OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive and Box: Which cloud storage service is right for you?

If you're ready to take the plunge into storing your files, photos and more in the cloud but need help deciding which service is right for your needs and wallet, we've got you covered with our in-depth cloud storage comparison.

Which cloud storage service is for you? Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Editors' note, June 1, 2015: This post has been updated to reflect new storage limits for Dropbox and OneDrive.

Storing your files in the cloud has many advantages, including the ability to access your files anywhere you go, and keeping a backup of those files away from your computer or phone. Using the cloud is a no-brainer, but picking which service to use is a bit more difficult.

For that reason, I've compiled a guide to the most popular cloud storage services, covering how they work and their strengths and weaknesses. I've also highlighted some lesser-known options if you want to get away from the mainstream.

Cloud storage comparison

OneDrive Dropbox Google Drive Box Amazon Cloud Drive Copy
File size restrictions? 10GB 10GB on website, none with Dropbox apps 5TB 250MB for free plan, 5GB for paid plan 2GB* None
Free storage? 15GB 2GB 15GB 10GB No** 15GB
Can I earn extra free storage? Yes Yes No No No Yes
Paid plans $2/month for 100GB, $4/month for 200GB, $7/month for 1TB $10/month for 1TB $2/month 100GB, $10/month for 1TB $10/month for 100GB $12/year for unlimited photos, $60/year for unlimited files $10/month for 250GB
OSes supported Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Blackberry Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Blackberry, Kindle Fire Windows, Mac, Android, iOS Windows, Mac, Android, Blackberry, iOS Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Kindle Fire Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS

*There is no file size limit with desktop apps.

**Amazon Cloud Drive offers limited free storage with an Amazon Prime subscription.


Before we get started, just a note about Apple's iCloud Drive. I didn't include it here because the service is not available for Android and it's really meant to be used within the Apple ecosystem, meaning if you use Mac computers and iOS devices together. If you do use mostly Apple products, it's a solid choice for cloud storage. For a full run-down of its features, pricing and availability, check out CNET's guide to Apple iCloud Drive.

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OneDrive on the Web. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive)

First up is OneDrive, Microsoft's storage option. Those who use Windows 8 and 8.1 have OneDrive built into their operating system, where it shows up in the file explorer next to all of the files on your computer's hard drive. However, anyone can use it on the Web, by downloading a desktop app for Mac and earlier versions of Windows, or the OneDrive Android, iOS, Windows Phone and Xbox apps.

You can store any kind of file in the service, including photos, video and documents, and then access them from any of your Windows PCs or mobile devices. The service organizes your files by type for you, so it's easy to find what you need.

The Android, iOS and Windows Phone apps all have automatic photo uploads, meaning that when you shoot a photo with your phone, it's automatically saved to your account. OneDrive's biggest strength is that it works closely with Microsoft Office apps, such as Word or PowerPoint, so when you launch one of those applications you'll see a list of recent documents saved to OneDrive. If you have an Office 365 subscription and open a document saved in OneDrive, you can collaborate on it in real time with other people. You'll even be able to see the changes they make as they make them.

Microsoft is hoping that OneDrive will be the place where you store your photos, and the company is working on technology that will eventually sort all of the photos you take based on how important and meaningful they are. For instance, if you take a photo of your kids, a picture of a special meal and a shot of your parking space so you can find your car later, OneDrive would be able to understand the importance of each picture, save the ones it thinks are the most useful, and trash the rest. That's still big-picture stuff for OneDrive, but it gives you an idea of the direction Microsoft is moving in.

Where it excels

OneDrive works seamlessly with Windows devices because it's built in to the Windows operating systems running on PCs, tablets and Windows Phone. It's easy to open and edit files from OneDrive in Microsoft's other applications, such as Word or the Photos app. Since OneDrive is closely tied with Office, it's a good choice for anyone who uses Office frequently.

Where it falls flat

If you don't have all Windows devices, OneDrive doesn't have as much appeal. There are apps for other devices, but it's clear that OneDrive is really meant for the Windows set.

In order to use OneDrive, you must sign up for a Microsoft account, which gives you access to Outlook, Xbox Live, and other Microsoft services. Whether or not you want all those extras is up to you.

OneDrive for Business currently (as of early 2015) has a limit of 20,000 files that you can store in your account. Microsoft says it is working to change this, but we don't have exact timing on when that limit will disappear.

Best for: If you have a Windows PC, tablet and phone, and need to get to your files from any device with little effort.


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Dropbox on the Web. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Dropbox

Dropbox is a favorite in the cloud storage world because it's reliable, easy to use, and a breeze to set up. Your files live in the cloud and you can get to them at any time from Dropbox's website, desktop applications for Mac, Windows and Linux (Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora or compile your own), or the iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Kindle Fire mobile apps.

You can store any kind of file in Dropbox, by either uploading to the website or adding it with the desktop apps. Those apps live in your file system so that you can easily move files from your computer to the cloud and vice versa by dragging and dropping them into your Dropbox folder. The service automatically and quickly syncs your files across all of your devices, so you can access everything, everywhere. There is no size limit on files you upload to Dropbox with the desktop or mobile apps, but larger files can take several hours to upload, depending on your connection speed.

Dropbox gets a lot of praise for its clean design, and rightfully so. Though I am not a fan of Dropbox's website because the design is very basic and it doesn't give you many options to view and organize your files, its mobile apps and desktop apps are beautiful and easy to navigate.

Dropbox gives its users plenty of opportunities to get extra storage to beef up the paltry 2GB you get when you sign up. If you participate in the quick Getting Started tutorial, you get 250MB. Turn on the automatic photo upload feature on any of the mobile apps to get 3GB of extra space (you can get only 3GB total, not per device). You can earn 500MB for each friend you refer to Dropbox who actually signs up for the service, up to 16GB total, or 32 referrals.

Where it excels

Dropbox's greatest strength is that it works equally well on PCs and Macs, Android and iOS. The service is so simple and elegantly designed, that it's easy for anyone to master. Its desktop applications seamlessly blend with your computer's file system.

Where it falls flat

In my experience, Dropbox's website design is one of the weakest of the cloud storage services. It's simple and clean, but you can't control the way your files are displayed. However, you do get many more sharing options on the Dropbox website, which almost makes up for the bare-bones design.

Best for: Simple sharing when you use tons of different kinds of devices.


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Google Drive on the Windows desktop. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Google Drive

What started as just a handful of helpful online office tools called Google Docs, has transformed into Google Drive, a complete office suite with cloud storage. You get a little bit of everything with this service, including a word processor, spreadsheet application, and presentation builder, plus 15GB of free storage space.

If you already have a Google account, you can already access Google Drive. You just have to head to drive.google.com and enable the service. You get 15GB of storage for anything you upload to Drive, including photos, videos, documents, Photoshop files and more. However, you have to share that 15GB with your Gmail account, photos you upload to Google+ and any documents you create in Google Drive.

While you can access any of your files from the Drive website, you can also download the Drive desktop app for Mac and PC to manage your files from your computer. You can organize all of your files in the desktop app, and they'll sync with the cloud so you can get to them anywhere.

Drive is built into Google's Web-based operating system Chromium, so if you have a Chromebook, Google Drive is your best cloud storage option. Like other cloud storage services, Drive has apps for iOS and Android, so you can manage your files from your phone.

Google Drive has the benefit of a built-in office suite, where you can edit documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, even if you created the document in another program. The service also a large collection of extras, such as third-party apps that can send faxes or sign documents.

What I like most about Google Drive is that you can drag and drop files into the Drive website and they'll be uploaded automatically. You can also preview attachments from Gmail in Google Drive, and save those files to your cloud.

Where it excels

Google Drive requires very little setup if you already have a Google account. What's more, if you use Gmail, it's easy to save attachments from your email directly to Drive with just a few clicks.

Where it falls flat

While you can organize your files and photos in Google Drive, there's no way to automatically upload photos from your phone directly to the service. Instead, Google has an Auto Backup feature in the Google+ mobile apps, which sends your photos to your Google+ profile. I'd like for Google to create a central space where I can store and upload all of my files that combines the best of Google+'s photo editing features and Google Drive's document editing tools.

Best for: Google diehards, or anyone who wants a few office tools with their cloud storage.


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Box on the Web. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Box

Anyone can sign up for a free individual account on Box, but the service's endless list of sharing and privacy features were built specifically for business and IT users. Beyond the basic cloud storage setup, where you can store just about any kind of file, Box lets you share files with colleagues, assign tasks, leave comments on someone's work, and get notifications when a file changes.

You can preview files from Box's website and even create basic text documents in Box. Like other cloud storage services, you can download a desktop app and sync your files between your hard drive and the cloud.

Box also gives you a lot of control over the privacy of your files. For example, you can decide who in your business can view and open specific folders and files, as well as who can edit and upload documents. You can even password-protect individual files and set expiration dates for shared folders.

Business users can also connect other apps, such as Salesforce and NetSuite, so that you can easily save documents to Box. There are also plug-ins for Microsoft Office and Adobe Lightroom that let you open and edit files saved to Box from those applications.

Where it excels

For business customers, Box is a great choice because it comes with so many tools for collaboration and file privacy control.

Where it falls flat

While anyone can sign up for a free individual account on Box, the service's endless list of sharing and privacy features can be lost on someone who's just using the service for personal storage. Because of all those features, it can feel overwhelming to navigate the Box website if you're only trying to manage a few files and folders.

Best for: Teams of employees working together on projects, and large companies that need a place to securely share documents with everyone.


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Amazon Cloud Drive on the Web. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Amazon Cloud Drive

Amazon already sells you nearly anything under the sun, and it wants to be the place you store all of your music, photos, videos and other files too. Amazon Cloud Drive has been around for a few years, but the company introduced new storage plans in March 2015; one just for photos and one for all other kinds of files.

Neither plan is free, but both have three-month trials. Unlimited Photos is available for free for all Amazon Prime members or anyone with a Fire device. If you don't have a Prime subscription or a Fire phone or tablet, you'll need to pay $12 per month for the storage.

True to its name, Unlimited Photos gets you unlimited storage for your photos (GIF, JPEG, BMP, TIFF and so on) and 5GB of free storage for other file types, including videos, PDFs and documents.

Unlimited Everything gets you storage for an unlimited number of files of any type, for $60 per year. There is no limit for how many files you can upload, but each file needs to be under 2GB unless you use the Cloud Drive desktop apps.

The Cloud Drive desktop apps are available for PC and Mac, and let you upload or download files. However, unlike other cloud storage services, the Amazon Cloud Drive app doesn't let you view your files from a folder on your computer. You can upload individual files and download your entire library, but if you want to view them or make changes, you'll need to go to Amazon's website.

Amazon Cloud Drive has apps for iOS and Android with automatic upload so videos and photos you take with your phone get saved to the cloud right after you shoot them. The service is also baked into Amazon's Fire tablets and phone.

Where it excels

The best part of Amazon Cloud Drive is that it's baked into Amazon. If you already have an Amazon account, you don't need to sign up for Cloud Drive, you can simply sign in.

Where it falls flat

Cloud Drive is different than the others on the list, in that the desktop app doesn't work with your file system. That makes it less useful in my opinion. You're better off viewing and managing files from the Cloud Drive website, but you cannot upload files larger than 2GB there.

Best for: Anyone with an Amazon Fire tablet or Fire phone, because it's part of the operating system. Unlimited Photos is good for Amazon Prime members, because you get it for free as part of that subscription.


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Copy's Android app. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Copy

Copy hails from corporate IT company Barracuda Networks, but it's just as great for regular individuals as it is for teams and businesses. You get 15GB of storage for free, which is on par with Google Drive and OneDrive.

One of the best features of Copy is how it handles shared folders -- you split the space with the people you share a folder with. For example, if you have a 20GB folder that's shared among four people, that folder only takes up 5GB of space in each person's Copy account. That's different from Dropbox, where the entire size of a shared folder counts against your storage limit.

Like other cloud storage services, Copy has desktop software for Windows and Mac (Linux too), plus mobile apps for iOS and Android. You can also use Copy's website to manage your files.

If you need more storage space than 15GB, you can pay $10 per month for 250GB. Copy also has business plans that are priced based on the number of users. There's a free plan for up to five users, and the paid plans start at $79 per month, or $890 per year, for 1TB and access for up to 10 users. There's also a referral program where you can earn 5GB of free storage when you get someone else to sign up.

Where it excels

Copy is a simple, fast, and solid cloud storage option. You get 15GB for free, and the paid plans are inexpensive.

Where it falls flat

There's hardly anything negative I can say about Copy, but I will say that, like Dropbox, Copy's website is its weakest point. It's just not as easy to navigate as the desktop and mobile apps.

Best for: Anyone who wants an impressive alternative to the more mainstream cloud storage options.


Lesser-known cloud options

Of course, OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive and Box aren't your only options for cloud storage.

One is SugarSync, a Dropbox-like alternative with apps for every mobile platform. The catch is that after your 90-day free trial, where you can play around with 5GB of storage, you need to pay at $7.50 per month for 60GB to keep using the service (you can upgrade to more storage for extra money).

There's also Space Monkey, which has an entirely different take on cloud storage. For $200, you buy a 2-terabyte (TB) hard drive from the company. You get to use 1TB of the drive's space to store any and all of your files as a local backup. Your files also get encrypted and broken into bits that are sent to other Space Monkey users' hard drives, so that you can access your files from another computer or mobile device. That's where that extra 1TB of space on your drive comes in -- it's used to store bits of other people's files. The service is free for the first year, then costs $49 per year to keep storing your files in the cloud.

 

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