Monthly Archives: August 2013

Upgrading my Digital Life – analysis of home Cloud Providers

There was a time, not so long ago, that I had a big computer in a cupboard that stored all my digital life: my movies, photographs, music and documents. This way, when I was home, I could access everything from one of several computers and I would synchronize the stuff that I really needed to my laptop.

This seemed like a sensible approach at the time but the world has moved on, and so have I. For a start, I no longer want a noisy computer in a cupboard. It would cost thousands of dollars to buy, and more money to power. Second, I travel and I want my information available to me wherever I am. Third, the access and price of cloud storage has plummeted. For a few dollars a month, you can get whatever you need.

Like most people, I already use a bunch of cloud services. iTunes Match for my music collection, iCloud for email, Facebook, Flickr. I used to use Mobile Me for file storage but when iCloud came around, that got removed from the service. But in particular, I don’t have safe backups of my music and documents, so I thought I’d spring clean my digital life.

What do consumers need in cloudy digital life?

I feel like the needs are pretty simple – probably yours are similar, but for the detail.

– The ability to upload all my music somewhere, and store the stuff that I want on my Mac and iPhone, and stream the rest. Plus the ability to connect up music players as needed. I’ve consumed a lot of music over the years!
– Safe file storage that synchronizes with my main machine (Mac) and allows me to view and edit documents in the cloud from time to time. I don’t actually have a lot of documents – it boils down to a few GB in the end.
– Storage for large quantities of photographs (100GB) including support for bulk upload, albums, preferably location information and faces.
– Email archive for tens of GB of older emails that I rarely access.

The first thing I realized was that it really doesn’t matter to have one provider, or several, for these services, so long as the overall cost is reasonable. Given the cost of equipment I used to buy, I’m good with paying $100-200 a year for the pleasure. Less would be a bonus!

Music

I’ve been using iTunes Match since it first came out. It’s a pretty nice service in many ways and I uploaded most of my music up there. But now I want to switch from the UK to US iTunes stores and iTunes Match doesn’t let you do this. You have to download all your music, cancel your subscription, move the store and upload all your music again (argghhh!).

Whilst iTunes Match makes it super-easy to move content to the iPhone or iTunes, it is a walled garden and you can’t play music without either iTunes or Airplay. No support for playing from the web on another PC, or via a streaming device like Sonos (without Airplay).

So, I went looking to see what else is out there. Amazon CloudPlayer looked good so I signed up for $25 a year and started uploading my music. Unfortunately I’ve not had much luck with this – it only matches some 30% of my music, which means I am uploading tens of thousands of songs. This is pretty inconvenient! iTunes Match matched about 95% of my songs. CloudPlayer is also based on horrible Adobe Flash technology which means when I pause the upload on my laptop during the working day (it slows the internet), it gobbles up the battery life.

I moved from there to Google Play, which is completely free for up to 20,000 tracks, and then $120 a year, which is very steep. I’m also unimpressed by the very high CPU usage (200%) when uploading music, though it does upload music fast. I’m struggling with the $120 a year price tag, when Amazon and Apple are only $25!

Not sure where I’m going to – but I’m tempted to cancel my Amazon subscription and put up with the pain of moving iTunes Match.

File Storage

Apple’s iCloud offers cruddy file storage – only really supported if you create files within the iCloud walled garden using Apple’s apps. This doesn’t really suit me well and the folder management within iCloud sucks, as does offline availability. Yuck.

It turns out that there are a bunch of GREAT options for file storage management out there. There’s Google Drive, Amazon Cloud Drive, Dropbox and a hundred others. What’s more, this market has commoditized, so prices are consistent and low.

I tried out Amazon and Google (I’ve used Dropbox in the past too) and I immediately liked Google’s interface the best. You get 15GB free (vs 5GB with Amazon) which means I can store all my files for free. If I need more, Amazon or Google are both around $50 a year for 100GB. Both provide great file synchronization and you just drop your documents in.

But more than anything with Google, the cloud storage management and ability to view and share files is just great. I have to admit I’m concerned about privacy with Google but unless I want to host my own files in a country with very strict privacy legislation, your data is not 100% secure anywhere in the cloud, especially from the Government. Be mindful of what you upload. My only other problem with Google Drive is I do get a lot of “Unable to Sync” errors even when I have otherwise good network connections.

Photos

Photos are the trickiest as unlike Music, the cloud provider can’t match them against some existing list of albums and avoid big uploads. You really do need to organize, sort and upload a truckload of images yourself.

Apple provides absolutely no mechanism for this and there is no iPhoto in the cloud. What’s more, iPhoto uses up all the disk space on my Mac with various copies of images for different devices, caches, thumbnails and databases. I have 35GB of images on my Mac and iPhoto uses 70GB. What a pile of junk.

That said, I love the convenience of PhotoStream synchronization between devices, and iPhoto does do a good job of collating my Photo albums.

It’s less obvious where to go to from here and I’m still evaluating options. Yahoo! bought Flickr, and you get a massive 1TB of free image space with them as well as great web content management software. But how do you get all your images up into the Yahoo! cloud? There is a Flickr Uploader and an iPhoto plugin but they are both quite buggy in my experience. Also, how do you get a copy of your images on your PC or iPad, to share with your friends when you don’t have a network?

Then there’s Google Drive. It has support for the Picasa photo management software with integration with Google+, which sounds alluring. Unfortunately the version of Picasa that’s available for the Mac is a horrible old-school Mac app that is slow, clunky and doesn’t work well with the MacBook Pro Retina screen. It does however appear to let you keep your photos in sync with iTunes and Google+ and what’s more, photos less than 2048×2048 don’t use up your space on Google Drive.

I’m still lost here as to a way that will work for me to manage my photos. Guess I need to blog again when I find a workable solution.

Email

I’ve not really got to email yet, but I do have a collection of older email archives that I’d like to keep for posterity. One thing is for sure: Apple’s iCloud won’t be the place I upload my email. It’s an OK location for occasional personal email, but it’s almost entirely unmanageable and the web interface sucks.

It feels like Gmail may be the easiest solution, given I’ve already chosen Google Drive. There is Google Apps Migration for Microsoft Outlook, which lets you upload email and then Google Sync to synchronize with all your devices.

Conclusions

One thing is for sure – Apple’s walled garden of iCloud Apps falls way behind what else is out there in the market and it has pushed me out of the Apple ecosystem. I think the problem is sufficiently bad that I will seriously consider a non-Apple product like the Google Nexus 7 when I come to buy a new device. Unless the new iPad Mini is amazing, of course.

The other thing is that it’s clear that the major players: Apple, Google and Amazon, are trying to compete with each other on land grab for subscribers – free, or paid. It’s also clear that none of them have got it right yet and if you want the best of all worlds, you have to go with different providers for different apps.

Google are a strong contender across the board and Google Drive appears in particular to be best of breed. Google’s desktop app support is lacking and Picasa for Mac really sucks. There is a lack of a consistent interface with Google which is a bit frustrating. However, their web services like Google Drive are the best, bar none.

Amazon are trying very hard to compete but I don’t really feel they are trying hard enough. I’m an Amazon Prime subscriber and this gives me no benefits with their cloud apps, which is frustrating enough. Add to this a lack of photo software, and a sucky CloudPlayer and I’m struggling.

Yahoo! seem to want to play in this world with their Flickr acquisition, but their strategy feels confused and whilst they offer huge free storage for both Mail and Photos, the apps leave something to be desired unless you want a pure-play cloud approach.

I’m left feeling I will continue using iTunes Match for music ($25/year) and Google for Documents/Photos/Email ($60/year for 100GB) for a total of $85/year. But mostly, I’m left feeling there must be a better way. Have I missed some obvious options? What do you think?