Google Drive, All you want to know about a 1St Great Cloud
By Michael Muchmore & Ben Moore
- Generous free storage space
- Excellent productivity-suite collaboration
- Includes desktop-to-desktop file-syncing
- Many third-party integrations
- Cross-platform apps
- Consumer desktop utility stores everything locally
- Privacy concerns
- No password-protection for shared files
GOOGLE DRIVE SPECS
|Emphasis||Full service file storage, sharing, syncing, and collaboration|
|File Size Limit||5TB|
There are some secrets to getting the most out of Google Drive and its companion apps, Google Photos, Docs, Sheets, and Slides. But there’s little question that this is one of the sweetest cloud offerings you can find. Furthermore, it’s free—unless you need to store more than 15GB worth of data; for more on paid plans, see the Google One Pricing section below.
Drive’s local application for consumers is Backup & Sync, which lets you sync almost any file or folder on a computer, no matter where it lives in your folder structure. The feature is a plus, but it’s somewhat quirky, and it doesn’t yet turn Drive into a full backup utility.
See our full analysis of Backup & Sync in the section dedicated to it below. The client application for business users is called File Stream. This offers a capability resembling OneDrive’s Files On-Demand feature, which saves local drive space, only downloading cloud-stored files when you open them. Google is in the process of transitioning to one app for both businesses and consumers, and we’ll update this review after we’ve had a chance to test it.
Google Drive’s closest competitor is Microsoft OneDrive. The services are pretty much at feature parity, though there are a few differences. While Microsoft offers richer productivity apps and better sharing options for free users, Google offers more initial free storage. At this point, your choice will be based on which ecosystem you use: If you use Windows and Office, OneDrive integrates tightly with those. If you’re heavily into Google’s ecosystem, its Drive makes sense for you.
Apple has also gotten into the file-syncing and cloud storage game, with iCloud Drive, which also offers collaborative online document editing. However, iCloud Drive is not as robust as either Google’s or Microsoft’s offering. For example, you can’t use online versions to edit documents that include tracking, and there’s no search in the iCloud Drive web client.
Two other big names in online file syncing service space, Box and Dropbox, both offer their own document types for collaboration: Box with Note and Dropbox with Paper. Both also integrate the Google and Microsoft editors within their services, even letting you create, for example, a new Microsoft Word doc from a menu option. Box in particular excels when it comes to workflow tools, and Dropbox offers a ton of third-party integrations via its App Center. But neither can match the integration and richness of productivity apps offered by Google’s and Microsoft’s cloud services.
Google One Pricing
The Google One pricing options start at $1.99 per month for 100GB; a 200GB plan costs $2.99 per month, and the $9.99-per-month Google One plan increases the limit to 2TB. A higher-tier 10TB plan will still cost $99.99 per month. Google Drive currently offers a generous 15GB of free storage. Google One plans also get one-tap access to support experts and the ability to share accounts with up to five family members. Users can also take advantage of perks such as discounts on Google Play purchases and deals on select hotels found in Google Search.
By comparison, Microsoft’s OneDrive offers only 5GB of storage for free. For $1.99-per-month you get 100GB, a $6.99-per-month Microsoft 365 Personal account gets you 1TB, and the $9.99-per-month Microsoft 365 Family plan gets you 6TB (1TB each for up to six users).
The Microsoft 365 options also include the downloadable Microsoft Office applications, as well as extra security features (such as ransomware detection and two-step verification), mobile offline folders, and Family Safety apps for Android and iOS.
Apple offers 50GB of iCloud drive space for 99 cents per month; 200GB for $2.99, and 2TB for $9.99—Apple doubled its 1TB plan to 2TB a year before Google is getting around to it, but the company only offers 1GB of free space to all users; Apple device owners get a free 5GB. Students with Managed Apple ID accounts from their schools get a sweeter deal: a free 200GB. Apple lets you share storage from 200GB and 2TB plans with up to six family members.
Dropbox is among the stingier services when it comes to free storage, only offering 2GB, while Box is one of the more generous, with 10GB. The story is the opposite for paid accounts: Box charges $10 per month for just 100GB, while that price gets you 1TB at Dropbox.
Keep in mind that not everything counts towards your Google Drive storage limits. Files you create using Google Docs, Sheets, and other in-Drive apps (in Google’s proprietary, online formats) don’t count toward that quota, nor do files shared with you. You can, however, export these files to more-standard formats. Gmail messages (including spam) and all email attachments, however, do count against your limit.
Photos may or may not count against your quota; it depends on your upload choices. You can upload photos to regular Drive folders or use the Google Photos product. With the Photos product, uploads only count against your limit if you choose Original quality; choosing High Resolution limits your photos to 16 megapixels, which is perfectly acceptable for nonprofessional users.
What Is Google Drive, Exactly?
For a while, Google tried using the name Google Drive to mean the productivity apps—Docs and the rest. But the company has gone back to the more intuitive use of Docs Editors to mean the online productivity apps and Drive to mean the online storage. Google Drive and its apps work basically the same way Microsoft OneDrive does with the online versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Google Drive, OneDrive, and Apple iCloud Drive also act like file-syncing services such as Dropbox and SugarSync. With all file-syncing services, you download and install a program on all your computers and a master folder (which looks just like any other folder on the computer) and all its subfolders sync automatically between devices and the web version of the service.
That means that if you work on a file from the office, and then go home and want to pick up where you left off, you can do so without having to download the file, email it to yourself, or load it from a USB key. When you finish working on the file at home, you can rest assured that all your work shows up on your office computer in the morning. Syncing relies on having an Internet connection, but as long as you have that, it’s a piece of cake.
Just to reiterate: Both Google Drive and OneDrive offer desktop-to-desktop syncing service in addition to their web-based office-productivity apps and straight-up online file storage. Despite the nomenclature of the Backup & Sync desktop app, we don’t consider Google Drive, strictly speaking, to be an online backup solution. But saving files to online storage can also serve as a sort of backup. True online backup runs scheduled backups and provides full system restore capability.
Compatibility is rarely an issue with Google Drive: You can upload files, convert them to Google’s file format to edit them online—or create new documents, spreadsheets, and slide presentations in the Web interface—and export the finished products to standard file formats, such as .doc, .rtf, .pdf, and so on. One issue is that you end up with multiple copies of the same document if you, for example, create it in Word and then open it in Docs. If you install Backup and Sync or File Stream (see below) Google Drive appears just like a local folder.
Integrations with third-party services are another strength of Google Drive. Just about every web service you can think of—from Slack to HelloFax to the Pixlr online photo editor—can integrate with Google Drive. Dropbox and OneDrive also integrate with third-party services, but Google Drive integrates with everything.
Google Drive’s Web Interface
Google Drive’s online design has improved over the years and is now more intuitive than ever. You start on the main Drive page, which shows thumbnails of documents in the middle and a menu of your folders, shared files, photos, recent, starred, and trash along the left rail. On the right are buttons for sharing, getting a link to, deleting, previewing, and seeing information about a selected file.
There are also buttons for Settings and switching between list and thumbnail view. Strangely, the webpage is not responsive like OneDrive’s. Resizing to a narrower page cuts off some interface features. We are impressed, however, that Google Drive implements right-click context menus in its web interface (as does OneDrive). A lot of web apps, including the web interface for Apple’s iCloud Drive, ignore this capability, so you get the browser’s menu instead of the app’s.
Thankfully Google has stopped calling folders labels. It now calls them folders, like everybody else does. You can create subfolders to your heart’s content, too. Other ways to organize than folders include using color-coding and stars. A convenience is that you can drag and drop files from your computer onto any open folder in the browser.
Once you open or create a document, you’re taken to a new browser tab for Docs, Sheets, Slides, and so on. Note that Drive can handle more than just the big three types of office documents: There’s also Forms, Drawings, and Maps, and you can even integrate third-party Web apps to work with even more types of documents, such as CAD or music files.
You can view a document in three different modes: Editing, Suggesting, and Viewing. The first is self-explanatory; Suggesting puts collaborators’ changes in brackets, which the document owner can accept or not. Viewing simply shows the final edited document. When you collaborate, the collaborators’ names appear when they’re editing a document you’re also working on. Color-coding throughout also helps differentiate where each user’s cursor is within the file when multiple people are making changes at once.
Google Drive now even supports Microsoft Office revisions mode. Apple iCloud’s online version of Pages lets you view revisions, but you can’t edit using them. For deep dives into Google’s online productivity suite, read our review of Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
Desktop Clients: Backup & Sync and File Stream
Google Drive offers two different desktop utilities for syncing: Backup & Sync for consumers, and File Stream for business G Suite users. The former (like SugarSync) lets you designate any folder on your system for syncing. Other services like Box, Dropbox, iCloud, and OneDrive stick with keeping synced files in a set folder with as many subfolders as you like.
The sequestered syncing approach simplifies and clarifies the cloud-syncing concept, since all your backed-up content is neatly tucked into one mother folder. You may, however, want to be able to mark any file anywhere for backing up, the way online backup services such as Carbonite do. (Note: SugarSync is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s parent company.)
In the past, syncing services that let you specify any folder or file on your system—the way Microsoft’s earlier Mesh product did—created confusion, because you have to map that folder to a folder on the other synced computers, which could get complicated if you have several computers. Then there’s the issue of having a file open at the same time in both locations—which version edits should be saved? And where do you locate all this on a mobile client? Google Drive cleverly sidesteps these issues by keeping separate folders for each machine, all accessible from the browser.
You can still use Drive as a special synced folder of its own, but the ability to designate folders anywhere on the computer’s file system is a plus. Installing Backup & Sync resembles installing Chrome, with the same “on your marks, get set, go” messages during installation. After installation, you sign in to your Google or Gmail account and choose folders you want it to sync. By default, your Desktop, Documents, and Pictures folders are selected.
You can add any folders on the computer, except for the C: Drive or This PC folders. That’s significant, since it means that Google Drive cannot be used as a full-system online backup service the way Acronis True Image, Carbonite, IDrive, and SOS Online Backup can. Those services let you make an image of everything on your disk, including programs and operating system files.
Next comes syncing from the other direction, and this part is important for existing Drive users: You choose folders from your online Google Drive that you want synced to the computer. As with Google’s previous solution, Backup & Sync creates a specific Google Drive folder on your computer in addition to syncing the other folders you designated. This folder also gets a top-level File Explorer icon the way Microsoft OneDrive and iCloud do, and installs a small icon in your notification area from which you can call up its Settings dialog at any time.
Once you complete the setup and sync your PC, you see a Computers tab in the Google Drive web and mobile app interface (see second screenshot above). We installed Backup & Sync on a Windows laptop and an iMac for testing. The Computers tab showed both. Some upload attempts kicked an error message, but tapping the Retry All button remedied that issue.
Also note that when we tried to add the Windows PC’s Programs folder, a message popped up saying something went wrong. This is likely due to that folder’s read-only setting requiring admin privileges. Another reason why Google Drive still can’t be considered a full backup service. But the same could be said for OneDrive, Dropbox, and Box.
In the Windows File Explorer, a right-click choice let us open the file in the browser or share it, with view-only or editing rights, via email. The context menu doesn’t, however, let you add files and folders to the online repository the way Carbonite and IDrive do—you can only add files or folders through the Backup & Sync app, a minor inconvenience.
When it comes to deleting files, Backup & Sync offers three settings: You can tell it to delete the file everywhere, only on the current machine, or prompt you for what to do. This approach makes it somewhat of an archiving service, that is, a repository for your entire history of file contents. One great benefit of Drive is that it saves every edited version of files you store in it.
The File Stream utility, exclusively for G Suite users, is very similar to Backup & Sync: It creates a local-looking folder on the computer to access and save your files. It has a big advantage over Backup & Sync, as mentioned earlier: It lets you specify files and folders that you don’t want downloaded to the local computer’s storage.
This could benefit consumers, too, as OneDrive’s Files On Demand feature shows, so I’d like to see the company add that feature to Backup & Sync; OneDrive offers; all OneDrive users, in comparison, can take advantage of its Files on Demand feature. File Stream doesn’t share the consumer product’s ability to specify files anywhere on the system for backup, however.
Cloud and Mobile Features of Drive
Since Google Drive stores files in the cloud (and since it’s from a company whose name is synonymous with search) those files are highly searchable. A recent update added drag-and-drop functionality to search results, letting you drag a result file to a folder on the left. Another feature related to search is particularly cool: Drive can scan a photo and interpret it using optical character recognition (OCR) or identify it using AI.
OCR also works in Google Drive on PDFs. We had a PDF with a unique string of text in the file, but not in the file name, and when we searched for it, Google Drive delivered the right result almost instantly. But OneDrive now does all this, too, using AI to apply tags to photos and extracting text that you can see in the info panel. To get Google Drive’s OCR working, you need to open the image in Docs; in OneDrive, you see extracted text from images in the info panel, without taking any extra steps.
Other similar apps that use built-in OCR include Office Lens, Adobe Scan, Evernote, and OneNote, though you have to be a paid Adobe or Evernote user to get the OCR in PDFs (OCR for images works for free users).
Google Drive is available as an iPhone app, iPad app, and Android app. With the apps installed, you get access to the most recent versions of all your files. You can also view 90 different file types, and even edit some of those. It doesn’t offer auto-smartphone-photo uploading as Dropbox and OneDrive do, but that’s what the Google Photos app is for. Note that Google Photos no longer gets a folder in Drive—it’s completely separate now, except for existing photos you uploaded before Google made this change.
What Else Could You Possibly Want?
Despite its wealth of tools and slick operation, there are still a couple things we’d like to see improved in Google Drive. Multimedia features aren’t all that robust. For example, we noticed duplicate photos, with no way to delete the doubles easily, except by eyeing them. But this is a problem shared by OneDrive.
If you are a power user of Office apps, there may be features you’d like to see added to Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides, such as convenient right-click mini toolbar formatting options, and some advanced spreadsheet functions, but the Google apps include enough tools to get most jobs done. Sometimes it takes a little searching to figure out how to enable a feature or add-on, but there are enough of these to make Google Drive and its apps capable for most basic business needs.
One potential concern about Google Drive is privacy. Google collects information from your online activity to serve you targeted ads. Microsoft claims that it doesn’t do this, but if privacy is paramount for you, we suggest sticking with a file-syncing service that puts anonymity first. Resilio Sync (formerly BitTorrent Sync) keeps your data off the cloud, instead using direct P2P connections. CertainSafe Digital Safety Deposit Box is online storage that’s all about encryption, privacy, and security.
Several online backup services let you choose an encryption key that’s in your possession alone, so that not even the company’s employees can decrypt your files. These include SpiderOakONE (which emphasizes privacy) and SOS Online Backup.
Just be careful not to lose your encryption password, or your data will be gone for good. Another option is to simply build your own cloud using a NAS, with a device like Western Digital’s My Cloud. Finally, you could encrypt your data before sending it up to the cloud and use any of the services, but that takes away a good deal of their convenience.
In the Driver’s Seat
Nothing is stopping you from using more than one file storage and syncing service, especially considering that you can get free storage. Using more than one service gives you options like compartmentalizing your home and work files or keeping photos separate from documents. It also lets you decide which of your files to put in more-secure cloud spaces and which to leave to the whims of Google’s tracking policies.
Google Drive is so chock-full of appealing features that you’re missing out if you don’t use it. The other Editors’ Choice in the category, OneDrive, is well worth your consideration. OneDrive inches past Google Drive’s PCMag rating thanks to its Files On-Demand, more robust productivity apps (Office is hard to beat), and better sharing options.
How to Use Google Drive – Beginner’s Guide
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