Ranking the Top 6 File Sync Services

Online file storage and syncing is ubiquitous – the number of choices is mind boggling. We’re looking at five of the most popular services: Microsoft SkyDrive, Box, YouSendIt, Dropbox, SugarSync, and the recently-released Google Drive (which is basically extension of Google Docs).

It’s just storage and price, right? Wrong—speed of synchronization, quality of client software, support for different OS’s, support, security, terms of service, mobile app availability, and other differences mean you should choose wisely. So lets see how they compare…

The Competitors

As of now, it seems the most popular cloud storage products are following:

It is important to mention that these services are designed to share and store files in the cloud; they aren’t backup services (because they don’t protect your data against user errors or malicious deletion by hackers). There are more specialized products out there for backup such as cloudHQ. Think of the services in this comparison as USB stick drives: they exist to make your files easily portable between different devices (PCs, mobile phones, etc.) and easily sharable between others.

Ranking Method

We will evaluate and compare each of the following criteria:

  • Storage Costs
  • Client Software Speed and Efficiency
  • Security
  • Mobile Device Support
  • Sharing
  • Independent Backup and Interoperability with other services

For each section/criteria, we evaluated the service and give it score from one to six. It’s possible for services to get the same number of points in a single section, depending on how they compare. The service with the most overall points at the end wins.

Storage Costs

You need storage. The question is, how much does it cost? I will not get into how much storage you can get for free, because being non-paying customer has big disadvantage when using cloud services.

And, here are the storage costs. I’m lumping plans together based on similarity—e.g. the 25GB/ 30GB plans, 50GB/60GB and so on. The costs are monthly.

The services are all over the map. Microsoft is the low-cost leader, with SkyDrive; its yearly prices (I divided them by 12 for use in our chart) are less than what other competitors charge for a month. SkyDrive and SugarSync give users to the most freedom to choose a plan that works for them. YouSendIt is the opposite—you basically have to buy a $14.99 plan for 100GB (unless you want to pay $9.99 for 5GB—which everyone else offers for free). But that makes sense, because SendIt is targeting customers that have very big files.

In addition to extra storage there are some other advantages that come with choosing one of the paid plans. Box raises its maximum file size to 1GB from 25MB; YouSendIt also ups the file size to 2GB from 50MB; Google upgrades paid users’ Gmail accounts to 25GB space; lastly, Dropbox offers a raise, through its referral program, of 1GB in storage space (so each referral will give 1 more GB of storage).

Client Software Speed and Efficiency

All these cloud services offer a client software which can be installed on your PC. This is so you can sync content from your local hard drive with the cloud service.

We tested the services and compared how they behave when you change just a small portion of a big file (de-duplication), how they sync when there is a big folder involved, and their upload / download speeds.

For example, in the case of Dropbox, the fresh upload of a 25MB file takes about 100 seconds—while in case of Google Drive it takes about 80 seconds. However, after we changed just a small portion of this 25MB file, uploading to Dropbox only took 4 seconds—while uploading to Google Drive took 98 seconds. So, clearly Dropbox uploads are much more efficient (which really helps when you work with big files such as Adobe PDF).  This is probably due to a Dropbox algorithm that makes sure file chunks with the same hash are not uploaded twice.

The second test was concerning how client software handled folders with a large number of files. We tested all services with about 1,000 files in each folder. The best was Dropbox: it behaved as expected, taking about 3 minutes to copy and sync all files. However, on the other side of the spectrum is Box and Google Drive. They took more than 10 minutes to upload the folder.

Security

Security is important: and all these services have excellent security. We’re going to look at the storage method each company uses—for instance, does the company make use of secure connections (SSL) for uploads and downloads?

It is also important to know whether two-factor authentication is supported. Two-factor authentication is an approach to authentication that requires the presentation of two or more authentication factors: like mobile phone number as well as password.

And of lesser importance is the question of whether or not your files are stored in an encrypted, e.g., non-readable-to-anyone-but-you format on the company’s servers.

Keep in mind that web security only does so much—if you want to store very sensitive data in the cloud or on your laptop, we strongly suggest using file encryption packages such as Boxcryptor to TrueCrypt. These will encrypt the data before it is even written to your hard drive.

As mentioned before, one important consideration is SSL support: SSL is vital for obvious reasons—you don’t want people ‘sniffing’ your files while you upload them. With an SSL connection, that can’t be done—even over unsecured wireless connections.

Here are the results:

Mobile Device Support

Being able to access your data from mobile and tabled devices is a very important capability. All of these services work from a PC, but some offer more support for mobile device platforms than others.

SugarSync seems to be best here: they even support Symbian. Blackberry support is offered by half of the competitors. Windows Phone is supported only by SugarSync and Microsoft SkyDrive.

The lack of dedicated apps for some platforms doesn’t mean you can’t use SkyDrive on a BlackBerry. For example, you can still use a web interface to view your files but uploading and editing is not possible.

Sharing

The second-to-last category we’ll look at is sharing. The three different items:

  • File/folder sharing support? – The ability to share files with other in a simple fashion. It is possible to have granular sharing options? 
     
  • Anyone can access? – Building on the above point, can anyone access the file/folder? Or do you need an account with the service?
     
  • Edit files in browser? – While all of the services allow you to upload files, how many allow editing and collaboration right in the web browser window?

Every one of these services allows sharing files and folders—however, Box has the best options to control sharing. Box has the strongest feature set in this area.

All of them offer the ability to share with a random Internet stranger—the person you shared a file with via Dropbox does not need a Dropbox account to view the file or folder.

Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, and, to some extent, Box offer various kinds of online file sharing—they include a collaboration element. Not only can you store files, but you and others you invite can edit files directly in their web browser (this is in addition to viewng them).

Google Drive is linked with Google Documents, SkyDrive with Microsoft Office Online, and Box has its own online collaboration workspace. If real-time collaboration is of interest to you, stick to one of those three.  Google Docs and SkyDrive seem to be the best in this area.

Anyway, here is our evaluation:

So, the best sharing and collaboration options are SkyDrive and GDrive—followed by Box.

Independent Backup and Interoperability with Other Services

Even if your data is stored in the cloud on servers managed by tech giants such as Microsoft and Google, you still have to backup your data and, in some cases, transfer it into other services.

Why?

Storing data in a cloud using these services protects you from only one type of failure: the mechanical failure of a computer. If your laptop fails, you have a copy of the documents on the Dropbox server. But protection against mechanical failure is only one reason why you would need to back up your files. A sync service doesn’t offer protection from user errors, accidental deletions, data corruption, service disruption, bugs, or viruses/hacking. If your laptop is stolen and a hacker gets into your Dropbox account then deletes all your Dropbox data (and, by the way, the delete command will be replicated to all the devices your Dropbox is used on), you will need to have a backup in order to retrieve what was lost. Or, if you are using Google Docs to collaborate on a document, and the documents become corrupted (i.e., you start getting 500 internal error), you will need to have some sort of backup to restore all your data.

cloudHQ is a perfect solution for the backup of data: cloudHQ can sync your data between cloud services in the same way that these cloud services sync data from your PC. Your data is actually backed up on servers that are *under* your control and the backups are not in some weird format: it’s immediately available.

The other important feature you want is to have your data constantly updated in multiple cloud services. In short, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Should something happen to one of these services (like server outages), you want to have an easy way of switching to another service with minimum interruption to your business.

As of now cloudHQ supports only Box, Dropbox, SugarSync, and GDrive.

Conclusion

And the winner is Dropbox… But Google Drive, SkyDrive, SugarSync, and Box are also excellent choices. 

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