With 500GB disks now shipping as standard on all but entry-level PCs and 2TB disks costing less than £130, storage space has never been more abundant or affordable.
So the recent proliferation of companies offering online data storage products and services might seem surprising – except when you factor in the features and benefits online storage offers that could never be met by local storage alone.
Among the list of unique benefits are fully automated backups, synchronising files between different PCs and sharing files with colleagues, friends or even the whole world. Here we investigate these benefits and take a look at four products that claim to offer all of these services and more.
USB flash drives enable us to carry large amounts of data around in our pockets. But in order to benefit from them we must be organised enough to make sure that they always contain the files we're likely to need.
An online service also suffers from this problem to some extent, but it has several advantages over using a thumb drive. Going online lets you access a document from several computers or mobile phones while also allowing you to modify that document from any of those devices and then make that modified version accessible.
LIVEDRIVE: Online backup services allow you to access your files wherever you areRead TechRadar's Livedrive review
You could create a document on your desktop at home, read and modify it on your laptop in a hotel room and then work on the updated version when you get back home, all without any manual moving of files.
A typical additional feature is that previous versions of files are saved, so you can roll back to an older copy if you've made a mistake or decided you don't like your changes.
File synchronisation is the tech behind all this functionality, and while it's very useful, you should be aware of its potential problems.
Say both you and a colleague start to edit the same file at the same time. When you close the file it's written to the online drive but if your colleague then does likewise, without special precautions, it would mean that your edit gets lost.
HUMYO: File locking is a must if you want to share the same file with different peopleRead TechRadar's Humyo review
If you intend to use this service collaboratively, you'd be advised to check that it offers a suitable fix for such conflicts. The classic solution is to employ file locking so that as soon as one person starts to edit a file, subsequent access to that file won't be allowed until the first person has finished editing it.
Although the main benefit of file synchronisation is the ability to work on files from several computers, another is the way it allows you to share those files between a small group of individuals who can also modify them.
SUGARSYNC: You can also set it up to allow read-only access to certain people you don't want to edit your filesRead TechRadar's SugarSync review
Regular file sharing is also offered for distributing your files to a larger circle of contacts without providing them with the ability to modify the documents. Generally, these services allow you either to share an online file or folder with certain individuals or to make it public, which means that anyone can see it.
In essence, the end result is much the same: a URL is generated to permit access to your shared files. The only difference is that if you decide to share it only with certain individuals then an email is sent to them containing a link, whereas if you make it public then it's up to you to publicise that link for the world to see.
You don't need an online service to back up your data, but it does make the process easier and more secure. Local back-up software lets you perform backups automatically at preset times, but unless you've made sure your back-up media is connected and ready to go, that backup will fail.
DROPBOX: They also provide a good alternative to home backups that will be lost in the event of something drastic occurringRead TechRadar's DropBox review
To prevent this, you could keep your back-up drive attached to your PC. This would protect against a failure of your main disk, but if your PC is stolen or destroyed in a fire, an external drive sitting next to it would likely suffer the same fate.
Ideally you need a method of backup that is both automatic and remote. Online backup provides just that. Online backup services often use client software installed locally that allows you to mark files or folders for backup. Then whenever a file is modified, the new version will be automatically uploaded to your secure storage space via the web.
The only thing that could prevent a file from not being backed up is the lack of web connection – but the transfer will take place as soon as web access is restored, rendering it a temporary problem.
All the services here provide the three basic services described above, and all offer encryption. Differences mostly come down to personal preference on matters such as which user interface you prefer, which facilities you prioritise and, of course, the price you're willing to pay.
First published in PC Plus Issue 292
Liked this? Then check out 8 of the best online storage sites
Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register