Google Drive is a cloud-based storage solution. Storing files in the cloud rather than storing them locally means you can access your files from any Internet-connected device. It also means you don’t need to worry about backing up your data because your cloud storage provider will do that for you.

To use Google Drive, you need a Google account. You then install a small piece of software which creates a Google Drive folder on your computer and automatically manages synchronisation of the files within that folder with your online Google Drive storage.

The Google Drive software is currently available for the PC and Mac, as well as devices using Google’s Chrome and Android operating systems. Google says that versions for the iPhone and iPad are being developed. If you are using other devices, including non-Android smartphones, you can still access the files on your Google Drive by pointing your Web browser towards

Cloud file storage and sharing

In many ways, Google Drive is similar to Dropbox and Microsoft’s SkyDrive. Dragging files to your Google Drive folder makes them available to all of your devices immediately. When you delete or make amendments to those files, the files in your online Google Drive are automatically updated, and these amendments are then synchronised to all of your other devices.

Files can be shared so other people can view and edit them. This means that you can use Google Drive to host your company’s procedural documents, or to work collaboratively on project documentation. And because Google Drive is an integral part of Google’s overall offering, you can use Google’s search technology to search within your files.

Plenty of storage

Google Drive gives you 5GB of storage for free. That might not sound like much, and in fact, your smartphone probably has more storage. However, it’s more than twice the 2GB you get for free with Dropbox, although it’s less than the 7GB you get with MicroSoft’s SkyDrive. In practice, you won’t be using any of these services to store feature-length movies, so that 5GB should be enough. If you need more storage, you can buy it from Google relatively cheaply: an upgrade to 25GB of storage costs $2.49/month, and up to 16TB is available, although that costs $799.99/month.

What makes Google Drive different?

The main difference between Google Drive and the alternative cloud storage providers’ solutions is that almost everything you do with your Google Drive files happens in Google Docs. You are forced to convert your documents and spreadsheets into Google’s own file formats if you want to edit them.

Converting Microsoft Office format files into Google Docs format is easy to do, but it means that if your clients aren’t using Google Docs you’ll need to convert them back into Microsoft Office format again before sending the files to them. This can result in some of the formatting being lost or changed.

With Dropbox and Microsoft’s Skydrive, there is no need to do the file conversion because you edit the files locally and your changes are then synchronised with your online storage. Microsoft’s Skydrive goes one further because it integrates with recent versions of Microsoft Office, and you also have the option of using Microsoft Office Web Apps to view and edit your files online.

Working with your files offline

One problem with Google’s exclusively online approach to Google Drive is that making changes to documents stored on Google Drive when you are not connected to the Internet is not possible. If you are out of the office and you don’t have access to a mobile data signal or a Wi-Fi hotspot, you are going to have a problem. And you can forget about getting any work done during a plane flight.

Google’s solution to this problem is Google Docs offline. However, this only works with Google’s Chrome browser. It allows you to view documents and spreadsheets offline, but it doesn’t allow you to edit the documents. It also currently only works with documents and spreadsheets.

Not quite good enough

At the end of the day, Google Drive does little more than adding a few extra features to Google Docs and rebranding it as a cloud service. Microsoft’s Skydrive offers pretty much the same proposition, but gives you 2GB more storage for free, gives you search via Bing rather than Google’s search technology, and throws Microsoft Office compatibility into the mix. Skydrive could be even more of a force to be reckoned with once Windows 8 launches.

It is difficult to see why you would use Google Drive rather than Microsoft’s Skydrive in a business environment. Google’s acquisition of QuickOffice may result in new features being added to Google Drive which could make it a more interesting proposition, especially in terms of accessing files from a mobile device. For the moment, Microsoft’s Skydrive looks like the better proposition.