Windows 8 deep dive: Get to know your SkyDrive app

Most cloud storage services already offer apps for accessing their servers from every major platform, but Microsoft is taking the model one step further by weaving its cloud storage service directly into Windows 8—if not every major component of the new Windows universe, including Windows Phone 8 and the new Office Web app.

Welcome to SkyDrive. Microsoft's cloud service has been in business since late 2007, but now its app lives front and center on the Windows Start screen, and it's built to integrate with other Microsoft software and hardware. SkyDrive offers features and pricing plans that rival established cloud storage services like Dropbox and Box. But because there are three ways to access SkyDrive on a Windows 8 PC, each with its own peculiar strengths and weaknesses, it can be a pain to figure out how to best bend the service to serve your needs.

What SkyDrive does well

SkyDrive has evolved from humble origins (remember Windows Live Folders?) into a useful cloud storage service that competes favorably with established services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and Apple iCloud. SkyDrive offers new users 7GB of free space, with the option to upgrade to 50GB or 100GB via a monthly subscription.

Despite the Microsoft logo, SkyDrive is relatively platform-agnostic, and you can access files stored on SkyDrive via apps on an Android, iOS or any other device with a Web browser. That said, SkyDrive really shines if you use Microsoft Office or own multiple Windows devices, because it has a bunch of neat features that tie into the Windows ecosystem.

SkyDrive has excellent mobile apps available for free in the Android, iOS, and Windows app stores.

For example, Microsoft has built a Web app version of Microsoft Office directly into the SkyDrive app. You can now view and edit documents in your SkyDrive folder right from your browser using a limited version of Microsoft Word, or create a spreadsheet in your browser and email it to a client (or share it directly to their SkyDrive) so you can both edit it simultaneously. It works just like real-time collaboration via Google Drive, but the Office Web apps offer more features (like tracking changes in Word) than Google Drive's editing suite.

SkyDrive really shines in this regard, because it basically offers anyone with an Internet connection the opportunity to access Microsoft Office products for free, with few limitations on how they share their work.

SkyDrive is a remarkably good platform for sharing data with friends and family, too. There’s an option to share just about any file type in your SkyDrive folder via email, Facebook, or HTML embed codes, or directly to another SkyDrive user. I particularly appreciate the option to share images stored on SkyDrive via a URL, which lets you use the service as a more secure stand-in for popular image-hosting services like imgur. Simply upload an image to SkyDrive (which uses HTTP Secure encryption), and then select choose Share from the Sharing menu and copy and paste the link into an email, an IM conversation, or your social network of choice.

Where SkyDrive falls short

Between the Windows 8 app, the traditional desktop app (which is really more of a plugin for File Explorer), and the SkyDrive Web interface, it’s very easy to get confused about how you should best access SkyDrive on a Windows 8 PC. The dual nature of Windows 8 is partly to blame, but Microsoft needs to make it easier to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the different ways in which desktop users can access SkyDrive.

For example, the Windows 8 app is great for browsing photos or other media stored on your SkyDrive, but you can’t move those files around within your SkyDrive or share them with others very easily, because you’re limited by the apps linked in the Share charm. If you want to share a direct link to an image or edit a document online, you must boot up your browser and access the SkyDrive website, where you can generate links and move files between different folders in your SkyDrive.

You can’t upload any files larger than 300MB via the SkyDrive website though, so if you want to upload large files, you need to download and install the SkyDrive desktop app, which creates a SkyDrive folder in your File Explorer that syncs itself with your SkyDrive. You can drag and drop files or folders directly into the SkyDrive folder to upload them quickly, and this way you can also bypass the SkyDrive website file-upload limit of 300MB so that you can upload files up to 2GB in size. The SkyDrive desktop app works with Mac OS X Lion, Windows Vista, Windows 7, and even Windows 8, so it's theoretically possible to have both the Windows 8 SkyDrive app and the SkyDrive desktop app installed and running on your PC simultaneously. This won't cause any problems (if anything, it affords you more power to control how your PC shares files with SkyDrive), but it's way more confusing than it needs to be.

It's very easy to share photos online via the SkyDrive website, but make sure you make the folder public via the Share menu first.

SkyDrive is also a little too closed for comfort. For example, you can use it as an impromptu image-hosting service by logging in to the SkyDrive website and generating a direct link to the image you want to show your friends. But when you share that link, your friends will have to log in to their SkyDrive accounts before they can access the image you’re trying to share, unless you put the image in your Shared folder and share it from there.

You can actually make any folder public by opening SkyDrive in your browser, right-clicking on the folder you want to make public and selecting Properties > Share > Get a link > Public and clicking the Make public button. This allows anyone to view files in that folder without having to first log in to SkyDrive, which makes it easier for you to use SkyDrive as a personal file host.

Also, don't forget that everything you store on SkyDrive is subject to the Code of Conduct for Microsoft services, and that you can have your Microsoft account suspended for uploading anything that Microsoft believes to be in breach of that code. Microsoft frowns upon (among other things) material that depicts full or partial nudity, vulgarity, and gratuitous violence. Your SkyDrive account will be monitored for potential violations, and if Microsoft chooses to suspend your account, you will lose access to everything tied to your Microsoft account. That includes (but is not limited to) your SkyDrive account, your Xbox Live account, and the Windows Store.

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