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Which cloud storage service is right for you?

The war for cloud storage dominance is heating up. New contenders frequently join the fray, but which service reigns supreme? Join us for a comparison of the most popular, and the newest cloud services to see which offers the best bang for your storage buck.

The competitors: Dropbox, SugarSync, Google Drive, Box, Bitcasa, SkyDrive, and iCloud

The comparison:

1. Dropbox

Dropbox, founded in 2007, is arguably the most popular cloud storage service. In the last seven months, Dropbox has increased its users by 75 million, and is continuing to grow. At its first annual DBX conference, it announced a host of new APIs and new initiatives to fundamentally change the cloud as we know it.

But, in the here and now, Dropbox offers very competitive rates and features. With clients for Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, iOS, and Windows Phone, it supports more platforms than any of the other services here, and it offers competitive rates per GB of storage. Users can earn up to 20GB of free space by recruiting friends (18GB from recruiting at 500MB per recruit + 2GB free with a new account). More storage is available for purchase, with 100GB at $99.99/year, 200GB at $199.99/year, or 500GB at $499.99/year (monthly installment plans are also available for these packages).

Upon installing the desktop app, Dropbox creates a folder on your computer that uploads anything deposited into it to the cloud. Anything uploaded is then shown in the Dropbox of any other computer or device linked to your account. It's incredibly easy to use, and its well-designed mobile apps allow you to upload photos you take with your smartphone camera straight to a folder in Dropbox.

One of the few downsides to Dropbox is that it doesn't allow you to mirror folders already on your computer. So you either need to upload everything, and then work out of the Dropbox folder, or use a syncing program if you want to use Dropbox as a backup method. The other is that while Dropbox does encrypt your files, they will respond to any law enforcement request for data, including DMCA claims. Fortunately, Dropbox's policy is to insist on a court order before turning over any of your data, instead of immediately complying to a simple request. You can read Dropbox's privacy policy here.

2. SugarSync

Released in late 2009, SugarSync has seen several design changes in its time. SugarSync 2.0, released earlier this year, encompasses the company's best platform yet. With a complete visual overhaul across the entire service, SugarSync is finally primed to take on the cloud storage big shots like Dropbox.

It too, offers competitive rates, but is not supported on as many platforms as Dropbox. While a lack of Linux and Windows Phone support aren't deal breakers by any means, SugarSync's other innovative features more than make up for any shortage here. Users can earn up to 37GB of free storage (significantly more than Dropbox) through recruiting other users (37GB includes the 5GB included with each new account). Paid plans start at $75.99/year for 60GB, $99.99/year for 100GB, and $249.99/year for 250GB (monthly installment plans are also available for these packages).

SugarSync works a bit differently from Dropbox. It doesn't create a folder on your computer, instead, everything is held in the cloud and synced to SugarSync (hence the name). For example, I download SugarSync, and tell it to sync my Documents folder. Everything in that folder is uploaded to their servers, but it all stays on my computer for local editing. If I add a folder, or create a new document, that change is instantly reflected in SugarSync and uploaded.

In addition, instead of creating a "physical" folder on the computer, SugarSync links a network folder called SugarSync Drive. Unlike anything you copy to Dropbox, for instance, data in the SugarSync Drive doesn't take up space on your computer. You're basically mirroring your data to SugarSync, and it's uploaded and updated in real time. The only downside to this is that the networked folder requires Internet access. If you lose your Internet connection, you still have access to everything on your computer of course, but anything held in the cloud on SugarSync Drive (i.e. any data not synced to your computer) will be unavailable until Internet access is restored. To clarify, say I have uploaded pictures taken with my phone to SugarSync, but have not elected to sync those to my computer. If I lose Internet, I'll have access to everything on my computer that I've either mirrored to, or synced from SugarSync, but I won't have access to stuff like those photos that are only stored in the cloud.

SugarSync doesn't explicitly address DMCA/law enforcement related claims, but they do say that they "may disclose your personal information if required to do so by law or subpoena or if we believe that such action is necessary." SugarSync uses TRUSTe to handle their enforcement, which you can learn more about here. You can also read SugarSync's privacy policy here.

If you don't want to be forced to work out of Dropbox's single folder, and would rather keep working from the folders on your computer, but mirror any changes you make to the cloud, SugarSync is the service for you.

3. Google Drive

A rather new entrant to the cloud storage war, Google Drive was a rumored service for a long time before it actually launched in April 2012. Offering more free storage than any of its competitors just for signing up, at 15GB, signing up for a Google Drive account is worth it even if you don't think you need cloud storage. Being able to upload and share files with others is worth it, and 15GB is more than enough for these purposes.

Google Drive is supported on the same platforms as SugarSync, and is very easy to use. More like Dropbox, and less like SugarSync, Google Drive puts a folder on your computer than you can choose to use as supplementary storage, or upload everything to it and work out of it. Also similar to Dropbox is Google's privacy policy. While Google will investigate DMCA/law enforcement claims, it will also require a court order before turning over any of your data. They also will not close your account if someone files a complaint that turns out to be true. You can read Google's privacy policy here.

Far and away, Google Drive offers the most storage if you choose to pay for a plan. Its rates are also the lowest of any of the providers here, except for SkyDrive (unfortunately, SkyDrive maxes out at 100GB). If you so desired, you could get 16TB of storage for $799.99/month, for an average of $0.58 per-GB-per-year. But, unless you're a business, or a person who needs a lot of storage, more reasonable rates can be had that max out at $0.60 per GB per year. You can view all of the plans and their prices here.

4. Box

Box is a bit of an anomaly in the world of cloud storage. Aimed at businesses, Box's rates are absurdly high for personal accounts. $20/month for 50GB of storage is pretty outrageous compared to the offerings from its competitor. But, if you have at least 3 users, Box offers 1000GB for $15/month and a whole host of other features not offered to its individual accounts.

Its application, Box Sync is available for the same platforms as SugarSync and Google Drive. It works like Dropbox and Google Drive, allowing you to sync files and folders from your Box account to your computer. You can edit the contents of these folders, and the changes are synced to the cloud in addition to shared copies on other people's computers. This functionality aligns with Box's goal of being a business-related cloud solution.

Like SugarSync, Box utilizes TRUSTe to handle its privacy/data complaints. While Box "will not give, sell, rent, share, or trade any of your personal information or any data that you store using our services," they are still forced to investigate any claims made by law enforcement or copyright holders. You can view TRUSTe's privacy policy here, and view Box's by going to their homepage and clicking "Privacy Policy" at the bottom of the page.

If you're interested in a cloud storage solution for your business, Box is the one to check out. You can view all of its features, as well as pricing tiers here.

5. Bitcasa

One of the newest cloud services, Bitcasa takes a different approach than the rest of its competitors. It offers 10GB of free storage, and has only one paid plan -- unlimited storage.

In essence, Bitcasa is an external hard drive in the cloud. When you download the app, much like SugarSync, it creates a networked point on your computer called the Bitcasa Infinite Drive. The difference is that it offers unlimited, yes, you read that right, unlimited storage -- "Keep every file you have ever owned in Bitcasa. Ditch the external hard drives, and store your files in your Bitcasa Infinite Drive to free up space on your computer and phone. Never run out of space again." Bitcasa can make this claim through their special use of encryption that breaks your files up into tiny bits, and then matches it with already uploaded, similar files on their servers, drastically reducing the amount of data they have to hold.

You can either work out of Bitcasa (not recommended, see below), or mirror your folders to it for constant backup of local files like with SugarSync.

Bitcasa does have a few downsides though. Because it has to encrypt and break up all of the data you upload, speeds are rather slow. In addition, because it has to decrypt everything you access on the Infinite Drive in real time, the app has a tendency to hang while trying to open large files, or access folders with a lot of data in them. This isn't an issue if you choose to mirror because you're still working with local files, but if you choose to use Bitcasa as the basis for your file system, you'll be greeted with surprisingly annoying slowdowns.

Despite Bitcasa's rather rigorous encryption, your data is still susceptible to DMCA claims. Fortunately, "To be clear, aside from the rare exceptions we identify in our Privacy Policy, no matter how the Services change, we won't share your content with others, including law enforcement, for any purpose unless you direct us to." While one of these rare exceptions is for DMCA claims, it's nice to know they respect the privacy of your files. Be careful though, if you do plan on hosting copyrighted material for some reason, Bitcasa does withhold the right to delete it, or terminate your account after an investigation is held. You can read Bitcasa's legal information here.

Infinite storage can be had for $99.99/year (or $9.99/month), and is a surprisingly good deal. I signed up for it, and use it to backup a bunch of large files that would take up too much space on SugarSync or Dropbox.

6. Skydrive

Microsoft's entry into the world of cloud storage is an interesting one. Built in to many other Microsoft products, like Windows 8 and Office, Skydrive is more integrated than other, standalone services like Dropbox or SugarSync.

Offering 7GB of storage at the base level, you can earn another 3GB if you're a student, or buy a package of up to 100GB for $50, the best price-per-GB of any service here. It works the same as Dropbox, Google Drive, and Box, providing a folder that sync anything put into it to the cloud.

SkyDrive really shines if you're invested into Microsoft's ecosystem. It ties into many parts of Windows 8, such as allowing you to sync your Windows 8 settings and preferences across multiple computers, as well as being baked into the OS at the system level. It's also integrated into Windows Phone 8, and offers several features like mobile photo upload, mobile document editing, and photo editing.

Unfortunately, SkyDrive has been frequently accused of rather egregious privacy issues. Microsoft has been known to scan users' files, and otherwise intrude on what should be personal data. In addition, Microsoft has come under quite a bit of scrutiny in the light of recent allegations of NSA spying on Americans. It seems Microsoft was rather complicit in the NSA's requests for access to their data, and essentially handed it over on a silver platter. SkyDrive's privacy policy is rather strict in telling you what you can do with your data, so you might want to think twice before putting your life online in Microsoft's cloud.

If you're not a Windows user, then SkyDrive just becomes a Dropbox competitor, offering similar features in a different interface.

7. iCloud

Contrasting Microsoft as usual, Apple's cloud offerings are a bit different than SkyDrive, and to be honest, different than all of the other choices here. Instead of giving you a folder to deposit stuff, or allowing direct access to your files through a web interface, iCloud is more of a sandboxed system that is tied directly into apps instead of being user-accessible.

Similar to SkyDrive, iCloud is really beneficial if you're tied into a specific ecosystem. In this case, Apple's. iCloud on iPhone and iPad allows you to backup your devices to the cloud, automatically sync photos taken to Apple's "Photo Stream", as well as sync things like calendars, mail, contacts, reminders, and even Safari bookmarks from phone, to tablet, to your Mac OS X computer.

Also like SkyDrive, "Apple reserves the right at all times to determine whether Content is appropriate and in compliance with this Agreement, and may pre-screen, move, refuse, modify and/or remove Content at any time, without prior notice and in its sole discretion." Essentially, Apple reserves the right to scan your files whenever it wants, and will comply with DMCA takedown requests that could result in the termination of your iCloud account. This is a pretty unfortunate policy, but like Microsoft, Apple offers many more services than just cloud storage, so their policy must be, at some level, more restrictive than companies like Dropbox or SugarSync who solely offer cloud solutions. You can read Apple's iCloud policy here.

There's nothing to download or install, iCloud comes preinstalled on any new Mac, iPhone, or iPad. There's a Windows client, but it doesn't allow you to do much more than sync your email, calendars, and contacts with Outlook, or sync your Photo Stream with a folder on your computer.

Most of the usability of iCloud, at least for documents, comes from applications that tie into it. For example, Ulysses, the application I used to write this article, saves everything in iCloud. This makes it easy to see my articles on-the-go through Ulysses's companion app for iPhone/iPad, Daedalus. But, many more programs tie into iCloud, like Preview (Apple's, well, preview app), as well as Apple's iWork suite of productivity apps.

Additional iCloud storage can be purchased at varying rates. Unfortunately, like many of Apple's other services/products, iCloud storage is significantly more expensive per GB than most of its competitors.

If you're an Apple devotee, or just happen to have an iPhone and Mac, investing some time and/or money in iCloud could be beneficial. Backing up your phone/tablet to the cloud is actually much nicer than backing up to iTunes, and Apple's suite of iCloud enabled apps is actually really easy to use. Even though I use Gmail as my email provider, I use iCloud for contacts, calendars, and reminders because of how effortless syncing this data is across multiple platforms.

Bonus Round: SpiderOak

In light of the privacy policies discussed here, it's worth mentioning a service that holds your data, and privacy, in the highest regard. SpiderOak, marketed as the privacy-concious Dropbox alternative, offers "100% Private Online Backup" with what they call a "'zero-knowledge' privacy environment." According to their information page, "SpiderOak's encryption is comprehensive -- even with physical access to the storage servers, SpiderOak staff cannot know even the names of your files and folders. On the server side, all that SpiderOak staff can see, are sequentially numbered containers of encrypted data."

Outside of their privacy policy, SpiderOak works similarly to Dropbox and Google Drive. They provide a folder that integrates with your computer where you can drag and drop files for uploading to the cloud. The only difference is that your files are locally encrypted, and cannot be access or viewed by SpiderOak or any third party. Their sync service is called SpiderOak Hive which allows you to sync any data uploaded between other computers or your mobile devices.

Accounts start with 2GB of free storage, and users can earn up to 10GB through referrals. If you like the idea of SpiderOak, but need more storage, increments of 100GB can be had for $10/month, or $100/year. You can see more pricing details here.

Conclusion

Whether you're new to the cloud, or are an experienced storage veteran, there's hopefully something here that's new to you. I've personally used all of these services at least once, and have paid for Dropbox, SugarSync, Bitcasa, Google Drive and iCloud at various times. Of all of these services, SugarSync is definitely my favorite, and is the platform I currently use. Bitcasa is the runner up, despite some of its speed issues. The idea of infinite storage is just so cool, and the whole experience is very well designed. If I was more devoted to Microsoft's ecosystem, I could see SkyDrive being a fantastic tool. Google Drive is great because its prices are low, and iCloud has the potential to be great. Box would be my goto pick if I was running a business.

No matter which you choose, you can't really go wrong with Dropbox, SugarSync, Google Drive, or Bitcasa -- they each offer unique features that sets them apart from one another, and are well-established enough to be worth your investment. I have some reservations about Box and SkyDrive, just because of the way they function, and the users they target, and unless you really want to live your life in iCloud, I don't really see a need to pay for Apple's extra storage. iCloud's default offerings are good enough.

Happy storing!