As cloud computing services become ever more popular, you might begin to wonder how much you can really trust them to perform when you need them? I decided to find out - by testing the top file-transfer/file-storage/file-backup services.
In many ways, getting a file from one computer to multiple computers is the most challenging task for the cloud. And because I like to use multiple computers running multiple operating systems, including Linux, Windows and the Mac, that function is particularly important to me.
Cloud Services Can Lag
I am pretty agnostic when it comes to cloud providers - as long as they are free or close to it. However, as I was moving files around while preparing my most recent book A Week at the Beach The 2013 Emerald Isle Travel Guide I was a little surprised at the lags I sometimes experienced using the big-name cloud-based file-transfer services.
More than once when I wanted to use a file from one computer to another, I was disappointed by my cloud services. There were a few times that I got so tired of waiting for a file to show up on my other computer’s cloud drive that I resorted to sneakernet using a USB thumb drive.
After my book was published, I decided to go back and run some simple tests to see just how long the four best-known file-transfer/backup services actually take to put the files where you want them.
To compare Dropbox, Google Drive, Amazon Cloud, and Microsoft’s SkyDrive I started by exporting a 500K JPEG test image from Lightroom on my Windows 8 computer directly to each of the four services.
Fighting The Randomization Factor
After running the tests a few times, I noticed what can only be described as random operating system differences. Sometimes the file would pop up first on my Mac and other times it showed up first on my Windows 7 laptop.
In order to eliminate the operating system differences, I restarted the tests and this time stopped the timer when the file showed up on either my Mac running Mountain Lion or my Windows 7 laptop. I also reran my tests with a variety of sizes and types of files. In all I ran twenty-five sets of tests.
The differences were significant, if not overwhelmingly huge. The fastest synchs took less than 3 seconds, while a few others took several minutes. The biggest chunk of tests clocked in between 10 seconds and one minute. A few synchs never completed. But which service recorded the best times with the fewest problems?
Dropbox ended up being fastest 56% of the time. Even more importantly, it was slowest only 4% of the time.
Skydrive brought up the rear. It was fastest on 12% of the tests, but but slowest on a whopping 80% of the tests. It also had two files that never showed up on the Mac and one that never showed on the Windows 7 laptop.
The Amazon Cloud slightly outpaced Google Drive - which had one file that never showed up on the Mac and another that took a very long time to complete.
If my tests convinced me of anything, it is that Skydrive is a work in progress and has a long way to go. I even had trouble setting up the tests on Skydrive.
My tests also revealed a number of odd results. When testing files saved from Word, strange extra files sometimes showed up on all the cloud drives except Dropbox. The file names always began with the characters “~$”. Sometimes the mystery files disappeared and sometimes they hung around.
Cloud Drive Recommendations
So here are some quick recommendations:
- First, do not treat your cloud drive as one huge dumping ground. Create folders and try to force a little organization on yourself.
- If you save a file to the cloud in order to work on it from another computer, quit the application or close the file on the first computer after you have saved the file to the cloud drive.
- Make sure you have a local copy of important files in your documents folder - not just the replicated cloud folder on your computer. Interesting things sometimes happen when cloud files get updated or deleted from another computer. When you come back to the computer where you first created a file, you could be in for a nasty surprise.
- If you cannot get a cloud folder on your computer to update, trying quitting the cloud application or rebooting your system.
Dropbox and Amazon appear to be the most reliable solutions with only occasional delays. Google isn't far behind, and I can't imagine that Microsoft won't work hard to improve Skydrive - the company's subscription model depends on it.
Even so, I have no plans to throw away my USB thumb drives.