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Cloud storage: which service is best?

Date

Adam Turner

Zoom in on this story. Explore all there is to know.

Apple's iCloud is easy to use, but unlikely to meet all your storage needs.

Apple's iCloud is easy to use, but unlikely to meet all your storage needs. Photo: Bloomberg

As online storage prices plummet, it's never been easier to back up your entire digital life to the cloud.

If you're not making back-up copies of irreplaceable files such as family photos then you're sitting on a ticking time bomb. Between fire, flood, theft, computer virus, hardware failure and simple human error there's no shortage of disasters waiting to claim your files – whether they be business reports, school assignments, holiday snapshots or home movies.

You might keep back-ups on a USB drive or network-attached storage drive in the study, but a fire, flood or break-in which claims your computers and handheld devices could very well claim those back-up drives as well.

For true protection, you need "off-site" back-ups stored away from home. Copying them to a disc or USB drive and leaving them at a friend's house is one option, but automatically uploading them to the cloud offers a set 'n forget alternative.

The cloud storage giants are engaged in a price war, with Google striking the latest blow by slashing costs to US$1.99 per month for 100 gigabytes, $US9.99 for 1 terabyte or $US99.99 for 10 terabytes. To put that in perspective, a terabyte is large enough to store around 200,000 high-res digital photos or 150 hours of 1080p video captured on a smartphone.

It's possible to manually upload files via the Google Drive website, but to make life easier you can also install Google Drive software on your computer to automatically upload new or changed files. The desktop software can also automatically copy files between your computers, via the cloud, plus you'll find Google Drive mobile apps for Android, Apple and Windows Phone devices.

Amazon's archive-grade Glacier cloud storage service can match the price of Google Drive, but Glacier doesn't offer instantaneous access to your files or sync them between your devices. Your files are stashed away on Glacier servers where they can take a few hours to retrieve, but this might not bother you if you're only using the cloud as an emergency backup in case you lose everything.

While Google's pricing and flexibility is tempting, it's far from your only choice. Other major players include Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive and Amazon Cloud Drive – all of which provide similar access to your online storage via web browsers, desktop apps and mobile apps. Both Google and Microsoft also offer cloud-based Office suites for editing documents, spreadsheets and presentations online. Microsoft's OneDrive is designed to keep backup copies of these online files on your computer, but Google Drive isn't.

These four services offer handy places to store your online backups, but they're primarily designed as syncing services – synchronising your desktop files with the copies on the cloud and your other computers. You'll also find a range of online backup services such as Mozy, Carbonite, CrashPlan and Jungle Disk. Their desktop software offers a lot more fine-grain control over exactly what is backed up from your computer, often with the ability to retain previous versions of files in case you need to roll back. Some also include sync features.

Apple's iCloud is also worth a mention, although it's more restrictive than the other cloud storage options. iCloud isn't designed to backup an entire desktop folder full of mixed files. Instead iCloud's primary job is to backup iGadget photos and iWork office files to the cloud, as well as synchronising them between Macs and iGadgets. It's a handy feature but, unless you're tightly wedded to the Apple ecosystem, iCloud is unlikely to meet all of your backup needs.

Online backups become more complicated when you're dealing with smartphones and tablets, especially if you're not in the habit of regularly backing them up to your desktop or notebook computer. Backups are vital if your handheld gadgets have replaced your digital camera and camcorder, otherwise losing your phone could mean losing months or even years worth of family photos.

Apart from Apple's iCloud, mobile apps such as Google+, Dropbox, Flickr and Amazon Cloud drive can automatically upload your happy snaps to the cloud – but don't trust them until you've tested them. While some are supposedly designed to run in the background, they can leave you in the lurch if you haven't opened the app for a while.

Rather than backing up your mobile photos directly to the cloud, you'll find mobile apps like PhotoSync which makes it easy to wirelessly backup your photos and videos to a folder on your home computer or network-attached storage drive. From here it's easier to back them up to the cloud.  Some NAS drives can connect directly to cloud services like Dropbox, giving you the option of automatically backing up all your devices to the NAS and then letting the NAS handle the job of uploading them to the cloud for safe-keeping.

In the years to come there will be plenty of people with no baby photos to show at their 21st birthday, because their parents lost everything in a digital disaster. Don't wait until it's too late to put a reliable backup regime into place.