At their best, cloud storage apps are more than just a tool to free up space on your computer. (An external hard drive could accomplish that equally well.) They're also able to help with organization, collaboration, and security.
Naturally, my first introduction to cloud storage was through two big names: Google Drive and Dropbox. They seemed to come standard with the remote businesses that I worked with. But when I started moving my own personal and business files into the cloud, I wanted to be sure I was using the best tool for the job.
I planned on storing sensitive data, so I was looking for something secure. And since I often work with massive design and video files, you bet I was going to do some serious price comparisons to get the most storage for my investment.
Since the sales pages all looked eerily similar, I realized that I had to dive deep and do some testing on my own. I tried a bunch of different apps, and here's what I found.
The standard cloud storage benefits
Go to any marketing page on any cloud storage website, and you'll see the following features advertised:
Location-free accessibility. You can access your files from your computer, your phone, someone else's phone, whatever suits you.
Mobile-friendliness. Did I mention you could access files on your phone? Files are optimized and easy to use on devices with small screens.
Easy organization with folders and search functionality. Because what good is cloud storage if you can't find the files again?
Reliability. If you're storing important info in the cloud, there's no room for tech glitches and lost files.
Unlimited storage space. Or close to it—so you can easily file everything from plain text documents to massive design or video files.
How to choose the best cloud storage app
So if every solution does all the things, how do you decide? Here are some of the other features you should keep your eye out for as you're trying out options.
Encryption and security
Once you've uploaded your files to the cloud, how safe are they really? In an ideal world, there would be only one key that could open the "file cabinet": your username and password. But as we've seen over the years with some highly publicized issues with cloud storage privacy, it doesn't work that way, even when the files are encrypted during transfer.
Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive, for example, utilize server-side encryption. On the upside, this means that they can speed up data transfers when integrating with other apps. The downside is that they retain the encryption keys and can unencrypt your files without your permission.
If you're only using the cloud to house blog drafts or temporary design files, that possible lack of privacy might not be an issue. But if you want to use the cloud to house sensitive data, you might want to look into a more secure option.
Box, for example, can be a great option for enterprise businesses that require a balance of app integrations and specific industry compliance (e.g., HIPAA or FINRA).
Tresorit goes really deep into security, pairing end-to-end encryption with Swiss data centers.
Sync also uses end-to-end encryption, and it offers a very attractive free version.
Documents, photos, and special file types
All cloud platforms can handle the common file types (Word docs, PDFs, standard image files, and so on). But what happens if you use bigger, more complex file types?
For example, the Scrivener word processing app I use saves documents in a special
.scriv format. This file type can only be synced between desktop and mobile apps via Dropbox. Other unique use cases include iCloud, which allows Apple users to easily sync photos and app information across their devices; or Creative Cloud, which is designed specifically for users of Adobe products to sync large, complex design or video files.
In all cases, if you have specific file types that you'll be using, test to make sure they're compatible with your cloud app before going all-in.
Teams vs. solo users
Most cloud storage apps offer accounts for both individuals and teams. Team accounts make it easy for you to give and revoke access to certain folders (without having to manually change the passwords) and allow you to monitor the changes that each user makes, for easy follow-up on project management. Here are some standouts from my testing:
Dropbox has a unique group functionality that I really like. Create a group (like "HR" or "Marketing"), and assign team members to groups based on their job roles. Once you have your groups set up, you can create special team folders that can only be accessed by members of designated groups. (A huge time savings for managers.)
Box is designed to work for enterprise teams, and it offers more advanced native integrations with other tools you might already be using, like Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace. With these integrations, it's much easier to sync user permissions across platforms, instead of having to set them up separately for each tool.
Sharing and collaboration
Regardless of whether or not you have a team account, there will be times when you need to share a cloud file with someone else. All cloud storage apps let you accomplish this by creating a custom, shareable link that allows other people to view the file.
The question is: what do you want to happen once the other person opens the shared file?
If you want to collaborate (via comments or real-time edits) on a document, look into Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive, since all three include their own word processing and collaboration software. But if you're looking for a more secure, less-collaborative sharing option (like sending tax documents to your accountant), apps like Tresorit and pCloud allow you to add passwords and expiration dates on your shared links.
Integrations with other apps
When using cloud storage for business purposes, integrations with other apps can shave hours off your workweek. The Google Drive and Slack integration, for example, allows me to get notifications on file updates the instant they're made, instead of having to create tedious tasks to follow up manually or ping a team member to monitor a revision status.
Even if there isn't a built-in integration (Google Drive and Slack can be connected directly to each other), many cloud storage apps are supported by Zapier, so you can connect them that way to automate your repetitive processes.
Zapier lets you automatically send information from one app to another, helping you reduce manual tasks. Learn more about how Zapier works.
The actual cost of using each cloud storage app will vary vastly depending on the amount of storage or additional features you want to purchase. But there are three common pricing structures that you'll run into:
Free tier. This is different from a free trial, which is time-limited. Usually free tiers have pretty severe limits on the amount of storage you'll get.
Subscription. You'll pay a recurring fee (usually monthly or annually) to access a specified amount of storage space and features—significantly more than what you'd get on the free plan.
Single purchase. This gives you lifetime access after a one-time purchase. (It's extremely rare to come across this option, but you'll find some great solutions, like pCloud, that still offer it, alongside a lower-priced subscription model.)
The top cloud storage apps in 2021
Full disclosure: I didn't do the same in-depth testing on each of these as I do when testing apps for Zapier's best apps roundups. Instead, this list is based on a combination of my personal testing and what I learned about the market from my research.
With that, here are the frontrunners in the cloud storage space. I've listed them in order of their nichiness: the broadest use cases at the top with the more niche ones at the bottom.
Google Drive for collaboration
Dropbox for easy management of team accounts
Box for enterprise teams that require stricter privacy compliance
OneDrive for Microsoft users
iCloud for Apple users
Creative Cloud for designers and Adobe users
pCloud for individual accounts that require security and enhanced privacy
Sync for free access to zero-knowledge encryption
I definitely recommend doing what I did: test them for yourself to find the one that's best for you. And don't be afraid to use more than one if it makes sense for your setup.
This article was originally published in June 2018 by Melanie Pinola.