Indiana University School of Medicine, blog "addict" and avid follower of technology. His primary interests revolve around how technology, especially mobile, will create increased efficiency, enhanced physician education and better delivery of care in the medical field. Dr. Alexander is a graduate of Indiana University School of Medicine with a combined MD/MBA, in partnership with IU's Kelley School of Business. Due to this, he is also very interested in management, healthcare policy and non-clinical aspects of the medical field and enjoys exploring non-clinical opportunities for medical students, residents and physicians. He completed his undergraduate education at IU-Bloomington.

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