When Google Docs was released in 2006, it started out as a simple and free alternative to productivity powerhouse, Microsoft Office. It didn’t take long for Docs to take off, and is still one of the most popular productivity suites available today. So, it makes sense that when Google Drive released six years later, their cloud storage service not only feature Docs support but also echo its philosophies: collaborative, simple, and affordable.
The platform continues to evolve to this day, improving sharing, increasing security, updating its look, and even adding multimedia features. But their competition isn’t standing still. Storage is cheaper, powerful sharing is more universal than ever, and many services are even adding online document editors like Google Docs. So, three years after Drive was released, we look at how Drive has changed and whether it’s still as incredible as it was back in 2012.
- Free 15 GB of storage and Docs built in
- Powerful multi-user document and folder collaboration
- Drive apps extend functionality on the web
- Desktop sync client
- Set location of sync client folder
- Free streaming of stored music with Play Music
- Intelligent photo storing and sharing features
- Full complement of iOS and Android apps
- Offline file support in mobile apps
- Fast upload and download speeds
- On-site AES-128 and in-transit TLS encryption
- Excellent support
- Web interface can be clunky and unintuitive
- Long pre-download compression times on web
- Uploading/editing a collaborative folder requires an account
- Multimedia features are separated into multiple services/apps
- No official Linux client or Windows universal apps
- Relatively simple sharing options and no link passwords
- Paid options are comparably expensive today
- Encryption keys are stored on-site
- Some users may be uncomfortable with an ad-driven company
Google hits a lot of high notes with a deep feature set, powerful collaboration features, and rich ecosystem of multimedia services. Privacy conscious users may still take issue with storing data on Google’s servers. Their pricing model is starting to age. Their feature set is scattered across many interfaces and services. But if those downsides don’t push you away, you’ll be rewarded with a well-featured and solid cloud storage suite.
A cloud storage provider’s website is an important thing to get right, especially for a company whose business model is built out of the web browser. For the most part, Google’s interface is clean, simple, and easy to use. They have some odd icon designs, but hovering over the icon will describe it.
Downloading is not immediately intuitive because the only download options are either in a right-click menu or a strange vertical ellipses button. However, both of these are relatively minor interface quirks that can be gotten used to.
Downloading large collections from the website is also a pain. To save bandwidth, Google compresses files within a .zip file prior to downloading. This would be great except that this compression can take just as long or longer than it takes to download the files themselves. There were even several occasions when compression would fail, especially when already compressed archives were included.
On the other hand, uploading is simple, consisting of hitting a big red and all-encompassing “New” button. However, I found it annoying that you can only upload collections of files, and not whole folders. Multi-folder uploads would be a pain, requiring creating individual folders online and conducting multiple file uploads.
Finally, Drive does keep multiple versions of files. Every 30 days, Google will delete any more than the last 100 versions of any “non-Google files,” which are files not created in Docs or purchased from the Play store. Google files do not have this limitation.
Google Docs, as well as Sheets, Slides, and Forms to a lesser extent, are the primary reason that Drive exists for many people. The Google Docs platform is a free (paid for businesses) and simplistic Microsoft Office alternative that adds document creation and editing into Google Drive.
Docs’ most important and still unique feature is that multiple users can have the same document open on the web, can be making edits at the same time and even see each other’s edits immediately. Google Docs’ collaboration features are as of yet unmatched in the industry (although Microsoft is working on that), which gives Drive a major advantage when being considered by teams, small businesses, and writers.
Docs’ biggest downside is that the “software” is only available online. If Drive or Google’s servers are down, so is your productivity, as many bloggers lamented when this exact scenario happened this month.
Google Drive offers the basic array of sharing options like sending file and folder links via Gmail or social networks, setting read-only and full-edit access, and sharing collaborative folders with other Drive users. Public access links are possible, as are links that can be sought and found in web searches.
The links themselves are long with no option to create a short link, oddly enough. There is also no option to add a password, which is unfortunate especially since Dropbox and OneDrive both support this.
I appreciate the toggles for preventing editorial sharing access and further restricting the read-only users from downloading or printing. It’s also nice that you can set additional users to have “Owner” access, which overrides the above settings. I would love to be able to assign these permissions per user though, especially for large teams or semi-public shares.
When your viewers do get a link, they’ll be able to view documents and photos in the browser, and edit documents in Google Docs should they have a Google account. However, the links will not support playing videos or music files. Unfortunately, if viewer try, they get the rather confusing error message shown above.
Folders shared between Drive users will appear in the web UI under “Folders Shared With Me,” and they can be directly added to your own Drive, as long as owner permissions allow.
It’s also unfortunate that public folders can be shared but they are restricted to read-only. If you need files from others or need to collaborate, the requested will need a Google account, something that some users won’t be comfortable with.
Google offers an extensive amount of multimedia features with Drive, but they are buried within separate services, different websites, and various apps. Unless you’re tuned into Google enough to be watching their press conferences and feature announcements, a user may not even know this stuff exists.
The photo and video browser on the Drive website shown above is incredibly basic.
But, if you go to photos.google.com, you’ll find all the pics in your Google Photos folder nicely organized in a daily grid, the ability to create album collections, share these albums, and even an assistant that will create GIFs and add cool photo effects for you.
The Google Photos editor is also much more capable than the one in Drive, which makes me wonder why they haven’t just integrated these things together.
Even getting photos into Google Photos can be frustrating for an average user. You can’t just throw photos into the Google Photos folder. Instead, photos have to be uploaded from the Google Photos website or app. Existing photos do not automatically covert over, presumably due to metadata processing.
Music files also fall within this strange feature separation. If you try to open a music file in Drive (or even within apps), it won’t work, and will even offer third-party apps. But though Google does have a great web music player, it doesn’t even mention it on the Drive website.
Google Play Music is an excellent music player that collects and streams the music you store on Drive for free. But you have to know that it exists at play.google.com/music rather than drive.google.com.
I give them credit for having such awesome multimedia services available, but it’s confusing and frustrating that a user has to move through multiple services to access features.
As a final point regarding the web, I’ll also mention that Google does have an app store built into Drive that allows you to extend its functionality, similar to Dropbox’s apps. Most of these apps, frankly, are garbage, but there are some gems and I applaud them for allowing an ecosystem to develop.
Like most cloud providers, Google offers a sync folder that installs on Mac and PC. The sync folder will download, upload, and sync file changes between your computer and the cloud, essentially mirroring your Drive. There’s a notification window that pops up when clicking on the Google Drive icon in your taskbar, which will provide updates on sync progress and recent sync events.
I like that the full sharing options of the website are built into the desktop software, something that not all competitors offer.
The software offers the basics like selective sync, bandwidth controls and manual proxies, but there’s nothing special. There’s no integration with NAS devices or FTP, and folders shared with you will not automatically show up on your computer. It’s pretty much just a folder that syncs your Drive.
Google offers a suite of mobile apps on both iOS and Android, but like most things Google, there are no mobile apps for the universal Windows store. Both apps share the same interface and most of the same features. You can access stored files, shared files and folders as well as upload, download, and even share files and folders.
I like the option to select files for offline access, which will update when internet is available, but still remain available when internet is not.
Sharing options are even more limited than on the web, offering shared links or the ability to “add people” to a folder for collaboration. The only access options are read-only and full edit.
The Android app also offers document encryption, which protects your data if you lose your device. Also note that there are a ton of settings in the Android app, and almost nothing in the iOS app, but many of these settings are geared towards Android. Device encryption and cache limitations are not really necessary on iOS.
Google’s mobile experience is just like its web experience. Separate Google Photos and Music apps handle their representative features. Separate apps for Docs, Sheets, and Slides are required for opening and editing documents.
Google uses HTTPS/TLS encryption to protect all data in transit and since August 2013, Google also encrypts all data at rest with AES-128 encryption. They also feature optional two-factor authentication. You can check out their marketing-speak-laden whitepaper here.
However, Google still retains ownership of all encryption keys on their servers, meaning this encryption will not prevent NSA or government access.
Note that while these privacy concerns can be dealt with by encrypting data before upload, you also lose access to all of the document and multimedia features in the Google ecosystem. The security conscious may want to look elsewhere.
Google Drive is fast and consistent. Despite having some long compression times when downloading from the website, the service consistently and effectively took advantage of the bandwidth offered by my test network (generally quoted at 50 Mbps down / 5 Mbps up).
|Google Drive Performance|
|Average Download Speed||68.4 Mbps|
|Max Download Speed||96.1 Mbps|
|Average Upload Speed||6.05 Mbps|
|Max Upload Speed||11.6 Mbps|
The desktop client is also quite efficient on memory and CPU usage, typically using a fraction of a MB of memory during long sync operations.
It’s possible for a user to get by with the 15 GB of free storage that Google offers, and it’s nice that they don’t limit features on free accounts. Even 1 TB of storage for $10/month is reasonable, but given that they don’t offer a discounted annual subscription, this is actually more expensive than Dropbox.
But once you get past 1 TB, Google’s love of multiples of 10 makes for expensive upgrades. If you want any more than 1 TB of storage, you’re stuck paying $1,200 / year, even if you don’t need ten times the storage.
|Storage||Monthly Price||Price per GB/Month||Yearly (monthly subscriptions only)|
Google offers the option of 24/7 phone, chat, or e-mail support. I’m actually impressed with their phone support, as you can request a rep to call you in the “Contact Us” section. Instead of having to call them and wade through automated menus, I was connected to a helpful support rep within a minute as promised. You can also head to the Google Help Center for some FAQs or their Help Forum as well.
|Product Name||Google Drive|
|Average Upload Speed||6.05 Mbps (5 Mbps connection)|
|Average Download Speed||68.4 Mbps (50 Mbps connection)|
|Free Online Storage||15 GB|
|Mobile Apps||Android, iOS|
|Keep Deleted Files||Forever|
|Back Up to Local Drive|
Sync and Share Features
|Public File Sharing|
|Data Center Location(s)||USA, Chile, Taiwan, Singapore, Finland, Belgium, Ireland, Netherlands (14 data centers)|
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