Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Why and How You Can Compute "In the Cloud" and Save

I was listening to the radio tech guru Kim Komando this morning. She advertises a cloud computer backup service that you pay about $5.00 a month for. Not bad, but you can have just about everything you do backed up "in the cloud"... for free... with just a tiny bit of effort.

If you read about computers at all, a lot of the talk is about "cloud computing"  and "cloud backup." In the old days of computing (a few years ago), everybody was buying computers with bigger and bigger hard drives. Basic brand-name software, such as Microsoft Office, kept getting more bloated and more expensive. You downloaded all your e-mail to Outlook and kept it on your hard drive.

But "cloud computing" is here, and is a very frugal alternative to all that expensive hardware and software. You store most of your documents - e-mail, photos, letters, journals, music, video - on somebody else's server (such as Microsoft's, Amazon's, or Google's... see below) and use it directly from the internet, You can  download or stream it from the internet when you need it. There's also a growing body of "cloud software" that you use only online. No more buying expensive software packages and installing them on your computer (although a growing trend is to charge you a subscription fee for premium versions of free online software). The nice thing is that with cloud computing, you can get away with using a computer with much less hard memory, and that is far less expensive. My latest computer, a Chromebook, takes care of most of what I do and cost $249, about a thousand dollars less than my previous one.

The cost of cloud computing can indeed be very low. There are a lot of reliable, big-name sources of cloud storage that are free or very cheap. You can use free storage from several of them and never pay a dime. I like to use Evernote for clips from the web, Google for e-mail, pictures, many documents, and MP3 storage. I store some pictures and MP3s on Amazon, too. Microsoft's cloud has Word and Excel documents and various pdf files I download from the web, including a lot of knitting patterns. All this is free. For the sake of sanity, I'd advise using each service for specific types or categories of files, so you never have to hunt around through multiple sites.

Here are brief summaries of the cloud storage services I use:
  • Google Drive charges an astonishing low $1.99 a month for 100 gigabytes (GB) of storage, but you get 15 GB free for using Google Drive (their cloud-based document production and  storage utility), which is shared across picture and e-mail storage and is enough for many people without the need to pay for any more. It helps that documents created in Google Drive, and smaller pictures stored in Google+, don't count towards your storage limit. I have a ton of documents and e-mail and photos stored in Google's cloud, but when I last checked I had less than 8 GB of storage that counted towards my limit. I create all my teaching lesson plans and handouts in Google Docs now, but because I do them within the Docs platform, I'm not charged for storage, even though most contain multiple cut-and-pasted pictures.
  • Microsoft's OneDrive is obviously competing with Google, and now also gives you 15 GB for free, and another 100 GB for $1.99 a month. With that, you get free use of Microsoft's online Office suite, including Outlook.com for e-mail and Onenote. These versions aren't as robust as the insanely complicated Office suites I used until recently... but they do the job and are free. If you're a die-hard Microsoft user, this would be a good option.
  • Amazon's Cloud Drive is gradually becoming a bit more user-friendly, but it doesn't have the associated e-mail and document creation platforms that make both Google and Microsoft storage so handy. Still, Amazon's Cloud Drive does give you 5 GB of free storage, with a pricier 100 GB at $50/year. Photo storage is free and unlimited for Amazon Prime users. Not worth it at the $99/year Prime cost, but if you're already a subscriber you should take advantage.
  • Dropbox was one of the first successful cloud storage apps and has been a favorite for years. It provides 2 GB of free storage, or up to 1,000 GB (1 TB) for $9.99/month. Reliable and intuitive, it's one of the best ways to transfer files from one device to another. Like Amazon's Cloud Drive, you'll need to rely on your own software as Dropbox has no associated e-mail, calendars, or file creation services.
  • Evernote isn't usually thought of as cloud storage, but that is what it does, mostly. I'm an admirer of Evernote, by the way. It provides unlimited free cloud storage for all your documents and other files, but there are some limitations. File size and monthly upload limits exist for users who don't subscribe to the premium service, which is $5.00/month or $45.00/year. Evernote has really robust filing, tagging, and search features, and you can retrieve your files from a large variety of platforms. It even works well on my ancient Blackberry Curve.
  • There are quite a few other cloud storage services, and many offer some limited free use in hopes you'll like them and pay for more. I've checked out a few, including Sugarsync and Box.com, and I know there are a lot more. I guess my preference is to stay with the better-known services, but some of these have been around for quite a while.
You may have some valid concerns re using these services. Privacy is one, and since everything gets hacked these days, I wouldn't store sensitive confidential information in any of these places. Also, be aware that these are all businesses that could go belly-up or change policies at any time. Have a back-up plan in case your service announces it's going away, so you can move stored documents in a hurry. I've also heard of people getting locked out of Google or Microsoft accounts, and thus losing access to their stored documents for a long time while trying to regain access. I try to keep anything truly critical backed up in a second location and usually as a hard copy, too. But with these few precautions, I find using cloud computing to be a great money and worry saver.