What do you get for your money? That’s the question everyone looking to buy a piece of tech asks themselves. It also happens to be the question this recurring feature will try to answer. Is it worth spending extra on high-end gear, or do you get what you need with cheaper models? Every month, we’ll look at some of the cheapest and most expensive products in a given category, testing each to see what their limits are and to help you figure out when you can cheap it out, and when to plunk down some extra cash to get what you need.
Hi/Low: Cloud Storage
“I wandered lonely as a cloud,” William Wordsworth once wrote, perhaps while pondering the dearth of cloud storage options available in 1802. Today, of course, these services keep our data floating high o’er vales and hills on a mesh of connected computers. Because he died in 1850, Wordsworth never had to deal with choosing a cloud storage solution for his collection of musings on daffodils. The rest of us aren’t so lucky.
Modern hunters of cloud-related bliss have an overwhelming number of solutions, ranging from basic and cheap to feature-rich and expensive. We chose two to look at here: the open-source system ownCloud, and the commercial service Dropbox. We tested ownCloud running on a cheap PC connected to a domestic broadband connection as our free solution. As an open-source project, the software is completely free. Dropbox is also free for most users, but offers a Pro service costing between $10 and $50 per month. This Pro service offers more space (100, 200, or 500GB) for an additional fee.
Both ownClould and Dropbox offer ample space for you to store your stuff. Dropbox starts you off with 2GB, but it’s easy to get more. They give you, for instance, an additional 250MB for following a simple tutorial, 125MB for each social media account you connect, and 500MB for each friend you refer. With a mixture of these and other bonuses, it’s easy to get anywhere from 10 to 20 gigabytes of free space, which is enough to store your most vital documents. If you need more, you can also buy space. The upper limit for the Pro version is 500GB for $499 a year, which works out to about a dollar a Gigabyte.
For ownCloud, the limiting factor is the disk space available on the computer it runs on. You can use all of the free space available or just some of it. With hard drive space costing less than 5 cents/GB, that makes it incredibly cheap to build a high-capacity ownCloud server. OwnCloud also doesn’t need a lot of processing power to run: You can use anything from a $35 Raspberry Pi up to a multi-core server.
Both services aspire to be much more than places to stash your files; they want to be platforms where you can work with this data as well. Dropbox does this by integrating with other programs through an API (Application Programmers Interface) that allows programmers to integrate Dropbox into their own software. If you use the password manager 1Password, for instance, it can save your password file directly to Dropbox to share between other devices without you having to install the Dropbox software. The simple text editor Writebox allows you to create documents directly in Dropbox, then load and edit them in any web browser. There are also a couple of very basic apps built into the Dropbox site: a photo galley and link manager.
OwnCloud includes a number of built-in plugins like a text editor, calendar, PDF viewer, and contact manager, as well as a large number of apps that add functions like a video streaming server and a music player. These work a little differently than those on Dropbox, though. Most run on the server itself in order to provide the same functions on any web browser. Most of the apps we tried worked adequately, but lacked the polish of the Dropbox apps.
You can upload or download files from a web browser with both services using a client app, synching your essential files in the background while you work. Again, both Dropbox and ownCloud offer a decent selection of clients, supporting Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android. Dropbox has the wider selection, though, with additional support for Blackberry and a number of third-party clients that add extra features, like Boxie.
We found the official clients for both services to be easy to use, automatically uploading files to the cloud as they are created in a designated folder. Dropbox was generally quicker overall, though, because it splits files into chunks and only uploads changed chunks of a file. In contrast, ownCloud has to re-upload the entire file when it is changed, even if only a small part of the file has changed. Adding what the programmers call a delta sync is on the to-do list for the ownCloud development team, but there is no timeline for when this feature will be added. This could be a significant issue if you want to save lots of larger files that change frequently. For people like graphic designers and Photoshop users, Dropbox may be the better option here.
Privacy & Security
The cloud can be a dangerous place, and Dropbox is not without its flaws in this area. There have been incidents where user data was compromised or left unprotected on the service, and it has had extended outages. Not that ownCloud is exactly perfect here, either. When you run your own server, you are more open to security breaches caused by unpatched problems in other programs, or outages caused by a lost connection. Both services encrypt the data as it is transferred and stored on the server, but Dropbox doesn’t allow you to manage this process yourself. OwnCloud does. It’s worth noting that self-managed encryption can be added to Dropbox with a third-party app such as BoxCryptor, though.
Conclusions: Which Is Best?
If you’ve read the sections above, you’ve probably realized that the two cloud services are more similar than they are different. Although they take different approaches to the question of how to store files online, they offer the same basic feature set. So what’s the difference, and which works best?
Fundamentally, it comes down to how comfortable you are with setting things up yourself. With ownCloud, you have to install and manage the software, as well as figure out how to fix it if it doesn’t work. Although the latest version installed smoothly, we did have to spend some time poring over the installation guide to get it up and running on our test system. By contrast, Dropbox does everything for you: There are no servers to set up yourself and no complex configurations to puzzle over. Instead, it just works, and someone else deals with the technical stuff.
That makes Dropbox a better solution for those who just want to install and use it, although you can end up paying a lot if you need more space than the free version. For those who don’t mind getting down and dirty with the technical details, ownCloud may be the better option, as it gives you more flexibility and lets you take control of your own data in the cloud.
So which would William Wordsworth use? Given his thoughts from the poem London, 1802 (decrying the state of England and lamenting the death of Milton, he wrote “O raise us up, return to us again/And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!”), I think he might have preferred ownCloud as the place to store his poems while he was walking around Grasmere, pondering the sorry state of mankind.