9 free personal clouds offer something for everyone  

Personal cloud services allow users to store data, share it among devices and collaborate with teams

A personal cloud service lets you share photos, music and documents among all your devices easily and quickly, but the way that sharing happens depends on which cloud service you choose.

The good news is that these cloud services are normally free for a limited amount of data. Most vendors also offer premium or enterprise versions, which allow you to store more data and to share data, which is useful in a workgroup scenario, for example.

We looked at nine personal cloud services: Apple’s iCloud, Bitcasa, Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, MediaFire, SpiderOak and Ubuntu One. While iCloud, SkyDrive and Google Drive are optimized for their respective platforms, all of the cloud services work across multiple operating systems and different browser types.

In some cases, the vendors offer a shared storage area that other people can access on their own, in others cases you would send a URL to people. Some services also include Web-based apps, such as the ability to create documents or contact lists.

There was no single cloud service that we considered a winner. All worked as advertised, all had their strengths, as well as peculiarities or annoyances.

[ALSO: How to build a private cloud]

SkyDrive offers smooth integration with Microsoft Office apps, iCloud delivers built-in data synching and full backups for users with multiple Apple devices. Bitcasa is notable for offering unlimited space and SpiderOak is aimed at users worried about cloud security.

Box takes it one step further, offering collaboration features. Similarly, Dropbox delivers excellent version control for users collaborating on a document. GoogleDrive is aimed at users in the Google Docs/Gmail ecosystem.

MediaFire is trying to carve out a niche in streaming media. Ubuntu One still needs some work, but it’s aimed at what Canonical hopes will be a growing legion of users who are on Ubuntu desktops and Ubuntu smartphones. (Watch a slideshow version of this story.)

Here are the individual reviews:

Apple iCloud

If you have an iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch or a Mac, you have iCloud available. iCloud is also available for download for Windows 7 and 8 users, but not for Windows RT. You can access iCloud by going to the iCloud website from any device. Apple provides 5GB of storage for free, and you can upgrade if you need more, starting at $20.

ICloud provides storage for photos and documents you want to share between devices. You can share photos with others using Photo Streams. Sharing reportedly will be enhanced with iOS 7 when it’s released. Your iOS devices can also be backed up to iCloud, which is handy if you need to replace a device or do an upgrade. Those backups include all content on your device as well as all of the apps and settings.

Much of the material on your Mac or iOS device can be uploaded to iCloud automatically, so a photo taken on your iPhone will appear on your iPad or Mac in short order. Likewise, music and video content from the Apple store will show up on your Apple devices.

Apple includes several Web apps so you can get to your iCloud information from your PC and perhaps your tablet, although tests with Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10 devices demonstrated that not every mobile browser will work. You can sync iCloud with Microsoft Outlook for your e-mail, contact lists and calendar entries, but to accomplish this you are required to sign up for iCloud e-mail.

[MORE ICLOUD: Apple iCloud: How do you stay secure with this thing?]

Using iCloud from an iOS device or a Mac requires little effort since it’s already built in. Using iCloud on a Windows 7 or 8 machine requires that you download the iCloud Control Panel. Once the Control Panel is downloaded and installed, you’ll need to tell it what you want to sync, and at that point it will happen automatically.

ICloud does not have a provision for ad hoc storage of documents on Windows or Linux desktops. And you can’t share music with other people via iCloud.

Bitcasa: Infinite backup

Bitcasa presents itself as an infinitely large drive that never runs out of space. In reality, you get 10GB for free, but infinite space costs $99 a year. The Bitcasa app is available for Windows 7 and 8, and there are specific apps available for Macintosh, Android, iOS and Windows Phone and RT. The Windows RT app also works with Windows 8. However, Bitcasa says that you can get to your data on their Infinite Drive from any device with a browser. I can confirm that it worked on any mobile device I tried including a BlackBerry Z10 running QNX.

When you download the Bitcasa app, Bitcasa appears to be a folder that shows up on your desktop. In Windows, it also appears as a drive in Windows Explorer and while Windows doesn’t list the space as infinite but rather 7.99 Exabytes, that’s a close approximation. For those keeping track, an Exabyte is 1018 bytes which is the most that Windows can recognize. A spokesperson for Bitcasa told Network World that there is no limit even if your PC can’t wrap its mind around that concept.

In addition to appearing to be an immense disk drive, Bitcasa also supports syncing with other drives on your computer. This syncing happens in real time as you work, and if you’re away from an Internet connection, it’ll catch up when you connect again. You can also sync multiple devices with your Bitcasa cloud service.

Bitcasa bills itself as a way to do away with your existing backup devices, which it may be. But a fast external drive is going to be a lot faster than Bitcasa connected through the Internet. And while I found uploads to be fairly quick with no indication that Bitcasa’s service was operating any slower than my Internet connection, that’s still a lot slower than an eSATA or USB 3.0 connection.

In addition, Bitcasa will not let you sync a network drive to the cloud, although you can copy the contents of such a drive with a single mouse click. You can, however, sync an external drive such as the previously mentioned USB or eSATA drive, which means that you can back up to the external drive quickly, and then back up that drive to the cloud in the background. Bitcasa does not restrict which directory folders you choose to sync automatically, as long as they’re located on your computer.

Bitcasa’s operation is as fast as your Internet connection. You can share your content with others by creating a URL that can allow them access to a folder or a file, and it will work with all of your devices regardless of whether there’s a Bitcasa app for it. The company says that it stores three copies of everything, that all data is encrypted before it’s uploaded, and that it lets you roll back to previous versions of a file or recover a deleted file. Overall, Bitcasa is an example of a service that’s fast, effective, reasonably priced and is highly flexible.

Box: The focus is on collaboration

Box has been around as long as any of the personal cloud services, although the company normally presents itself as a corporate platform focused on collaboration. However, there’s a free personal version available that will let you store up to 5GB. The price for up to 25GB of space is $9.99 and it’s $19.99 for up to 50GB. There is also a business version of Box and an Enterprise version. Box is available for mobile devices including iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry, and you can access Box using a browser. You can download Box Sync for Windows and Macintosh computers.

The way Box Sync works is somewhat different from the way sync works with other services. While Box will sync with any folder, you have to drag the folder to a folder on your Desktop called “My Box Files,” at which point the synchronization will start. Then, when you add, delete or change a file in the folder, that change is made to the other folder. You can also set up synchronization from the folder in “My Box Files” and it will sync to your Desktop.

The real focus for Box is collaboration. Box highlights its collaboration features, and it supports access to files by multiple users. When a group of people is using Box, they can see each other’s updates, leave comments, make changes and suggested changes and the like. In addition, you can control how others get access to the files and control whether it’s through a link, a download or a shared workspace. You can also control who gets access by limiting it to just you, specific people or specific domains.

Box uploads are quite fast because Box has developed an upload accelerator which works much like a content distribution network. This basically means that you access Box through a point of presence near you, and whatever you upload is then sent to Box. This isn’t going to make your Internet connection any faster than it is already, but it does mean that you’ll escape the latency and delays that can stem from long-distance connections.

[ALSO: Box targets universities for cloud storage]

Box is not intended to be an online substitute for your backup system, it’s designed to allow you to share files with your other devices and with other people and to collaborate. Within the limits of what it’s designed to do, Box works quite well. Operation is fast, there’s an app for nearly any operating system, and sharing is easy. Box is especially nice if you’re already using it at work. While it’s not all things to all users, it’s not intended to be, but what it does it does very well.

Dropbox: Excellent version tracking

The Dropbox name is very descriptive for a cloud service. At its core, Dropbox is a place in the cloud where you drop stuff. That stuff can be pretty much anything from music to photos to documents. It’s a great way to keep files that you may want available for your mobile devices, and for files that you may want to share.

But there’s more to Dropbox than just a big storage website. Dropbox includes apps for most computers and mobile devices including Windows, Macintosh, some Linux distributions, iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Kindle Fire. There is a third-party app for Windows Phone. BlackBerry 10 devices come with Dropbox already installed, however if you go to the Dropbox website, you’ll be offered the chance to download an incompatible version that will not actually work on the device.

Dropbox includes version tracking which can be extremely useful for collaboration because it will let you see who made which changes, and it will let you roll back to an earlier version of a file if you need to. The version history covers the last 30 days of the document or other file.

Dropbox works by creating a folder on your computer that it syncs with the cloud storage. That cloud storage in turn syncs with other devices that you have running Dropbox. You can also reach your Dropbox storage through the company website.

There’s a business version of Dropbox that gives you unlimited storage, unlimited version history, and more granular control over access to resources on Dropbox. You also get an admin console that provides detailed information about the activities of each user, including what time of device they’re using and how much storage they’re using. Dropbox for Business costs $795 per year, plus $125 per user for each user over five. The basic personal version of Dropbox can be downloaded for free.

As is the case with most of these cloud services, using Dropbox is like using any other folder on your computer. You can copy files or folders into your Dropbox folder where they’ll be synced. The Dropbox folder appears to be a system folder on your device. The most current version of your files show up first, but Dropbox will present a list of previous versions, when changes took place, and who made the changes.

Google Drive: Tight integration with Google Docs

When Google Drive first launched it was your basic personal cloud storage area where you could put stuff. If you were a user of some of Google’s apps, such as Google Docs, then you could store your documents there. Depending on the platform you’re using, that may still be the case, but it’s not that way for everyone.

Now, when you download Google Drive, you also get some additional Google apps whether you want them or not, at least on some platforms. On other platforms, you don’t get those. This means that if you go to the Google Drive site you may find yourself greeted with Google Docs. You can download Google Drive on a Windows computer only as part of a package that includes Google Sheets, Google Slides and Google Docs. On other platforms such as the iPad, you can limit your download to Google Drive.

Google Drive is available for Windows and Macintosh computers, Android and iOS phones and tablets. Google Drive is also available on the Web using nearly any Web browser. In some cases using Google Drive from a Web browser can lead to a potential security problem because Drive does not log users out automatically, and as one person who borrowed my phone to perform a quick check of Gmail commented, “Logging into anything on Google logs you into everything.” As a result, I was able to continue to see his activity on Google Drive for days until I deliberately signed off from all connections.

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