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A tidy option for data pack rats

A number of services--some available for free--help you store and retrieve computer files while you are traveling or commuting.

Millions of PC users have relied on Flash drives or other pint-size hard drive storage units to safeguard valuable files. But those portable drives can be broken or lost. And if you need critical documents--or favorite songs or photos--while on the road, many Internet kiosk computers in places like airports do not have USB ports to plug the portable drive into.

Internet companies like Yahoo and America Online, as well as some smaller competitors, have taken aim at these problems by allowing users to store nearly any kind of file on their secure servers. The stored files can then be retrieved from any Internet-connected computer.

Even with a high-speed link, patience is necessary. Using the online data lockers can be confusing at times and unreliable at others.

These services--some charge a fee, others are free--are useful for many, but not all, consumers and businesspeople, according to Ross Rubin, an analyst with the technology research firm NPD Group. For one thing, having a high-speed Internet connection is practically a requirement, Rubin said. "One of the key issues with all of these is upload time," he said.

And even with a high-speed link, patience is necessary. Using the online data lockers can be confusing at times and unreliable at others--which is perhaps why some digital pack rats are relying on Google's simple e-mail service for storage.

Gmail, which is more than a year old but still available only by invitation, offers 2GB of free storage. That is enough to squirrel away roughly 500 standard-length digital music files, or just about anything else of importance.

I have backed up critical folders and documents through other e-mail services in the past, but Gmail is particularly useful in this regard. Not only does it offer more storage than most other services, but if you forget a file name, you can find it with Gmail's search function.

There is, however, a drawback. Google's terms of service bar users from e-mailing files of more than 10MB. Since most music files are about 5MB, unless a user is willing to build an online music library on Gmail two songs at a time, the service is not very practical for storing music.

Apart from allowing users to upload much bigger files, storage services such as Xdrive, BigVault, Streamload, Apple Computer's iDisk, Yahoo's Briefcase and AOL's My Storage provide more options, like letting users share blocks of digital files with friends or the general public.

When it comes to storing files, there can be significant differences among the services.

On Yahoo, registered users receive 30MB of free storage--a relatively paltry amount compared with other services--but users can buy more capacity for fees ranging from $3 a month (for 50MB) to $5 a month (for 100MB).

Xdrive users pay $10 a month for a minimum storage account of 5GB, BigVault users pay $36 a year for every 100MB stored, while AOL is testing a service with a small number of users that gives them 100MB of online storage for no additional charge beyond the monthly AOL subscriber fee. Apple's iDisk, which works with both Windows and Macintosh computers, costs $100 a year for 250MB of storage.

In terms of free storage, none of the services can beat Streamload. The company began offering 10GB of free disk space this year.

But it comes with a catch: Streamload users cannot freely download everything they have stored. They get free access to just 100MB of data a month--roughly equal to 20 digital music files. To download more files, they have to purchase monthly subscriptions ranging from $5 to $40.

Streamload says most users pay $10 monthly for the right to download 10GB of files, which is equal to about four hours of high-definition video, 2,000 MP3 music files or 10,000 photos.

Downloading files from these services is as easy as downloading from any Web site. Streamload offers a nifty feature for Windows users, allowing them to schedule downloads to remote computers, so they can have the files waiting for them when they arrive at that destination.

When it comes to storing files, there can be significant differences among the services. For instance, Yahoo allows users to upload only single files at a time. Other services, like BigVault, allow users to upload files in batches, with no size limits.

Of course, that does not guarantee a smooth delivery. I tried to upload a five-minute 1.3GB video file on Xdrive, and the service told me it would take about one and a half hours to complete. The connection dropped twice early in the process, and I ultimately gave up. (Customer service later told me via e-mail to try logging on to a different site to upload the file.)

Even though competitors lag far behind Apple in storage subscriber numbers, at least one of them is taking on Apple on the music front: Xdrive.

When I tried to store two songs on Yahoo's Briefcase service via a cable modem connection, I received an ambiguous error message. Two hours after sending an e-mail to Yahoo's help desk, I was told that Briefcase does not work with Apple's Safari browser--a crucial piece of information that is not on the Briefcase site.

Streamload, Xdrive and BigVault all offer software that creates a folder on the Windows desktop and allows users simply to drag and drop a file for storage into the desktop folder. When a PC with the software is connected to the Internet, the files are automatically uploaded to the companies' servers.

Xdrive users can also select certain files to back up, and the service will automatically upload those files at specified times. Streamload and BigVault said they plan to offer similar services soon.

Apple's iDisk service offers both Mac and Windows users the same software, but I had considerable difficulty getting the iDisk software to work on my Windows machine. On Mac OS X machines, iDisk is built in, so there is no need to install anything.

Apple also allows a user to open iDisk files remotely and work on them without downloading them as long as the computer has the iDisk utility software. This feature can come in handy in situations when you cannot download files to a computer - at a Web kiosk or a particularly restrictive library Internet terminal, for instance.

Alas, every time you save changes to the document, those changes must make the journey on the Internet to Apple's servers, and even with a high-speed connection, the changes can take a full minute to register.

Even though competitors lag far behind Apple in storage subscriber numbers, at least one of them is taking on Apple on the music front. Xdrive this year released a feature called the Virtual iPod, which allows subscribers to play digital music files stored on Xdrive servers on their Web-enabled hand-held devices or "smart phones"--cell phones with computer operating systems.

Xdrive also allows users to create digital photo albums and post them to their Xdrive home page for others to view, like the online photo services.

Streamload offers a similar feature, although pictures show up as thumbnail images, not as full-fledged albums. Streamload also allows users to play music and video files from any computer that is hooked up to their Streamload account.

Fun as these functions may be, they are secondary to backing up files. As the online vaults add more features, they also need to improve their core service.

The frequency of stalled and dropped file transmissions, disappearing files and "help" sections that are decidedly not helpful (particularly on BigVault) forced me to spend a lot of time sending e-mail messages to customer service and waiting for help. Xdrive, unlike its competitors, at least offers toll-free customer service by phone.

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