They say you can't take it with you. The "it" in that saying originally referred to your personal wealth, but until recently, it also referred to personal information stored on your computer. For most of my life, data was a nearly immovable object, as heavy as your computer. Today, with mobile devices and the steadily improving effectiveness of cloud computing, it is easier than ever to back up, sync, and access important data without filling up your storage drive or adding a single ounce to your gear bag.
This article reviews three solutions: SpiderOak (spideroak.com), Dropbox (dropbox.com), and SugarSync (sugarsync.com). These solutions help ensure that your data is not only secure, but also available to you—anytime and anywhere. Each requires that you sign up for an online cloud storage account. Free accounts are available from all, and you can pay a monthly or yearly service fee for extra storage capacity (see Pricing towards the end of the article). In addition, each of these solutions includes an online, desktop and mobile component. The main focus of this article is iPad access, although the apps are available for the iPhone and iPod touch as well.
Choosing files to back up or sync to the cloud
After you've signed up for a cloud storage account, you need to select the files and folders on your desktop computer that you want to sync or back up to the cloud. You'll do this using the desktop component of the service you select.
SpiderOak simplifies the process by allowing you to designate general file types to back up. You can choose documents, movies, music, pictures, or your entire desktop. Just select one of more of these options, and the program will automatically search all of your attached drives for the appropriate files to upload to your account. If you need something a little more precise, then choose the Advanced view option, which lets you scroll through all of the folders and files on your computer and manually select the ones you intend to sync, even if those files are located on an attached external drive.
SugarSync's method of selecting files to sync is similar to SpiderOak's Advanced view. From the SugarSync Manager, simply select the folder or folders that you wish to sync. The contents of any selected folders will be automatically synced to your online repository, and any changes will be updated on an ongoing basis. Additionally, SugarSync will assign you a unique e-mail address, which you can use to upload files to your SugarSync account from any computer, even if you do not have the SugarSync software loaded. Unlike SpiderOak, SugarSync does not yet support syncing from an external drive (though I am told that feature is coming soon).
Dropbox designates a single sync folder on your device. Drop any documents you want synced into this folder, and they are automatically sent to your online account. The frustration here, however, is that unlike SpiderOak and SugarSync, Dropbox will not allow you to sync files from their native location. Instead, in order to sync a file, it must be copied or moved from the normal storage space to the sync folder, often resulting in multiple copies of the same file stored on your computer (one in its native location and another in the sync folder) which can lead to some confusion.
Both Dropbox and SugarSync also offer a third alternative for uploading files, allowing you to use the online interface to reach into any computer and grab the files you wish to add to your account. This is a fantastic alternative for adding files from other computers, which might not be directly connected to your online account.
Accessing files from the iPad
All three services feature free, universal apps, fully optimized for your favorite iOS device. Interestingly, while all three offer similar functionality, their approaches could not be more different.
Let's start with SpiderOak, which allows you to upload content from multiple computers to your online storage. The SpiderOak app (free, app2.me/3766) lets you access stored files from each computer separately. Once you select the computer you want to view, you will find the original file structure intact, making it easy to navigate to your files, as though you were looking at them on your computer..
However, rather than simply opening a file stored in the cloud, SpiderOak makes you download the entire file to your device first. This can be a real problem, especially when viewing a large PDF file. The whole point of storing documents online is to extend your limited and valuable storage space. Furthermore, the app offers no indication of where these files are stored or how to remove them from your iPad. If you download many large documents, your storage space can fill up quickly.
The Dropbox app (free, app2.me/127) organizes files differently than SpiderOak. Instead of replicating the file structure on your computer, Dropbox stores content exactly as it was uploaded. If you upload individual files, then that's how they are listed in the app. Upload a folder, and the entire folder, along with all of its contents will be shown. Again, anything you drop into the sync folder will automatically be uploaded to your account.
SugarSync comes the closest to creating a complete personal cloud. This is due in large part to the SugarSync app (free, app2.me/3108), which gives you complete access to any file from any of your computers that you have stored online. Like SpiderOak, your files are organized by device. Within each device, your documents will be stored exactly as you uploaded them whether they were in a folder or just standing on their own. This incorporates the best of both Dropbox and SpiderOak. Although this appears to be similar to SpiderOak, SugarSync's functionality really sets it apart. First, it opens files for viewing without storing them on your device and utilizing valuable storage space. Additionally, since SugarSync is constantly scanning your connected computers for changes, you are always guaranteed to have the most recent changes or updates with you at all times.
SugarSync also offers two additional folders. The Magic Briefcase will appear on any computer or mobile device connected to your personal SugarSync Cloud. You can use it to store documents that you need to access from various computers or mobile devices. Any documents stored here will be synced not only to the cloud, but also to all connected devices, helping to ensure that the latest changes are always available to you, even if you are not online. The other unique folder is called Web Archives. You can use this one to store documents that you do not want synced at all… just back them up here and forget about them. By far, the SugarSync app was the most flexible and versatile of all the apps I tested.
Editing documents on iPad
Although none of these solutions include a native document editor, all three apps let you open documents from another iPad app. However, if you want to edit them on the iPad and save them back to the cloud, the app you use to edit the document must have this capability built into it. Apps such as Pages (iPad only: $9.99, app2.me/2412) and Quickoffice Connect (iPad: $14.99, app2.me/2534; iPhone/iPod touch: $9.99, app2.me/115) allow you to save documents back to your online Dropbox or SugarSync account. Unfortunately, I did not find any apps for the iPad that allowed you to save documents back to your SpiderOak account. Given the growing popularity of accessing documents while mobile, this ability to edit and save documents to your online storage is critical.
Although all three of these solutions allow you to store any file types, only Dropbox and SugarSync allow you to stream audio and video files stored online. However, they do not display album art properly, even if it's stored in your account. SugarSync allows you to download music to your device and un-sync/remove it when you're finished (leaving it safely stored online). SpiderOak does not have this capability.
Your iOS device allows you to share documents with others by attaching them to an e-mail and sending them to friends and associates. The apps in this article allow you to share files in a far more elegant and simpler process.
SpiderOak includes a somewhat ingenious feature called ShareRooms. You can create as many of these ShareRooms you want and stock them with synced documents, photos, and other files. You can then send a ShareID and RoomKey to your friends (even if they do not use SpiderOak), which allow them to review any files stored in a particular ShareRoom. They will not, however, be able to access other ShareRooms in your account or any of your other files. The really cool thing here is that you can modify the contents of your ShareRoom, and anyone connected will automatically have access to the new content.
Dropbox allows you to share any files by e-mailing a link to your friends. Unlike SpiderOak, you do not share access to multiple files at once. Instead, you need to mail each link individually, which got to be a bit cumbersome.
SugarSync took the best of both worlds and put them all together. It allows you to e-mail a unique link to any file or folder in your account to share it with anyone else. Again, they don't need to be using SugarSync to access them. However, if they are a SugarSync member, the folders you share will be automatically accessible from their Shared Folders view, organized by the folder's creator. What is great about this is that any changes made to the folder's contents will automatically be synced to any shared accounts, so you will always have access to the most up-to-date files.
Pricing for online storage services
Each of these apps works in conjunction with the developer's online storage service, which means that you'll need to sign up for the service. All three offer a free account with minimal storage to get you started. You can pay a monthly or yearly service fee for greater storage capability. See image on right for pricing information.
I was impressed by how seriously all three companies take your privacy. Although all three take slightly different paths and implementation strategies, the bottom line is that regardless of which service your choose to use, your data will be at least as secure as any online banking transaction. Here is what each had to say about their security:
SpiderOak Your SpiderOak data is readable to you alone. Most online storage systems only encrypt your data during transmission, meaning anyone with physical access to the servers your data is stored on (such as the company's staff) could have access to it. Or, even if your data is encrypted during storage, your password (or set of encryption keys) is often stored along with your data, thus making it easily decoded by anyone with local access to those servers.
Dropbox Dropbox protects your files without you needing to think about it. It keeps a one-month history of your work, so any changes can be undone, and files can be undeleted. All transmission of file data occurs over an encrypted channel (SSL). All files stored on Dropbox are encrypted (AES-256). Dropbox employees are unable to view user files.
SugarSync Your files are continuously backed up to your secure, personal SugarSync website using SSL encryption. Once in our servers, all data is then encrypted with 128-bit AES.
I did find it notable that SugarSync and Dropbox offered significantly more specific information about their security features than SpiderOak, which offered no real specifics about the protection it offered for your data.
The winner? All three apps
I was really impressed with each of these three apps. SugarSync gives you more bang for your buck on the smaller accounts (especially the 5 GB free account). However, SpiderOak offers the best pricing for 100 GB of storage. Meanwhile, both SugarSync and Dropbox offer additional rewards in terms of free storage for recommending friends to the service. Ultimately, the app and service you choose is going to depend on needs and interests. My suggestion is to download all three apps, subscribe to their free storage options, and give them a try. When you need more online storage, upgrade the one that works best for you.