Amazon Cloud Drive and Box.net go toe-to-toe

Free online storage services make it easy to access files from any Internet-linked PC or mobile device. Amazon's Cloud Player is great for music, while Box.net is a sharing champ.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

It didn't take long for the iPad to find a home in business. Road warriors love being able to access their PC back in the office. The best way to sign into your office PC remotely is via a virtual private network (VPN) connection. Apple explains how to set up a VPN on an iOS device; note that you'll likely need some information from your organization's IT department to complete the process.

You can also use a service such as GoToMyPC or LogMeIn: the former gives away its iPad app and charges from $10 a month or $100 a year for the desktop component (more info), while the latter offers its desktop app for free and charges $30 for the LogMeIn Ignition program for the iPad and other mobile devices (more info).

The benefits of cloud storage over remote PC access
The problem with remote-access apps such as GoToMyPC and LogMeIn is that desktops don't translate well onto mobile devices. Even the iPad's larger screen does little to improve the clunkiness of operating a PC remotely on a handheld machine.

If you don't need to use VPN to tunnel through your employer's firewall, you can store your files and e-mail online and do without remote access altogether. The Amazon Cloud Drive and Box.net online storage services make files on my laptop accessible from any Internet-connected device. (While there's a Cloud Drive app for Android, Amazon doesn't yet offer Cloud Drive on the iPhone or iPad.)

Both services upload image, audio, video, and standard business files quickly and relatively simply. Amazon's free MP3 Uploader and Cloud Player programs make it a breeze to upload and play MP3s and ACC (M4A files) by automatically finding the files on your PC and uploading them, with your approval. I tested Cloud Drive with MP3s but not ACC files.

Box.net's upload process is not as automatic as Cloud Drive's. However, Box.net lets you share your files securely with others. More importantly, the Box.net apps for the iPad and iPhone allow you to access, preview, and download the files in your Box.net box on those mobile devices.

Both Box.net and Cloud Drive offer 5GB of storage for free. Box.net charges $10 a month for up to 25GB, and its $15-a-month business plan provides up to 100GB of storage. An Amazon promotion offers 20GB of free storage for a year if you purchase an MP3 album from the company; the 20GB plan normally costs $20 a year. Cloud Drive gives you up to 1,000GB of storage for $1,000 a year.

Box.net's $10-a-month plan increases the maximum file size from 25MB to 1GB, and the business plan supports upload of files as large as 2GB. Cloud Drive lets you upload files as large as 2GB.

Cloud Drive's simple upload process
To get started with Cloud Drive, create an Amazon account or sign into an existing account. You see four empty folders for Documents, Music, Pictures, and Video. You can create new folders and subfolders. Click the big orange Upload Files button in the top-left corner to open the two-step Cloud Drive uploader. Choose the folder to store the files in and click "Select files to upload."

A dialog box opens showing the files on your hard drive. You can't choose entire folders, but you can select all the files in the folder to load them all at once. You can view the uploader's progress by clicking "See upload details" in the top-right corner.

Amazon Cloud Drive file uploader
Amazon's Cloud Drive uploader shows the upload progress and has buttons for stopping the upload and adding more files. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

It took about 45 minutes for Cloud Drive to upload 800MB of MP3, image, and Office-type files. When the upload is finished, the files appear in the folders you selected during import. Now you can access and download the files by signing into your account, choosing the files, and selecting Download, Copy, or another command.

Amazon Cloud Drive file viewer
Download, copy, move, or rename files in your Cloud Drive account via controls in the main file list. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Cloud Drive doesn't preview files. When you select a file in the Cloud Drive list, it downloads or attempts to open in its native application. The exception is MP3 files, which play in the Cloud Player app. This makes Cloud Drive a great option for keeping MP3 files easy to play on various machines.

When I tested Cloud Drive on my iPad, the file viewer didn't scroll in Safari, so only one screen of files was accessible in each folder. The scrolling problem occurred even when I selected the Desktop view in the Skyfire browser for the iPad. There was also no way to upload files from the iPad; the familiar "Get Flash Player" popup appeared.

Until Amazon releases versions of Cloud Drive for the iPad and iPhone, we'll have to make do with access to only the files we can get to without scrolling but rather by resorting the list by name, file type, size, and date added. This is currently the only way to make as many of the files as possible reachable without being able to scroll the list.

Box.net lets you share files with 'collaborators'
You can create a Box.net account by signing into a Google Apps or Gmail account and supplying a password. The Files tab opens showing your empty "Box." Click Upload to open the file viewer you use to select files to upload, or click New to open a new folder, Web document, or bookmark.

After you upload files, hover over one in the file list to see options for assigning a task to the file, sending a secure link to the file via e-mail, adding a comment, or viewing more options. The options submenu lets you preview, download, copy, move, delete, or edit the file. You can also view the file properties, upload a new version of the file, or embed the file on your site.

Previewable file types include most Office, Adobe, and Open Office files; BMPs and TIFFs in addition to JPEGs, PNGs, and GIFs; and MP3s. Box.net provides a list of the file types that the service can preview.

Box.net online file viewer
Box.net's file viewer makes it easy to share files securely, preview and download them, and perform other actions. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Box.net lets you import contacts from Gmail, Outlook, CSV, or VCard lists; I didn't test this function. The service also offers links to free and fee-based applications that work with Box.net, many of which require Business or Enterprise accounts.

The only one I tested was the free Box.net for iPad, which lists your files in the left column under three headings (Updates, All Files, and Saved) and previews the selected file in the main window on the right. You can hide the file list to maximize the file preview, add a comment to the file, copy text in files, and share links to the files via e-mail.

The ability to preview and share links to PDFs, PowerPoint and other Office files, and standard text and image files on an iPad is a great time-saver, and a feature Cloud Drive can't match. Access to files on iPhones and iPads gives Box.net a big edge to this mobile user.