Join the Cloud on the Cheap

You can safely store all of your files and access them wherever you are.

Living with your head in the clouds can be a good thing. Services such as Apple iCloud and Amazon Cloud Drive not only back up your files on secure, Web-connected servers but also sync your photos, videos, music and documents among your computers, phones and tablets. And for sharing large files, such as video clips, with friends and family, using the cloud is easier than e-mail. By backing up key files off-site, you avoid losing them to a hardware meltdown or a home disaster, such as fire or flood.

What’s free. Cloud services offer a limited amount of storage free, then charge monthly or annual fees for additional space. Apple iCloud (opens in new tab), Amazon Cloud Drive (opens in new tab), Box (opens in new tab), Google Drive (opens in new tab) and SugarSync (opens in new tab) each offer 5 gigabytes of free storage; Dropbox (opens in new tab) provides 2GB, and Microsoft SkyDrive (opens in new tab), 7GB.

Dropbox’s 2GB offer may seem a bit stingy, but the service has a unique perk: You can boost your free storage capacity by 500 megabytes for every person you get to join. The maximum amount of free storage is a generous 18GB.

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Several gigabytes may seem like a lot of room—and it is, if you’re storing mostly text documents and e-mails. Sugar­Sync says 5GB will hold 500 documents, 2,000 photos and 2,000 songs. But video is another story. One minute of high-definition video shot on the new iPad uses about 100MB of storage. So videographers can fill up 5 gigs of iCloud space with just a few videos.

If you need more room, cloud providers sell additional storage. The low-cost leader is SkyDrive, which offers 20GB of space (in addition to the free 7GB) for just $10 per year. Amazon Cloud Drive rents 20GB for $20 per year, and Apple charges $20 a year for 10GB. Google Drive costs $2.50 per month ($30 a year) for 25GB; SugarSync, $5 per month ($50 a year) for 30GB; Dropbox, $10 per month ($99 annually) for 50GB; and Box, $10 per month ($120 a year) for 25GB. Each service also sells larger, pricier plans.

More than storage. The ability to sync files among multiple devices is one of cloud computing’s best features. Apple devotees are best served by iCloud, which comes with every new iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and Mac. It also works on older devices running the latest version of Apple’s operating system. The service automatically syncs e-mail, contacts and calendars across your Apple gadgets and stores your music, movies, apps and photos on secure servers.

Windows PC users, particularly those who work with Microsoft Office, will like SkyDrive, which includes free, scaled-down Web versions of Office apps, such as Word and Excel, to create, edit and view files. Using Microsoft’s free Windows app, it’s easy to sync files between SkyDrive and your PC, and to access those files from any Web-linked computer.

Google Drive incorporates Google Docs, a free online suite of programs including a word processor, spreadsheet and drawing app. Google Drive documents are automatically saved in the cloud, but the focus of the service is limited. For sharing online slide shows, for instance, you’ll need to download Google’s free Picasa (opens in new tab) app.

What if you use devices from multiple vendors? If you have, say, a Windows laptop, an iPad and an Android smart phone, then pick Dropbox or SugarSync. When you drop a photo into the Dropbox folder on your Windows PC, for instance, the service saves the file to all of your Dropbox-enabled computers and phones and to the Dropbox Web site.

Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance