Saturday, March 15, 2014

Microsoft OneDrive – formerly SkyDrive

SkyDrive is now OneDrive: It's largely the same as its predecessor, with a few new tricks and new mobile apps. Microsoft's online backup and syncing service is the most flexible and all-encompassing of its ilk, with syncing and access apps not only for PCs, but also for Macs, Androids, iOS, and Windows Phones. It integrates with Office apps, both installed and on the Web, and it can share to Facebook as well. By comparison, Apple's competing iCloud is only available for Apple devices (though there is a decent Windows syncing utility). And unlike iCloud's backup, everything on OneDrive is accessible from a Web browser—even PC files that you didn't specifically upload to OneDrive. For all this power and flexibility—not to mention eminently attractive and usable interface, OneDrive is a clear PCMag Editors' Choice.

Like iCloud from Apple, OneDrive serves a lot of functions. If you just want access to documents or media files, it offers simple online storage accessible from the Web. If you want the same set of files replicated on multiple PCs it provides folder syncing. For users of Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone, it backs up settings. Because of this diversity of function, there are several different cross-sections from which you can view the service—by type of data, client, or function. The data types include documents, photos, video, music, or settings. The clients include computer, mobile, and Web, and the functions are things like syncing, viewing, playing, and simple storage. Let's take a look at the service from these various angles.

Your OneDrive Account
Anyone can get a free OneDrive account—well, anyone who's created a Microsoft account, which includes everyone who's ever signed up for a Hotmail, Live, or account. All users get 7GB free storage space, and, if you're a longtime OneDrive account holder (since before
April 22, 2012), you've got 25GB free. If you enable photo syncing on any mobile OneDrive app, you get another 3GB for a total of 10GB. This compares with 5GB free for iCloud and Google Drive (though if you convert docs to Google format, storage is free), and 2GB for Dropbox. Office 365 users get an extra 20GB, and anyone can add 20GB to OneDrive for $10 a year. Purchasers of Microsoft Surface  at %seller% tablets get 200GB for two years. Here's how the pricing compares with that of the other services:

Google Drive
Amazon Cloud Drive
Free storage
Add  20 GB
Add 50 GB
Add 100 GB
*All email attachments are counted against this.
Device Syncing
Microsoft likes to refer to OneDrive as a "device cloud" and with Windows 8.1 PCs and Windows Phones, the moniker makes sense. The service can sync settings and apps on those types of devices, while clients for iOS, Android, and Mac OS X give users of those devices access to the files stored in OneDrive's online folders.

Like iCloud for iPhones and iPads, OneDrive lets Windows Phone users  automatically upload photos (and videos) taken with the phone's camera to OneDrive's camera roll, so that the photos are quickly available for viewing online, in a OneDrive folder on a PC, in a Windows 8 PC's Photos app, or in any other OneDrive app you have installed. (As we'll see in a moment, this is now also true of the iPhone and Android OneDrive apps.) And in the OneDrive Web interface, you can view the photos as a slideshow, and even see a map of where they were taken along with EXIF camera info. A similar Web interface of this type is completely lacking in Apple's iCloud.

Another service in the realm of device syncing is the ability to sign into your account and magically reproduce a previous machine you've set up—color and background themes, social accounts, user photo, browser favorites and history, and even apps. OneDrive accomplishes this for both Windows 8 PCs and Windows Phones. In Windows 8, the service goes even further, by allowing third-party apps to take advantage of your cloud storage. Apps and sites can even use the service for single sign-on with your permission.

OneDrive Clients
OneDrive is built into Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone, as long as you've signed into a Microsoft account. But what if you use other technology platforms? OneDrive includes apps for not only Windows 7 and 8, but for Mac OS X, iOS, and Android. For other mobile platforms such as Blackberry, a mobile Web interface is available, and for desktop access when you're not at your own computer, a full feature Web app is available. The last is particularly important, and one thing that's long disappointed me about Apple's iCloud: Why can't I access photos in my iCloud Photo Stream from a Web browser, if the stuff is actually in the "cloud?"
Another OneDrive option for mobile users is the OneNote app. It's available for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone, and on the Web. This lets you create notes that will be automatically synced to all your OneDrive access points.

Folder and File Syncing
Forgetting about "devices" for a moment, OneDrive offers another desktop computer-centric function—file and folder syncing. This convenience is similar to what you get with Dropbox ($9.99 a month, 4 stars).
In the past, Microsoft had separated its syncing service with names like Live Mesh and Live Sync, and (way back) FolderShare. I for one, find the joining of online storage and syncing into one cloud service a refreshing simplification of a previously somewhat confusing set of systems. OneDrive syncing on computers differs from the earlier Mesh in that you can't designate any old folder you want to be synced, only those under the OneDrive main folder. But Microsoft has made it possible for these synced folders to look less sequestered in the OneDrive world, by using Windows' Libraries. It also adds a truly cool feature called Fetch—more about that in a moment.

The desktop clients for OneDrive syncing run on Windows Vista through Windows 7 and Mac OS X 10.7.3 or later. They're quick to install, with a setup wizard that lets you create an account if you don't already have one. It then shows how your OneDrive folder will appear in Windows Explorer (or Finder), with its little blue cloud icon instead of the traditional yellow folder icon. Setup also places a cloud icon in your system tray, from which you can open your synced folder or change settings. You can change the folder's location from the default top level under your user folder.

When you place a photo, document, or other item in the created OneDrive folder, it magically appears in any of your other OneDrive clients on any of your other computers.  You can even share a whole folder, but to co-edit documents in the online versions of Office applications you have to share individual files.
For a quick test, I went over to my Windows 8.1 PC and created a new folder in the OneDrive app, which appeared seconds later in a Windows 7 machine's OneDrive folder that I had set up. Including OneDrive in Windows Explorer is incredibly helpful because you can save work from any application to your cloud storage directly, without having to go to a website.

Happily, Windows 8.1 rectifies an inconvenience of Windows 8: OneDrive syncing is built into the desktop and the File Explorer. With 8, you had to install a utility just as if the desktop were Windows 7 itself.

OneDrive on the Web and Fetch
Web access to all your cloud data is one thing you don't get in Apple's iCloud. The Web app is linked with other Microsoft online services through a top switcher menu that includes Mail (either or Hotmail), People (the social network-aggregator app), and Calendar. It's a very fast and clean interface, with a left panel of menu choices including Files, Recent docs, Shared, Groups, and PCs.

This last item may be the most interesting: For PCs you've installed the desktop client on and authorized, you can pull any files using Fetch, even if the files aren't in the OneDrive folder. When I chose the PCs option from the Web interface's left rail, I was greeted by a message saying "Security check! To connect to this PC we need you to enter a security code. This extra step only takes a minute and will help protect your computer from unauthorized access." When I clicked the "Sign in with security code" link, I was told to sign in on a computer that's connected to my account. Of course, for this to work, the PC your fetching files from has to be on and running the OneDrive client.

One Place in the Cloud for Your Digital Life
With FolderShare, Sync, Mesh, and SkyDrive behind it, Microsoft's cloud solution has come together nicely in OneDrive, combining file syncing with online backup, and cloud storage. Cross-platform support for Macs, iOS devices, and Android devices is a smart move on Microsoft's part, too. Microsoft is anything but a latecomer to the cloud: OneDrive in Windows 8.1 shows this and that the service has moved in the right direction. With the most free online storage, the only cloud service that lets you fetch any file from a PC you've set up, integration with Office and third-party apps, folder syncing, and the most platform options including mobile devices and Web interface, OneDrive is our Editors' Choice for consumer cloud services.
Based on article by M. Muchmore in PCmagazine 3/14