When Microsoft first launched its SkyDrive cloud storage service a few years ago, it offered a whopping 25GB of free online storage that put it way ahead of rivals such as the modest 2GB of Dropbox. See also: How to share large files for free

However, early adopters were rather put off by adverts for ‘hot Russian girls!’, and even more unimpressed by the messy syncing option. For some reason you were required to sign up for a separate service called Live Mesh that worked in conjunction with SkyDrive. Those first users would have been forgiven for giving up and going back to using Dropbox to back-up their important files.

Now that cloud computing is really starting to take off, Microsoft has decided to try again and has given SkyDrive a makeover. The new SkyDrive gives you 7GB of free storage space and the software runs on PCs, Macs, Windows Phones and iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad. It's also much easier to use – because it takes its lead from Dropbox.

When you install SkyDrive on your PC it creates a SkyDrive folder which is located within your user folder. Any files that you place in the SkyDrive folder are automatically uploaded to your SkyDrive account in the cloud, and then synched to your other devices that also have the software installed.

It’s also possible to log in to your SkyDrive account using a web browser. That’s handy as it means you can gain access to your files even when you’re not using your own computer.

That’s very much how Dropbox works, of course, but SkyDrive does have a few good ideas of its own as well. Using a browser to connect to SkyDrive allows you to use Microsoft’s browser-based Web Apps – online versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint – so that you can work on your files even if you’re using a PC that doesn’t have Office installed. You can even collaborate with other people by sharing your files and selectively granting permission to specific people so that they can edit those files themselves.

See also: Get started with Google Docs

SkyDrive also has a clever remote access option called ‘fetch files’ that allows you to view the entire contents of your PC’s hard disk – not just the files in the SkyDrive folder. That could come in really handy in an emergency when you don’t have immediate access to your own PC.

Step 1. To get started with SkyDrive, browse to the SkyDrive page on Microsoft's website. There’s an introductory video here, along with links to additional pages that cover SkyDrive’s various features in more detail. Click the ‘Get SkyDrive’ button to download the software.


Step 2. The SkyDrive installer will ask for your Windows Live ID, or allow you to sign up for free if you don’t already have one. The SkyDrive software is currently described as a ‘preview’, but we’ve found it perfectly reliable during weeks of use.

Sign in

Step 3. A SkyDrive folder is created in your user folder, and shown in the Favorites list in Windows Explorer. Any files put in here are automatically uploaded to our SkyDrive in the cloud, with a progress indicator available in the Notification area.

Notification area

Step 4. Once they’ve been uploaded, the files in your SkyDrive folder are also synched onto any other device that has the SkyDrive software installed on it. There are two folders created by default, but you can create more.

Files synched to Mac

Step 5. If you're using a computer that doesn’t have the SkyDrive software installed, you can log in to your SkyDrive account by browsing to skydrive.live.com. You can even stream music and video files via the browser.

Web access to files

Step 6. From this web interface, you can click one of the icons near the top of the screen to create a new Word, Excel, PowerPoint or OneNote document and edit it in your browser. You don't need to have Office installed.

Office web apps

 Step 7. You can also share documents with others. Just right-click on any file in the browser view and select the Share option. You can email a link to a colleague, and the ‘Recipient Can Edit’ option allows them to collaborate on the document simultaneously.

Share files

Step 8. SkyDrive even allows you to retrieve any file from your PC – even if it’s not located in your SkyDrive folder. Click on the computer in the list on the left-hand side (the computer must be turned on) and enter the security code sent to you via email.

Remote access to PC

Step 9. You can access your SkyDrive files from your Windows Phone and iOS device, too. The iOS app works with both the iPhone and iPad, and allows you to browse, download or stream files – although you’re limited to uploading photos only. Unfortunately, there’s no Android app yet.

iPad SkyDrive app