"Syncing to the cloud" may sound like marketing-speak, but it's actually a convenient thing to do: Upload your important files to an online server and access them from any of your other computers and mobile devices.
Cloud-based syncing services usually use a virtual drive that exists on your desktop in some manner, and it is linked directly to your online storage space. The contents of this virtual hard drive remain in sync across all of the desktops, notebooks and mobile devices on which you have installed the client software.
You designate which files or folders that you want to be part of the virtual drive; everything on that drive is then automatically uploaded to an online server. From there it is accessible (by logging on with a username and a password) from your other devices, either from another installed version of the application, or via a Web interface. And you can grant other people access.
For this roundup, I chose five services that store, sync and share your files in the cloud: DriveHQ, Dropbox, OpenDrive, SpiderOak and ZumoDrive. I reviewed them using their desktop front-end clients, and I used only the free account versions of these services (because everybody likes free stuff). Most of these also offer paid upgrades; in those cases, I list the other options that are available.
Incidentally, until recently Microsoft offered its own data synchronization service, called Live Mesh, but it's now defunct. Another Microsoft service, Windows Live Sync, doesn't have direct syncing access to an online storage space. However, features of Live Mesh have been incorporated into the upcoming version of Windows Live Sync as part of Windows Live Essentials.
The new Windows Live Sync will give you 2GB of online storage for syncing files. Unfortunately, the next version of Windows Live Essentials won't run on Windows XP, so XP users may want to check out the services in this roundup.
How we tested
I tried out the Windows version of the desktop application for each service. I installed the client on two notebooks -- one running Windows XP, the other Windows 7. The Windows XP notebook was left in my home office, turned on and connected to the Internet. The Windows 7 notebook was taken to various locations with Wi-Fi Internet access. I experimented with files ranging from 1MB up to 20MB in size.
A note about security: While all of these services employ some basic means of password protection for your files, and most offer assurances that your files travel over "secure connections," the fact of the matter is that you are still uploading your personal and business files to a remote server. So beware.
The company behind DriveHQ, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Drive Headquarters Inc., sells online storage, backup and other online services that appear to be designed mainly for business users. Its cloud-syncing desktop software, DriveHQ FileManager, was released in early 2007.
How it works: DriveHQ FileManager works very similarly to an FTP file transfer application. It has two panes in its user interface: The right side displays the contents of your local computer's hard drive, while the left pane shows the folders and files on your DriveHQ online storage space.
Transferring files or folders between these two directories is done by clicking on the item in question and dragging and dropping it into the other pane.
You can also click to select the file or folder you want to upload from your local hard drive and click the "Upload" button to transfer it to your online storage space. It also works the other way around: You can copy a file to your local drive by selecting something on your storage space on the DriveHQ server and clicking the "Download" button.
Synchronizing a folder between your local and online directories is done by right-clicking on the folder stored on your DriveHQ online drive and choosing the "Synchronize with local" option. DriveHQ File Manager will automatically upload and download files between your online and local folders so that the contents of each match one another.
To share a folder on your DriveHQ online drive, you right-click on it, select "Share" and enter the e-mail address or DriveHQ username of the person you want to receive it. Your friend or colleague will then be e-mailed a link with which he can access the folder.
What's good: Uploading files to, and downloading them from, your online storage space is as speedy as you'd expect from an FTP setup.
What needs to be fixed: This service feels like it's just a basic online storage service -- there's nothing really unique or "cloud-like" about how it works. The DriveHQ FileManager application might as well be a typical FTP front-end application.
Bottom line: DriveHQ FileManager will feel familiar to anyone accustomed to using an FTP file transfer program. But that means it isn't as simple as an automatic-syncing cloud file storage system.
Drive Headquarters Inc.
OS: Windows XP/Vista/7
Mobile apps: None
Storage size: 1GB
Maximum file size: Unlimited
Daily data-transfer limit: 1GB
Paid plans: 7 plans ranging from $2.99 to $69.99 per month (or $29.99 to $699.99 per year), with maximum data transfer caps ranging from 4GB to 400GB per month
When trying to describe to neophytes what "syncing to the cloud" means, people often cite Dropbox as a prime example. Launched in early 2008, Dropbox has garnered a large following -- the San Francisco-based company announced it had 4 million users as of January 2010.