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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Apple iCloud vs Google vs Amazon Cloud Drive vs Dropbox vs Microsoft SkyDriv

It’s been a busy time for cloud storage and music services and Apple’s launch onto the scene with Apple iCloud has officially declared it global war. The lines have begun to blur as to what you own, where you own it and just how much you have to pay for the privilege to do so and one could be forgiven for doing a little head scratching on the matter.

As ever, we at Pocket-lint thought we’d best line up the five biggest cloud services from four of the big tech giants (and one very popular upstart) offering them. So, just in case you’re trying to make your mind up as to which way to go, here is Apple iCloud vs Google vs Amazon Cloud Drive vs Windows Live SkyDrive vs Dropbox.


up to 16TB, 20,000 songs


5GB+, 25,000+ songs


The obvious place to start with cloud services is how much space you get with each but comparing the five is not as easy as it might seem. The most straight forward of the bunch are Amazon Cloud Drive, Dropbox and, to some extent, SkyDrive.
With Amazon, you get anywhere between 5GB and 1TB depending upon how much you’d like to pay for the privilege. Simple enough. Similarly, it’s not too much of a brain melt to figure out Dropbox. You get 2GB for free but can go as high as a 100GB stash if you’re willing to go with a Pro account.
With SkyDrive, the 25GB storage is a simple enough concept but it's worth remembering the other Windows Live products under the same umbrella that will help out with documents, spreadsheets and all the rest of your Office and e-mailing needs. All the same, there's no more than the 25GB locker per person available and that makes it the smallest stash of the gang.

With Google, it’s a little more complicated. There’s no one locker of space where everything goes. Instead, each of the storage using products - Gmail, Docs, Picasa - offer a certain amount up front for free but once you go over that limit you can rent more general space from Google which will be assigned to whichever app requires it. In total you can rent up to 16TB which is technically the most. On top of that, there’s also the Music Beta by Google service where you can keep up to 20,000 tracks.

Apple iCloud is even harder to nail down. Similarly to Google, the Cupertino way isn’t just to hand you the keys to cupboard and let you fill it with whatever you like. In fact, there’s very little direct access to it at all. The deal is that you get 5GB of space which looks after your mail, your contacts, your calendar, your device back up settings and your office documents. That’s a fair amount of room but given how much mail we get and how many documents we make, there’s certainly a ceiling of which to be aware.

Fortunately, on top of that there’s space for photos and videos as well. Again, it’s not a question of shoving all the images you have into your iCloud space. Your last 1,000 shots or clips taken on your iPhone, iPad  or iPod touch are kept up there for 30 days.

As for apps, books and music you bought from iTunes, you can keep as much of that in iCloud as you like, largely because it’s not stored there at all. Instead, the act of buying them in the first place allows access to Apple’s version on any device you own. The only limit is with music that you didn’t buy from Apple. iCloud allows you to match up to 25,000 tracks, not including iTunes purchases, and that also incorporates songs that don’t feature in the iTunes catalogue at all.

Trying to weigh all of that up in absolute space is tricky but, ultimately, it’s Microsoft who offers the least with nowhere to go beyond 25GB whether you've got the cash or not.
Next up it's a little trickier but Dropbox and Apple's offering is fairly similar in terms of space when all's said and done. 25,000 tracks, 1,000 images works out as around 80GB, chuck in the 5GB for free and all your iTunes bought music and it's probably around that same 100GB mark that Dropbox Pro 100 gives you.
In second, Amazon’s way of doing things with Cloud Drive is straight forward but it’s probably Google who offers the most in the way of sheer storage. It’s not as flexible as Cloud Drive but essentially, you’ve got up to a possible 16TB for photos, videos (up to 1GB in size), mail and documents, and that only leaves out music where you get a separate 100GB depending on how large your music files are.

File types






As for what you’re allowed to put into your allotted cloud space, it’s Amazon Cloud Drive and Dropbox that win hands down. Anything digital can be uploaded no matter what of file type it is with no apparent file size issues either.

Technically, you can upload anything to both the Apple system and the Google one as well. The reason is because you can attach any file you like to an e-mail and save it as a draft or send it to yourself and have it stored up there in your mail department. With iCloud, that’ll use up your 5G of room rather quickly but with Google, you can buy all that extra space to boost your Gmail storage.
Of course, the attachment techinque is far from simple and easy. Take that out of the equation and it’s largely a case of MOV, JPEG and AAC from Apple while Google’s Picasa Web Albums allow many more image and video file types.

As for SkyDrive, you can drag and drop anything you like into your 25GB locker with a 100MB limit per file, recently updated from 50MB. Again, if you want to, you can attach to Hotmail messages but it’s not wildly convenient. Like Google, there’s also a good leaning towards photos and videos with an online gallery viewer. It doesn't quite compete with the no holds barred approach from Amazon and Dropbox though.

Ease of use

Falling off a log


Slowish but pretty

Slow but manageable

Diffuse and slow

It may have taken Apple quite some time to come out with a content syncing system for the iOS and Mac devices but, by golly, iCloud is where it’s been done the simplest. It had to be. All of the user's files are in one place and there’s no need to manage it at all, save making sure that you remember to clean out your inbox and save photos from your Photo Stream every now and then. As ever, the trick to the simplicity is by making sure the user isn’t actually able to get their hands on their space at all.

The concept of Drobox’s “magic pocket” approach is probably a little harder to get your head around and it does require more hands on management than iCloud but it’s just as seamless, if not more so, once you get going. Syncing between devices is just a matter of dropping files into a folder and there’s no need to pull things down from the cloud as you want them. All you content is there all of the time on all of your devices.
The Amazon Cloud Drive is relatively straight forward. You get as much space as you pay for. You can put what you want in there and it’s all in one place. What’s a little more frustrating is that you need an extra desktop client clogging up your computer space in order to do the job and separate one to stream back music. On top of that, despite Amazon having a music library the same size as iTunes, you still have to upload all your own tracks rather then the servers matching their content with what you already own. Consequently, uploading your library takes quite some time and bandwidth.

Microsoft SkyDrive suffers from the same kind of speed issues but it’s done in a slightly more agreeable fashion. What's more, Microsoft has recently revamped the site with an HTML 5 design which certainly takes it up and above the clunk and drag of Cloud Drive. The interface is also much prettier if you’re managing your locker via the website with a nice bit of drag and drop action; a re-done, swanky gallery viewer and, if you can be bothered to go down the Silverlight road, then there’s a desktop manager as well as some decent browser add-ons too for one click access to your files.
The other bonus with SkyDrive is that there is actually a 5GB section of your allocation which you can use to sync between computers via the beta service called Windows Live Mesh. It will require a deskop install but it's very effective.

Google’s problem isn’t so much the complexity as the fact that there’s separate products for different parts of your media. It’s not as difficult as it might seem but if you want to store your photos and videos in the Cloud and sync them across your devices, then you’ll need Picasa. For music, it’s Music Beta by Google. For documents, it’s Google Docs. In practice, it’s not as complicated as it sounds, certainly to access the things you own, but it’s a little harder to manage your world and, most importantly, you might not find all of these Google products agreeable.


Any, lots of clients

Any, some clients

Android, PC, Mac & any Flash device

PC & Mac, some Android & WP7

PC, Mac & iOS

There’s the question of how many devices you can access your files from and then there’s the question of how easy it is to do so. In terms of pure numbers that make access possible, then it’s Google’s and Dropbox's way of doing things that wins. With Google, if you can get online, then you can get to your docs, your photos, your videos, your mail and everything else except your Music Beta stored tracks which you can’t stream anywhere except computer desktops and Android phones.

It’s pretty much the same story for Dropbox as far as the service’s website goes. However, on top of that there are Dropbox clients for Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7 and Android which pretty much covers all the bases and very nicely too.

Amazon Cloud Drive offers the next best levels of access because so long as your device can work with Adobe Flash, you’ll be able to both manage your content and stream your music. So, you’re all good with Amazon unless you’re on iOS or Windows Phone 7.
Speaking of which SkyDrive is just one notch down and while there's shockingly no dedicated app for it on Windows Phone 7, photo uploads from those handsets are hard baked in. Annoyingly for other phones, there is no mobile version of the website, however, you can get an unofficial SkyDrive client for Android calledSorami.

Naturally, access to iCloud is all about that Apple walled garden but there has been some compromise. iPad, iPod touch, iPhone and whatever iOS devices the Jobs comes out with will all be compatible but you can sync with your Mac and, would you believe it, a Windows-based PC too, certainly as far as anything in iTunes and your photos and videos go. On top of that, there’s even some imaging link up with AppleTV too.
All the same, the tight ecosystem approach does put Apple at the bottom of the pile for this category. In absolute numbers, it's probably not the case but in terms of number of different OSes with which it's compatible iCloud falls short of SkyDrive.


Your library + 18 million to buy

Your library + 15 million to buy

Your library only



The scope of exactly what you can listen to is one of the most important battlegrounds when it comes to making your choice given that some of these storage solutions come backed with a music service.

Apple’s iTunes enables you to download songs that you’ve already bought over the air and onto any device you have. That effectively means the end of all the tedious cable-based music transfer and trying to work out which file is where. What’s particularly good about the way iCloud does it is that you don’t have to spend weeks uploading your tunes. The system simply recognises what you have and makes it available from the iTunes archives instead. Of course, the downside to that is that you do need to store tracks on your mobile device in order to listen to them, so you may find yourself pulling tracks down, deleting and then downloading again some other time. Bit of a waste of data.
The other great feature, of course, is iTunes Match. That will offer the same kind of access to songs that you didn’t buy from iTunes at all. iCloud will scan your system once, see what you own and then allow you to treat it like the others you bought and send it down to your device at 256kbps quality as standard. Very nice indeed. Anything it can’t match, it will upload to your iCloud for you.

Since Amazon launched its MP3 sales, it’s certainly done a good trade and these days has a catalogue that’s a match for anything Apple has. The difference is that playback is only over Android devices and laptops, so you are rather locked down when on the go.

Aside the pain of having to upload all the tracks manually - which is quite a pain - the dubious area is around the quality of the tracks you can listen to and, ultimately, what it probably comes down to is that Cloud Drive and Cloud Player is one for the purists. You get what you’re given in terms of quality. You listen to the file that you uploaded rather than Amazon’s version of it. So, if all of your MP3s are recorded at 320kbps, then you’ll be happy. If your collection is a set of 128kbps trash, then iTunes Match is probably the way to go.

At the bottom of the pile sits Music Beta by Google. It’s essentially identical to the Amazon Cloud option but the difference is that there’s no music store to back it up. Not terrible by any means but solely a case of BYO.

And while Google brings up the rear, it’s Dropbox and SkyDrive that never even turned up to the races. You can store music on both of them, and even sync it between devices with Dropbox, but playing it from the service is just not possible.

Do bear in mind that when we’re talking about quality of tracks that bitrate is only one part of it. Compression is, of course, the other big factor but one would hope that the music that Amazon MP3 and iTunes sells isn’t too bad in that department.




Yes and no

Yes and no


Music streaming and online file access is all very well and good but if you’ve got no internet connection, you’re going to run into problems. Fortunately, most of these services haven’t left you out in the cold on this one.

King of the hill this time is Dropbox for the headline reason that it’s all about synchronisation rather than storage as such. The point is that everything you put in there is automatically pushed out to every other device on which you have the Dropbox client installed. Yes, a connection is required for that process to take place but chances are that all of the transfer will have taken place long before you come to need to access your files again.

Apple iCloud’s syncing system also means that the majority of your files are still kept on your devices and simply updated over the air rather than accessed through it. In other words, apart from music, you’ll be able to access whatever you need when you need it regardless of connection to the web. You won’t be able to update any of the files, photos or videos or download any tracks that you’ve left off-device when there’s no internet access but a small bit of planning should see you through.

Thanks to the 5GB Windows Live Mesh portion of your SkyDrive existence, there's a certain section of your cloud bits and pieces that will effectively always be available offline through synchronisation - much in the same way as Dropbox. In this case though, there's also a 20GB area that you can't access at present. Just make sure you keep an eye on which of your content is where.  
The Google Music Beta allows you to select tracks for offline play but only down to the album level (not individual songs). Android mobile devices can cache the recently played but it’s not quite to the same degree as something like Spotify that can power your portable long enough to get you from A to on the Underground  B without running out of beats. As for the rest of the cloud equation, Gmail has an offline mode and HTML5 is set to bring the same kind of joy to your Docs but it’s not there yet. In the mean time, at least Picasa will automatically push pictures and videos to your devices.

At the bottom of the stack for this one, sadly, is Amazon Cloud Drive. While there are some fiddly ways of making sure certain music tracks are available offline, it's just a little bit too much of a faff to be practical without having to plan too much in advance. Essentially, it’s a case of no connection, no content.


Free (for now), then $0.25/GB

Free to 25GB

Free up to 5GB, then $1/GB

Free (except iTunes match)

Free up to 2GB, then $2/GB

One might not normally associate Microsoft with chucking it away but on the storage front, they’re offering a very good deal. SkyDrive is free for 25GB of space to use as you will and, in fact, there’s no way to buy any more, so it doesn’t cost anyone who uses it a single penny.

Google has said that the Music Beta service will only be free for a limited time but while that time lasts, that puts it high up in the cost category. So, that’s 20,000 tracks up there and streamed to your device for free. As for the rest of the Google cloud solution, it’s free up to 8GB of Gmail (and whatever attachments you pin to your messages), 1GB of photos and videos and 1GB of Docs. Anything beyond that costs you $0.25/GB/year but it can only be bought in 20GB or so chunks.

Amazon Cloud Drive gives you 5GB for nothing which you can even boost to 20GB for a year if you purchase an album from Amazon MP3. Beyond that, it’s time to get your wallet out and the price you’re looking at is $1/GB/year although Amazon MP3 purchases don’t take away from your storage space.

The only cost with Apple iCloud is for the iTunes Match service and that’s at $25/year. Apple has suggested that you’ll be able to rent extra space but there’s been no word on prices just yet.

Dropbox probably offers the least value dollar for dollar. The freemium model offers all users 2GB for nought (which can be maxed up to 8GB if you invite enough people to join) but after than it’s a fair bit of cash to go to either the Pro 50 or Pro 100 membership.

As for which represents the best value, well, purely for music, it’s Apple with as many iTunes bought tracks as you like plus 25,000 of your own for just the $25 but Google’s totally free if all you need is 60GB of space or so.

In fact, with everything taken into account, you’d have to hand it to Google. The Big G offers more up front than the others when considering all the files you’re looking to store and access and, what’s more, it’s the cheapest to go to when buying extra. Granted, it's not quite as flexible as SkyDrive but there's a lot of value there.




Everywhere (no Player))

Everywhere (not all features)

Everywhere (Music Beta US-only

There’s bags of potential in each of these systems but, at the time of writing, there are three which are slightly hobbled. Google suffers unless you’re in America. Everyone else has access to the lot apart from anywhere to store and stream their music.

Apple iCloud is all very well and good but not all of the features are available yet. iOS 5 is set to bring most of it together by Autumn 2011 but iTunes Match may remain US-only for some time yet.

Finally, there’s Amazon Cloud Drive. You can use it for storage from anywhere via rather than your local service but the Cloud Player music streaming system is only available in the US.
As for Dropbox and SkyDrive, any user in any country can play with all of the features.


A lot of pros, a lot of cons but this is the way it seems to boil down. So, in alphabetical order...

Amazon Cloud Drive
Cloud Drive definitely has potential. There’s a good wedge of storage on offer and, if you’re willing to buy an album each year from the MP3 store, then what you’re looking at is 25GB for free where you can put whatever you like, access from a good range of devices and even play music from too. Where it crumbles a little on inspection is in terms of usability. It’s not that pretty, it’s a little clunky and time consuming and there’s no syncing so you have to do all the leg work yourself. All the same, expect some fine tuning from Amazon if the service begins to get traction.

Apple iCloud
Typically with Apple, it’s slick, easy to use and highly unflexible to the point where there’s almost no contact with your cloud cupboard whatsoever. It’s probably the music part of things which works best although a streaming and caching system would have been preferable. Obviously iCloud is a must if you’re on Apple’s system but not worth making the switch for.

Dropbox is probably cloest to iCloud in the way it works but is more elegant at the same time. There’s no store nor specific music access associated but the sheer number of devices that the service is compatible with is very compelling. The only thing that really lets it down is that you don’t get a lot of space and if you want more, it doesn’t come cheap. Ultimately, it’s probably best used as a syncing system rather than a storage one.

Rough and ready is the phrase that springs to mind for Google and its cloud living experience. There’s no one place you can upload things to and, as such, your existence is going to be heavily fragmented between all the different Google products. While Gmail and Google Docs might be all well and good, Picasa Web Albums is not everyone’s cup of tea and Music Beta has a long way to go. There’s bags of value but the cost is a slightly scattered cloud life.

Windows Live SkyDrive
What SkyDrive brings to the party is quite a lot for nothing and a good dollop of simplicity as well. Here is your free box, now fill it as you wish. There’s very little in the way of bells and whistles to get excited about, save a few photo albums and a touch of syncing, but it works and works the world over with very little fuss. Just a shame about the computer-only access from Microsoft. Thank whoever's up there that there's someone with the sense to make an Android client of their own.

The Answer
The answer of where you should put your cloud content is going to be slightly different depending on what you own and what your habits are. If you’re all about the music, then go with either Apple iCloud, Spotify Premium or both. Music Beta is a good option if you’re on Android and happen to live in the States but if you need space for photos and videos too, then you may want to consider Amazon Cloud Drive instead.

The most powerful approach of all, though, is probably to use these things in combination. Use the free 25GB from SkyDrive for your photos, Google for your docs and mail (or perhaps more Windows Live) and Amazon for videos seeing as there’s no file size limit. Dropbox is the one to use for convenience. It’s the best syncing tool of the lot and given that storage on the service isn’t cheap, use it as just that - a tool. There's always your 5GB of Mesh to use before you need to start handing over cash.

Possibly the best advice of all is to use them all. Use them all up until the point where you have to pay for them. That way you’ll max out your storage and minimise your cost but perhaps use each service for just one type of media. That way you might actually be able to keep track of it all.

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