Best consumer cloud storage - Dropbox vs Google Drive vs OneDrive: free and paid compared

Free consumer cloud storage might be good enough – especially for small businesses on very tight budgets

Cloud storage is for everything from backing up your documents, collaborating on projects and sharing your precious favourite holiday snaps. Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox all have their ups and downs and picking through each and every detail is hard, especially when trying out all three simultaneously can only be described as a huge faff. We've done the faff for you by combing through free and paid-for consumer cloud storage options.

If you're after the latest updates to each of these services, we’ve included a handy round-up for all three services below.

Latest news

11/03/2016: Google Drive has received an update improving the management and visibility of documents.

The latest update enables users to view, restore, and delete items in their trash, and they can also view and modify the folder colour of contents in their Drive. The Google Drive app for iOS has also been updated to reflect both of these functions.

And Microsoft has added Skype functionality to OneDrive, meaning a user can now collaboratively edit a document and chat simultaneously.

The company has also outlined its roadmap for updates to its OneDrive (as stopped by Guy Gregory). On the way to the service by the end of this quarter is: Outlook Mobile iOS integration, PDF annotation support for Android, Drive discovery and recent files view in browser client and Windows 8.1 support for Next-Gen Sync. Other planned updates for later in the year include iOS access to SharePoint Online files, curating the ‘Share with Me’ view and SharePoint on-premise support for iOS.

OneDrive vs Google Drive vs Dropbox: Free products

First, let's take a look at each of the company's free offerings. Our table below shows each company's approach to free storage and any extras you get. We've also noted down the maximum file size for each provider, handy if you're planning on using each service to simply send large files to yourself or someone else on a temporary basis.

OneDriveGoogle Drive Dropbox
Free storage5GB15GB2-16GB
ExtrasOffice OnlineGoogle Docs, PhotosDropbox Paper
Max file size<5GB<15GB<2-16GB

Google Drive gives you 15GB of storage for free, making it the best free service here. 

Not only that, you also get access to its excellent Google Docs, Sheets and Slides web apps which are perfect for creating and collaborating on documents, spreadsheets and presentations. What's more, any documents created by these web apps do not count against your overall storage limit.

Google Photos, the free photo backup service, lets you store images without using up your 15GB limit as long as they are 16 megapixels or less in resolution. If you choose to upload pictures at their original resolution, they will count towards your quota.

If you're using Google Drive in conjunction with Gmail, anything in your Gmail inbox sent folder, spam folder, trash folder and any other folder will be counted against your storage quota.

OneDrive's 5GB of storage is down from the 15GB it offered last year, putting it behind Google Drive. You do however get access to its excellent browser-based Office Online suite, which gives you free versions of Word and Excel that you can use wherever you have access to the internet. You can invite other people to work and collaborate on your Office Online documents simultaneously. Your Outlook webmail storage has no impact on your OneDrive storage.

While Dropbox lets you use up to 16GB of free storage, this has to be earned by inviting other people with referral links at 500MB a pop, which often isn’t worth the hassle. Some smartphones offer free Dropbox storage for a year, but you’re left in the lurch once these offers expire unless you pay to upgrade. In addition to storage, you will also get access to Dropbox's Paper web application when it's released to the public. This is a Google Docs-like application that lets multiple people work on a project, although it's much more freeform and less formal than Google Docs, for better or worse.

OneDrive vs Google Drive vs Dropbox: Subscription options

As you'll see from the sheer amount of extra features each Virtual Cloudsvider offers, simply calculating a cost-per-gigabyte figure isn't truly representative of each product if you're going to be using them for more than just file backup and file sharing purposes. If bulk is all you're after, though, the following tables will be handy.

Plans under 100GB
OneDriveGoogle Drive*Dropbox
Storage50GB100GBN/A
Monthly cost£1.99£1.68N/A
£/GB£0.04£0.016N/A

If you're a light user, Google Drive is the clear winner here, offering more storage than OneDrive for less money. Dropbox doesn't compete here as it only offers one consumer-grade premium option.

1TB plans
OneDriveGoogle Drive*Dropbox
Storage1TB1TB1TB
Monthly cost£5.99£8.41£7.99
£/GB£0.006£0.008£0.008

1TB is where the money is and it's a key battleground for all three firms. Here, OneDrive is a clear winner, being, at least, £2 less a month than its competitors. Strictly speaking, the price here isn't for OneDrive at all but is instead for a monthly subscription to Microsoft's Office365 service that also includes single-user licences for Word, Excel and OneNote. If you only want bulk file storage, you don't have to download the software and it's still great value since it's cheaper than Google Drive anyway.

However, in this competitive space Dropbox actually comes off slightly better than OneDrive if you store massive files.

OneDriveGoogle Drive Dropbox
Maximum file size10GB5TBUnlimited

The table above shows that while OneDrive may have the best price-per-gigabyte, it can't match either Google Drive or Dropbox when it comes to the maximum allowed file size, stopping users from uploading files more than 10GB in size. This comes from Microsoft's claim in November 2015 that "a small number of users backed up numerous PCs and stored entire movie collections and DVR recordings. In some instances, this exceeded 75 TB per user or 14,000 times the average [amount stored by other users]." 

That leaves Google Drive with its file size limit of 5TB (although, obviously with a 1TB plan the maximum size is 1TB) and Dropbox with its unlimited file size limit. Since Dropbox only offers one consumer plan, the 'unlimited' file size is moot since you'll only ever upload files that add up to less than 1TB. In the case of huge files, Dropbox wins thanks to its slightly lower price compared to Google Drive.

Plans more than 1TB
OneDriveGoogle Drive*Dropbox
Storage5x 1TB10TBN/A
Monthly cost£7.99£84N/A
£/GB£0.002£0.008N/A

Beyond 1TB, Google Drive is your only legitimate option of the three. Dropbox doesn't offer a consumer account with more than 1TB and Microsoft's £7.99 Office365 subscription is for five people, each of whom gets 1TB. Google's plans go all the way up to 30TB for £250 per month.

*Google charges customers in US Dollars, making direct comparisons particularly difficult as currency values fluctuate constantly. It also doesn't include VAT in its headline prices. We've taken the Dollar price on January 26th 2016 and included 20% VAT on Google's prices so you have a rough idea of how much you'll actually pay.

OneDrive vs Google Drive vs Dropbox: features 

Cloud storage has become such an integral part of the way we live and work that it's the extra features - sometimes the tiny nuances - that make all the difference in whether a storage provider is perfect for you or an extra, frustrating step in your workflow. Here, we'll take a look at some key differences in the way each service handles a few important features including version history, documents, photos and software.

Software

OneDrive is unique in that it's baked into Windows 10 and, in all likelihood, you're using it already. To actually configure OneDrive you have to find its Taskbar icon, often hidden in the menu on the bottom-right of the screen on Windows 10. It's denoted by two little clouds. Right-click on it and click Settings to find some of its fairly basic features.

Perhaps OneDrive's best desktop feature is the ability to remotely access your files, even if they're not inside your OneDrive folder. This only works in Windows 7 and 10 and you can only access files via the OneDrive website, but this can be incredibly handy if your PC is on and you forgot to move an important file into OneDrive. Irritatingly, you can't pause or throttle OneDrive uploads in Windows 10, meaning you have to close OneDrive entirely to stop it from syncing and eating your bandwidth. 

Google Drive's Windows application is about as basic as OneDrive, although it's not completely over-simplified and you can actually throttle Drive's download and upload speeds, which could be crucial for people working with large files and photos on a slower internet connection.

Dropbox is fairly similar to Google Drive in terms of its functionality, with selective syncing, throttling and built-in sharing options (OneDrive makes you visit its website to set up sharing). It also has a handy feature called LAN Sync that means Dropbox will sync directly from other PCs on your home network instead of from the internet. This can save a huge amount of time, especially if you're working a joint project with someone in the same room.

File history

File history, otherwise known as versioning or version history, is a tricky topic with all three services offering wildly different ways of storing file version histories. Google Drive is the most complicated. For files not created in Google Docs, etc, Drive will store up to 100 previous versions if the versions are less than 30 days old. If you label the file 'keep forever' you'll get 200 versions. For items created within Google, such as a Doc, versioning is indefinite although Google says it occasionally 'prunes' edits, combining some versions to save space.

Dropbox is simpler. All versions of a file are kept for 30 days unless you purchase the £29/year Extended File History add-on that keeps versions for a full year. 

OneDrive is as clear as mud; the number of versions of a document that are stored does not appear to be time limited, but official documentation and even Microsoft Support agents were unable to give us an answer on this one. However, we do know that OneDrive only provides file history on files created in Office programs or Office Online. Other files, such as images, do not have version histories.

Web-based Photos 

Google Drive handles photos brilliantly if you're happy with the firm hoovering up all your pictures and turning them into slightly weird collages and video montages. Occasionally it'll treat you to a genuinely good collage and video, but most of the time it's fairly inane.

Drive lets you make small tweaks to your pictures, including colour, vignettes and cropping. You can search for photos by keyword, such as location or even objects within the photo. This is all thanks to automatic cloud-based image processing and can be useful when you're looking for all your food pictures, for example.

You can't make edits with OneDrive, meaning its handling of photos is very basic indeed. You can view photos by date and, like Google, OneDrive will categorise your photos by what it thinks is in them. It's not as intuitive nor as easy to search as Google Drive, though.

Dropbox's web-based photo tools are similar to OneDrive's but faster and nicer to look at. All your photos are displayed in a timeline and you can navigate to a specific date with a single click. You can also view by album if you prefer.

Web-based Documents

Both Google Drive and OneDrive have fantastic web-based document editing, with Google Docs and Microsoft Office Online both forming robust tools for individuals and teams working on documents. Dropbox, having yet to release its Paper web app in a finalised form, is a long way behind on this one. 

Conclusions

Neither OneDrive nor Google Drive or Dropbox can be all things to all people, so picking an overall winner is hard. If we were to choose a service purely based on consistency, it'd probably be Google Drive purely because it has excellent web-based management, photo editing and reasonably robust office apps. However, if your needs are fairly basic, OneDrive's £5.99 Office365 deal is by far the best value product. Dropbox has gradually moved out of the mainstream consumer space and is looking more and more like a small business option. While this means its appeal for the everyday consumer is limited, several nuances mean it’s a strong alternative to Google Drive if its core file storage service is more important than all the extras.

This article was originally published on 23/02/2016. It has been updated since then, most recently on 11/03/2016, to include new information.

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