Best Free Cloud Storage

Online storage isn't just for backups anymore. Mobile technology and online collaboration have grown dramatically in recent years, and thus the need for access to data with just about any device anywhere that online connections are possible. Cloud storage services are a convenient means of keeping important files in one place and also serve as a reliable backup option. Fortunately, there's no reason to pay for this service: Some of the best cloud storage options are free and others cost no more than 50 cents a gigabyte annually.

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Our Top Pick

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Microsoft SkyDrive Review

Our Picks
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Microsoft SkyDrive Review

Microsoft is making a strong case for its online services with SkyDrive, a cloud storage service that offers lots of flexibility and storage for little, if any, cost. A Microsoft SkyDrive review by PC Mag confers the Editor's Choice award on this cloud. The reviewer cited several things to like about SkyDrive. It has a clean, simple interface, for example, and users can share files with others and even let them edit those files in Microsoft's web-based office applications. A review by PC World is likewise laudatory, praising the service for its simplicity, sharing options, speed, and syncing. Still, the review suggests that a visual cue indicating when a sync is complete, with a checkmark or other icon, say, as other services provide, would be welcome. An added bonus with Microsoft SkyDrive: The generous amount of free storage and the cheap cost of extra storage.

SkyDrive offers 7GB of free storage to each user, although you must first create a Microsoft account. (If you have an account for other Microsoft online services, such as MSN, you can sign in to SkyDrive using that information.) SkyDrive works with several platforms and devices, including PCs, Macs, iPhones, Android phones, and Windows phones, like the HTC Windows Phone 8X. The service uses Microsoft's online Office programs for viewing and editing documents and files, which can be shared with others. Additional storage costs $10 a year for 20GB, $25 a year for 50GB, and $50 a year for 100GB -- a bargain when stacked against competing cloud services.

SkyDrive is a simple, straightforward cloud service that offers more free storage and cheaper upgrades than others. It's fast and syncs easily, and lets you share with colleagues. The fact that SkyDrive uses Microsoft's very popular Office software doesn't hurt, either.

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Dropbox Review

Dropbox is one of the oldest and most popular cloud storage services, and based on Dropbox reviews, it's clear this service has the cloud thing down pat. Top Ten Reviews says it's very reliable and lets you access your data from virtually anywhere on virtually any web-enabled device. A review by Macworld notes that the desktop application is relatively simple, with few features or options, while the web-based interface is very robust. The reviewer especially likes how easy it is to sync files across all of a user's devices that have Dropbox installed; folders shared with others sync across their devices as well. It saves deleted or older versions of your files for 30 days, so you can return to previous versions if need be -- and these files don't count against your storage limit. Like Microsoft SkyDrive, Dropbox garners an Editor's Choice award from PC Mag, which commends the "effortless" file syncing and points out it's one of the few services that work with Linux and Blackberry operating systems. On the downside, this cloud costs more than other services.

Dropbox supports a wide variety of devices and platforms, including Windows, Mac, Android, iPhone, Linux, Blackberry, and the Kindle Fire. It offers 2GB of free storage, which isn't much compared to competing clouds, but users can earn additional free storage by referring other customers; storage-earning promotions also pop up occasionally. Additional storage is pricey -- $9.99 a month for 100GB, $19.99 a month for 200GB, and $49.99 a month for 500GB -- but signing up for a year yields savings at all three levels.

Given its compatibility with way more operating systems and devices than the competition, Dropbox is currently the closest thing to a "universal" cloud storage service there is. Its reliability and strong sharing features should draw in power users or small businesses with lots of files to store and share. Excellent, yes, but costly storage options could deter some potential users.

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Amazon Cloud Drive Review

All you need do to use Amazon Cloud Drive is sign up for a free Amazon account. The simplicity of the service appeals, according to Amazon Cloud Drive reviews, but the lack of features is a downer. Notebook Review talks up the cheap price for extra storage, the ability to store music files bought from Amazon without any impact on your storage limit, and the speed at which files move along to storage. On the other hand, notes the review, there are no file-sharing options and files on your desktop and in the cloud don't sync automatically. A reviewer from Pocket-lint also laments the lack of file syncing and, as a result, the need for more hands-on management. The review by Macworld dittos that assessment but concludes this is a decent service for users seeking a quick and easy way to store some files online.

Amazon Cloud Drive offers 5GB of free storage with a free Amazon account. As noted above, music files bought through Amazon can be stored in the cloud without any charge against the free storage limit, one of the few frills this service offers. (You can listen to the files online through Cloud Drive's music player.) Additional storage is cheap -- only 50 cents a gigabyte for a year -- so $10 will get you 20GB of storage. Both PCs and Macs mesh with Cloud Drive, as does Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet; mobile devices such as iPhones and Android phones do not.

Cloud Drive might suffice if your priorities include buying a lot of music files from Amazon and/or "filing isn't forgetting" some documents or photos. It's a simple service that uploads data quickly but is light on features. The lack of syncing and sharing options is definitely a drawback. There are other cloud services that offer free storage while still including plenty of sharing and syncing features and apps for mobile devices.

Buying Guide

Free Cloud Storage Guide

We looked at a handful of free cloud storage services and settled on Microsoft SkyDrive as our favorite. Microsoft offers a variety of attractive features and more free cloud storage than other services (7GB), with the cost of additional storage as cheap as you'll find. Dropbox, our second choice, boasts a large, loyal customer base and offers lots of features, although free storage is available only up to 2GB. Amazon also maintains a cloud for its users -- Cloud Drive -- but the service lacks the features and flexibility of the top two on our list.

Our preferences aside, all the services we researched provide some amount of free storage, so there's no harm in giving any or all a test drive to determine which works best for you. Of course, there's nothing stopping you from using more than one free cloud storage service if you're so inclined. Indeed, there are plenty of cloud storage services out there. Google runs Google Drive, which anyone can use, although dedicated users of Google products and services will get the most out of it. And Apple offers iCloud, which makes all your documents, music, apps, photos, and more available and up-to-date on every iOS-enabled device you use. SugarSync is yet another free cloud storage option, but the cost of extra GBs is comparatively high.

There are several features to consider when searching for the best cloud. First, decide how much storage you need. Cloud storage sites typically offer between 2GB and 7GB of free storage, with prices for additional space ranging from 50 cents a gigabyte to more than one dollar a gigabyte a year. Then think about how you plan to use the storage. Each free cloud storage provider offers a specific array of services. For example, cloud storage is a great way to share files with others, especially when jointly creating documents or collaborating on a project, but Amazon's Cloud Drive doesn't have any sharing options. Device support is something else to take into account. A good free cloud storage service should be compatible with both PCs and Macs, at the very least, and most services also support mobile devices such as iPhones, Android devices, and others that use the Internet. And of course, you want a cloud service that's fast. You shouldn't have to wait long for files to upload or download.

Finally, the matter of security. All cloud storage services require passwords and protect their servers with encryption technologies that are commonly used for other types of web sites and services. These encryption technologies are quite good, making it unlikely that someone will burst into your private cloud from the outside, although security breaches are always a possibility with any site. As for concern about files disappearing, cloud storage services back up files in multiple locations, so even if something happens to one server where your data is stored, that data will be backed up on another server somewhere in the cloud.

Cloud Storage Reviews

Cloud Storage Speed

The performance characteristic to focus on when choosing a cloud storage provider is speed. Naturally, when you upload and download files, you want the process to happen quickly -- especially if you're transferring large amounts of data. Fortunately, cloud storage reviews indicate the free cloud services we looked at pass the speed threshold.

An expert cloud storage review at Macworld, for example, says Microsoft SkyDrive delivers fast uploads and syncs files quickly. And the lean interface runs smooth and fast, adds PC Mag. Dropbox uses a clever trick to keep uploads moving along rapidly, according to another cloud storage review in PC Mag: The program only updates file information that has changed since the last time you synced your files, which saves both bandwidth and time. Amazon Cloud Driveis very simple, says a Macworld cloud storage review, and the process of storing files advances at a good clip. The online giant Google is, of course, known for speedy web searches, so it's not surprising that a cloud storage review by ZDNet says uploads and downloads with Google Drive are "insanely fast."

Cloud Drive Storage Features

Cloud services offer several features for storing, sharing, and managing data. Generous amounts of cloud drive storage come free, but if you need more, the cost of additional space is quite cheap. Sharing options enable others to access your online files. And the more devices that can access the cloud, the better; you may not want to edit text on your smartphone, for example, but you might want to review it.

Cloud Drive Storage

All the cloud services we researched offer at least some free storage, but some users need more than a few gigabytes to store their stuff. Both the pricing and the amount of extra storage you can buy vary from one service to another.

Microsoft SkyDrive charges an annual 50 cents a gigabyte for additional cloud drive storage on top of the free 7GB you automatically get; if you buy 20GB for $10 a year, you'll have 27GB total, which is a powerful lot of storage for such a low price. Amazon Cloud Drive also costs 50 cents a gigabyte for extra cloud drive storage beyond the free 5GB, and media files purchased from Amazon, such as MP3s, don't count against your storage total if you keep them in your cloud.

Extra storage with Google Drive is far pricier: 5GB is free and 25GB costs $2.49 a month. (Google has plans for extra cloud drive storage up to 16TB.) Dropbox is more expensive yet, perhaps justified by its richer array of features, including different pricing tiers for home and business users and compatibility with more operating systems and devices. This cloud storage provider offers only 2GB of free storage (although you can earn more by referring friends and family to the service), and the smallest amount of storage in the Dropbox "Pro" tier you can buy is 100GB, which will set you back $9.99 every month.

Cloud Storage Sharing

Online collaboration is a growing trend, so most cloud drive storage services let you share files with others. What's the big deal? Flexibility and convenience. You may, for example, want to email a link to a specific file to a colleague or share a link with others via Facebook or Twitter. Recipients can then view or edit those files online or download them.

Microsoft SkyDrive offers many ways to share, a feature highlighted in a cloud storage review at Macworld. A cloud storage review by PC Mag likes the many sharing options that come with Dropbox, including a public folder where you can place files, but points out that Dropbox doesn't have any built-in collaboration editing tools. Google Drive lets you share large files, such as videos, notes a cloud storage review from ZDNet. Also, thanks to Google Drive's large file support, you can share Photoshop photos or other file types even if the recipient doesn't have the specific program that supports that file.

Amazon Cloud Drive is the least sharing-friendly service we researched. It has no built-in file sharing options. This means the only way you can share files is to give recipients your Amazon account login information, which we emphatically do not recommend.

Cloud Storage Device Support

Cloud storage isn't just for computers. There are plenty of devices that can access the web, and providers have done a good job, for the most part, making their cloud drive storage available to a variety of electronic devices. For example, Dropbox is accessible through iPhones and iPads, as well as Android and Blackberry phones. Dropbox even supports the Linux operating system, in addition to Windows and Mac. Both Dropbox and (naturally) Amazon cloud services are compatible with the Amazon Kindle Fire. Amazon Cloud Drive, however, is pretty PC-centric -- it doesn't offer support for iPhones or Android phones, at least not yet. Microsoft SkyDrive works well with Windows phones, not surprisingly, and also lists Android and iPhone devices among its supported products. Google Drive supports the usual gadgets, including Android phones, iPhones, and iPads. Also, Google Chrome users have access to special apps in conjunction with Google Drive, such as a video editing program and a fax program.