"The Cloud" may be the latest buzzword in computing, but you've been using it for years. If you were a WebTV user, your favorites, scrapbook, and email were "in the Cloud." They appeared to be in your WebTV box, but they were actually in your account on the WebTV servers. WebTV and MSNTV users will remember that, when they got a new box, all the stuff from their old box was magically already in it!
GMail, Outlook and Yahoo mail, and web apps like Google Docs are all Cloud-based. They're all things that you use on your device, but which are actually located on a remote server. iPads and iPhones can automatically back themselves up to Apple's iCloud; lose or break an iPhone, or upgrade to a new iPad, and all your stuff is still there!
What's New with Cloud Storage
What IS different and better now is that you can use Cloud storage for any kind of data you have. When you install a cloud data app on your computer, you can save files to it just as if it were any other drive. On tablets and mobile devices, many apps are already configured so that you can save your camera roll or your writings directly to your favorite Cloud storage service instead of to your local hard drive.
How the Cloud Works
This picture, courtesy of Dropbox, shows how it works. You might save a file into a Dropbox folder on your Mac. As soon as you do, your Mac "syncs" the folder with your account on the Dropbox servers -- that is, it uploads it, so now your Dropbox folder on your Mac and on the Dropbox servers contain exactly the same files.
Then, the server notifies the Dropbox app on the other devices connected to the account -- here, a Windows PC and some mobile devices -- that "we have a new file!" When those answer "I'm ready," the file is downloaded to the app on the device. This happens every time a file is added or changed, even a tiny bit. Everything you own where you've installed Dropbox always has all of your stuff!
Ways to Use Cloud Storage
I have Dropbox, and so do our Crossword makers. They share puzzles they're working on with each other, and when one is finished, they drop it into the Dropbox folder they share with me so that I can publish it.
My iPad and iPhone are set to upload any photo or screen capture directly to Dropbox, so when I'm ready to use it, the file is already on my computer. When I was at my mom's scanning old family photos, I saved them directly to Dropbox. They were here when I returned, and I shared the folder so everyone in the family had them.
Here at Games4TV HQ, our team mostly works from home, and sometimes we use artists who are far away. But with Dropbox and Instant Messenger, we actually can share more easily than when we were all in the same office.
I also have Google Drive. I used it for everything on my Chromebook, and the Chromebook shares with my PC. Once, I was making a presentation on my PC for a conference, but I ran out of time. But everything was saved to Google Drive. When I got to my destination, I connected my Chromebook, finished the presentation, and then went to the conference. There, I pulled out my iPad, loaded the presentation from Google Drive, and gave my speech. That is the power of using the Cloud!
I've just installed OneDrive, and that's what I'm using for backup. The free storage option is generous, so I'm taking all the documents and emails from the past ten years and copying them to OneDrive. If my hard disk crashes or the house burns down, I'll still have them all.
Which One to Get? Any or All!
You don't have to limit yourself to just one Cloud drive, but it's a good idea to start with one, become accustomed to using it, and then add more as you wish.
If you were on MSNTV and your scrapbook pictures and other materials were saved to SkyDrive for you, that's now OneDrive. If you're using Outlook for your email (even if it's "@webtv.net" or "@msn.com"), you'll use the same account for OneDrive. So that would be a good place to start.
If you have Chromebook, use GMail, or have an Android device, you'll probably want to start with Google Drive. It's already set up on your Chromebook when you sign in and with a GMail address, you already have the Google account that you'll use.
I've been using Dropbox for several years, so it's really familiar and comfortable to me. Even if it's not quite as generous on free space, I'm still just half full. Dropbox also lets you set a file to be "public" and gives you a special link. That lets you share one file with a lot of people -- even post it on the web -- without the hassle of creating shared folders with each one.
The list below has the most popular (but not all) Cloud drives. Click on the title of each one for more detail about it and the links to download it.