The Google Drive Review You've Been Waiting For

Google Drive, the long-awaited file storage and syncing service, launches today. If you follow tech news closely, you've seen bits and pieces of the news leaking out over the past two weeks. We've tested it and we've talked to the team leaders. Forget all the speculation. Here's what Google Drive actually is.

The Details

Think of Google Drive as a file system underneath Google Docs, but integrated with all the other Google services. All Google users get 5GB of storage for free. Paid plans start at $2.49 a month for 25GB, and that extends your Gmail inbox to 25GB as well. $4.99 a month gets you 100 GB. There are incremental plans all the way up to 16 TB for $800 per month.

The maximum file size is 10GB. Drive will be a standard part of the Google Apps suite for businesses with the same security and reliability guarantees. The next version of Chrome OS will use Drive as its file system.

Recommended: Full-Sized Screenshots of the Google Drive iPad App

Google Drive launches today with native applications for Mac, Windows and Android. Pichai says the iOS apps are coming "in a few weeks," but we have screenshots of what to expect.

The Drive apps don't have editing features. You can view, share and comment on all the files in your Drive, but clicking on a Google Docs file to edit it opens the browser.

On the desktop, Google Drive works just like Dropbox and the new Microsoft SkyDrive apps cleverly announced yesterday. It creates a special folder that syncs. It's strange at first to see .gdoc and .gsheet files in the desktop file system, since all they do is open a browser to Google Docs, but it begins to make sense for heavy Docs users.

If you're working in documents on your Mac, for example, you can find your Google Docs in Spotlight, just like you'd find any other file - though without as much detail as Google's own Web and native apps provide.

You can store any file in Drive, and it can understand and display over 30 file types. On the Web, it does full-text search of documents, optical character recognition of text in scanned documents, and it has some early image recognition capabilities thanks to Google Goggles. So if you've uploaded photos from your trip to the Himalayas, a Google Drive search for "Everest" should find them.

Related: Google Drive Doesn't Go Far Enough - But it Could

In our tests, these Google Goggles image searches only found the easy ones, but it's still a great feature. Between that and the OCR, Google Drive steps on some of the best features of Evernote.

Drive also has powerful video features. "It's like a private YouTube," says Scott Johnston, Google's product manager for Docs and Sites. Video files uploaded to Drive are encoded automatically, just like YouTube uploads, so they can be viewed in whatever format is necessary on a variety of systems.

Starting today, Google users can share photos in Drive straight from the Google+ share box. Pichai says integration for Gmail attachments is "coming soon."

The App Platform

Just as Dropbox does, Google Drive has an SDK for developers to build apps on top of it. In addition to the existing Google Docs apps, Google Drive launches with the following third-party app partners:

  • AutoCad WS - Creative Tools - Open AutoCAD files (dwg) from Google Drive.
  • Aviary - Creative Tools - Simple image editor for images stored in Google Drive
  • Balsamiq Mockups - Creative Tools - Create mockups and user interface sketches. Open and share mockups using Google Drive.
  • Desmos - Productivity - An HTML5 social graphing calculator. Create and store graphs in Google Drive.
  • DocuSign - Productivity - Get signatures on documents stored in Google Drive and save signed documents back to Drive.
  • Floorplanner - Creative Tools - Create and edit floorplans from your browser. Render floorplans as 3D models and save images back to Google Drive.
  • Gantter - Productivity - Manage complex projects on the web. Create, open, and save project plans back to Google Drive. Gantter also works with Microsoft Project files.
  • HelloFax - Productivity - Sign and fax documents from your Google Drive. Signed and faxed documents are saved to Drive for easy reference.
  • Lucidchart - Productivity - Online diagramming and flowchart tool. Create, open, and save Lucidchart drawings from Google Drive. Lucidchart also works with Visio diagrams
  • Lulu - Productivity - Publish print and eBooks from documents in your Google Drive.
  • MindMeister - Productivity - Create and edit mind maps. Share mind maps from Google Drive and collaborate in real-time.
  • Nivio - Productivity - Open and edit Microsoft Office files in their native application from the web browser.
  • Pixlr Editor & Pixlr Express - Creative Tools - Open and edit images from Google Drive from your browser
  • Pixorial - Video - Open and share media files, edit videos, and share projects from Google Drive
  • Revisu - Productivity - Collaborative markup and feedback for the creative review process. Open files with Revisu and collaborate and share with Google Drive.
  • SlideRocket - Productivity - Create and edit presentations from the browser. Import PowerPoint or PDF files.
  • Smartsheet - Productivity - Manage and collaborate on projects. Create and open Smartsheets from Google Drive, and attach files from Drive to projects. Smartsheet also works with Microsoft Project and Excel files and Google spreadsheets.
  • WeVideo - Video - Open, edit, produce HD video from Google Drive.

What Took So Long?

The Google Drive myth has been around for a long time. Every so often, rumors flare up, and the tech press is convinced that a launch is imminent. Meanwhile, Dropbox has had time to grow up into a beloved company, famously turning down massive acquisition offers from the likes of Apple. Evernote, too, has expressed its intentions to be a "100-year company." Is Google Drive too late? We asked Sundar Pichai, Google's SVP for Chrome and Apps, what the hold-up was all about.

His explanation is that the most important features of Google Drive are the creation and collaboration components. The team has been working mostly on those aspects of Google Docs all along. Docs forms the core of what Google is announcing today, but there's more to it. Google Drive offers cloud sync and storage like its formidable competitors. But its search, image and video processing features are uniquely suited to Google's talents. Google Drive isn't just a me-too product.

The Competition

Google made Drive because, as Pichai says, "There are two worlds today," Web and native applications. There are tremendous advantages for syncing, sharing and collaborating on documents using cloud services, but they have to be extended to the local devices where users do most of their work.

Dropbox was the first to figure this out. Just make a folder that syncs, period. Dropbox set the bar for a free account at 2GB, giving competitors the opportunity to one-up it with that token spec. Sure enough, Google Drive launches with 5GB free.

But with the magic folder interface, Google has admitted with this release that Dropbox got it right. Microsoft has, too. It released its SkyDrive apps the day before Google Drive came out in order to make that point. It even beat Google's free storage offering with 7GB. That actually reduces the size of the free SkyDrive offering. It was 25GB before the new native apps were released yesterday. Microsoft realized doesn't have to give that much space away to one-up its competitors in this little way.

Google Drive brings some of Google's best technologies to bear, including complex search and video capabilities, and those are the features that stand out. Dropbox is also threatened by the ease of sharing Google can offer through Gmail, Google+ and the collaboration features of Google Docs. Dropbox refreshed its Web interface in March and added easy link-sharing features just yesterday to compensate.

There is room for so many similar, massive efforts of this kind because there are trade-offs with all of them.

Cross-Platform Compromises

The interesting thing about these services is that they all exist to address the fact that people compute across different platforms. In the case of Dropbox, it's a natural fit. This is the only service Dropbox provides. It's cross-platform by nature. Developers of any application on any device can integrate with it.

The Web is also cross-platform, and Google launched Drive with third-party partners and developer tools to emphasize that. But for Google and Microsoft, even as they ship these universal services, there's a business imperative to lock users into their own platforms at the same time. Both Google Drive and SkyDrive allow syncing and sharing of any file, but they're built around integration with their own companies' work applications.

Google Docs files can only be edited in Google Docs, whether in Android's native apps, a third-party client, or in a browser. If a Google Drive user wants to edit a Microsoft Word document, she has to convert it to Google Docs first (which is, admittedly, quite easy to do). Likewise, Microsoft Office files are meant to be edited with Microsoft Office.

Apple is notably absent from these comparisons because it has no interest in making iCloud a cross-platform service. iCloud doesn't even support sharing and collaboration between other iCloud users. But why should it? Apple doesn't need to build a cloud collaboration service of its own because all the others support it.

Should I Use Google Drive?

So which of these cloud services should you use? The answer depends on your workflows. Google Drive, Dropbox and SkyDrive don't play nicely with each other.

If you're a heavy Google Docs and Gmail user, Drive is probably best for you. If you use Office and Outlook, SkyDrive makes sense. Dropbox doesn't have the lock-in effects, but it also doesn't have the advantage of its own stack of applications. Then again, third-party apps that use Dropbox are great. It's up to you and your colleagues.

But all that said, Google Drive launches with some standout features on day one. It's not enough to cause a tidal wave of users switching over, but it could be over time. The video processing, image recognition and OCR should pique the interest of Evernote users. The Gmail integration could dramatically simplify file sharing. And we'll see what those iOS apps are like when they come out, although Google's track record there is not great.

Something to keep in mind: Just as it does with your email, Google Drive has access to all the contents of your files. It even uses Google Goggles to identify what's in your images. And as of this year, that means all of Google has it.

Google users have control over their data stored by Google, but that data gets used for ad targeting, personalization and other integrations with Google applications and services. Only upload files that don't make you nervous. That goes for Dropbox and SkyDrive, too.

But if you, like so many tech bloggers, have been waiting for this launch for years, you can go get Google Drive at drive.google.com.