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Cloud Storage For Digital Artists - The Big Four

I love cloud storage. Whether for personal or business use it's incredibly useful to be able to quickly sync files between computers, view images on a tablet or quickly send links to clients. With the falling prices of cloud storage from the big fo cloud storage vendors (Dropbox, Google Drive, Box & Microsoft OneDrive) I thought I'd do a quick review of the services from the perspective of a professional digital artist. In a nutshell I want to see how fast I can upload/download, how easily I can send a link to the file/folder & what features are available that'd affect me. 

This isn't going to be an incredibly exhaustive test - there are already other in-depth feature reviews. Nor am I focused on how many gigs can I get for free - I'm a professional and I use the cloud for professional work. I want to know which service is better overall, for a creative image/video based business.

This study will be done from a Windows 7 Macbook Pro on a 40Mbps up/down business internet connection. The files I'll be uploading include images, videos & 3ds Max projects in a series of folders that total 100MB. 

Dropbox is currently my favorite paid cloud service. I've been using it for a couple years now and it's rarely disappointed me (other than a couple outages). In fact, it's the reigning champ as far as I'm concerned but it's also rather expensive. Dropbox has clients for Windows and OSX - both of which work remarkably well with integration in Explorer/Finder to make using it totally seamless. There are mobile apps available - the iOS version is one I'm very familiar with and works incredibly well.

Some observations from this study:

  • 1 minute 30 seconds to upload 100MB of files = 8.9Mbps
  • Easy link sharing to quickly send email (client puts link on your clipboard) 
  • Entire folders may be zip'd up for easy download - ie send link to folder of 30 images to your client who can click the Download Zip link and Dropbox will zip up all 30 images and start download.
  • Website UI not as slick as OneDrive but still the standard to be judged by.
  • Photo thumbnails are small unless using the "Photos" section but that's oriented to cell phone pics not highly organized folders that professionals need. Boo.
  • Consistent performance / solidly built desktop app.  
  • Subsequent file updates upload blazingly fast - somehow it caches previous uploads. 1st upload is 1:30 but the second upload was 0:23... 
  • File commenting not available natively however there are apps like Chatbox that allow for this.
  • Robust ecosystem, tons of 3rd party support & integration into iOS. Several apps I use on a regular basis exclusively use Dropbox to get data in/out of the app.
  • iOS app has offline file support, is fast/stable/easy & has automatic camera roll backup if you need it.

The recent announcement that Google was slashing cloud storage prices is actually what prompted this review. 1TB of storage for $10/month is total insanity! <sarcasm> Imagine the cost savings for the NSA - now they can snoop through all our data in one easy place... </sarcasm> 

Some observations from this study:

    • 1 minute 50 seconds to upload 100MB of files = 7.3Mbps 
    • Clunky sharing though powerful as you can invite users / change security settings the same was as google docs. No embedded URL Shortener in sharing UI.
    • Individual file download only, no ability to ZIP all folder contents and download.
    • UI for photos is pretty good - thumbnail view by default.
    • Almost no options when viewing public link. 
    • File commenting if you enable it within file sharing options
    • iOS app has offline file support and lots of functionality. Seems to work well and have the features I'd need. Can quickly send links to files / folders. No camera roll backup with Google Drive app but you can get that through Google+ app.

    Box is "businessy" and you can tell. The website & features seem tailored to users who primarily use Microsoft Office. Of course it works for all file types but it lacks the polish of OneDrive or Dropbox - I'd almost go so far as to say its UI (client & web) is the "Ugly Duckling" in this comparison.

    Some observations from this study:

      • 2 minutes 38 seconds to upload 100MB of files = 5.1Mbps
      • Easy sharing - right click on folder and it copies link to clipboard just like dropbox.
      • Entire folders may be zip'd up for easy download
      • Icons in web sharing UI are small. Overall UI in web share not as polished. 
      • File commenting feature - email notification of comments on files. Works for anonymous users too - ie send a link to client to view files and they can add comments w/o any login information.
      • Sync is annoying. Folders are set in the Web UI as "Sync" folders - then all linked computers will download that folder. It's ridiculous to assume every computer needs the same folder... That should be a per client setting not global for all connected machines.
      • Removing a folder from local Box directory does not remove it from the cloud. I find that to be a confusing workflow... For instance - I want to drop client review files into my local Box folder, send them for review then delete them when necessary... I'd have to visit the Box web UI to do that.
      • iOS app is surprisingly fantastic - unlike their sync app & website. Includes crucial (to me) offline file support so you don't need an internet connection all the time. No camera roll backup.

      The service from Microsoft formerly known as SkyDrive was rebranded OneDrive in January of 2014. I used SkyDrive for a couple months in early 2013 but it didn't manage to pull me away from Dropbox as some of the features I wanted just weren't there at the time.  OneDrive is the best looking of the 4 major cloud vendors - the UI of the client, the apps & the website is really well done. 

      Some observations from this study:

        • 2 minutes 56 seconds to upload 100MB of files = 4.4Mbps
        • Clunky UI for generating public download link. Once link generated it's not on clipboard but on the plus side there's a URL shortener within the sharing UI.
        • Entire folders may be zip'd up for easy download
        • Photos UI is great. Viewing upload in browser shows big image thumbnails that look great when sending a link to someone.
        • Default UI shows file details on right and full size preview in center. Great design.
        • Download rate seems slower than it should be.
        • Comment feature - could be useful for quick notes from client...
        • iOS app requires an internet connection - no offline file support. Supports camera roll backup if you're looking for that...

        Random Thoughts

        File size limits can cause problems. The limits have changed quite a bit so if you're dealing with large multi-gig files you'll need to review the specs of the service you're interested in. As of this writing - Dropbox & Google Drive have the most generous file size limits.

        All the services have different quirks in how they handle large amounts of data to sync. For instance deep folder hierarchies can cause slowdowns with some. Just something to keep in mind though it hasn't been a problem for me with Dropbox

        The Winner...

        It's hard to declare which is the "winner" when cost varies so widely among the four services. So, in an ideal world where all you care about is performance / features... The winner is Dropbox. It's fastest by far, has extensive apps & tablet compatibility & has the features I need to quickly & reliably send files for review. However, if you need lots of storage and you're concerned about cost per GB then I recommend Google Drive. It's fast enough and in my tests sync worked really well. Generating links is still clunky but that can be forgiven when the rest is solid and you're getting so much storage for cheap. 

        Box - has some nice features but I found their desktop sync app (version 4) to be frustrating. I've tried it on Mac & Windows in various conditions but still don't like it. I need to get content out for approval - a weakness in Sync is unforgivable.

        OneDrive - I really wanted to love this. The UX is solid - both as the content creator and as the client viewing links / shared files. But.... It's too slow to upload. As of March 2014, OneDrive is the slowest of the 4 in uploads and that's the most critical feature to me.

        Which storage service do you use? Use the comments below and let me know how you use cloud storage for your business / studio / freelance work.