It seems like only yesterday that Dropbox could comfortably sit back and dominate the online storage world with their awesome file syncing service. Sure, there were a few others out there that offered similar services but as far as ease of use and features, Dropbox in my opinion was the best. They offered 2GB of free online storage space for every user while allowing them to gain more space by simply referring other users. Well, it’s the year of 2012 now as I write this and we pretty much have a couple of major companies battling it out to win the hearts of the people with lure of free online storage and other services that try to tie in with each other. Just recently, Microsoft and Google released their version of the “Dropbox” service in an attempt to woo customers over. Is Dropbox in trouble? Although Dropbox themselves have garnered a big name for themselves, I’m sure many users out there still don’t know about them. However, they’ll definitely have heard of Microsoft and Google. Either way, I just thought it fun to give both new services a try just to see how it fares. Being a big fan of Dropbox myself (all the pictures on AnotherWindowsBlog are hosted through them), I definitely can’t help but to compare the new services to it.
Prior to Skydrive, Microsoft has offered a couple of file synching services, albeit not as popular. They included Live Sync and Live Mesh. I’m sure the former have been discontinued but I’m not so sure about the latter. Anyways, after trying out Live Sync, I came away that it was still inferior to Dropbox. Well, that’s all in the past. The future is with Skydrive.
Skydrive, when it first started out, was just a simple online storage service. The standout feature that drew attention was Microsoft’s generous offer of 25GB of free online storage for every user that signed up. However, the service itself was fairly weak. From my recollection, there was no desktop interaction and it didn’t have robust syncing capabilities. You uploaded files and documents via an online interface and that was pretty much it. There were some sharing features but once again, Dropbox triumphed in every way possible as far as services actually went. Now, Microsoft seems to have completely revamped their Skydrive service not only to compete with Dropbox but to actually prepare and integrate it with Windows 8 when it launches presumably later this year. With the revamped service, it finally comes to par with Dropbox and can finally be labeled as a true file syncing service.
Every new user who signs up with Skydrive will get a very generous offer of 7GB of online storage. “Loyal” users of Skydrive can upgrade their storage space to 25GB without incurring any extra charge. I’m not technically sure what constitutes as a loyal user but my guess is that as long as you use a Hotmail/Live email account prior to this whole new Skydrive thing, you’re considered loyal. I signed up for Skydrive with one of my Hotmail account that I’ve just created a few weeks back and guess what? I’m considered a loyal user! Anyways, 7GB is a heck of a lot of storage. Remember, when you sync files to your Skydrive, Dropbox, Google Drive or just about any other syncing service, you are “uploading” your files to their servers. In many cases, your Internet Service Provider will offer way faster speeds for downloading then uploading. So, uploading that 2GB movie file you’ve just shot in high definition 1080p to share with your family members around the world will take a heck of a long time. Of course, I live in Hawaii so hey, what do I know of Internet speeds eh?!Skydrive offers users who need more storage space than the included 7GB/25GB storage to do so by offering three storage plans which have an annual price of $10, $25, and $50 for an additional 10GB, 50GB and 100GB, respectively.
DownloadYou can download the Skydrive desktop client from here.
Finally, there is a desktop client to manage and upload your files to Skydrive. This is way more user friendly and convenient than requiring a user to use a web browser. In my opinion, this was one of the main advantages of Dropbox. Well, not anymore. The desktop client installs in a breeze and all you need to provide is of course, your Hotmail/Live username and password. You’ll then be told of the location of your Skydrive folder, which by default will be C:UsersusernameSkydrive. By default, you’ll have three folders set up: Documents, Photos and Public. At the end of the install, you’ll also be presented with an option to make all the files on your current computer available to other devices. They don’t make this clear right there and then about what enabling this feature does but basically it allows you to fetch any files on the current PC even if those files aren’t stored in your Skydrive folder. I’ll go back to this later on and it’s definitely something you’ll want to keep in mind of.
Uploading and Syncing
Because your local Skydrive folder on the computer is attached to your Skydrive storage at Microsoft, you can simply use this folder just as you would any other folder. Once again, this is exactly how Dropbox works. You can drag and drop documents and photos here and Skydrive will automatically upload the files online. You don’t have to do a thing. Just keep in mind that the bigger the file size, the longer it will take for the upload to complete. This also of course depends on your Internet speed. From my limited testing, files that have been successfully uploaded on your desktop immediately appear in your web browser and vice-versa. The very unfortunate news with the Skydrive desktop client is that it doesn’t do anything to tie in the services available to you on the desktop and instead forces you to use the web interface instead. For example, you can’t right click on your files to immediately get a link to share with your friends. You have to first log in to your Skydrive account via your web browser and then configure the proper permissions. I’m really hoping that as the service matures, Microsoft will improve in this area.
When you similarly download and install the Skydrive client onto a different computer and sign in with your account, Skydrive will automatically download all the files. Once that finishes, both computers will then be completely synchronized with each other and files you add/delete on one computer will be reflected upon the other. This is syncing at its most basic level and it works quite well. Once again, the desktop client makes using Skydrive so much more easier now. One thing I took big notice on is how much faster the actual download of files is on my second computer were. With Dropbox, it took really long to get a new computer synchronized because their download speed is just horrible.
Microsoft Office WebApps
Every company could offer a simple and basic syncing service. To stand apart from the crowd though, they have to offer something that others aren’t. With Skydrive, Microsoft allows any user to be able to view and edit Microsoft Office documents online right inside their browser. For example, you can actually create Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote files from scratch right within your Skydrive account and share it with your friends and co-workers to collaborate on. Of course, Microsoft isn’t generous enough to give you every single feature as in the paid version of Word, Excel, etc. However, for most users who don’t really need to use all those fancy features, this is a very economic way of getting things done without having to spend hundreds of dollars on productivity software. These webapps compete directly with Google Docs.At the time of this writing, for some odd reason, Microsoft does not allow you to delete OneNote files from your desktop! It states that you can only do this within your Skydrive account in a browser. This issue is obviously not as disturbing as the “multiple photo upload” one inside the Skydrive iPhone app but it still baffles me nonetheless. What’s so special about OneNote files?!
Sharing and Collaborating in Skydrive
To be able to do more with your files than the usual copy/move/delete operations, you’ll need to actually log on to your Skydrive account within your browser. One of the main things you’ll be doing is sharing your files so that either other users can view them or so other folks can collaborate on documents. I’m glad to say that Microsoft have made things a whole lot more easier now to share files and folders between different users than what was possible in the original Skydrive service (I think you got the point by now that the original Skydrive service was not very good).
When it comes to sharing, you have three different options:
First you can simply email a link to to your folder or file to your intended recipients. You can choose whether the recipients can also edit the files themselves and whether they are required to sign in to their Hotmail account prior to granting access. This last option can used for ultimate security as you can assure that only recipients who you intend to share the files with get access because it requires them to sign in to their own email account prior to being authorized to view and edit the files.
Secondly, you can share your files through popular social services such as Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. You can also add more social services as well.
Lastly, you can share your files and folders in a more broad manner by creating a share link and then distributing that link to your recipients. There are three separate options that control the permissions of the share. With view only, recipients with access to the link can all view but not edit the files. However, those recipients can in turn re-share the link to other users and those users in turn can also view your files. This can obviously lead to users whom you don’t want to see your files actually see them. With the view and edit link option, users will be allowed to modify your files. This option obviously needs to be used with caution. The last one is marking your folder/file as Public. Recipients can only view the files but the difference between this and the “view only” option is that with Public, anyone in the world can actually search for your files online and view them. You obviously don’t want to put your grandma’s secret chocolate chip cookie recipe in a Public marked folder.
Once you share the link with your buddies, they can all view and download the files without having to create their own Hotmail account. If they want to be able to modify them (if you’ve given them permission), then they will need to sign in first. I noticed that the share links are absolutely enormous in size. Not sure why Microsoft didn’t use some sort of URL shortening service. For example, do really want to communicate this URL link to a person? Most likely not but then again, that’s why we have email and URL shortening services such as Bit.ly.
With collaboration, Microsoft also gives you file versioning capabilities. This allows you to see all the changes made to a document by your co-workers. This feature also saves your behind when you’ve accidentally overwritten an important research paper. Simply revert or re-download a version of the document prior to the last change and you’re back in business. I absolutely love this feature in Dropbox and I’m quite happy to see it in SkyDrive.
As a security feature, Skydrive will require you to enter in a six digit number (which is emailed to you to a different email account) before allowing you access to the remote computer. Once correctly entered in, the passcode is good for that single Skydrive session. Once you log out of Skydrive and log back in, you will be required to repeat the process. If you later decide to disable/enable this feature on a particular PC, you can easily do so by heading into the General tab within the Settings menu of the Skydrive menu icon, which is located in the Notification taskbar (lower right corner of computer).
As you can see below, I can fully access my entire C: drive on my remote laptop from my desktop once I have entered in the correct security code:
iPhone SupportYou can download the Skydrive iPhone app from here. Android users can download the official Skydrive app from the Google Play store.
One very odd thing I notice is that in order to upload multiple photos at once, the app actually requires you to turn on Location Services! I find this highly disturbing and not sure if this is a bug or not. I rarely leave location services enabled unless I need to use my GPS for navigation.
Currently, no app exist for the Skydrive service on Android devices. iPhone users are in more luck. With the app, you can browse all of your uploaded files right on your iPhone. You can upload both video and photos directly within the app, share your files, view your files with third party apps and a whole bunch more. Note that for Microsoft Office files, it is view only. You can obviously use a third party app for editing. It’s also interesting to note (at least for me) that you actually have to have opened the file prior to be able to access it offline. For example, if you uploaded a Word file on your home computer and synced it with your iPhone but haven’t actually opened that file on your iPhone, then you won’t be able to access that same file when offline (airplane mode, for example). One you have viewed that file, even if its just once, it gets cached and from then on you should have access to those files even when you have no network connectivity of any kind.
In the End..
After playing around with Skydrive, I find myself really liking the service. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, Microsoft made huge improvements to the service since it first debuted which really provided nothing more for its users than an online storage locker. At that time Dropbox, while nowhere getting even close to what Microsoft was offering in terms of sheer free storage space, provided a much more desirable service overall. With many users today having to work from many different devices, stationary or mobile wise, it’s not hard to see why big companies are offering a solution to help keep user files synchronized across all devices. I’m super excited to see how Skydrive will be integrated with Windows 8 when it releases. They are off to a good start in my opinion with Skydrive but improvements will definitely need to be made if they want to be at the top. One very simple thing they can do right now is giving users the ability to work with their Skydrive files and documents directly on their desktop instead of forcing them to do them in a web browser. If Dropbox can accomplish this, I’m sure Microsoft can do a whole heck of a lot better considering they also make the Windows OS itself!