For many of us, the cloud has changed the way we work and play. Thanks to well-known services like Gmail, Dropbox, Facebook and Instapaper, practically our whole lives -- photos, documents, contacts and more -- are online. So isn't it time to take control?
A little tweaking can turn the cloud into a more powerful and personalized place. All it takes is a few simple browser add-ons and other tools to unlock the full potential of the Web's most popular services.
Here, in no particular order, are 10 essential tools to help you make the most of your cloud experience. In this story, we're focusing on tools you would use on your computer itself, either through a Web browser or with software you download and install, rather than mobile apps you would use on a smartphone or tablet. That said, however, some of these tools do offer a mobile component as well.
One important note before we begin: Keep in mind that the nature of these tools requires them to be granted a certain level of access to your data. Particularly on the corporate IT front, you may need to seek approval before installing any utility that can process sensitive information. Be sure to review the permissions listed for every application and use it only if you and/or your employer are comfortable with the level of access it needs.
When you're browsing the Web and see something you want to save for later, the cloud is often an extra step away: With many services, you first have to save a file to your local hard drive, then move it to your cloud storage service. That extra step is eliminated with Cloud Save, a free extension of Google's Chrome browser from developers antimatter15 and KRowland.
Cloud Save integrates a host of cloud-based services into your browser for quick and easy access. All you do is right-click on any link or image, anywhere on the Web, and find the "Cloud Save" option in the contextual menu that pops up. From there, you pick the service of your choice, and -- shazam! -- your file is floated directly over to your favorite fluffy poof (figuratively speaking).
Cloud Save supports Dropbox, Google Docs, Box.net, Amazon Cloud Drive, Windows Live SkyDrive, SugarSync, Facebook, Picasa, Flickr and several other services.
If full synchronization between Google Docs and your PC is what you're after, Syncdocs is the tool you need. Syncdocs natively integrates Google Docs into Windows 7, Vista or XP, keeping your computer's word processing folder continuously synced with your Google Docs account.
The nice thing about Syncdocs is that it's seamless and transparent; once you have it installed on your PC, you'll never have to think about it again. The program runs in the background, instantly pushing any changes you make on your local system to Google Docs and vice versa. You can even collaborate in real time with other Docs users while working in your PC's word processing program.
Syncdocs can actually sync any type of file, office-oriented or not; you just tell it which folder to watch (only one, but you can nest folders to include as many files and subfolders as you want), and anything that's added or changed there will automatically be updated in the cloud. The only limitation is the amount of storage space available in your Google Docs account; by default, personal Google accounts come with 1GB of storage for files that aren't in Google Docs format, with additional space available for purchase. (Files that are in Google Docs format don't count toward the storage limit).
Syncdocs will keep up to 250 files synced for free. For the full, unlimited experience, it'll run you $20 a year.
Don't let its strange-looking name scare you: http://ifttt.com/ -- short for "If This, Then That" -- is a robust tool that can add layers of powerful automation to your cloud-hopping adventures. As a browser- and OS-agnostic Web service, it connects directly to other Web-based services and interacts with them on your behalf.
IFTTT lets you define any number of "if this happens, then do that"-style rules, using a combination of triggers and actions. You could, for example, tell the service to watch your Facebook page and automatically upload to Dropbox every photo in which you're tagged. You could set it to automatically save any stories you star in Google Reader to Instapaper or Evernote. You could even instruct the service to grab any photo you upload to Facebook and automatically send it to Picasa too.
IFTTT currently supports about a dozen different services, including Dropbox, Facebook, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Talk, Instagram, Instapaper and Twitter. It also offers support for phone and SMS-based interactions -- allowing you to, say, receive a text message anytime your boss sends you an IM, or get a phone call anytime a new item pops up in your company's RSS feed.
The possibilities with this tool are practically endless -- and best of all, it's completely free.
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