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Space Monkey review: 1 TB cloud storage, assembly required

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Cloud storage meets local storage with Space Monkey, an alternative way to store your files online that uses a small desktop hard drive and network of other Space Monkey subscribers. Instead of sending your files to a large data center, like most other cloud services do, they are broken into tiny chunks which are then encrypted and sent to the Space Monkey drives that belong to other users. For $50 per year, which is a steal, you get one terabyte of storage, but only after you purchase the $200 2 terabyte (yes, 2TB) drive to use the service.

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8.2

Space Monkey

The Good

Space Monkey gives you 1TB of cloud storage for only $50 per year.

The Bad

Setup takes longer, and requires more effort, than other cloud storage services. The drive also requires an Internet connection, even to access your own files.

The Bottom Line

Space Monkey's alternative cloud service is cheaper and offers more than its competitors, but you need to invest time and effort to set it up.

Since Space Monkey bills itself as an all-in-one cloud storage system, I am not going to focus on the hard drive's performance, but instead the entire cloud service, including the desktop and mobile apps. While you must buy the hard drive to use Space Monkey, you're really buying into the whole cloud network, because out of the box, you can't use the hard drive unless it's connected to your Internet service. In fact, you cannot even connect the drive to your computer with a cable.

Space Monkey's low-cost cloud storage, with enough space to store thousands of photos, documents, videos, and songs, is a good option if you're in need of a place to backup your files, or just want to access them from anywhere. However, the service requires more babysitting than any other cloud storage service, making it less ideal for those who want to set up their cloud and forget it.

Getting started

You need three things to get set up: a Space Monkey drive, an internet router, and an account. First, to create your account, just head to the company's Web site and choose an email and password combination. Then, you'll need to download and install Space Monkey's desktop software. It's available for both Mac and Windows, as well as Linux.

Now you're finally ready to put together your drive. Plug it into a power source, and connect it to your router through any open Ethernet port using the included Ethernet cable. The drive will start to connect to your network, and you should see small lights come on around the Ethernet port on the device.

Once the drive connects to your Internet connection, you can launch the Space Monkey software to get to start the set up process, which includes provisioning the drive. This was a tedious process for me, because my drive didn't automatically connect and I had to unplug it and plug it back in. It took several minutes for the drive to connect to my computer and show up in the Space Monkey app. Then, it took another five minutes for my drive to finish setting up so that I could start adding files. In my experience, it's faster, start to finish, to sign up for and get started with a cloud service such as Dropbox or Google Drive.

Put your files in your own cloud

Once your drive is online, storing files on it is as easy dragging the file from its original location on your computer and dropping it into your Space Monkey folder. Like Dropbox, or Google Drive, there's a dedicated folder in your computer's file system just for Space Monkey.

By default, there are sub-folders for Documents, Photos, and Video, but you can also create new folders and organize your files anyway you'd like. Interesting, when you move a file to Space Monkey, it copies and pastes it. That's different from Dropbox and Google Drive, both which move your file off your hard drive and into the cloud.

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The power, Ethernet, and USB ports on the drive. James Martin/CNET

When you add a new item to Space Monkey, you'll see a small syncing icon in the lower left of the file icon. Once it has fully synced to your drive, you'll see a spaceship icon that lets you know your file is in the cloud. You can also choose to pin an item in your drive, which means it's available offline, even if it never fully synced to the cloud.

This setup is nearly identical to all the big, popular consumer cloud storage services including Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive. Just download a download a desktop client, drag your files over to the cloud folders, and they'll sync to the cloud, so you can get to them anywhere with an Internet connection.

Overall, managing files with Space Monkey is just as effortless as working with Dropbox and other competing services. The desktop app is as easy to use as your computer's file system, and the status icons are helpful markers to tell you which files have synced, and which are still uploading.

Interestingly, you can use your Space Monkey drive without a subscription to the cloud service, however you'll need a program from Space Monkey that wipes the data off your drive and turns it into a typical backup hard drive, that does not connect to the Internet. You'll also need a male-to-male USB cable, not included, but it's an option.

Also, if you take your drive offline at any time, you won't be penalized by the company, nor will you lose any data already synced to the cloud.

Security and storage

As soon as your files sync with your drive, Space Monkey's unique storage method takes effect. The company uses a process called erasure coding, a fancy way of saying that your file is broken into many tiny pieces. Those tiny pieces then get encoded with redundant data pieces and are sent to up to 40 other Space Monkey devices, spread out across the US and every other continent (except for Antarctica and Australia) . The system is set up in a way that even if up to half of the drives that are storing your file pieces fail, you can still recover your file.

Those pieces are also heavily encrypted, and the company says that in order for a hacker to compromise your entire file, they'd need to get into dozens Space Monkey drives and then get through the layers of encryption. The company's Web site offers a deeper and slightly more technical explanation of exactly how it protects your files.

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You can get the sleek drive in glossy white or matte black. James Martin/CNET

While all of that is happening in the background, you never get a glimpse of that process. You'll just see your files syncing with the Space Monkey network, and then be able to recall those files any time, in the same amount it takes to open a file in any other cloud storage service.

Space Monkey claims that it's system is very safe and extremely hard to crack. However, no cloud storage service is impenetrable to hacking. So if security is a paramount concern for you, you might consider not storing files in any cloud.

Always online

I mentioned earlier that each Space Monkey drive has 2 terabytes inside. That's because you get 1TB to use, and the other terabyte is left open to store other users' data. Because Space Monkey is a two-way street of uploading your data to cloud, downloading others' data onto your drive, it's constantly using your Internet connection.

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Space Monkey's Windows desktop app. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Most people have modest internet connections at home, somewhere around 20Mbps according to data from Ookla. That means if you try to add several gigabytes of files to your Space Monkey drive at once, it's could to take hours, and possibly even days, to upload, depending on the number of gigabytes and your network speed.

Space Monkey has an answer for this, saying that the service tries to be nice to your network by backing off syncing when you're doing other things on your network, like playing games online or streaming video. The company is still trying to improve how the cloud affects your network, but in the meantime, you can control the download and upload speeds in the desktop application.

Mobile apps

Like other cloud services, Space Monkey has mobile apps so you can add, delete, and edit files from your phone. Both apps have simple, basic designs. The home screens show all of your files and folders. The only other screen just shows all of your camera uploads from your phone. You can add new folders, and upload new files from the app, and everything will get synced automatically.

If your drive goes offline for any reason, you'll still be able to view and download your files from the apps or Space Monkey's Web site.

Both the Android and iOS apps have a helpful auto-upload feature, which will automatically save every photo or video you take to the cloud. This is similar to Dropbox's and Microsoft's OneDrive automatic uploading features in their mobile apps.

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The Space Monkey Android app. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Why Space Monkey?

Space Monkey's biggest draw is cost. It's cheaper than most other options out there, including Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and Box.

The reason the service is less expensive is that you're covering the cost of the hardware that stores yours and other people's files, instead of the companies paying to use server space in a data center. This approach helps Space Monkey keeps its costs low, which means you'll pay less for cloud storage.

However, it might not be the cheapest option forever. When Space Monkey first came on to the scene, 1TB of storage was a rare, and expensive option. Now, costs are lower, with Google charging only $10 per month for 1TB. As the cost of for more storage continues to fall, Space Monkey will become a less compelling option, especially considering Dropbox, Google Drive, and other traditional cloud services are faster and easier to set up.

Western Digital also has Space Monkey slightly beat with its cloud option. It's My Cloud NAS server gives you 2TB of storage for $150 and comes with your own private cloud for no extra cost. There's no subscription cost, and you get all 2 terabytes to store your files. The only downside is that if you drive fails, you'll lose your files because they aren't stored anywhere else.

Conclusion

With the help of a sleek-looking desktop hard drive, Space Monkey gives you 1TB of storage that also backs up to the cloud, so you don't lose precious files. The service costs only $50 per year, which is cheaper than most other cloud storage options.

However, Space Monkey costs more money up front than its competitors, because you need to put down $200 for the drive, though you get one year of service for free. Luckily, that cost balances out over time, because it's only $50 per year for the cloud storage, compared to Google Drive's $10 per month ($120 per year) cost for 1TB.

While the promise of low-cost decentralized cloud storage is enticing, Space Monkey takes more effort to set up than its competitors. That makes it a bit more daunting for most people, because you have to make sure the drive is running properly to keep your personal cloud online.

If cost is an important factor for you, Space Monkey is worth the up-front investment. However, if you just want a cloud service that doesn't require any hassle, and you're not as concerned about exactly how and where your files are stored, it's more convenient to pick Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive.

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8.2

Space Monkey

Score Breakdown

Setup 7Features 9Performance 8Support 9