Hands on: Google Drive

21:06, May 03 2012
Google Drive
SPEED RACER: Google Drive is available for PC, Mac, iPhone and Android devices.

Google's cloud storage has finally launched, but it might not be everything you hoped for.

Online storage is certainly nothing new and Google is surprisingly late on the scene with its new Google Drive service. It offers everyone with a Gmail account 5GB of free online storage. Of course it was already possible to upload any file type to a Google Docs account via your browser. What's really new is the way you can interact with Google's online storage space.

Google has released a new desktop application which runs in the background and automatically synchronises your files between a folder on your computer and the online Google Drive. It can also sync your files between different computers. There are plenty of other services which already offer this, with Dropbox and SugarSync probably being the most popular. If you're already using one of these, Google Drive probably won't offer enough to win you over.

It's obviously early days for Google Drive, but what you think of Google's initial offering really depends on what you were hoping for. Google Drive is also the new interface for the Google Docs online office suite, a service which lets you edit your documents in any browser. Unfortunately the integration between Google Drive and Google Docs is pretty disappointing.

Like I said, your opinion of Google Drive will depend on what you want it to do, so I'll give you a quick idea of where I'm coming from. I've been using Google Docs for around four years as my primary word processor. I've also been using Syncplicity to keep offline backups of all my Google Docs files, as an insurance policy in case Google Docs or my ISP suffers a significant outage. Along with these I use Jungle Disk to automatically backup files such as photos from my various computers to Amazon's S3 online storage service.

Some people will look to Google Drive as simply a convenient way to backup all the important files on their desktop computer. It's pretty straightforward - just download and install the Google Drive software to your computer, put in your Google login details and it creates a new folder. Anything you put in that folder is uploaded to Google Drive. Unfortunately you can't point the Google Drive software at your existing folders, if you try you'll be told you must select an empty folder. This might frustrate those looking for a point-n-click backup solution.


To be fair to Google Drive, Dropbox behaves the same way (although there are workarounds). That's because they're both designed primarily for syncing documents rather than backing up documents. I know it sounds like I'm splitting hairs, but there is a difference. An online backup service simply copies your files to an online folder to keep them safe. An online sync service lets you create a folder on multiple computers and keep the contents in sync. So if you change a file on one computer it changes that file on the other computers. Sync services often keep an online copy, which is a handy backup, but backup is not their primary job.

Most people don't want to restructure the folders on their computer just to suit an online storage service such as Google Drive. They just want to point the backup software at their existing My Documents or My Pictures folder and click go. Google Drive won't let you do this, you need to move everything you want to backup into the Google Drive folder. Another frustration is that the Google Drive desktop software offers no flexibility in terms of which files are backed up and how often they're backed up. Nor can you throttle upload speeds to stop it choking your internet connection (a handy feature in Dropbox and many other services). 

If backup is your primary concern then backup services such as Jungle Disk, Mozy and Carbonite are less of a hassle than Google Docs and offer a lot more flexibility. There's no need to shuffle around files on your computer, you just tell the desktop software what to backup and it does the rest. SugarSync behaves the same way. Meanwhile Jungle Disk has added Dropbox-style sync features which run alongside its backup features.

I'm not saying that Google Drive is useless, just that you need to choose the right tool for the job depending on what you're trying to do. If you want to keep folders in sync across multiple computers, with the added advantage of an online copy, then Google Drive could be right for you. Google Docs integration would seem the icing on the cake which might win you across from competitors such as Dropbox, but Google Drive and Google Docs don't work together they way you might expect them to.

I was hoping that Google Drive would automatically download a copy of all my Google Docs files onto my computer, as an offline backup in case Google suffers an outage. Currently I use Syncplicity for this, but it looks like the upgrade to Google Drive has broken it. I also hoped Google Drive would let me upload files from my computer and edit them online in the Google Docs interface. But I was disappointed on both counts.

When it comes to syncing Google Docs office files, the Google Drive software only downloads a link to your documents and spreadsheets. Click on one to open it and you're taken to the browser to edit the online version. If you're offline, you're out of luck. The actual file isn't downloaded to your computer, so it's useless as an offline backup option. It does however download full copies of other file formats such as PDF.

Meanwhile if I create a document on my computer and drop it into the Google Drive sync folder, I can read it online but I can't edit it in Google Docs. So if like me you were hoping for the best of both worlds, you'll probably be disappointed. Google Docs does offer an offline mode in Chrome, but it doesn't offer the same flexibility and protection as a full standalone offline copy.

To be fair, Microsoft and Apple's offerings also have their shortcomings. Microsoft's SkyDrive, Mesh and Office Web Apps don't full integrate for smooth online and offline editing, although I think it's going to get an overhaul. Meanwhile Apple's iCloud only syncs iWork documents between iGadgets and not with Macs.

It's early days for Google Docs. I'm certainly not writing it off and it seems that some of the features I desire are on the roadmap. But right now it's fair to say that Google Drive is far from the killer service that it has the potential to be. Until such time, it's going to struggle to win people away from their current online backup and sync services.

-Sydney Morning Herald