Google Drive Takes on Dropbox

June 2012

Dropbox has been an incredible boon. It's like my workspace: any document that I'm actively working on automatically goes in my Dropbox folder on my computer. As I make changes, the new version is immediately uploaded to the cloud. It's like autosave on steroids, in that not only are all my changes saved, but they're also being stored offsite.

And if I'm working on something and then head to lunch, there's the document on my iPad in case I need to look at it. That's the beauty of the cloud. I can't edit the document directly in Dropbox on my iPad, but there are very low cost office suites that work seamlessly with Dropbox (such as Quickoffice and DocsToGo). The service is free up to 5GB, and the iOS apps are free.

So far Dropbox has been the most popular cloud service for consumers, likely because it's so wonderfully easy to start using it. But now Google has jumped into the fray with Google Drive, and I'm impressed. It has many more features than Dropbox. It's free up to 5GB, the same as Dropbox. If you want more storage, Google Drive prices range from $2.50/month for 25G to 1TB for $50/month, which is about half that of Dropbox.

Some of the features are amazing. For example, you can use it to view over 30 different types of documents from within your web browser — even if you don't own the software. If someone sends you a Microsoft Office document not compatible with your version of Office, view it using Google Drive. Other viewable file types include HD video, Adobe Illustrator, and Photoshop.

Plus, Google Drive has powerful search features that let you search across documents. It will even find text in scanned image files using optical character recognition. If you scan in a news clipping, you can do a search and it will find your keywords in that clipping.

It also has a feature that recognizes the content of images. If you store photos of your trip to the Grand Canyon, you can do a search on that term, and it's smart enough to return photos of it (irrespective of what they might be named). Note, though, that this image search technology is still in a very early stage, so don't expect a lot from it. But it shows the direction things are going in.

In addition, Google Docs is built into Google Drive, such that you also have robust collaboration tools available. I really like Google Docs. It's a wonderful resource for creating, editing, and sharing word processing and spreadsheet documents, as well as PowerPoint-like presentations.

The collaboration tools are impressive. It's easy to work on documents with others — even simultaneously. As you edit, you can see the changes being made by another editor. If you want to see who made what changes, you can view the Revision History and see any previous version and what changes were made to it. The service supports a wide range of file types, including Microsoft Word documents.

You can select what files or folders you want to share, and with whom you want to share them. In addition, you can stipulate whether they view the files only, or also edit or comment on them. If you have an email provider that limits the size of attachments to 20MB, as is often the case, you can use Google Drive to share large files.

Google Drive is also available as an app for Android devices, but as of this writing isn't yet available for the iPhone or iPad. I can, however, view my Google Drive files via the web browser on my iPad.

Cloud-based services such as Google Drive and Dropbox have the advantage that you can access your files from any computer connected to the Internet, not just your own computers and devices, by simply logging into the service's website and viewing your files. But what really sets Google Drive apart is that you can also edit those files using Google Docs.

I found that getting started with Google Drive wasn't quite as quick and easy as Dropbox. I had to go through several steps, and the process was complicated by the fact that I have several Google accounts. Once I installed it, Google Drive put a folder on my computer, just like Dropbox, though Google Drive required that it be in my User Folder on my Mac whereas the Dropbox folder can go anyplace. Still, it's pretty easy to set up.

Google Drive is yet one more freebie that I strongly endorse.

This month's hot tips:

Free language-learning courses are available at fsi-language-courses.org and www.livemocha.com. See Kim Komando's guide to free antivirus software. Find people via www.peekyou.com.

© 2012 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen