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What does ‘cloud storage’ mean?

Created date

March 15th, 2017
Image of woman's hands and cloud icon representing cloud storage

Whether it’s raining or not, there’s probably still a cloud in your future. Ever wondered what everyone’s talking about when they talk about storing things “in the cloud”? It’s probably both easier and more useful than you expected.

What is cloud storage?

The term “cloud storage” is sort of a fancy way of saying that something is not stored on a piece of hardware in your possession. Instead, it refers to a way of storing files on multiple storage drives, which are located in various locations and connected to the Internet. For example, a photo that you upload to a cloud storage service may be stored redundantly on three different hard drives in three different buildings. This is so that if one of those drives breaks or one of those buildings goes up in flames, your photo is still safe and accessible.

Why use it?

In practice, it means that you get a certain amount of disk storage space for whatever you want to store and the peace of mind that it’s safely backed up without having to worry about your computer crashing or your phone falling into a toilet.

It also makes sharing photos and videos a cinch. Many services have mobile apps that can sync with your smartphone’s camera and automatically back up each photo you take. It also lets you sync your files across all of your devices.

Caveats

As always, there are some things to keep in mind. Uploading large amounts of photos or music from your phone can quickly eat up your cellular data plan. Most apps take this into account and only back up photos when on a Wi-Fi network rather than cellular data. Different services offer different security options, but take care when backing up sensitive files, including things like tax documents and anything containing lots of personal information like social security numbers.

Note: Services do occasionally update the storage offered for each of their available plans. The numbers cited here were accurate as of press time.

Dropbox

It may not be the “grandaddy” of the services on this list, but it’s probably the closest to being synonymous with personal file storage. With solid apps for most smartphones and a solid desktop application, it’s easy to store just about anything with Dropbox, including photos, videos, Word documents, PDFs, music files, and much more. A basic free plan gives you 2 GB of space, with a paid plan that increases your storage space to 1 TB for less than $10 a month. (Depending on image resolution, 2 GB should get you anywhere from hundreds to thousands of photos.) You can also earn an extra 500 MB of space for each new user you refer to Dropbox, up to a maximum of 16 GB.

Google Drive

A bit different from the other storage options, Google Drive still lets you store all sorts of different file types, but they also include Google Photos, which has various features for managing, sorting, and lightly editing your photos. Google Drive can also convert common document types into Drive documents (essentially Google’s version of an office suite) that let you collaboratively edit text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations from a web browser or mobile app. Not surprisingly, Google is closely tied to Android phones and you’ll need a Google account to get started, but the broad offering of services all centering around Drive make for a pretty amazing set of features. Google Music lets you upload your music files and organize playlists and then stream them anywhere from a browser or app. Another perk is the roomy 15 GB of space you get with a free account, with paid plans available for more space.

OneDrive

Similar to Google Drive in that it aims to be more than just a storage space for files, Microsoft’s OneDrive integrates closely with the company’s other offerings like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to help manage specific file types across devices. Plus, it’s pre-installed into the latest versions of Windows, so if you use Windows and have a Windows phone or tablet, this may be your ideal service, although they have apps for older versions of Windows as well as Android and iOS devices. Their free plan gives you 5 GB of space.

Apple iCloud

Speaking of services that are closely aligned with particular operating systems and mobile devices, there’s also Apple’s offering: iCloud. If you’re an Apple devotee or even if you’ve got mostly Apple devices like a Mac and an iPhone or iPad, this may be the simplest solution. In addition to enhanced photo-storage and -management features, iCloud lets you back up your phone contacts and even helps find your lost iPhone or iPad. The free plan starts with 5 GB of storage, with paid plans offering more space.

Amazon

Amazon’s enterprise cloud storage forms the back-end of a lot of large storage systems out there, so it only makes sense that they’d offer personal file storage to consumers. If you’re an Amazon Prime member and/or a Kindle Fire owner, you’ll want to pay close attention. Prime members get unlimited photo storage (yes, unlimited) and 5 GB for other types of files with Prime Photos. Plus, you can share your photos account with up to five people and create a Family Vault for sharing. And the app lets you order prints of photos as well as photo books, calendars, and more. For unlimited storage for all file types, Amazon offers a paid plan.

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