Best cloud services for email, movies, music and more
What is 'the cloud'? We part the cumulus confusion to present a blue sky future where all our music, films and programs are accessed online.
Niall has been writing about technology for over 10 years, working for the UK's most prestigious newspapers, magazines and websites in the process. What he doesn't know about TVs and laptops isn't worth worrying about. It's a little known fact that if you stacked all the TVs and laptops he has ever reviewed on top of each other, the pile would reach all the way to the moon and back four times.
Living with your head in the clouds used to mean that you were as ditzy as a TOWIE cast member, but now it's seen as a smart move. Almost everything to do with computers and gadgetry -- from listening to music to writing an office presentation -- is moving into 'the cloud'.
Yes, it is a buzzword, but 'cloud' simply means that your files, music and photos, as well as fun and useful programs, are accessed via the Internet through a web browser, rather than held on your computer's hard drive.
It used to be talked about as a clever option for big companies who wanted to save money, but over the last couple of years, cloud services have been targeted at you and me. So is it really easy to move all your data and applications into the cloud? You betcha, and here's how…
You're already using a cloud service
The chances are that you're using a cloud-based application without realising it. If you have an email account with a webmail provider like Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo, then you've joined the cloud computing club. Webmail services are the most popular cloud-based applications on the planet. Current usage figures suggest that the three big names mentioned above have around 1 billion users between them.
It's easy to see why webmail is so popular as it encapsulates many of the benefits of cloud computing. All your emails are stored online and are automatically backed up by your webmail provider, so it's unlikely that any of your data will go missing. Webmail services also have powerful virus scanning and anti-spam tools, which help keep you out of trouble. Perhaps the biggest boon of webmail though is the sheer convenience of it. You can access your email from anywhere in the world, as long as your device has a net connection and a web browser.
Storing your files on the Internet
All desktop PCs, tablets and smart phones have lots of storage built in -- typically measured in gigabytes or terabytes of space -- but where can you put your files in the cloud? One of the best known online file storage services is Dropbox. The basic service is free, but it's limited to a maximum storage capacity of 2GB. If you want to boost that, the next level up offers 50GB but costs $9.99 (£6.30) per month or $99 for a year's subscription. There's also a 100GB option for $19.99 per month or $199 a year.
It's not only useful for storing your documents, it also makes it easy to share them with others. For example, if you want to share photos and videos from a recent holiday with friends, you can upload them to Dropbox and provide your mates with a secure log-in to view or download the files.
Dropbox is far from the only online storage option. In fact, Microsoft's SkyDrive offers a lot more storage for free. With this service you get 25GB of space, although there is a limit of 100MB per file. Like Dropbox, it supports secure and public sharing of files.
Another alternative is SugarSync. With this option you get 5GB of data for free. The focus of SugarSync is slightly different to Dropbox and SkyDrive. It works as a sort of shared folder that keeps itself in sync across your desktop PC, the cloud and any mobile devices you may have. If you open a document, make a change and then save it back to SugarSync, all the versions of that document held on other devices will automatically be updated with the new version. SugarSync also offers premium accounts, with prices starting at $4.99 (£3.15) per month for 30GB of space.
Office tasks stored online
If you have to get some work done, and to access your documents wherever you are, you'll need cloud-based productivity apps to create and edit files. If you use Microsoft applications such as Works or Office, or free alternatives like OpenOffice, it's becoming increasingly easy to ditch these desktop applications in favour of cloud programs.
What's more, some of the cloud alternatives are free. If you already have a Gmail account then you may have come across Google Docs. To access it, all you have to do is click on the Documents tab at the top of the screen when you're in Gmail. Google Docs includes a word processor, presentation creator, spreadsheet, drawing app and more. It's completely free and has many of the features that you'd find in your standard desktop programs.
Microsoft also now offers Office 365. This service is a cloud version of its traditional Office Suite. There's a free 30-day trial available, after which it costs a reasonable £4 a month per user.
With these cloud-based productivity apps, the software runs within your web browser and your files are saved on remote servers. The advantage of this is that you can easily start work on a document at home and then pick up where you left off by logging in at your office, or even an Internet café -- all without having to cart around the file on a USB key or storage device.
Most of these cloud services allow for collaborative working, so two or more people can share a document, making changes and improvements as they go. More than one person can even have the same document open at the same time to work on it simultaneously.
Of course, most of us can't exist on digital documents alone. Sometimes we need hard copies of reports, spreadsheets and presentations. Or we might want to print photos of a big night out. Thankfully, cloud computing has reached the world printers, with many of the latest models supporting cloud services. Arguably the most popular one at the moment is Google Cloud Print, partly because the print functionality is integrated into Google Docs software.
To make use of Cloud Print, all you need is a Cloud Print Ready printer and a Google username and password. Setting up printers to work with the service is very straightforward. Once it's linked into Cloud Print, you can send jobs to the printer from any Internet-connected PC. Just imagine hitting the print button in Google Docs while sitting in a hotel room in Hamburg and having the page spew out of your printer back in Blighty.
Cloud Print Ready models are available from a broad range of manufacturers, including Kodak, HP and Epson. Most manufacturers also have their own services. For example, Kodak's models support both Google's Cloud Print as well as the company's own Email Print system. To use the email service, you register your model with the Kodak website, which then assigns the printer its own unique email address. When you want to print a document remotely, you simply email it to the printer's address as an attachment and the printer will produce a hard copy.
Cloud photo albums
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so how can the cloud entertain you? If you fancy yourself as an amateur David Bailey and can't help living life through a lens, then you're pretty well catered for. You can use cloud storage services like Dropbox and Microsoft SkyDrive to hoard photos alongside your other files. Both options also have neat tools to let you share albums of photos online.
Dedicated photo sites may better serve your needs though. As many backpackers already know, Flickr provides a great way to back up your photos online when you're on the move and need to upload and share snaps from different devices. Flickr offers a free account that allows users to upload 300MB of photos and two videos per month. If you need more than this, you'll have to sign up for the Pro account, which allows unlimited uploads. Prices start at $6.95 (£4.40) for three months, with a two-year subscription costing $44.95 (£28).
Photobucket is perhaps Flickr's closest competitor on the functionality front. It offers users free unlimited storage space for photos, but there are restrictions on how you can use it. For example, there's a file size maxuimum of 1MB per photo and pictures are limited to a resolution of 2,048x1,536 pixels. The premium account raises these. The max photo size for Pro users is 2MB and the resolution is increased to 4,000x3,000 pixels. It costs $2.99 (£1.90) per month, with discounts available for longer subscriptions.
Another alternative is Kodak Gallery. Although primarily aimed at those who want to produce hard copies of their snaps in various formats including standard 4x6-inch prints, as well as calendars and photobooks, the service offers free image storage and sharing options too.
Cloud music streaming
If listening to tunes is more your bag, you're spoilt for choice, as the whole market for music is moving away from CDs towards online streaming. The biggest name in music streaming at the moment is Spotify. You can make use of the service for free if you can put up with adverts between tracks and being limited to playing a song a maximum of five times. Or sign up for the unlimited service, which cuts out the ads for £4.99 per month. For £9.99 you can even stream to your mobile.
If you'd like to explore an alternative to Spotify, try Napster. It has recently become Napster by Rhapsody, following a takeover by the American company, but it's still relatively cheap. It costs just £5 per month for unlimited music streaming and has a similar-sized library to Spotify.
Apple recently started offering a cloud music service that works in a very different way to Spotify and Napster. iTunes Match scans the library of tracks stored on your PC or Mac and tries to match them against the music held in the iTunes online database, which contains over 20 million tunes. If it can't find a match, it will upload the songs that it doesn't have a match for. Using these two techniques, it recreates your music library online so you can stream and download music to any computer or compatible mobile device. The service costs £21.99 per year.
New cloud services are springing up wherever you turn on the web, making desktop apps look old fashioned and inflexible. Cloud services from Netflix and Lovefilm are paving the way for us to consume movies in the same way as music -- by streaming them for a price rather than buying them on disc. Even the likes of Evernote are making the simple task of note taking a cloud-based activity. In the future we're definitely going to be spending more of our time using cloud apps than desktop ones, so spread your wings and explore what's out there.