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Cloud storage apps - what are they and how do they work?

Dropbox and have been in the news recently, updating their apps and giving away tons of free space, so it's understandable that a few of us are wondering what the heck they're all about. Sure, you know you get Gigabytes of space, and great looking apps, but what exactly do they do, and how do they work? We're about to tell you! I'll focus on Dropbox here, because that's the service we use here at AC. I'm not recommending it over any of the others, but they are all similar and we've already got all our stuff uploaded there and we're too lazy busy to switch. 

Dropbox is storage space, reserved for you, on a computer somewhere in San Francisco. Other services, like or Ubuntu One may be in different cities, but they all are in big fancy data centers where nerdy people type in the command window all day and night to keep things running smoothly. They aren't just old Windows machines sitting in a basement somewhere, they are dedicated places designed to hold lots and lots of data. They routinely make backups, and have excellent uptime -- your data is going to be there when you need it to be there. They also use things like SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and AES-256 encryption to make sure nobody can peek at your files without your login credentials. Your stuff is safe in these types of cloud storage centers. Things like file encryption and obfuscation are best left for another day, so we're not going to discuss that type of security -- just don't do anything illegal, OK?

Most of these companies offer a set amount of storage space for free, and have yearly plans for folks who need more. The amount is different from service to service, so be sure to read those terms before you sign up for one. This storage is yours, to put any files you want there, so you can get to them from any Internet connected device anywhere on Earth. You can do this at the company's website, or more importantly for this conversation, through a program on your smartphone or computer.

The program on your computer is usually set up to sync a folder with your online account. Inside this Dropbox folder are all the other folders and files you've placed in the cloud, and they stay synchronized -- change a file on your computer and it uploads the changes to your cloud account, and those changes are available from anywhere. You can also share these files or folders with other users of the same service, which means someone can make a change to a file and it will sync to their cloud account, through Dropbox, and into the shared folder on my computer. That makes collaboration pretty easy, and we share folders and files a lot here at Smartphone Experts (You should see Bla1ze's lolcat pictures!).

Things are different on our smartphones. We don't normally have tons of free space to sync everything, so it's a bit more selective. The data about each folder and file in your online account is sent to your phone when you start up the app, and you can see everything that's there without having to download it all. When you need a file, you can choose to download it to your phone's memory somewhere and access it through your phone. You can also upload files, which will then sync to your cloud account and any connected computers you may have. 

As you can see, there are all sorts of ways this could be useful. I have a folder in my Dropbox with names and phone numbers I may need in an emergency. If something happens, and I end up losing my smartphone while I'm out somewhere, I can still have access to them from any computer with a web browser. My wife likes to keep her shopping list in a shared folder, and either of us can add something to it from anywhere. Bla1ze likes to share his lolcats. I think just about anyone would find these services useful, and if you aren't using them yet you should give them a try. Links to Android apps for the three mentioned in this post are below, give one of them a shot!

Dropbox for Android | for Android | Ubuntu One for Android

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • I do love the convenience of dropbox, but I've had them block access to a file they thought was pirated once. There was an author having a promotion on a prominent website. He was giving out free ebook copies (in plain .PDF format) of his book to people that posted in. As I was on my work computer I got a copy and loaded it to dropbox so I could load it on my tablet that evening. When I went to load it a few hours later, dropbox just froze and threw up a vague warning about IP content. The only thing I was allowed to do was delete it. I even tried to download it the next day from the PC I used to upload it and no-go. -Suntan
  • This is why my favorite Cloud storage is the one Jerry Forgot: SpiderOak. SpiderOak can't read what is in your storage area. Period. They couldn't deliver your contents to the authorities even at gunpoint with a subpoena and a company of US Marines. They simply do not have any knowledge of the keys, they don't even know the names of the files. Everything is heavily encrypted, as you would expect, but Spideroak does not have a copy of the keys. IOS and Android, plus Windows, Mac, and Linux, and cheaper than Dropbox.
  • Also a spideroak user If anyone decides to give it a try, plz use my referer link.
    You get an extra gb storage space for referals upto 50GB. ;)
  • The more the carriers force limited data plans the less cloud services will be used. I have seen people max out their data plans just using Google music which is the same thing
  • Why wouldn't they just use wifi? Even if they only used it every now and then, or only to download their file from dropbox. And Google Music streams the song to your device (unless you downloaded your collection to your device already and are using it that way), while dropbox would most likely just be used to download a couple files to your phone.
  • I actually bought a Buffalo CloudStor and hooked it up to my router at home. It is literally your own personal Could which is pretty nice, but the idea is still the same (Just no upload limits). The Android app was recently updated so it works a little better.
    I mostly just use it for streaming movies. I am currently in the process of transferring all my DVDs to the HD now.
  • When looking for a cloud backup service 2 years ago, I found Drop box but I got annoyed at the fact that files to be backed up need to be in the "Drop box" folder.
    I then found SugarSync and couldn't be happier. Among many services, it allows you to select the folders you want to backup, meaning it adjusts to your folder structure and not the other way around.
    In my opinion Drop box is like Starbucks, but there is always better coffee at the little place around the corner.
  • +1 (or more). I too am one of those OCD types who likes my files just the way I put them and will not shift to be convenient to a service-provider (who should be bending over backwards to be convenient for me)! Sugarsync lets me keep my file structure (on my PC and synced laptop), and either sync whole folders or merely be able to download individual files to my smartphones (BB and Android in my case). Simples. By the way I stopped syncing folders to my Galaxy Note because it was just constantly crunching in the background and killing my battery. Now I just download an individual file as and when needed and save power and storage space on my phone!
  • Box looks like they provide data encryption during transfer and storage ONLY for high priced enterprise accounts, whereas Dropbox makes a blanket promise of encryption for all data. On that basis, and the fact that Dropbox offers data sync and host resident data on my PC, but but not on free Box accounts, I've decided to put my sensitive and volatile data on Dropbox, and my static, and just my non-private data, such as manuals, on Box for now.
  • You obviously missed the security failures around Dropbox over the past few months, including the ability for ANYBODY to log into your account using ANY password from their main website. Along with their issues of sending your password in clear-text when logging in using the app. The only independently audited (and open-source) app is SpiderOak, and it was sad to see it missing from this article. The encryption is done by YOU before your files are sent to their servers. If you lose your password, your files are gone forever though.
  • Thanks for that. I wasn't using Dropbox when that incident occurred briefly last July and was apparently quickly corrected by them, according to their blog. I'll dig deeper into that subject, but the encryption the have is certainly better than no encryption protection at all on free accounts, that Box appears to have. I can see Dropbox's logic in managing the encryption keys, but they also indicate you are free to use TrueCrypt for all of your data, so that you maintain ownership of the keys. I'll also take a look at SpiderOak as a possible alternative. I currently use JungleDisk for backups, and they also give the user sole ownership of the encryption keys.
  • No mention of Sugarsync, which is MUCH better IMHO.
    The Android and PC sync apps are a bit more flexible. And you get 5GB free.