Google Drive - The free service you really should be using
In our everyday lives we are using more and more devices. Laptops at home, phones on the move and various computers at University and work. I find it surprising that so many people still move their files around attaching them to emails or copying to a USB drives. There are fantastic services out there that will revolutionise how you store and share your documents. Google Drive is one of them. It has an incredible feature set that makes storing, securing and sharing your files incredibly simple and this article will hopefully get your started in integrating it to your daily workflow.
Google Drive drive is essentially an internet hard drive (cloud if you want the latest buzzword) with some really useful sharing features. It allows you to store upto 15Gb of your files, sync them across devices, access them through a browser and easily share files with others - all for free. If you're looking for a bit more space you can upgrade your account to 100Gb for just over £3 per month with other various pricing tiers after that. Native apps for you to install are available for Mac OS X, Windows, iOS and Andriod devices and the web version works on all modern browsers. Be aware many networks at work and University will not allow you to install third party applications but this doesn't hinder your use of Google Drive. You can always access your drive through your browser, download your file and simply upload it when you're done.
Getting started with Google Drive is really easy. Go to http://drive.google.com to begin. If you already have a Google account (you have one if you have an @gmail.com email address) you can login with this, otherwise will need to register.
Once you're logged in you should see something like the image below. Obviously when you start off your drive will be empty. You will see a prompt to download Google Drive for your computer. Click the link, download and install Google Drive. The Installer creates a folder on your computer called 'Google Drive' and syncs the contents of this folder to Google's servers. In OS X, by default, this is in your home directory and on Windows under your user folder. It acts like any other folder on your computer, you can add files, organise folders, open a document, edit it, and save it. However, the difference is all these changes are reflected by Google Drive on all your devices.
Using Google Drive to share your files between devices
This is a screenshot of my Google Drive on both my laptop and in the browser. As you can see, the folders are the same, if I add files or organise folders on any device these changes are reflected on all others. This has two advantages. Firstly, if you are working on a project at home but want to continue with it at work or University you can do so without having to try to find a USB pen stick or waiting to email it to yourself which can be frustrating with larger projects and files. Secondly, it works as a fantastic method of backing up your files, both in terms of different revisions and having another copy. During my final year at University all my dissertation research and writings were stored in my Google Drive. For me the reason was not convenience but for security as I mostly worked from my laptop. I worked on my dissertation both at home and in the library increasing the potential risk of the laptop getting lost, damaged or stolen. Google Drive offered be some peace of mind incase the worst should happen to my laptop my work would still be safe.
It is more recently with work that I have begun to appreciate the convenience of Google Drive. I often spend time on work projects at home. I have Google Drive setup on my personal laptop and desktop as well as on my work machine. This means I can easily continue working on a project from any of my devices because all the files I need are always ready and up to date. A word of caution - before you do this be sure to check whether your are permitted to make copies of the files you are working on, many companies will not want you storing sensitive copies of documents in the cloud or on personal computers.
Sharing files and folders with other people
The sharing facilities of Google Drive make it much more than a cloud storage service. It also allows to to easily and simply share files with others. Google Drive offers 3 options for sharing. Access to anyone (public), access to anyone with a link or access only to those you explicitly permit. By default, all files are private and can only be seen by you. If you want to share a file, simply select it in your browser and click the icon of a person with a + next to them. This brings up your sharing settings. You can do the same thing from a PC or Mac by right-clicking the file and going to the 'Google Drive' option and selecting sharing. To explicitly share a file, the person you are sharing with is required to have a Google account. You can also give them permissions to edit the file in addition to viewing it.
Sharing folders is is done in a similar way to sharing individual files that I discussed above. The difference in sharing a folder is that it gives access to all the files enclosed within it. Again, you can set this up with different permissions to depending on whether you want people just view the files or let them edit and add others. For one of my group projects in third year we setup a collaborative folder allowing us to share all the research we were doing. It meant that we could see the latest information that people had found and share resources that we needed for the project.
Others sharing files and folders with you
From the screenshot below you can see two items that have been shared with me, one is file and the other is a folder. By default, shared items do not appear in your drive. They are sorted into a section called 'Shared with Me' that you can find the left navigation when you've logged into Google Drive through a browser. If you do want to add any of these items to your main drive simple select them, and click the 'Add to My Drive' button above the list. The folder then acts like any other folder on Drive and depending upon your permissions you can edit, add and remove files.
Similar, non-Google Services
There are other options available. Dropbox and SkyDrive offer many of the same features as Google Drive but significantly less storage space and for me it also meant having to sign-up for yet another account. For the sake of completeness I should also mention for students at the University of Manchester, IT Services provide a way to access your University networked files (P Drive) through a browser or through the Finder/Explorer on your computer. However, setting it up isn't particularly straightforward for most users, syncing is a chore and it lacks Google Drive's powerful sharing features but the option is provided if you need it. I'm sure other Universities have something similar but you'll have to do a big of digging for yourself.
Beyond the basics
At the start of the article I did say this is a getting started guide. In the future I may write about slightly more advanced topics such as syncing application settings and iTunes libraries but for now I think you've got enough to get you going. However, if you do have anything else you're curious about, feel free to leave a comment or get in touch.