Google's entire business is based on offering the best cloud services around, so the fact that the company didn't offer a true cloud-based storage service up until now is downright odd. Certainly, you could store files in Google docs or Gmail, but without a proper desktop component to sync with them, neither was especially efficient. But with the introduction of Google Drive, the search giant has managed to give its users a place to keep their files and more, turning Drive into one of the top cloud-based storage solutions virtually overnight. Read on to see why we'll be using Google Drive for the foreseeable future.
Like Dropbox and SugarSync, Google Drive features both a Web console and a desktop app, which is exceedingly easy to install. After downloading the app from Google Drive homepage, installation took less than 5 minutes, after which you'll see a Google Drive folder on your desktop to which you can start adding files immediately.
If you have any Google Docs stored in the cloud, they will show up in your folder automatically once you sign in with your Google account. We appreciated this feature because we already have a lot of documents.
There is also a free Android app; unlike all of its competitors, Google has yet to release an Google Drive app for Apple's iOS, but the company says that one will be available in the coming weeks.
If you're familiar with Google Docs, you'll feel right at home with Google Drive's Web-based interface. That's because Drive's UI was essentially lifted from Google Docs. The navigation bar on the left side of the screen has the same red Create and Upload buttons, as well as the Starred tab found in Docs.
There are some key differences. Google Drive has a Recent tab, which provides you with a look at files you've recently edited or opened; an Activity tab provides a view of files that have been recently edited or opened by you or anyone they've been shared with. The Owner, Type and More tabs list files based on their type, who owns them and visibility, making it easy to locate specific files.
To create a folder through Drive's Web interface, just click the Create button and select folder. Once you've named it, you can go ahead and start filling it with any relevant files. You can create a new file within the folder, share it, star it or simply rename it. There are two ways to arrange files: a standard list view or as a grid complete with images of each item. We personally preferred the list view, because it made finding our files easier.
Drive's desktop folder mimics the folder style of the operating system you are using. On our Windows 7 machine, our folders were viewable in Windows Explorer and could be edited and organized just like any other local folder.
Storage and Syncing
Drive provides users with 5GB of free cloud-based storage for photos, videos and documents. One of the service's biggest advantages is its ability to recognize and open more than 30 file types, including HD video files of up to 10GB in size and Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop (PSD) files. Don't have either program installed on your desktop? No problem, Google Drive's preview mode allows you to open and preview those files without issue.
Like Dropbox, SkyDrive and SugarSync, Drive automatically syncs files between your desktop and the cloud. Drag and drop a file into your desktop-based Drive folder, and it will instantly show up in your Web folder. Similarly, any folders or files created on the Web will automatically show up in your desktop folder.
If you don't have a Web connection, files you move to your Drive desktop folder will automatically sync with your Web-based Drive folder the next time you have a connection. You'll know an item has synced from your desktop to the Web when a green checkmark appears next to its file name.
Unfortunately, Google Drive doesn't offer password protection for synced files--such as with SugarSync--although they can be encrypted.
As you would expect from a Google product, Drive searches through your files and folders quickly and returns accurate results. It can even find words inside documents you scan or PDF files. For example, when we searched for the phrase "Share Sheets," Google Drive pulled up the right PDF. However, the service didn't automatically open the document to the exact page where the term resided or highlight the term, which would have been nice.
Google also says that Drive can find images when you type in words that describe what's in the photo. Alas, this didn't work when we searched for a picture of a mountain that we labeled "CameraPhoto1."
Google Docs Integration
Instead of creating a simple cloud-based storage locker such as Dropbox or SugarSync, the convergence of Google Docs and Drive makes it more of a rival to SkyDrive. Microsoft's product also features a storage locker, as well as a Web-based version of the company's Office suite.
Like Docs, Drive features a standard word processor and drawing app, as well as presentation, spreadsheet and form creators. Users can share those files and simultaneously edit them with other users, as they could in Google Docs.
Unfortunately, Google Drive does not save offline copies of its online documents. If you have the Drive client for Windows, you'll notice that icons for all of your Google documents appear in the folder. However, these are just shortcuts that launch the documents in your Web browser. If you use Chrome browser, you can enable offline document viewing in the Google Drive interface, but that doesn't allow you to edit files.
If you store non-Google documents such as Word or Excel files in the folder, they will be synced for offline use just like any other file. By comparison, Microsoft SkyDrive creates standard Word and Excel files that can be edited offline, right in your word processor.
Working with Chrome Apps
One of Google Drive's more useful features is its ability to interface with apps from the Chrome Web Store. Apps that work with Drive feature a small Drive icon in their lower left corner. Each time we created a new file within an app it would automatically create a copy within Drive, where we could access it at any time. For example, when we created a new Mind Map in Mindmeister, the map immediately appeared in our Drive folder. When we installed the Pixorial editing app, all of our videos stored in Google Drive were immediately available for editing.
That said, both Dropbox and SugarSync have public APIs through which app developers can add Dropbox and SugarSync functionality to their own apps. Those services have a huge lead in working with third parties.
The Drive Android app offers much of the functionality of the Web console. The app's default homescreen is Drive's main file viewer, so finding files is relatively easy. Adding files such as photos and documents saved on our Droid X to our Drive folder was as easy as tapping the Share button and selecting Drive from the drop-down box.
Users can access the Drive app from either the main app page or set it up as a widget on their Android device's homescreen. We found the widget to be extremely useful; its shortcut buttons gave us quick access to our Starred files, as well as the ability to create new documents or take pictures for immediate upload to Drive.
The app does have some limitations. For instance, you can create documents or spreadsheets (or documents from photos), whereas the Web version of Drive lets you create presentations, forms or drawing right from the app. The Drive app also doesn't include the Web console's file recognition system, so you won't be opening Adobe illustrator files on your device.
You also can't stream media stored on your Drive account to your Android device, something Dropbox, SugarSync and SkyDrive can do. Instead, you'll have to download your music or movie to your device and play it natively.
Pricing vs. the Competition
Google Drive comes with 5GB of storage space for free. If you need more, the smallest amount of storage you can buy is 25GB for $2.49/month or $29.88/year. You can also purchase 100GB at a cost of $4.99/month or $59.88/year. If that's not enough, Google offers additional storage plans ranging from 200GB all the way up to 16TB.
Google's plans are slightly more expensive than Microsoft's SkyDrive storage plans, which will cost $10/year for 20GB of data, $25/year for 50GB or $50/year for 100GB. SkyDrive also offers more free storage, 7GB versus Drive's 5GB.
Dropbox provides users with 2GB of free storage and adds an additional 500MB to your limit for every person you sign up for the service. But Dropbox cuts you off at 18GB, at which point you have to pay for additional storage space. The Pro 50 plan offers 50GB of storage for $9.99/month or $99/year. Like the free plan, Dropbox provides you with an additional 1GB of data for each new user you get to join, up to 32GB. Other plans include the Pro 100, which offers 100GB of data for $199/year, and the Teams plan, which offers 1TB of storage space or more.
SugarSync, meanwhile, offers 5GB of free storage right off the bat. If you want more, the 30GB plan costs $4.99/month or $49.99/year, the 60GB plan is $9.99/month or $99.99/year, and a 100GB plan will run you $14.99/month or $149.99/year. That's far more expensive than Google or SkyrDrive.
With Drive, Google has clearly put a lot of effort into providing its users with not only a cloud-based storage locker, but something akin to a mini-ecosystem. From Docs to Drive Apps to Drive for Android, Google has assembled a cloud storage service that rivals and in some cases surpasses its closest competition. If the ability to stream is important to you, then you might want to look to Dropbox, SugarSync or SkyDrive. And SkyDrive offers more storage for free (7GB vs. 5GB). Overall, though, Google Drive works well and plays nicely with Google's other services.