From Apple’s iCloud to Microsoft’s SkyDrive and all of Google’s various services, cloud storage and applications are quickly becoming critical to consumers’ mobile lives. Forget about lugging USB drives or emailing files to yourself. Cloud-based productivity tools let you keep your documents up to date, and online music and movie stores let you access entertainment on multiple devices.
To decide which of the three major cloud services offers the best all-around experience, we pitted them against each other in a seven-round battle royale with categories ranging from photos to value. So read on to see whether Apple, Google or Microsoft takes home the title.
Documents and Productivity
iCloud will take a more prominent role in Apple’s upcoming OS X Mountain Lion, starting with the company’s iWork productivity suite. Instead of manually syncing your documents, Mountain Lion will automatically sync your iWork files with iCloud, eliminating the need for Mac users to use the iCloud Web page. Naturally, users will still be able to access their iWork files via the iWork app suite, which includes Pages, Keynote and numbers, on their iOS 5.1 device. Unfortunately, iWork for iCloud does not support shared viewing, something both SkyDrive and Google Docs do. So you won’t be able to collaborate on projects with other iCloud users.
iOS 5.1 users will also have to purchase the iWork suite or individual iWork apps if they want to use iWork for iCloud on their iPhone or iPad. Since Apple wants iCloud to be a seamless system, the company didn’t create a Web-based document editor; neither Google Docs nor Microsoft’s SkyDrive require such an investment.
Google Drive ("formerly Google docs") has evolved over the years from a simple alternative to Microsoft Office into one of the premier cloud-based productivity suites. Available through Google Drive, the software includes a standard word processor, spreadsheet software, a presentation creator and form creators and a basic drawing program. One of the biggest advantages to using Docs is that it allows you to share documents with as many other users as you like. But sharing is just the half of it. You can also view and edit shared documents simultaneously, making collaborating on group projects much easier.
With Google Drive’s desktop software for PC and Mac, users can also store files on their local hard drives for later access. Mobile users can access Drive from their Android smartphone or tablet using the Drive app. Google says they are currently working on a Drive app for iOS users, but Windows Phone users will be disappointed to learn that there is no official app for their operating system. On top of that, we were unable to edit documents when we accessed Docs on our Windows Phone, making it all but useless.
If you’re comfortable using Microsoft’s Office suite, you’ll feel right at home using SkyDrive’s free Office Web Apps. The productivity suite offers Web-based versions of Microsoft Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint and Word, with just one caveat. Office Web Apps don’t offer the same level of functionality as its desktop-based namesake. Like Apple’s iCloud and Google’s Docs, documents created using Office Web Apps are automatically updated and synced with your SkyDrive account. Unfortunately, Microsoft has not released a SkyDrive app for Android.
Office Web Apps, like Google Docs, support document sharing with other SkyDrive users, something Apple’s iCloud doesn’t offer. Users can choose to share both Office Web App files and files uploaded from their native hard drive. And while Google Docs allows users to share documents with other Gmail users, SkyDrive allows you to share documents with SkyDrive users and post the document to Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn. SkyDrive also offers a host of other social media services and access to document-specific links. Changes others make to your shared documents, however, can’t be viewed in real-time. Instead, you’ll have to click Save before the changes appear.
Microsoft’s SkyDrive takes this hotly contested round thanks to its extensive file-sharing options. We would, however, like to see Microsoft release a SkyDrive app for Android. Winner: Microsoft SkyDrive
iCloud has been deeply integrated with iTunes since the cloud service launched last summer. Apple refers to this integration as iTunes in the Cloud, and it brings a significant set of benefits to the music service, the most convenient of which is the ability to have music you download through iTunes automatically pushed to all of your iOS or Mac devices. Songs sold through iTunes range from $0.99 to $1.29 and are available in a wide variety of musical genres from every major record label, as well as smaller independent labels.
One of the more interesting features of iTunes in the Cloud is iTunes Match. The service, which costs $24.99 a year, allows users to store 25,000 songs in their iCloud library, which can be downloaded to 10 devices at any time. If you add a song to your iCloud library that’s already available through iTunes, Apple will automatically provide you with its own 256 kbps AAC copy, even if you purchased the song from another service or ripped it from a CD.
Google Play Music
Google Play Music initially launched in 2011 as a locker for users to store up to 20,000 songs. Since then, the search giant has added the Google Play Music store to its Google Play market with the backing of several major and independent record labels. Unfortunately, Google was unable to reach an agreement with Warner Music Group, so if your favorite artist is signed to that particular label, you won’t be able to purchase their songs via Google’s service. Songs purchased through Google Play Music are priced similarly to iTunes, costing between $0.99 and $1.29, but are offered at a higher bit rate, 320 Kbps vs. 256 Kbps.
Unlike iTunes Match, Google Play Music requires users to upload all of their songs to Google’s servers, even if they already exist within the Google Play Music store. That wouldn’t be too bad if uploading songs didn’t take so long. If you’re going to upload a large amount of songs, you’ll more than likely end up waiting several hours for the upload to complete.
Microsoft may have 86ed its Zune hardware, but the Zune name lives on as Microsoft’s music software and marketplace. The Zune player desktop software gives users access to all of their natively stored music, as well as the Zune Marketplace. Unfortunately, to buy songs, you have to first purchase Microsoft Points. To buy a single song, you have to spend $4.99 on 400 Microsoft Points, the smallest denomination available, for a song that costs 110 points.
If that sounds too complicated, you can instead purchase a Zune Music Pass subscription, which allows you to download or stream an unlimited number of songs. At least for now, Zune users can’t upload their songs to their Zune account and access them on their Web-connected devices. Instead, users can upload their music to their SkyDrive account, where it can be streamed to any SkyDrive-enabled device.
The original is still the best. Apple’s iTunes allows users to access any of their purchased music via their iTunes account from any iTunes-compatible device. Couple that with the added convenience of iTunes in the Cloud and iTunes Match, and it’s no wonder Apple takes this category. Winner: Apple iTunes
Movies & TV Shows
Apple’s iTunes Movie Store serves up a huge amount of movies and television shows available for rental or purchase. Pricing ranges from $0.99 to $3.99 for rentals and $9.99 to $14.99 to purchase the newest movies. Rentals are available for 30 days and must be watched in full within 24 hours of clicking play. Purchased movies are yours to keep.
Episodes of TV shows generally cost $2.99 each, while whole seasons can range anywhere from $20 for a standard definition version to more than $50 for a high-definition version. Apple has also integrated movies and TV shows into its iCloud service, although neither will automatically sync across devices. Instead, Apple gives you the option of redownloading previously purchased shows and movies via the purchased tab in iTunes.
Google Play Movies
Google Play Movies offers thousands of streaming movies available for rent and ranging in price from $1.99 to $9.99. Once you start a movie, you have 24 hours to finish watching it before it becomes unavailable. If you’re looking to purchase a movie, you’re out of luck. Google’s service doesn’t allow users to purchase movies, and TV shows aren’t available. Google Play Movies does, however, let users start watching a movie on one device, pause it and pick up where they left off on another device. You can also download rented movies to your device so you can watch them when a Web connection is unavailable.
Microsoft Zune Marketplace
Microsoft’s video service is made available through the Zune Marketplace, from which users can download movies and TV shows to their Zune.net account. Viewing movies requires that you download Microsoft’s Silverlight, so Android and iOS users are out of luck. Users can’t download videos to their Windows Phone either, even over a Wi-Fi connection. So purchasing movies is limited to your PC and Xbox 360. You can view movies and TV shows on your Windows Phone, but you’ll have to sync your phone with your PC in order to transfer them.
TV shows purchased through the Zune Market range in price from 190 Microsoft Points ($2.38) for standard definition versions to 240 Microsoft Points ($3.00) for high definition versions. Movies can be purchased for 800 ($10.00) to 1,680 Microsoft Points ($21.00) and can be played on either your Xbox, PC or Zune Player.
Like its Music store, Apple’s iTunes Movie store is still the best service around. The added convenience of being able to access previously purchased movies and TV shows through iCloud makes the experience even better. Despite the fact that Google allows you to pick up videos where you left off, the lack of TV shows is enough of a demerit to warrant an Apple win. Winner: Apple iTunes
Introduced with iCloud, Photo Stream instantly sends photos taken with an iOS 5.1 device to any other iOS 5 device, Mac or PC whenever you connect your device to the Web via a Wi-Fi connection. Received photos are stored in your Photo Stream album in iPhoto or Aperture on a Mac or your Pictures folder on a PC. On mobile devices, Photo Stream saves your most recent 1,000 photos for up to 30 days.
In addition to photos taken on your iOS devices, Photo Stream allows you to upload photos from other sources. Want to upload those pictures you took with that sweet DSLR camera you just bought? Just drag and drop them into your Photo Stream folder on your Mac or PC and the next time you connect your mobile device to a Wi-Fi signal, the pictures will automatically transfer over. Photo Stream also offers direct integration with Apple TV, allowing you to view all of your photos on an HDTV.
Google+’s Photos feature has become the search giant’s defacto photo-sharing service. Google+ allows users to upload photos from their desktop, where they can be edited and stored or synced to their Google+ account.
Like Photo Stream, Google+ offers an automatic photo upload feature. Just shoot a photo and your phone’s Google+ app will automatically upload it to your Google+ account. The instant upload feature will also work with the Google+ app for iOS. And while Photo Stream will only work over a Wi-Fi connection, Google+ allows you to choose between Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G.
As you would expect, users can view photos they’ve uploaded to Google+ from their notebook by simply jumping into the Google+ app and opening the Photos tab.
Google+ includes 1GB of free storage for photos and videos. Photos taken with a resolution of 2048 pixels on the longest edge don’t count against that cap, but any good camera phone captures more pixels than that. Videos up to 15 minutes won’t count toward your free storage, which is a definite plus.
As with iCloud’s Photo Stream, Microsoft’s SkyDrive can be connected directly to your Windows Phone account, allowing you to automatically upload photos taken on your phone to your SkyDrive account. Unlike Apple’s Photo Stream, which only uploads photos to Photo Stream when there is an active Wi-Fi connection, Windows Phone and SkyDrive can also communicate over your phone’s 3G or 4G data connection.
Windows Phone and iPhone users can access photos stored in SkyDrive via the SkyDrive app, while Android users will have to visit the SkyDrive website via their Web browsers. Users can store a total of 25GB of photos in their SkyDrive folders, although that space is also shared with documents and videos. Unfortunately, photos saved to your SkyDrive account can’t be accessed on your Xbox 360.
While Apple’s Photo Stream is a great baked-in feature of iOS 5.1, the fact that Google+’s automatic photo-sharing works on both Android and iOS devices gives it the edge. Winner: Google+
Apple’s iCloud doesn’t support personal video uploads. Instead, iOS users can email or message their videos to themselves or a friend or upload them to a private YouTube account, something both Google and Microsoft support as well.
Google allows users to upload a near unlimited amount of video to their Google+ account as long as it falls below a certain threshold. Videos that are 15 minutes in length or shorter can be uploaded without suffering any kind of storage penalty. If you want to upload a larger file, you can always fall back on your 1GB of Google+ storage. What’s more, Google+ supports
automatic video uploads through both its Android and iOS apps.
Every time you shoot a new video on your Android device, it will automatically upload to your Google+ account. And like Google+’s photosharing feature, you can choose whether you want to automatically upload videos when connected to a Wi-Fi connection or 3G/4G data connection. You can even set your phone to only upload videos when it is charging.
With SkyDrive, users can shoot movies on their Windows Phones and upload them directly to their SkyDrive accounts as long as they are 100MB or smaller in size. That means you won’t be backing up any large home movies. Still, 100MB worth of video is better than nothing. You can also upload video over either a Wi-Fi or your 3G/4G data connection. But as with photos, users can’t view videos saved to SkyDrive via their Xbox.
Google’s massive amount of storage and automatic video uploads are what pushes the search giant to the top of the heap in this category. Microsoft’s SkyDrive isn’t a bad second option, though. Winner: Google+
Apple’s iCloud is accessible from all Apple iOS 5.1 and higher devices and Macs running OS X Lion. Android users can access the service through their Web browser but can’t access Photo Stream or iTunes Match. Windows PC users can access all of iCloud’s features, as well as Photo Stream and iTunes Match. Windows Phone users, on the other hand, aren’t so lucky. They can access iCloud through their Web browser, but can’t connect with Photo Stream or iTunes Match.
Because most of Google’s services are accessible through any Web browser, there isn’t much Apple or Windows users can’t access. But there are some limitations. iOS and Windows Phone users can’t, for instance, watch videos they rent from the Google Play Movies market. However, iOS and Windows Phone users can listen to music purchased through the Google Play Music market from the Google Play website.
Docs is also a mixed bag. While iOS users can access and edit documents stored in the productivity suite from their Safari browser, Windows Phone users can only view them. Google has announced that it is working on an Google Drive app for iOS, which would include Google Docs access, but that isn’t due out for a few weeks. Likewise, iOS users can access all photos and videos stored on their Google+ account via the Google+ app for iOS, but Windows Phone users cannot. YouTube, as expected, is available for both operating systems via the Web or a dedicated app.
Android and iOS users can access their Windows Live SkyDrive accounts via their Web browser, although iOS users have the added convenience of a dedicated SkyDrive app available through the iTunes App Store. Because Microsoft’s Zune.net requires users to install Microsoft Silverlight, that aspect of the service is effectively off limits to Android and iOS users, though Mac users can connect to the site as well as their SkyDrive account through Safari. Windows Live Mesh is also available for Mac, meaning users can sync folders between a Mac and Windows notebook. Windows Phone users can access their SkyDrive account through the SkyDrive app for Windows Phone, as well stream music from their Zune account.
With the majority of its services accessible through most Web browsers, it’s Google that wins this round. That said, neither Microsoft nor Apple is too far behind the search giant. Winner: Google
Apple offers users an initial 5GB of free storage that they can use for documents, music and photos. You can also re-download previously downloaded TV shows and movies to any iTunes-compatible device. Music, apps, TV shows, movies and eBooks purchased through iTunes, as well as your Photo Stream, do not count against your 5GB limit.
You only begin to tap into your 5GB limit if you upload a file from a non-Apple source, like music downloaded from another market or ripped from a CD. If 5GB isn’t enough, you can purchase additional space for roughly $20 a year for every 10GB. Available upgrade options include 10GB for $20 a year, 20GB for $40 a year and 50GB for $100 a year.
Google’s various services offer different limits on the amount of storage they provide. Google Docs, for instance, provides 5GB of free storage for uploaded files; however, documents created in Google Docs and converted files don’t count toward your limit. Likewise, Google+ provides 1GB of free storage for photos and videos. But photos with up to a 2048 x 2048-pixel resolution and videos shorter than 15 minutes won’t count against that limit. Gmail, on the other hand, includes 10GB of free storage. Users can also store up to 20,000 songs through their Google Play Music account.
If you run through that storage, you can purchase additional space from Google. Storage pricing ranges from 25GB for $2.49/month or $29.88/year to 100GB for $4.99/month or $59.88/year. The 25GB also includes an additional 25GB of storage for your Gmail account, while the 100GB plan gives you an additional 100GB for Gmail. Unlike Apple, which offers just three storage plans, Google offers nine.
Google’s plans are also significantly cheaper than Apple’s. Where a $100/year subscription will get you just 50GB worth of storage space through Apple, Google will give you a whopping 200GB for just $120/year. Google’s plans also top out at 16TB as opposed to Apple’s 50GB.
SkyDrive offers two forms of free storage. The first is a standard 7GB of online storage shared between documents, photos, music and videos. The second is a 5GB folder used by Windows Live Mesh that allows you to sync a folder on one computer with another computer running Live Mesh. The difference between the two services is that files stored in the Live Mesh sync folder can be accessed offline, while files stored in SkyDrive are inaccessible without a Web connection.
For users in need of additional storage space, Microsoft offers several storage plans including 20GB for $10/year, 50GB for $25/year and 100GB for $50/year.
Although Microsoft may offer a lower amount of free storage, the company manages to undercut Google’s pricing plans making it the more affordable storage provider. Winner: Microsoft
After tallying our results, it was Google that came out on top. The fact that Google works with so many devices, offers such a large amount of storage space and can automatically upload both photos and videos makes it the king of the cloud. Apple came in second thanks to its media prowess and seamless synchronization across iOS and Mac devices. Microsoft placed third, taking the document and pricing categories. With these three companies constantly rolling out new features, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a shakeup in these standings in the near future.
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