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Google Drive adds just one checkbox, and that makes all the difference

Commentary: Storage capacity limits can hold back the power of cloud computing, but Google just cut the cloud loose.

Google Drive lets you sync files on PCs, phones and Google's servers.

Google Drive lets you sync files on PCs, phones and Google's servers.

Google

Simply by adding a checkbox, Google has made storage and photography services on the cloud vastly more useful.

The checkbox opens the ability to pick which folders on the Internet-based file system called Google Drive are synchronized to your Mac or Windows PC. The change, announced Thursday, may sound minor on the surface. But for me, it's a profound transformation. Not only does it improve the cloud storage service, it also unlocks the potential of Google Photos.

Let me explain.

My primary personal computer is a Mac whose storage system is a 256GB solid-state drive that's fast but doesn't have nearly enough room. I use external drives and a 128GB USB thumb drive to cope, but Google Drive is on the SSD.

One click keeps gigabytes of photos and videos on the cloud.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The documents stored on Google Drive aren't too burdensome, but my photos and videos, backed up automatically from my phone, are an ever-growing problem. Maybe they are for you, too. Year after year, those travel pictures, party selfies and baby videos have a way of accumulating.

Compounding the issues, I export favorite photos from my SLR to a folder in Google Drive.

To keep my Mac's out-of-space warnings at bay, I have had to delete photos and videos a couple times a week. Obviously, I take more photos than the average person. And although SSDs are getting bigger, storage becomes a problem sooner or later even for people who don't snap so many shots.

The Google Photos service keeps on running even if you stop synchronizing the folder.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Or it had been until now. The new Google Drive option lets me choose which folders I sync to my PC. I open Google Drive preferences, open the "sync options" tab, and check only the folders I want on my PC. Presto: I just saved precious space on my SSD.

This is the exact feature I'd been longing for. I even went to the bother of requesting it on Google's forums a few months ago. I didn't get an answer, but I guess Google was listening to folks with this plight.

I'm particularly happy about this because now I can let Google's artificial intelligence smarts sink their teeth into my photo archive. Sorting photos by person, identifying landmarks and locations, picking favorites and culling the duds -- Google Photos has a lot of interesting features, and I expect they'll get better.

Of course I'll have to trust Google's cloud infrastructure a bit more. But my guess is that it's less likely to suffer from accidents, theft or mechanical failure than my Mac. Besides, I still sync the photos to my Windows machine's roomier SSD.

I'm a big believer in cloud computing as a way to protect data and to share it among my phones, tablets and PCs. That said, I'm not yet ready to put my entire 1.5 terabyte photo and video archive onto Google's cloud. That would cost me $100 a month.

But using Google Drive to preserve and share my phone's photos and selected favorites -- for me, that's worth paying for.