"Syncing to the cloud" may sound like marketing-speak, but it's actually a convenient thing to do: Upload your important files to an online server and access them from any of your other computers and mobile devices.
Cloud-based syncing services usually use a virtual drive that exists on your desktop in some manner, and it is linked directly to your online storage space. The contents of this virtual hard drive remain in sync across all of the desktops, notebooks and mobile devices on which you have installed the client software.
You designate which files or folders that you want to be part of the virtual drive; everything on that drive is then automatically uploaded to an online server. From there it is accessible (by logging on with a username and a password) from your other devices, either from another installed version of the application, or via a Web interface. And you can grant other people access.
For this roundup, I chose five services that store, sync and share your files in the cloud: DriveHQ, Dropbox, OpenDrive, SpiderOak and ZumoDrive. I reviewed them using their desktop front-end clients, and I used only the free account versions of these services (because everybody likes free stuff). Most of these also offer paid upgrades; in those cases, I list the other options that are available.
Incidentally, until recently Microsoft offered its own data synchronization service, called Live Mesh, but it's now defunct. Another Microsoft service, Windows Live Sync, doesn't have direct syncing access to an online storage space. However, features of Live Mesh have been incorporated into the upcoming version of Windows Live Sync as part of Windows Live Essentials.
The new Windows Live Sync will give you 2GB of online storage for syncing files. Unfortunately, the next version of Windows Live Essentials won't run on Windows XP, so XP users may want to check out the services in this roundup.
How we tested
I tried out the Windows version of the desktop application for each service. I installed the client on two notebooks -- one running Windows XP, the other Windows 7. The Windows XP notebook was left in my home office, turned on and connected to the Internet. The Windows 7 notebook was taken to various locations with Wi-Fi Internet access. I experimented with files ranging from 1MB up to 20MB in size.
A note about security: While all of these services employ some basic means of password protection for your files, and most offer assurances that your files travel over "secure connections," the fact of the matter is that you are still uploading your personal and business files to a remote server. So beware.
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