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How to choose the best cloud storage service

Is it worth paying for cloud storage, or could you get away with a free service? Let us lift the fog on this popular online space saver
Christina Woodger
How to choose the best cloud storage service

Moving your files, photos and documents online to the cloud is one of the smartest computing decisions you can make.

With your most important files stored safely online, you don't need to panic about your laptop seizing up or your external hard drive breaking down. Even if your computer is lost or stolen, you'll still be able to access your documents or photo collection online through the cloud.

But, with all the cloud storage options out there, how do you pick which one to use? Some make transferring files a seamless task, whereas others are more trying. Follow our advice to free up more of your precious time. 

Below, we cover some key things to think about when choosing your cloud storage service, such as whether you should pay for it and features to look out for.

What is cloud storage?

Cloud storage is a way of storing and sharing data. With cloud storage, your data is stored on remote servers accessible from a network (the cloud, ie the internet). 

That depends on how much storage space you need. Many of the big-name services between 2GB and 5GB, which isn't much. But some offer more, including Google Drive, which gives you 15GB free of charge.

If you want more space, you'll need to pay an annual or monthly fee. 

Of course, there's nothing stopping you from setting up multiple free accounts and enjoying a sizeable combined amount of storage. But this could become confusing and annoying – and you probably don't want to spend too much time going through all your accounts to find one specific document.

Which cloud storage service features should I look out for?

Not all cloud storage services offer the same functionality, so make sure you pick one with all the features you want. Here's a list of some key ones to think about:

  • Multi-device access You can use most cloud storage services on your smartphone or tablet, as well as on your laptop or desktop. But check that a service has dedicated apps for your brand of tablet or smartphone.
  • Editing Surprisingly, some services don't let you edit documents within cloud storage itself - instead, you open the file outside of the storage service, then it syncs automatically. Many give you the option of both, though, giving you a little more flexibility. Some cloud storage services, including Livedrive and Knowhow, let you edit pictures, too.
  • File sharing Most services let you share your files with other people – for instance, you might like to share some holiday snaps with your family. Some don't, though, so consider whether it's something you'd like to do.
  • Real-time syncing This means your edited files will automatically have their changes updated in the cloud storage service. Most modern services offer this, although you sometimes used to have to upload files manually afterwards, which isn't as smooth a process.
  • Rollback This lets you roll back to an earlier version of a document – useful if something goes seriously wrong. A few providers also let you roll back everything on your cloud storage service to a previous time.
  • Video and music playback Videos and music often take up a lot of storage space, so many people stick them on cloud storage services to make room for other files. Some providers let you watch videos and play music within the service, too.

How secure are cloud storage services?

Reports of data breaches keep rolling in thick and fast. Unfortunately, we share a world with hackers who work hard to get their hands on our personal data. Millions of people upload personal documents and photos to cloud storage services. So, it's imperative that the brands behind those services protect all the data they hold to withstand breaches from even the most devious attackers. 

Does the cloud storage service encrypt your data?

Website encryption and traffic encryption are both extremely important. Website encryption relates to whether the cloud storage website itself is secure – ie whether there is a safe connection between the cloud website and your own web browser. Traffic encryption is about whether the data you're transferring to a website is travelling through a secure tunnel. Ultimately, the combination of website and traffic encryption means that a hacker would have a tough job of trying to intercept your data. 

Weak vs strong passwords

Part of the onus of creating a strong password is on you, the user. But, that doesn't mean a cloud storage service should let you get away with one that's too easily guessed by a stranger. The best cloud storage services won't even accept weak passwords. Instead, they will encourage you to provide one with a combination of eight or more characters, numbers, and upper and lower case letters. They also often give an assessment of how strong your password is to prompt you to improve it. Yet, some cloud services will let you use a password that's easier to crack, such as your surname. 

It's also good if two-factor authentication is available. This form of security requires you to enter your password, but then an extra code is sent to one of your personal devices (usually a phone), which you'll then need to enter to log in. 

What happens if you delete your account?

If you delete your cloud storage service account, you'll also want to know that every file you've previously uploaded will be wiped securely. Some services make the process of deleting your account very straightforward, whereas others require more time and effort. While some services will let you know that everything has been deleted, others don't tell you all that much, so your files may be left dwelling long after your account has closed. 

Do I need to worry about sharing files with other people?

Lots of people like to share files they've uploaded to a cloud storage service with other people, whether that's pictures of your holiday with your family or a document with work colleagues. When doing this, make sure that you're sharing files with people you know and trust. Also, make sure you're happy with the rights that you're transferring when transferring – some only let people view and download the file whereas others allow editing and commenting rights.

Cloud storage vs external hard drives

Backing up your data to an external hard drive only defers the worry of losing the files on your PC. Hard drives are every bit as susceptible to loss or damage, or data corruption.

If you're saving a large number of files, it can be more expensive to pay an annual fee for cloud storage than it is to simply buy an external hard drive. But with the financial outlay comes the convenience of being able to access your files anywhere.

For more information on this, head to our guide on external hard drives vs cloud storage.