Ah, the cloud -- the very word makes the notion of remote-stored data sound so fluffy, light, and inviting. But the truth is that the cloud is only a foundation -- fluffy, perhaps, but still a soil-like layer.
That means if you've moved some or all of your files into a service like Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive, it's up to you to plant feature-enhancing crops into your virtual space. The tips and tools below will propel you into power-user terrain by making your storage more useful, more versatile, and -- perhaps most important -- more protected from those dreaded cloud outages.
Grab the nearest shovel, friends; it's time to dig in.
1. Keep your files close
These days, most cloud storage is fairly reliable -- but it sure as hell isn't foolproof. No matter what provider you use, sooner or later you're bound to encounter the dreaded blip when your files become unavailable for a (hopefully short) while.
Avoid the panic by preparing in advance for that possibility. The simplest way to be ready is to use the tools your cloud provider offers for establishing offline access on your local computer.
Dropbox has apps for Windows and Mac, for instance, that keep all of your cloud-based files synced with a folder on your desktop system. Microsoft's OneDrive has similar options (and the Windows app comes preinstalled on Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 systems). Google Drive has desktop apps, too, and it affords you the ability to enable native offline access for certain types of files right within Chrome -- without the need for additional software.
Take a minute now to make sure you're set, and it'll feel like far less of an emergency the next time your cloud service sputters.
2. Turn your desktop into part of your cloud arsenal
If you're committed to the cloud and tend to access your data from multiple devices, make your life easier by turning your desktop computer into a powerful cloud terminal. You may or may not want to put all of your files into the cloud -- depending on storage limitations and the extent of any, shall we say, sensitive personal materials you may possess -- but connecting some basic system folders will allow you to browse and manipulate your computer's contents regardless of where you are or what device you're using.
Once you have your cloud storage synced with your computer, as described in the previous tip, change the location of system folders like Documents and even Desktop so that they reside within your locally synced cloud storage folder. On Windows systems, this is merely a matter of finding each individual folder (typically within the Users folder of your primary hard drive) and opening its Properties menu to update its path. On Mac systems, it's a bit more complicated but still perfectly doable.
You might also want to consider moving your Downloads folder (typically configurable within your browser's settings) and any other personal folders you routinely access into your locally synced cloud storage folder. Once you're finished, any files placed into those folders will automatically and instantly be synced with your cloud account -- and any changes you make to them from another device will instantly show up on your desktop system.
3. Bring your Android device into the equation
Why stop with the desktop? Bring your Android phone and/or tablet into the cloud storage loop by installing an app called FolderSync.
With this $3 tool, it's simple to set up folders on your mobile device that automatically stay synced with equivalent folders in your cloud storage -- so you could keep your phone-based documents, downloads, or even screenshots continuously synced and available to you anywhere you sign in. You can configure the app to sync from the phone to the cloud or in both directions, depending on your preferences, and you can limit the conditions in which it'll perform a sync if data or power usage is a concern.
(This sort of setup isn't really possible on iOS, incidentally -- unlike Android, Apple's mobile software doesn't allow direct access to the device's file system.)
4. Streamline your cloud storage setup
If you use more than one cloud storage service -- or use multiple accounts within a single service -- a Web-based app called Jolicloud Drive can simplify your life in spectacular ways.
Jolicloud connects to any number of cloud storage services and accounts, with support for Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive, among other less common platforms. It then acts as a centralized file manager for all of your cloud drives, making it easy to view and manage all of your cloud-stored data in a single all-purpose spot.
The app's most useful feature is probably its drag-and-drop system for moving files from one cloud storage provider or account to another. The goal is to make it feel like all of your cloud storage is part of a single connected drive -- and Jolicloud accomplishes exactly that.
There is one catch: To get Jolicloud's full functionality -- including the aforementioned drag-and-drop file moving feature along with the ability to add multiple accounts from the same cloud service -- you'll have to pony up about $5 per month or $55 a year for a pro account. But even a basic free account can be useful (and still allow you to move files between services, albeit in a more manual menu-driven manner).
5. Turn storing stuff into an effortless act
One of the perks of cloud storage is the painlessness of capturing info from the Web and various Web-centric services -- why not take advantage of that and save yourself some serious time?
First, grab an extension that'll let you quickly save images, files, or full Web pages directly from your browser to your cloud storage account. In Chrome, Google Drive and Amazon Cloud Drive have official extensions for such purposes, and Dropbox has an excellent third-party option that'll get the job done. Microsoft, meanwhile, has a clipper extension for its OneDrive-associated OneNote service.
Second, take a peek at IFTTT -- a free cloud-based "trigger" service (short for "If This, Then That") that connects different apps in powerful ways. You can find recipes that'll automatically save all of your incoming Gmail attachments to Dropbox or Drive, for example, or recipes that'll let you save attachments to Dropbox or Drive on demand by forwarding emails to a specific address. You can even configure the service to create an automatically updating Drive spreadsheet showing all the calls you make from your Android phone or how much time you spend at certain locations.
The possibilities are practically endless.
6. Create your own cloud-based backup ... of your cloud storage
Creating redundancy is one of the first tasks people tell you to tackle when you talk about minimizing the risk of data loss or downtime in the cloud. We've already covered how to make sure your cloud-based files are backed up and available on your local computer -- but if you really want to feel secure about your virtual property, you can take another step and back it up elsewhere in the cloud, too.
Sounds complicated, right? It could be -- but thanks to a service called Mover, it's pretty straightforward. All you do is connect the service to two different cloud storage providers, then set a schedule to back up your data from one provider to the other. You can opt to do hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly backups, and you can perform either a full backup every time or a backup of only the files that have changed since your last sync. You can also opt to do a manual data copy, if you don't want to create an automated recurring schedule.
Mover works with Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive, and it's free with unlimited transfers and schedules. The only reason you'd have to pay is if you want to use Mover's "premium" cloud storage options -- basically, more business-level solutions like Amazon S3, Dropbox for Business, and Google Drive for Work. With those options in the mix, the service costs $20 for a one-time migration (up to 20GB) or $20 per month for ongoing scheduled backups (up to 15GB per month).
7. Create your own private cloud storage service
Our last tip isn't for the faint of heart, but if you're reasonably tech-savvy and have extra storage space with a Web hosting service, it could be exactly right for you.
It's worth emphasizing: If you aren't sure if you have storage space at a Web hosting service and/or aren't comfortable with uploading files to a remote server, you probably shouldn't try to mess around with this.
Still with me? Good. Go to OwnCloud. In short, it's a free and open source set of software for turning your online server space into a Dropbox-like repository for personal files.
"But fella, I can already upload whatever I want to my online server space," you might be thinking. Yes, you can (and that's Fella with a capital "F," pal). What OwnCloud does is give you a simple interface for easily managing your files and syncing them to various devices -- you know, like Dropbox, except on your private server space. It even has features like a gallery UI for viewing photos, a link-based system for file sharing (with or without password protection), and optional encryption of your data for added security.
In addition to being able to access your OwnCloud setup on the Web, you can get to it via native apps for Windows, Mac, and Linux on the desktop and Android, iOS, and BlackBerry (BlackBerry!) on mobile.
It may be the cloud, compadres, but the power can still be in your hands.
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