Online (Cloud) Syncing

Updated March 28, 2018 (original posting: Oct 24, 2013)

Cloud syncing services are all the rage—and for good reason. They are especially useful for keeping important files synced across multiple computers and for securely backing up and storing your files online. Many of them also offer the ability to share files and collaborate with others. cloud-sync

You could call me an early adopter, as I was using a service called FolderShare many years ago. It was eventually bought by Microsoft, became Live Sync, then Live Mesh, and is now OneDrive. Along the way, I have been following the tremendous innovation and activity of this industry, and now there are so many options to consider that choosing one is a challenge. Currently, most companies use a freemium model, offering a small amount of space (typically 2-5GB) for free and charging a monthly fee for more space. Most offer the full feature set in the free accounts, only limiting the amount of space.

Below, you will find a list of features worth considering and a presentation of the competing offerings. Besides including what I think are some of the most important features in each snapshot, I also provide special notes for specific services where I think they will be useful. I have not tried all—or even most—of these services, so a lot of the information comes from official websites and reviews I have read around the Web.

One question to ask is if you think the service you are interested in will survive the inevitable industry shakeout to come. A service like Mozy is backed by EMC and, of course, Google and Microsoft are probably not going anywhere soon. Dropbox is independent and thus potentially weak, but it is also the market leader and is quite likely to survive. Others are harder to judge. Naturally, if you don’t mind taking the gamble, the worst case scenario is that you will someday have to switch to another provider.

I personally use Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive and I list their summaries separately. I think you won’t go wrong with any or all of them, but don’t assume that just because I use them they are the best available, especially as your situation may differ greatly from mine.

Cloud Sync Features to Consider

There are a great many possible features to consider when comparing the various services on the market today. Many, however, are not really important to the majority of us, and besides, it can be quite difficult at times to determine if a particular service offers the feature or not without actually using it. So, my listing contains only the features you are likely to find most useful, with some additional ones included in notes. If you have special needs, be sure to more carefully investigate any of the programs that seem promising to you. For reference, here are some possible features to consider:

  • The amount of space provided in free accounts.
  • Pricing for paid accounts.
  • Desktop and mobile Operating System (OS) support. The latter will be especially important if you are using a less common platform like Symbian, Blackberry or Windows Phone.
  • Single or multiple folder syncing. Are all synced files required to be located in one centralized folder or can you pick and choose existing folders on your computer?
  • Selective syncing. Can you choose which folders get synced to which computers or is it an all-or-nothing proposition?
  • Version tracking or revision control. Are old copies of files saved and, if so, how many versions, for how long? Can you restore deleted files or are they deleted forever?
  • File and/or folder sharing (public, private, password protected).
  • In the notes I try to include file size limits when I can find them. This is actually a somewhat common limitation and you should definitely pay attention to it if you want to back up videos, large encrypted volumes or other large files.

Other features to consider:

  • Anytime, anywhere Web access.
  • Preview/edit files online. Do you need to download a file to view it or does the service allow you to view (and sometimes even edit) a file directly from the web application?
  • Real-time or scheduled syncing?
  • Do files shared with you by others count toward your allotted space?
  • Full or incremental backups?
  • Delta (partial) copying.
  • Can you sync open or locked files?
  • Media streaming. Can you use the service as a server to listen to your music or watch your videos?
  • Is the status of syncing clear? One common method is to alter file icons to display their status. Another common method is to show syncing status and statistics when you click on the service’s system tray icon, though the amount of detail varies greatly. Yet another technique is to use real-time event messages that display on your computer, though these can quickly become annoying.
  • Bandwidth throttling. Can you set the upload/download speeds to prioritize computer use or syncing? Alternatively, are there any bandwidth limitations imposed by the service?
  • File/folder collaboration. Can you and others work on the same document? How are conflicts managed? For shared files and folders, can you set permissions (e.g., read-only)?
  • LAN sync is the ability to sync directly from computer to computer when two or more machines are connected via a local network rather than having to have all files pass across the Web and through the service’s server first. This vastly increases syncing speed.
  • Is Cloud syncing required? Can you sync files amongst your various computers without syncing them to the cloud? This is a very uncommon feature.
  • Is there a public API? The existence of a public API means that third parties can improve on the service.
  • What kinds of technical support are available? Phone, email, IM, user guide, video tutorials, FAQ/Knowledgebase, user forums?
  • Is it possible to disconnect devices remotely in case your computer is lost or stolen? Is there a remote wipe option so you can also delete the files on that stolen device?
  • How does the service handle conflict resolution? Where a file has been modified on both sources?

A Note about Security and Privacy Features

Security and privacy are perhaps the most complex features to consider. Most services will say they are secure but that can mean many things. The most important consideration is encryption, but with that there are three types. One common form of encryption is the use of secure transfers (SSL) so nobody can see your data as it is being sent back and forth. The second type of encryption, also fairly common, is encryption performed at the storage provider. This is generally a good thing, but such encrypted data can usually be decrypted by the company and thus is exposed to misconduct on the part of employees, hacking threats, and court orders by the government. The third—and least common—type of encryption is local, meaning that your files are encrypted on your computer before being transferred to the online storage servers. With this type of encryption, only you can decrypt your data. Unfortunately, many service providers don’t offer useful details on the security they use on their websites.

All of this comes down to a question of the sensitivity of your data, which I think sometimes people overestimate. Likewise, ask yourself how worried you are about a breach of some sort. As I said earlier, backup is a risk mitigation game. The tradeoff in this case may be amount of free space, availability of features, ease of use, etc.

The Three Cloud Syncing Services I Use

I already mentioned my preferred services, and here I list them separately, not to indicate they are objectively better than the rest, but merely to serve as a starting point for those not interested in doing a full investigation. I am also planning to try Cubby (I am waiting for my beta invitation) because it is the only service to offer peer-to-peer (computer-to-computer) syncing that is NOT required to sync online as well. This is how Live Mesh used to operate.

Note: For the “One or Multiple Folders” row, even if a cloud service controls everything under one “magic” folder, some services do let you to choose which sub-folders get synced across all devices; in other words, you may wish to backup a folder from one machine to the cloud but not actually sync it across all devices.

Dropbox
Free Account Size2GB

You can get up to 18GB free storage by completing a tutorial, integrating with social media, inviting people, having a .edu email address, and other special contests.

Monthly Pricing (yearly)100GB $9.99 ($99.00)

200GB $19.99 ($199.00)

500GB $49.99 ($499.00)

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Blackberry
One or Multiple Folders?One
Selective Device Syncinggreen-tick
Version Trackinggreen-tick

30 days; can purchase Packrat Unlimited History option for $39/year

File Sharinggreen-tick

No file password protection

NotesAlso offers media streaming, built-in viewers for tons of different file types, collaboration support, a system icon with detailed sync status, LAN syncing, online photo slide shows, ability to post to Facebook and Twitter, unlimited file sizes (300MB if uploading via browser), ability to configure bandwidth usage, and a public API (which hundreds of developers have used to create apps that utilize Dropbox).

Files shared with you by others count towards your allotted space.

Public links for free accounts limited to 10GB of bandwidth per day (250GB for paid accounts).

Useful Links:

Google Drive
Free Account Size15GB

This is the total for all your Google accounts, including Gmail and Google+ pictures

Monthly Pricing (yearly)25GB $2.49

100GB $4.99

200GB $9.99

400GB $19.99

1TB $49.99

Options up to 16TB

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Android, iOS
One or Multiple Folders?One
Selective Device Syncinggreen-tick
Version Trackinggreen-tick

Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides automatically save and track every change you make, forever. You can also look back as far as 30 days on other file types.

File Sharinggreen-tick

no file password protection

NotesGoogle Drive is an evolution of Google Docs and this is obvious when you view the web app (docs.google.com now is drive.google.com). In fact, you will have to use the web app for many features that the desktop app doesn’t support (sharing files, viewing/editing native Google docs, etc.). The web app also offers a powerful search feature (like Gmail) which can even use OCR technology for images and non-editable files. Google Drive can also open up to 30 kinds of files right inside your browser and offers collaboration support, a system icon with basic sync status, and a public API. It does not offer LAN sync, does not support symbolic links, can’t be used with multiple Google accounts, and cannot limit bandwidth usage. Google Drive now automatically syncs files you create online for offline access and editing, but only does so if you are using Chrome OS or the Chrome browser (you must enable offline access).

Maximum file size is 10GB.

When you purchase extra storage you can share it across products (e.g., Picasa); your Gmail storage also expands to 25GB.

Useful Links:

OneDrive
Free Account Size7GB

If you have an old account you may be grandfathered into their old 25GB plan

Monthly Pricing (yearly)20GB ($10)

50GB ($25)

100GB ($50)

All in addition to free storage

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Android, iOS, Win Phone

Note : Does NOT support Windows XP or earlier

One or Multiple Folders?One
Selective Device Syncinggreen-tick
Version Trackinggreen-tick

25 versions

File Sharinggreen-tick

no file password protection

NotesOneDrive offers media streaming, collaboration support, a system tray icon with basic status info, online photo slide shows, integration with Facebook and Twitter, and a public API. It is the best solution for collaborative work with MS Office documents. OneDrive does not offer LAN sync and the maximum file size is 2GB for free accounts. A unique and valuable feature of OneDrive is the “Fetch” feature to get files you may have forgotten to sync on another connected computer. It’s sort of like a basic VPN.

Useful Links:

More Cloud Syncing Services

If you’re interested in knowing what else is available besides the three I use, here is the most comprehensive list of similar services you will probably find anywhere, listed alphabetically. To help you prioritize the time you spend investigating, I have shaded the entries that I think are considered amongst the most popular or seem promising to me.

4Sync
Free Account Size15GB
Monthly Pricing (yearly)100GB $10.00 ($75)

1TB $40.00 ($240.00)

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Blackberry, Symbian
One or Multiple Folders?One
Selective Syncingred-cross
Version Trackinggreen-tick

Deleted files are stored in a recycle bin and can be restored, but I don’t know if multiple versions are actually kept or not.

File Sharinggreen-tick
NotesThe 4Sync site doesn’t provide many details so it is difficult to discuss features.

Your account can be deleted if you don’t use it every 180 days or less.

Apple iCloud
Free Account Size5GB
Monthly Pricing (yearly)10GB ($20)

20GB ($40)

50GB ($100)

All in addition to free 5GB

OS SupportWindows, Mac, iOS
One or Multiple Folders?Multiple
Selective Syncingred-cross
Version Trackingred-cross

Available via Time Machine

File Sharingred-cross
NotesThe maximum file size is 25MB for free accounts and 250MB for paid accounts so this is NOT a good option for media files. Perhaps that is why, according to The Verge , “iCloud isn’t much of a Dropbox competitor, but if all you need synced between your devices are text documents, it can be a pretty seamless solution. Various apps such as Pages and iA Writer have iCloud sync capabilities, saving your work after every keystroke and instantly sending changes to Apple’s servers. Once you open up iA Writer or Pages on another Apple device or Mac with OS X Lion, you’ll already be working with the most recent version of your document. While iCloud is a very rudimentary document-syncing solution, it might also be the simplest one to use.”
Box
Free Account Size10GB
Monthly Pricing (yearly)25GB $9.99

50 $19.99

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Android, iOS, Win Phone
One or Multiple Folders?One
Selective Syncinggreen-tick
Version Trackingred-cross

Used to offer 11 versions but current website indicates none

File Sharinggreen-tick
NotesFile size limit is 250MB for the free account and 5GB for paid accounts.

Also offers a public API, Google Docs integration, and collaboration support.

Some features are only supported at the moment on business plans

DriveHQ
Free Account Size1GB

Includes 1 sub-user and unlimited computers.

Monthly Pricing (yearly)2GB $1.99 ($19.99)

3GB $4.99 ($49.99)

6GB $7.99 ($79.99)

11GB $12.99 ($129.99)

21GB $19.99 ($199.99)

Pricing is more complicated than most other services. There are different fees for storage, bandwidth, and number of users. The storage amounts above include the 1GB free account storage.

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Windows Phone
One or Multiple Folders?Multiple
Selective Syncinggreen-tick
Version Trackinggreen-tick
File Sharinggreen-tick
NotesDriveHQ may have the most features of any service listed here. It is marketed more to small and medium sized businesses and only offers a 1GB free account, with paid accounts giving fairly little online storage. Still, if you are willing to pay, the feature list is pretty impressive. Besides basic syncing, you can also do backups. You can use your account for FTP, email or Web hosting. Data is compressed and encrypted locally, providing maximum security. There is even a true drop file feature whereby anyone with or without a DriveHQ account, can upload files. The support for sub-users and sharing/collaboration features makes DriveHQ a good option for teams or small businesses.
Elephant Drive
Free Account Size2GB
Monthly Pricing (yearly)100GB $9.95

250GB $19.95

500GB $39.95

750GB $59.95

1TB $85.95

2TB $169.95

Yearly purchases save 16%

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Android, NAS
One or Multiple Folders?One
Selective Syncinggreen-tick

You cannot pick and choose individual files or folder but inside your My ElephantDrive main folder there is a Backup folder for just backups and an Everywhere folder for syncing files on every device.

Version Trackinggreen-tick
File Sharinggreen-tick
NotesFree account limited to one device and paid accounts can have up to three.
iDrive Sync
Free Account Size10GB

25GB free accounts for students

Get extra sync space by inviting friends

Monthly Pricing (yearly)150GB $4.95 ($49.50)

500GB $14.95 ($149.50)

1TB $29.95 ($299.50)

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Android, iOS
One or Multiple Folders?One
Selective Syncingred-cross
Version Trackinggreen-tick

Last 30 versions

File Sharinggreen-tick
NotesNo file size limit from computer (200MB via Web), supports WebDAV, photo albums and slideshows, ability to pause/resume sync, bandwidth throttling, groups, a system icon with detailed status, and Facebook integration.
InSync
Free Account Size15 day trial
Monthly Pricing (yearly)$9.99 one-tip fee per Google account (introductory pricing)
OS SupportWindows, Mac, Linux, Windows Phone

Android, iOS apps are in beta release

One or Multiple Folders?One
Selective Syncingred-cross

No selective syncing right now (Google Drive does) but it is planned.

Version Trackinggreen-tick
File Sharinggreen-tick
NotesInsync says it is for “when Google Drive is not enough.” It actually uses the storage you get from Google Drive but it will also work with multiple Google accounts, getting 15GB free for each (though each will also get its own folder on your computer). Another added feature offered is the ability to put your main Insync directory in an external drive. Finally, unlike Google Drive, Insync does support symlinks, but currently symlink files are only updated when Insync is restarted. Apparently the development team is working on a “sync any folder” option which will make the need to support symlinks obsolete. Insync also supports media streaming and collaboration. File size is limited to 10GB.
Jottacloud
Free Account Size5GB

unlimited devices

Monthly Pricing (yearly)Jottacloud offers two types of plans. You can either pay per device for unlimited data or you can pay per GB for unlimited devices. The per device plan is $6 per month for desktop and $3 per month for mobile. The monthly per GB plan is: 20GB for $1.70, 50GB for $3.40, 100GB for $6.00, and 500GB for $29.20.
OS SupportWindows, Mac, Android, iOS
One or Multiple Folders?Multiple
Selective Syncinggreen-tick
Version Trackinggreen-tick

5 versions; deleted files can be restored for up to 30 days.

File Sharinggreen-tick

There is a limit of 100 downloads per link.

NotesThere are no file size or type limits and you can throttle bandwidth.

Jottacloud can perform backup daily backup on a time schedule (PC/Mac only).

JustCloud
Free Account Size15MB

Note that 15MB for the free account is not a typo!

Monthly Pricing (yearly)75GB $4.49 for two years, total charge $107.71

250GB $4.95 ($118.75)

Unlimited $6.95 ($166.85)

Website only lists pricing in the Help Center based on two year purchase.

You only get 1GB of sync space free with a paid account – for more you must pay extra (current maximum is 20GB), though how much is a mystery. The other space numbers you see here are for backup not syncing.

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Blackberry
One or Multiple Folders?One
Selective Syncingred-cross
Version Trackinggreen-tick

Cannot restore deleted files

File Sharinggreen-tick
NotesI have to say, I don’t like this service or its website. It seems like nothing is competitive with other offers and everything is obfuscated. Some key information is hidden in the FAQ section rather than on the main pages. It also seems like the whole intention is to get you to use the service and then nickel and dime you with upgrades. With so many other good options out there, this is not one I would recommend considering, but keep reading if interested.

Also supports streaming, scheduled backups, and online document editing.

Doesn’t perform incremental backups

Maximum file size depends on circumstance: 1GB for automated backups and 5GB for drag & drop (paid plans), though you can pay $19.95 per year to get 5GB on automated backups.

Mozy Sync
Free Account Size2GB
Monthly Pricing (yearly)50GB $5.99

125GB $9.99

1 year plan – 1 month free

2 year plan – 3 months free

Offers Mozy Data Shuttle to get initial backup done quickly starting at $275.

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Android, iOS
One or Multiple Folders?One
Selective Syncingred-cross

Works with regular Mozy to make all your files available even those not in your sync folder.

Version Trackinggreen-tick

30 days

File Sharingred-cross
NotesFree and 50GB plans are only good for one computer; 125GB plan is good for 3 computers; add additional computers for $2 per month.

Sync draws storage from your MozyHome plan. For example, if you are on a 50GB plan and have already used 30GB for online backup, then 20GB remains available for Sync. Similarly, if you are a MozyHome Free subscriber, your Sync draws from your account’s 2GB of storage.

Offers incremental/differential backups, bandwidth configuration, custom backup sets and file exclusions

MyPCBackup
This seems to be a re-branding of the JustCloud service (or vice-versa) as the corporate headquarters, website, features, pricing, etc. are all the same. Read that entry for how little I like the service.
OpenDrive
Free Account Size5GB

1 user, 1GB bandwidth per day, 200 KB/s speed, 100MB file size limit, no file versioning, no file encryption

Monthly Pricing (yearly)Unlimited $9.95 ($99)

Custom plans are possible where you select size, bandwidth, file size, and number of users.

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Android, iOS
One or Multiple Folders?Multiple
Selective Syncinggreen-tick
Version Trackinggreen-tick

Only available on 500GB and greater plans.

File Sharinggreen-tick
NotesUnlimited personal plan offers unlimited files sizes and transfer speed

Supports WebDAV

Power Folder
Free Account Size2GB

Free account is limited to 2GB of sync, 2GB of cloud storage, 3 folders (unlimited sub-folders), and two computers.

Monthly Pricing (yearly)100GB ($90.00)

Limited to 5 computers; additional 100GB for $90.00 per year.

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Blackberry, Win Phone
One or Multiple Folders?Multiple
Selective Syncinggreen-tick
Version Trackinggreen-tick

You can configure the number of versions saved

File Sharinggreen-tick
NotesPowerFolder is similar to the old Windows Live Sync (Live Mesh) in that you can choose multiple folders to sync and you can sync amongst computers without also having to backup on the cloud. You can separate backup and syncing functions, choose the frequency of synchronization, exclude files and/or sub-folders, and display detailed real time sync stats.
SugarSync
Free Account Size5GB or a 30-day 60GB trial

Can increase via referrals.

Monthly Pricing (yearly)60GB $7.49 ($74.99)

100GB $9.99 ($99.99)

250GB $24.99 ($249.99)

500GB $39.99 ($399.99)

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Android, iOS, Blackberry, Symbian, Windows Mobile
One or Multiple Folders?Multiple
Selective Syncinggreen-tick
Version Trackinggreen-tick

5

File Sharinggreen-tick
NotesSugarSync is one of the most flexible services available, offering media streaming, online file editing, a public API, no maximum file size, and collaboration support. It does not offer LAN sync but is supposedly working on it.
SpiderOak
Free Account Size21 day free trial
Monthly Pricing (yearly)150GB $5 ($59)

400GB $9 ($99)

2TB $12 ($129)

5TB $25 ($279)

OS SupportWindows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS
One or Multiple Folders?Multiple
Selective Syncinggreen-tick
Version Trackinggreen-tick

Flexible

File Sharinggreen-tick

Private sharing only

NotesBackup and sync are considered two functions so you can take a very granular approach to what you back up or sync. You can create multiple synced folder jobs but only if a folder is already being backed up with SpiderOak and you need to access both devices to complete the sync setup (though you could also sync with an external drive on the same machine). SpiderOak also offers LAN syncing, collaboration support, and a public API. SpiderOak is especially touted because it is one of the few services that encrypts locally, and their system is a zero knowledge service so they can’t get to your unencrypted data even in event of a court order or a security breach.
Tresorit
Free Account Size5GB

500MB file size limit, 20 folders, 10 members per folder

Monthly Pricing (yearly)100GB $12.99
OS SupportWindows, Mac, Android, iOS
One or Multiple Folders?One
Selective Syncinggreen-tick
Version Trackingred-cross

Couldn’t find any information about version tracking but based on a FAQ statement that a folder deleted on one computer will be deleted on all others indicates there is no versioning.

File Sharinggreen-tick
NotesPerforms encryption on your computer before uploading files.

Maximum file size is 2GB.

Unlimited folders with paid plan.

Currently no sync progress displayed.

No bandwidth throttling provided.

No web-based access for your files and people you share folders with will also need the software installed.

No LAN sync.

It seems files shared with you from another user count toward your storage allotment.

ZipCloud
This seems to be a re-branding of the JustCloud service (or vice-versa) as the corporate headquarters, website, features, pricing, etc. are all the same. Read that entry for how little I like the service.
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