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The cloud delivers convenience, and nothing is more convenient than synchronizing files stored on multiple computers and accessing those files from any PC, smartphone, or tablet with Internet access. We tested the top five syncing services.
Editor's note (August 8, 2012): In the section about MediaFire, we made an inaccurate statement regarding the service's deletion of user files; we have corrected that sentence, and we have amended an item in the comparison chart regarding the sharing of folders with permissions and passwords. In addition, shortly after we finished this article, MediaFire retooled its service. Although the new version of MediaFire is significantly better than what we reviewed, SugarSync remains our choice as the best offering in this category.
Anyone can register an account with Box and begin using it for free, but to take advantage of its robust collaboration and security features, you must open a paid Business or Enterprise account starting at $15 per month, per user (minimum of three users). Paying unlocks a truckload of enhancements, including Google Apps integration and other tools that business users will find practical. The user-admin console, for example, lets an IT administrator add users and manage their settings in bulk.
Personal accounts of up to 5GB are free; if you need more space, Box offers 25GB for $10 per month and 50GB for $20 per month—that’s the least bang for the buck among the five services in this category. With a Personal account, you can share your files with other people, with or without giving them editing privileges, and you can restrict sharing to collaborators only. Box also provides the option of restricting file previews or downloads, but you’re not allowed to set passwords or automatic expiration dates unless you have a paid account.
Simplicity is one of Dropbox’s greatest strengths. Install the service on your PC, and it plops a virtual folder on your desktop. The folder acts just as any other folder does, except that it automatically uploads and syncs the files that you put in it to your online account. Changes upload in real time, so you need never worry about working with an outdated file.
On a free account, you get only 2GB of storage. If you want more, you have to pony up for a paid account; prices range from $10 per month for 100GB to $50 per month for 500GB. Pestering your family and friends to open accounts will earn you a 500MB bonus per referral, up to an additional 16GB.
One great feature: Dropbox keeps a history of file changes, so you can roll back to a previous version at any time. And the tech-savvy can come up with a million and one creative ways to use Dropbox. For example, you might integrate it with a BitTorrent client so that you can download torrent files remotely. First, set your BitTorrent client on your home PC to monitor a folder on your Dropbox account and to automatically open any .torrent file copied to it. Then, while you’re at work or traveling, use your remote PC to copy the .torrent file to Dropbox, and your home PC will begin downloading that file the next time Dropbox syncs.
On the downside, when you share a folder, you can’t set a password or give some people permission to edit files while withholding permission from others. You also can’t upload files to your Dropbox account via email. If neither of those limitations is a deal breaker for you, Dropbox is a strong contender.
Unlimited storage and downloads sounds enticing—until you realize that MediaFire has little else to offer, at least to free users. If a free account becomes inactive, MediaFire will eventually delete the files associated with that account, but not before it makes several attempts to contact the user. (The $9-per-month Pro and $49-per-month Business accounts dispense with the disappearing act and hold on to files “forever.”)
The list of negatives is long. You can’t place restrictions on shared image files, no mobile apps are available, files aren’t encrypted in transit or in storage, and MediaFire doesn’t keep a history of changes. The final nail in the coffin: Users with a free account can’t upload files bigger than 200MB.
Are you planning to subscribe to Microsoft’s Office 365 or buy Office 2013 when the new suites are available later this year? If so, SkyDrive is the file-sharing service for you. To use it, you must have a Windows Live account, and so must any colleagues you authorize to edit files (merely viewing shared documents does not require an account). SkyDrive allots 7GB of storage for free accounts, and you get 20GB more with either version of the Office suite. Even without that commitment, upgrades of 20GB to 100GB cost just $10 to $50 per year, not per month. That’s an incredible value.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has been paring down its service. SkyDrive’s free storage quota, for example, was once 25GB (existing customers were grandfathered into the original cap if they were using more than 4GB as of April 1, 2012, or if they took advantage of a Microsoft loyalty offer, which has since expired).
The company also zapped a feature that enabled users to publish their photos to SkyDrive through email. The iOS apps pick up the slack here (although the absence of Android support is annoying), but why take away a useful feature that’s already built?
As sweet as its name, SugarSync is like Dropbox with extra toppings. Rather than limiting file syncing to one virtual folder, SugarSync lets you sync any folder on your PC, including your Desktop folder. Obsessive-compulsive types will love SugarSync File Manager’s ability to organize scattered files and folders from numerous synced devices into a single handy window on your desktop. You can also open a file stored on a remote computer, edit it, and save it back to that computer without consuming permanent storage space on the computer you’re using.
Road warriors will appreciate SugarSync’s support for all the major mobile platforms, including BlackBerry and Symbian. You’ll even find a mobile app built for the Kindle Fire. And you’ll rest easy knowing that your top-secret recipes and revealing photos are securely encrypted in transit and in storage.
The tools for sharing files with other people are equally snazzy, though not as full featured as what you get with Box’s Business or Enterprise accounts. SugarSync lets you share folders either as albums that anyone can view and download from (but not upload to), or as synced folders that require a SugarSync account. If you choose the latter, you can set permissions and passwords.
Thanks to its rich selection of features, SugarSync takes the prize as the tastiest file-sharing service around, and it happens to boast the best iPad app, too.
File Sharing and Syncing Services Compared
|Cost of paid service plans||$10 to $20 per month||$10 to $50 per month||$9 per month||$10 to $50 per year||$5 to $25 per month|
|Storage limit (free service)||5GB||2GB||Unlimited||7GB||5GB|
|Storage limit (paid service)||25GB to 50GB||100GB to 500GB||Unlimited||20GB to 100GB||30GB to 250GB|
|Sync method||Folders on service||Folders on service||Folders on service||Folders on service||Folders on computer|
|Business plan available||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||Yes|
|Shared files count against both users' quotas||No||Yes||n/a||No||No|
|Share folders with permissions and password||Permissions only||No||Yes (does not apply to image files)||Yes||Yes|
|Upload/sync via email||Yes||No||No||No||Yes|
|File changes uploaded in real time||No||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|File version tracking||Yes (paid only)||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|Files encrypted in transit||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|Files encrypted in storage||No (Business plan only)||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|Sharing with nonsubscribers||Yes||Photos and public folders only||Yes||Yes||Yes|