Note: Our best cloud services round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in October 2012.
In November, Microsoft made a lot of OneDrive users unhappy – the company canned its unlimited storage offering because people were using it as unlimited storage. While the average unlimited user was storing 5.5GB of data, a handful of users were storing more than 75TB (how Microsoft found that out is up for debate). That's not a typo.
Microsoft responded in dramatic fashion. The unlimited option is gone, the service has reverted to its 1TB limit and free storage is being cut from 15GB to 5GB before bringing back to 15GB again early December for existing customers after the user backlash. The camera roll bonus is gone as well.
But it comes with a catch. You need to visit this page and actively claim your free storage again in order not to be affected when the amount of free storage is change.
What's so great about the cloud anyway?
Convenience, in a word. If things live in the cloud you don't need so much local storage, so instead of slow hard disks you can have small and nippy flash storage – which also means better battery life from your devices. It also means you can access your data from wherever you happen to be – on your smartphone, in a hotel business lounge, at home or anywhere else you can get a data connection.
Cloud storage makes everything simpler. Instead of transferring media files to your phone you simply stream MP3s or movies from faraway servers. Instead of copying crucial documents to flash drives or burning them to disc, you stick them in the cloud where they can't be left in the office or on a train.
Even more conveniently, much of this happens automatically – so for example cloud-based music services know when you've bought new music and make it available to all your devices immediately, and cloud-based storage knows when you've updated a file and updates its copy accordingly.
What are the downsides?
The cloud isn't much cop without an internet connection, although most services enable you to download files for times when you won't be able to get online. There are also financial considerations. Cloud services generally have multiple tiers, with a free service for casual use and paid-for offerings for more serious or demanding users.
As we'll discover, there can be big differences between the various providers' prices. And as Microsoft has demonstrated, you can't be confident that the service on offer today is the service you'll be getting next year.
Let's discover what the major cloud providers offer to see what suits you best.
Google has two main cloud storage services: Google Drive, and Google Drive for Work. As you've probably guessed one is aimed at everybody and the other is aimed at business users.
With Google Drive, everybody gets 15GB for free. If that's not enough, 100GB is $1.99 per month (around £1.30, AU$2.80), 1TB is $9.99 (around £6.50, AU$14), and the highest tier is $299.99 (around £195, AU$420) for 30TB.
That storage is shared across three Google properties – Drive, Gmail and Google Photos – but it's only used for certain things. The documents, presentations or spreadsheets you build in Google Drive don't use any of your storage capacity, and neither do photos in Google Photos if they're smaller than 16MP or videos which are no more than 1080p.
Google Drive for Work is priced slightly differently. It starts at £3.30 (around $5, AU$7) per user per month plus taxes. That provides 30GB of storage and guaranteed uptime (99.9%). If you want unlimited storage that's £6.60 (around $10, AU$14) per user per month.
Google Drive is designed to do two things – create and share documents, and share files. By default you can create a new document, presentation, spreadsheet, form or drawing, and you can also connect third-party apps to add features such as note-taking, mind mapping, diagramming and even interior design.
Files you store on Drive can be accessed from phones and tablets with the Google Drive apps, and there are also desktop apps for PC and Mac that can automatically synchronise files between your computer and your Drive.
Google's own apps aren't as comprehensive as, say, Microsoft Office, but they aren't supposed to be – they're fast, easy to use and make commenting and collaborating effortless. Also, if you team them up with Google Mail and Google Calendar you're covered for most everyday business tasks.
That's work taken care of. What about play? Google Play is the entertainment arm of Google's cloud offerings, and it has five types of content: Android apps, movies and TV programmes, music, books, and magazines.
The movies section offers both purchases and rentals, and the music section enables you to upload your own library as well as listen to songs you've purchased from Google. You get enough room for 20,000 songs, and music you buy from Play isn't included in your total.
Google Play Music is free, and you can add Spotify-style streaming music with Google Play Music All Access. That's £9.99 (around $15, AU$21) per month and also gives you access to YouTube Red, the new ad-free YouTube subscription service.
Google's cloud computers
Google's Chromebooks are designed as thin clients for Google's many online services, and they're generally cheap laptops with limited local storage. The attraction is their simplicity. According to Forrester analyst JP Gownder, where deploying Windows PCs "requires time and effort from infrastructure and operations (I&O) professionals ... Chromebooks require very little imaging; pilot users say any given device can be configured for a new user in under 15 minutes."
Low overheads, coupled with the ultra-low cost of Chromebooks, their simplicity and their suitability for mobile working, mean they're ideal business machines for simple tasks – unless you're doing business in China, where Gmail and Google Apps don't work.
For years, Apple's cloud services have been miserly. That's improved somewhat with the launch of iCloud Drive and Apple Music, although the free accounts aren't brilliant. While every iCloud user gets 5GB of free storage, that quickly fills up if you use iCloud for backup – iCloud accounts are per person, not per device, so if you have an iPad and an iPhone you'll fill that 5GB in no time.
Additional storage is £0.79 per month for 50GB, £2.49 for 200GB and £6.99 for 1TB (in the US that's $0.99, $2.99 and $9.99 respectively, or AU$1.29, AU$4.99 and AU$12.99).
iCloud Drive is here!
Until fairly recently Apple didn't seem too interested in making its online services work on non-Apple devices, but that's changed with the introduction of iCloud Drive. On Apple devices upgraded to iOS 8 orOS X Yosemite (or later) Apple automatically upgrades iCloud to iCloud Drive accounts. PC users just need to get the iCloud for Windows app and Windows 7 or later.
When it's all set up you're able to store and access documents from one place on all your devices, keep files and folders up-to-date across those same devices, create new files inside iCloud-enabled apps and work on the same files across devices. With iCloud's integration with Office and Office for iOS, this makes it an incredibly useful feature. Of course it still only works with apps that are supported by iCloud Drive but this is definitely a step in the right direction.
Misbehaving iTunes libraries aside, the media side of iCloud works very well indeed across Mac and iOS devices. You can buy a song on iTunes on the desktop and it'll magically appear on your iPhone or iPad, and if you've bought a movie or TV show on one device your Apple TV knows about it and knows where you left off watching.
Apple also recently made it easier to access images and videos across devices by implementing a new Photos app that offers the same experience across iOS and OS X. Marry this with iCloud integration and it provides an almost identical feature set to Google Drive's photo saving options.
Apple's media offerings are a little confusing. There's iTunes Match, which stores your music library in the cloud for £21.99 per year ($25 in the States, which is around AU$35), but there's also Apple Music, which is a streaming service costing £9.99 per month ($9.99, which is around AU$14) or £14.99 ($14.99, which is around AU$21) for a family subscription.
It works like Spotify but integrates with your existing library, and it works fine when you can get a data connection. Saving for offline can be a frustratingly erratic process, however, and while there's a version for Android imminent we don't think it'll do big numbers among fans of Google's mobile OS.
Microsoft's been doing the cloud computing thing for decades: Hotmail (later Windows Live Hotmail, and now Outlook.com) was one of the first web-based email services, and Microsoft bought it back in 1997 when nobody really knew what cloud computing was. Its Azure platform powers many big businesses, and Xbox Live brought all kinds of entertainment to the Xbox.
When Google Docs first appeared Microsoft didn't see it as a threat, but that belief has clearly changed. Today, Microsoft offers a range of cloud-connected Office services including the free Office Web Apps and the subscription-based Office 365.
Like Google, Microsoft has been revising its various cloud offerings, so for example its Live Mesh file syncing service was retired and replaced with SkyDrive. Legal action from Sky forced a name change, and SkyDrive is now known as OneDrive.
OneDrive is rather similar to Google Drive – you can use it to share and synchronise files between different devices, and you can create Word documents, Excel workbooks, PowerPoint presentations, OneNote notebooks and Excel surveys inside your browser.
OneDrive apps are available for Windows Vista onwards, for the Mac, for Windows Phone, Android and iOS, and like Google Drive there are also third-party apps that can use OneDrive for synchronisation. Examples include sketching apps, document scanners, PDF managers, notepad apps and document signing apps.
In an aggressive move, Microsoft dramatically increased the OneDrive storage from 7GB to 15GB for free users and offered unlimited storage to Office 365 subscribers, but a handful of users were apparently abusing Microsoft's generosity and the limits have been cut again. The free tier is being downgraded to 5GB for new users (still 15GB for existing ones), the maximum limit for paid subscribers is back down to 1TB and the 100GB and 200GB plans have been removed. The 15GB camera upload bonus is gone too.
That's good news for anybody who had 30GB of storage – 15GB of standard storage plus 15GB from enabling automatic camera upload. The new OneDrive tiers will be 5GB for free, 50GB for $1.99 per month (£1.99, or AU$2.80) and 1TB for $6.99 per month (£5.99, or AU$9.80).
Reaction to the changes has been less than favourable – according to Ars Technica: "If it were any other service, we'd almost feel suspicious that the poor management and reduction in capabilities were precursors to winding the entire thing up."
We'd certainly be wary of relying too much on a service whose capabilities can be revised so dramatically by Microsoft.
Just bear in mind as well that the 1TB storage tier comes with free Office 365 for as long as you use it. That's Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, Access and a shedload of other features as well.
When it comes to entertainment in the cloud, Microsoft's track record has been patchy. Redmond's MSN Music was a relatively unsuccessful rival to Apple's iTunes and was shut down in 2006, and its next attempt was tied to the supposed iPod-killing Zune music player. Just to keep things nice and confusing, the latest incarnation was called Xbox Music even though it isn't limited to the Xbox and then rebranded as Groove, but not in the UK – we've still got Xbox Music Pass.
Xbox Music Pass is £8.99 (around $14, AU$19) per month, which gives you online and offiline streaming on PC, tablet and phone, plus ad-free streaming and music videos on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The US service, Groove, is cheaper at $9.99.
There's also a companion service, Xbox Video, which has been rebranded as Microsoft Movies & TV – although Windows 8 and Windows RT users will continue to use Xbox Video. Both services offer movie rentals and purchases on PCs, tablets and Xbox.
Amazon isn't just the world's biggest retailer. It's one of the world's biggest cloud service providers, and its servers power some of the internet's favourite services.
In 2011 it decided to join the consumer cloud party too, and since then it's quietly added some very useful cloud-based features such as AutoRip, which automatically adds MP3 versions of CD or vinyl records you've bought to your cloud music player – and which checks through your purchase history to AutoRip CDs and records you've bought in the past.
AutoRip isn't perfect – it can only rip the records it has the digital rights for, so don't be entirely surprised if your prized 1977 punk rock B-side collections aren't covered. But it's still a clever and appealing feature, enabling you to stream music you can't remember you bought, or just listen to new purchases before the postman delivers the CD.
As CEO Jeff Bezos put it: "What would you say if you bought CDs, vinyl or even cassettes from a company 14 years ago, and then 14 years later that company licensed the rights from the record companies to give you the MP3 versions of those albums … and then to top it off, did that for you automatically and for free?"
The centrepiece of Amazon's consumer cloud services is Cloud Drive, which offers 5GB of free storage and comes with desktop (PC and Mac), iOS and Android apps. If 5GB is insufficient you can add additional storage, with plans available from 20GB (£6 per year – around $9, AU$13) to 1,000GB (£320 per year – around $490, AU$690). In the US and UK, Amazon Prime subscribers also get unlimited photo storage from their device.
In July 2014, Amazon announced the launch of Zocalo, a secure enterprise storage service designed to compete with Dropbox and Box. That is now Amazon WorkDocs; pricing is $5 (around £3, AU$7) per user per month for 200GB.
Amazon offers a music service, Amazon Music, for all your Amazon MP3 purchases and up to 250 uploaded songs, but it really wants to sell you a Prime membership for £79 per year ($99 in the US, which is around AU$140). Prime users get access to the million-track Amazon Prime Music streaming service as well as HD movie streaming from Amazon Prime Instant Video.
There's also a separate movie on-demand service, Amazon Video, which doesn't require a subscription. If you just want the video streaming service, you can sign up for a video-only Prime membership for £5.99 per month (around $9, or AU$13).
Steve Jobs famously tried to buy Dropbox, but the nine-digit offer was rejected. Jobs then dismissed the whole thing – "He said we were a feature, not a product", recalls Dropbox's Drew Houston – and decided to stomp the fledgling service into the ground.
Despite Apple's best efforts, Dropbox isn't letting itself get stomped. As of summer 2015 it had 400 million users.
The firm has supplemented its file and folder APIs with data APIs, enabling mobile app developers to share data as well as files over the service. That's important because, unlike some rivals, Dropbox is massively multi-platform. You can install it on a Mac or PC, on a BlackBerry or a Kindle Fire, on an iPhone or iPad or Android device.
You can use it to sync and access music files, photos or movies, or you can use it as a hard drive in the sky, or you can use it for any other kind of content. For example, apps such as the excellent Scrivener writing program work with Dropbox so all your notes and scribbles are available from any device, while the service's own Carousel app offers easy browsing for your Dropbox photos and videos.
The service also offers the ability to collaborate on Office documents across Windows and Macs using Dropbox, and users can edit the same documents inside Office 365.
Free accounts start with 2GB of space, and you can earn additional space by referring others – you get 500MB extra space for each referral, and you can get up to 18GB in total without paying a penny. Dropbox Pro is £7.99 per month (around $12, or AU$17) for 1TB of storage, and Dropbox for business is £11.99 per user per month (around $18, or AU$26) for unlimited storage.
Dropbox's refusal to join in the cloud storage price wars have led to predictions that it will suffer while Microsoft and Google duke it out, but the company recently revised its structure to make storage plans more competitive. It's also investing heavily in Dropbox as an app platform, and it has acquired email program Mailbox, eReader platform Readmill, and several other services to add value to its overall offering.