Thanks to cloud storage, files are bursting from the confines of your PC's hard drive. Now, you can get work done on a laptop, tablet, smartphone, or even portable mini-PCs and dongles. Still, many users still haven't fully worked the cloud into the way they go about their daily business. Here's how to seamlessly integrate the cloud into your workflow, starting with the most crucial part: Choosing a service that plays nice with your PC.
All the clouds in the sky
Cloud storage services are plentiful, with dozens of potential solutions to choose from and new programs coming to market every day. Of these, a handful of standouts are well worth considering as you look to make cloud storage as easy as using your hard drive.
The best solutions for our needs today are those that deeply integrate with the Windows File Explorer so you can open and save files as you would locally. Microsoft SkyDrive (soon to be OneDrive), Google Drive, Dropbox and MediaFire all offer Windows File Explorer integration, which means they store your files in local folders that function seamlessly on your hard drive, but automatically synchronize with the cloud.
Benefits and drawbacks abound with each of these services. SkyDrive and Google Drive both offer web-based productivity tools and are therefore great for document management, but SkyDrive has a 2GB file limit (vs. Google's 10GB limit) so it's not so good at storing media files. Dropbox has an unlimited file size limit, but it has the most meager amount of free storage. MediaFire has the most free storage (10 to 50GB can be had for free), but the 200MB maximum file size relegates it to small files only. You can sign up for the free tiers of each of those services (and others) and play to their individual strengths to create a great big no-cost hard drive in the sky.
SkyDrive is likely the best solution for Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 users, as it comes baked into the operating system itself. SkyDrive can carry your system settings, passwords, Internet Explorer tabs, and even your basic desktop and Start screen setup with you from device to device. Now that's seamless.
One you've selected one (or more) cloud storage platforms, you'll want to download that service's companion application to your PC. The desktop program places an icon in your Windows taskbar for basic management. More importantly, it puts a folder in your Favorites section in Windows File Explorer, so you can quickly open and save files from the cloud. This step is unnecessary for SkyDrive users on Windows 8.1, of course.
Microsoft made a big change with the way the baked-in Windows 8.1 SkyDrive integration handles files, however. While Windows 8.1's SkyDrive folder looks like its saving a local copy of your files, by default those files are actually just dumb links that require an internet connection to access the file. You'll need to enable offline access manually so you can save or edit files locally. (Fear not, you're files will still synchronize with Microsoft's cloud servers.)
Here's how to do just that on both the desktop and within Windows 8.1's modern-style SkyDrive app. You don't have to worry about it with the standalone SkyDrive desktop program for Windows 7 and 8--it automatically keeps a local copy of your files.
To make cloud storage truly seamless, you'll also want to point the default save location for your favorite programs towards your cloud storage folder.
In Microsoft Office 2010 and 2013 programs, for example, you change the default save location by clicking or tapping Options under the File menu. From there, the Save option category lets you change your default local file save location. You'll want to check the box next to "Save to Computer by Default," then change your Default local file location to your cloud storage folder. Now, whenever you create a new document, your cloud folder will be the first place that shows up when you click save.
The exact method varies from program to program, but most software that lets you tinker with files also lets you choose where to save them by default. Point them all toward the cloud to have all your files tag along with you from device to device. Saving email attachments to the cloud by default is an especially handy trick, as is syncing a to-do list if you're not already using a service like OneNote or Evernote.
Google Drive's high total storage and 10GB per-file size limit makes it a good option for saving lots of image files from your desktop. Dropbox and SkyDrive also offer the option to automatically upload any photos you take with your phone or tablet to the cloud, making your pictures available anywhere without any effort on your part. Careful though: Multimedia files can suck up space fast, and you don't get much storage with free accounts.
Accessing files on the go
If you mix and match cloud storage solutions, you'll want a solution that lets you easily manage your cloud drives from a central location, to keep you from hopping from app-to-app or service-to-service while you're on the run.
Jolidrive is a free, web-based file explorer with a clean and intuitive user interface that does just that, taking all your connected accounts and displaying their content in a central hub you can access anywhere. Jolidrive even presents you with charts that let you know how much free space you have with each cloud service.
To use Jolidrive, you simply need to create a free account and link all of your different cloud storage programs with your Jolidrive using their setup process. Once you've done that, you can access all your files on disparate cloud platforms with any modern desktop or mobile browser, and you can even play media files and edit documents through Jolidrive's interface--a handy feature indeed while you're on mobile devices or someone else's computer. Unfortunately, however, you're not able to move files directly from one service to another in Jolidrive.
While the web app works great, Jolidrive also offers a native iOS app for iPhones and iPads.
Even though you're offloading your files to the cloud, you'll want to add the local folders that house your cloud-synchronized files to your regular backup routine so you never lose valuable information. Sure, one benefit of cloud storage is that your data is stored on a network of servers, so you're much more unlikely to ever lose them, but the risk is still there--especially if your cloud storage suddenly dissipates, unexpectedly or otherwise.
If you don't have a regular backup plan, be sure to read PCWorld's absurdly simple guide to backing up your PC for high-level information about data storage, or our nitty-gritty tutorial on backing up your PC with some completely free tools. Don't forget to make your SkyDrive files available offline first!