Google Drive review: Adding cloud storage to the mix

Google's new cloud storage service is a strong competitor, but not yet a winner.

The long-awaited Google Drive is a simple, useful, straightforward cloudstorage and syncing service that offers a full 5GB of online storage for free, with no surprises along the way. Utilitarian rather than flashy, it makes storing files to the cloud and syncing them among multiple devices as simple as saving a file to a local hard drive.

If that's all you've been expecting from Google Drive you'll be pleased. But if you were hoping for a Google Drive/Google Docs combination that would make it easy to edit files in the cloud that you created on a PC or Mac, you'll be disappointed. It may be that Google will get that straight at some point in the future, but for now it's a non-starter.

Easy to install and use

Google Drive currently installs as an app for Windows, OS X and Android. (Note: As of today's date, there are reports that Google Drive has not yet been made available for all users.) A version for iOS isn't yet available, but Google says it will be out soon, although the company hasn't yet given a release date.

Google Drive installs as its own drive in Windows and OS X, and is available via Windows Explorer or Finder.

After you install Google Drive on your PC or Mac, it shows up as another drive in Windows Explorer or the Mac's Finder app. Like rival service Dropbox, you can use it just like a physical drive -- so you can copy or move files to it, and create new files and subfolders inside it. The files and subfolders are uploaded to your Google Drive on the Web and are accessible there. They're also synced to any other devices onto which you've installed Google Drive. So if you edit the files on any device on which you have a Google Drive installed, they're synced to the cloud and all your other Google Cloud-enabled devices.

Google Drive isn't integrated into just Windows Explorer or Finder -- because it looks like a drive, you can save to it and open files from it from any application (or at least every one I tried). So from Microsoft Office, for example, you can save files directly to Google Drive and open them from Google Drive. When you do that, you're saving or opening them on your computer itself, not directly from the Web. Any changes you make are saved to your hard drive, and then automatically synced to Google Drive on the Web and other devices on which you've installed Google Drive.

I found installation and initial use of Google Drive to be exceedingly simple. Working with it on a computer is no different than working with any other drive -- and you don't need to do anything to keep your files in sync, because Google Drive does that for you automatically.

It was simple working with it on an Android smartphone as well. Files are synced to the Android device, and you can easily browse them by tapping My Drive when you run the app. You can also create documents using the Android app.

Merging with Google Docs

Google Drive isn't really a standalone service, though. It's actually Google's secret weapon to get you to live inside the Google ecosystem -- especially that of Google Docs.

When you install Google Drive, it actually merges with Google Docs and all of your Google Docs files are synced to all the devices on which you've installed Google Drive. From then on, when you visit Google Docs on the Web, you'll see all of your documents in Google Docs as well as any folders and files you've added via Google Drive.

Google Docs now has a new item on the left-hand side of the screen: My Drive. Click the triangle next to the label to see all of your subfolders and browse through them. You can also create new subfolders by clicking the Create button.

This may be disconcerting at first if you're a Google Docs user, because you'll be seeing not just the files you've been keeping in Google Docs, but all of the files you've put into Google Drive from your various devices. Google Docs users may encounter other problems as well, because the Google Drive/Google Docs combo displays files differently than did the old Google Docs. Instead of displaying your most recently used documents at the top of the list, it organizes files alphabetically. To see files you recently worked with, you need to click the link labeled Recent on the left-hand side of the screen.

Google Drive merges with Google Docs on the Web.

I didn't find it at all confusing, but that may be because I haven't been a heavy Google Docs user, and had fewer than two dozen files there. If you're a heavy Google Docs user, you may not be happy with the transition.

When it comes to editing Google Drive files with Google Docs, the news is all bad; serious work still needs to be done. The biggest problem has to do with editing. If you create a file using Microsoft Office, you won't be able to edit the file using Google Docs on Google Drive. First, you'll have to open the file in Google Docs, then export it to the Google Docs format by selecting File --> Export to Google document; you can then edit that copy of the original document.

Even more confusing is that the copy that you're editing won't be saved to the folder from which you opened it (for example, \Google Drive\Budget), but instead to the main Google Drive folder at \Google Drive (and I couldn't find a way to change the folder it would save to). More confusing still is that on the Web, the file name remains the same in both the original folder and the Google Drive folder (Budget.doc, for example), but when the new copy is synced back to your devices, a .gdoc extension is appended onto it. So Budget.doc becomes Budget.doc.gdoc, and it's in the \Google Drive folder rather than the \Google Drive\Budget folder where the original document lives.

Confused by all this? You should be. It's a kludge of monumental proportions, and shows that the Google Drive/Google Docs combination still isn't even close to prime time when it comes to editing Office files.

Advanced searching and beyond

Google has done more than just create a cloud-based repository of files. Google Drive also includes Google's search features. But not only on text -- you can also search through PDFs (I tried it on various PDF files and had no problems). And thanks to some interesting capabilities brought in from the Google Goggles tool, you can search on images as well.

For example, I uploaded some travel photos onto my Google Drive and then went to my Google Drive account on the Web and searched for the term "Venice." Google was able to identify one of the photos as being of Venice, even though Venice was not in the file name or written anywhere in the image. It didn't find two other photos of the city, so clearly it's not perfect. Still, the process felt a little like magic.

There is a hitch, however: That kind of searching capability is only available on the Web. When you search through your Google Drive on your PC or your Mac, you only use the native search on those devices, so Google Goggles doesn't come into play. On an Android device, of course, you use Google's search, so the image search works there.

Google Drive has something else going for it in addition to Google's search engine that its competitors don't: An ecosystem of third-party developers hungry to tap into its capabilities. At the launch of Google Drive, a number of developers simultaneously released products that work in concert with it; for example, collaborative video editing on Google Drive from WeVideo, or sending faxes directly from Google Drive and receiving them as PDFs using HelloFax. You can expect plenty of more add-ins eventually.

In fact, it may well be that these add-ins will hold the key to whether Google Drive will beat out competitors such as Dropbox, SugarSync and Box, because those companies are unlikely to be able to have the same massive ecosystem developing for their cloud-based storage apps.

Google Drive versus the competition

Google Drive enters a crowded marketplace with many competitors, notably Dropbox, SugarSync, Box and Microsoft's SkyDrive. Generally it stacks up well, especially on price, although SkyDrive offers less expensive storage, and SugarSync offers at least one important feature that Google Drive lacks (see details below).

Google Drive gives you 5GB of free storage; if you want more, you can get 25GB for $2.49 per month, 100GB for $4.99 per month and 1TB for $49.99 per month. When you move to a paid account, your Gmail storage also gets bumped up from 10GB to 25GB.

Dropbox offers 2GB for free; after that, it's $9.99 per month for 50GB of storage and $19.99 per month for 100GB. SugarSync offers 5GB for free; if you want more, it's $4.99 per month for 30GB, $9.99 per month for 60GB, and $14.99 per month for 100GB. Box also offers 5GB of free storage; you pay $9.99 per month for 25GB and $19.99 per month for 50GB.

SkyDrive used to offer 25GB of storage for free, and anyone who began the service with that quota still gets to keep it. Newer users get 7GB of free storage and a variety of pricing features, such as 100GB for $50 per year. It's the only one of the group that offers less expensive storage than Google Drive.

There are strong similarities among the top cloud storage services -- and some differences. Dropbox, like Google Drive, installs as a drive on your computer, Mac or mobile device; it stores all the files you put there in the cloud and syncs them among your devices. Dropbox has a strong user base, which is an advantage; however, given Dropbox's higher prices, and the possibility it won't have an app ecosystem to compete against Google's, it could be in for long-term trouble.

Box also installs as a drive on your computer and offers strong sharing features. However, the service is mainly directly toward businesses, and this shows: Users of the free service can only upload files up to 25MB in size and there are no desktop syncing features available unless you upgrade to a business account, which starts at $15 per month.

SkyDrive was recently upgraded with clients for Windows and the Mac, so that stored files are available directly from your computer rather than just from a Web interface. There is now also an iOS client (although not yet one for Android). However, SkyDrive doesn't yet automatically synchronize files from the cloud onto devices, a serious shortcoming. Microsoft has announced that it will eventually merge SkyDrive with Live Mesh, Microsoft's syncing software, and so will likely automatically perform syncing. Right now, though, it's not as good as Google Drive.

SugarSync works slightly different from Google Drive, and is much easier to use for syncing multiple devices. It doesn't install as a separate drive like Google Drive, Dropbox and SkyDrive. Instead, when you install it, you indicate which folders you want copied to the cloud and synced to other devices. So you choose from your existing folders on a folder-by-folder basis; no need to create new folders. And you can also have some folders sync to some of your devices but not others. For pure syncing, it's superior to Google Drive.

The bottom line

It's this simple: If you want cloud-based storage and syncing, install the free Google Drive even if you're already using a competitor. Easy to use and with 5GB of free storage, there's no reason not to try it. (Although my colleague Lucas Mearian disagrees -- see "What to consider before signing up for Google Drive.") Given that there will likely be a rich ecosystem of add-ins at some point, the service will only get better over time -- potentially dramatically so.

If you're only interested in cloud-based storage and syncing among multiple devices, it's a keeper, although not as good as SugarSync for syncing on a folder-by-folder basis. But Google Drive still needs work, particularly when it comes to editing files created in Microsoft Office on a PC or a Mac.

So when you use Google Drive today, expect an evolutionary change to the way you work with files, not a revolutionary one.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

Read more about storage in Computerworld's Storage Topic Center.

Join the Computerworld Australia group on Linkedin. The group is open to IT Directors, IT Managers, Infrastructure Managers, Network Managers, Security Managers, Communications Managers.

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