Google Drive review: Adding cloud storage to the mix

Google's new cloud storage service is a strong competitor, but not yet a winner.

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Advanced searching and beyond

Google has done more than just create a cloud-based repository of files. Google Drive also includes Google's search features. But not only on text -- you can also search through PDFs (I tried it on various PDF files and had no problems). And thanks to some interesting capabilities brought in from the Google Goggles tool, you can search on images as well.

For example, I uploaded some travel photos onto my Google Drive and then went to my Google Drive account on the Web and searched for the term "Venice." Google was able to identify one of the photos as being of Venice, even though Venice was not in the file name or written anywhere in the image. It didn't find two other photos of the city, so clearly it's not perfect. Still, the process felt a little like magic.

There is a hitch, however: That kind of searching capability is only available on the Web. When you search through your Google Drive on your PC or your Mac, you only use the native search on those devices, so Google Goggles doesn't come into play. On an Android device, of course, you use Google's search, so the image search works there.

Google Drive has something else going for it in addition to Google's search engine that its competitors don't: An ecosystem of third-party developers hungry to tap into its capabilities. At the launch of Google Drive, a number of developers simultaneously released products that work in concert with it; for example, collaborative video editing on Google Drive from WeVideo, or sending faxes directly from Google Drive and receiving them as PDFs using HelloFax. You can expect plenty of more add-ins eventually.

In fact, it may well be that these add-ins will hold the key to whether Google Drive will beat out competitors such as Dropbox, SugarSync and Box, because those companies are unlikely to be able to have the same massive ecosystem developing for their cloud-based storage apps.

Google Drive versus the competition

Google Drive enters a crowded marketplace with many competitors, notably Dropbox, SugarSync, Box and Microsoft's SkyDrive. Generally it stacks up well, especially on price, although SkyDrive offers less expensive storage, and SugarSync offers at least one important feature that Google Drive lacks (see details below).

Google Drive gives you 5GB of free storage; if you want more, you can get 25GB for $2.49 per month, 100GB for $4.99 per month and 1TB for $49.99 per month. When you move to a paid account, your Gmail storage also gets bumped up from 10GB to 25GB.

Dropbox offers 2GB for free; after that, it's $9.99 per month for 50GB of storage and $19.99 per month for 100GB. SugarSync offers 5GB for free; if you want more, it's $4.99 per month for 30GB, $9.99 per month for 60GB, and $14.99 per month for 100GB. Box also offers 5GB of free storage; you pay $9.99 per month for 25GB and $19.99 per month for 50GB.

SkyDrive used to offer 25GB of storage for free, and anyone who began the service with that quota still gets to keep it. Newer users get 7GB of free storage and a variety of pricing features, such as 100GB for $50 per year. It's the only one of the group that offers less expensive storage than Google Drive.

Cloud storage services

Box Dropbox Google Drive SkyDrive SugarSync
Free storage 5GB 2GB 5GB 7GB (25GB for earlier users) 5GB
Paid storage 25GB for $9.99/mo., 50GB for $19.99/mo. 50GB for $9.99/mo., 100GB for $19.99/mo. 25GB for $2.49/mo., 100GB for $4.99/mo., 1TB for $49.99/mo. 20GB for $10/yr, 50GB for $25/yr, 100GB for $50/yr 30GB for $4.99/mo. or $49.99/yr, 60GB for $9.99/mo. or $99.99/yr, 100GB for $49.99/mo. or $149.99/yr
Desktop apps Business/Enterprise plans only Windows, OS X Windows, OS X Windows, OS X Windows, OS X
Mobile apps Android, iOS, Blackberry Android, iOS, Blackberry Android (iOS coming) iOS, Windows Phone Android, iOS, Blackberry, Symbian
Maximum file size (free service) 25MB 2GB 10GB 2GB None

There are strong similarities among the top cloud storage services -- and some differences. Dropbox, like Google Drive, installs as a drive on your computer, Mac or mobile device; it stores all the files you put there in the cloud and syncs them among your devices. Dropbox has a strong user base and a large number of supporting apps, which is an advantage. However, given Google's clout with third-party developers and Dropbox's higher prices, it could be in for long-term trouble.

Box also installs as a drive on your computer and offers strong sharing features. However, the service is mainly directly toward businesses, and this shows: Users of the free service can only upload files up to 25MB in size and there are no desktop syncing features available unless you upgrade to a business account, which starts at $15 per month.

SkyDrive was recently upgraded with clients for Windows and the Mac, so that stored files are available directly from your computer rather than just from a Web interface. There is now also an iOS client (although not yet one for Android). However, SkyDrive doesn't yet automatically synchronize files from the cloud onto devices, a serious shortcoming. Microsoft has announced that it will eventually merge SkyDrive with Live Mesh, Microsoft's syncing software, and so will likely automatically perform syncing. Right now, though, it's not as good as Google Drive.

SugarSync works slightly different from Google Drive, and is much easier to use for syncing multiple devices. It doesn't install as a separate drive like Google Drive, Dropbox and SkyDrive. Instead, when you install it, you indicate which folders you want copied to the cloud and synced to other devices. So you choose from your existing folders on a folder-by-folder basis; no need to create new folders. And you can also have some folders sync to some of your devices but not others. For pure syncing, it's superior to Google Drive.

The bottom line

It's this simple: If you want cloud-based storage and syncing, install the free Google Drive even if you're already using a competitor. Easy to use and with 5GB of free storage, there's no reason not to try it. (Although my colleague Lucas Mearian disagrees -- see "What to consider before signing up for Google Drive.") Given that there will likely be a rich ecosystem of add-ins at some point, the service will only get better over time -- potentially dramatically so.

If you're only interested in cloud-based storage and syncing among multiple devices, it's a keeper, although not as good as SugarSync for syncing on a folder-by-folder basis. But Google Drive still needs work, particularly when it comes to editing files created in Microsoft Office on a PC or a Mac.

So when you use Google Drive today, expect an evolutionary change to the way you work with files, not a revolutionary one.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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