Cloud storage is a more convenient alternative to saving files to your computer's hard drive, or on your phone or tablet.

When you save a file on a device, it's typically only accessible from that device. But when you store files in "the cloud" you can access them from any device using a web browser or an app.

The cloud, of course, simply means the internet. Or, more specifically, a server on the internet. There are many cloud storage services, such as Google Drive, iCloud and Dropbox.

Some cloud storage providers allow you to use their service for free, but they'll place restrictions in the hope you'll pay to upgrade to the 'premium' version. The most common restriction is the amount of storage space you get, which ranges from 2-15GB. In other respects, there's no difference to the paid service.

However, on occasion, paying customers do get extra features that make the storage more useful, or more secure.

Besides being able to access your cloud-stored files from just about anywhere, there are other advantages of cloud storage including:

  • You can share those files easily – even really large ones – with anyone, just by sending them a link
  • Your files are much safer in the cloud, especially if the provider makes multiple copies stored in different locations.

If you only store files on a laptop or USB hard drive, there's a risk that it gets lost, stolen or damaged. And that means those precious documents, photos and other files are gone forever. You could make backups of those files, but you'd still lose the convenience of being able to access and share them from anywhere.

You're probably wondering if there are any disadvantages to cloud storage. One to be aware of is which devices they support. For example, iCloud is only for Apple devices and though you can use it on Windows and Android, there's no convenient app to download so it's web browser access only.

Although all cloud storage services put measures in place to keep your files secure and private, there is always the risk that someone else (other than whoever you share files with) could also get at your files. It's unlikely to happen, but hackers exploit security holes to steal data wherever they can.

If your files contain any sensitive information, such as financial or personal information, you'll want to ensure you pick a cloud storage service that offers end-to-end encryption.

There's also a risk - an even smaller one - that data stored in the cloud is lost or destroyed. That could be caused by fire or some other means. That's why it's a good idea to pick a reputable provider that doesn't store only one copy of your files - and preferably in multiple data centres in physically different locations.

Most people just want their files stored securely online so they're easy to access and to free up space on their device. However, note that a lot of cloud storage services work by syncing files from your laptop, phone or other device. This means you have a local copy as well as one stored in the cloud. That means you don't actually save any storage space.

And because of this synchronisation, if you delete a file on your device, the corresponding version will be removed from the cloud - and vice versa. You have to change the settings in the cloud storage app if you don't want this to happen.

Some providers offer features that help prevent files getting deleted including automatic backups, file archives, recycle bins and versioning. That last one is where a new copy of a file is created if any changes are made. This can be especially useful if you ever need to go back to a previous version of a document for some reason.

Free vs paid-for cloud storage

As we've said, there are some cloud storage services that offer the same features to free users as those who pay. The only difference between a free tier and a paid one is often the amount of storage you get.

Those that want to store everything from your photo and music library to private documents are going to have to pay.

If you can get by with 15GB of storage - or less - then you can get away with a free option. The good news is that upgrading to a larger amount of storage doesn't have to cost much at all. For example, upgrading to 100GB of Google Drive storage costs £1.99/US$1.99 per month. 

Don't want to pay a subscription forever? Then take a look at providers that offer lifetime deals. For example, pCloud offers 500GB (£149/$175) or 2TB (£299/$350) of storage for which you pay once and can use as long as you live. 

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