Hands on with SkyDrive

Earlier this week, Microsoft significantly upgraded SkyDrive, its cloud storage solution that’s more than a bit similar to Dropbox. Now, you can use SkyDrive on your Windows or Mac desktop, access files on your PC from anywhere, increase your storage, and better access your files from Windows Phone and iOS.

Here’s an overview of SkyDrive, with a particular focus on the new features that Microsoft introduced.

The basics

Not too surprisingly, SkyDrive’s feature set is broader and more impressive for Windows users than it is for those using Macs. But before we get to the Windows advantages (and the corresponding Mac weaknesses), let’s look at the SkyDrive features common to both platforms.

Before you can use SkyDrive, you’ll need to create a Windows Live or Hotmail account.

The new hallmark feature, of course, is the ability to see your SkyDrive as just another folder on your desktop. On Windows, by default, SkyDrive installs to C:\Users\yourusername\SkyDrive; on the Mac, it installs into your Home folder (~/). You can move the SkyDrive folder elsewhere, should you so desire.

Drag a file (or folder) into the SkyDrive folder, and syncing starts immediately. On Windows, SkyDrive superimposes tiny notification symbols atop your files’ icons, indicating their syncing status—as in whether they’re uploading now or fully backed up to SkyDrive, in a feature that smartly emulates Dropbox. Those icons don’t appear on the Mac.

SkyDrive's sharing options include the ability to email your file, generate a public or private link to it, or share a link to it on Twitter or Facebook.

Users of either OS can visit the SkyDrive website to see the contents of their cloud storage. You can even drag files from your desktop onto the browser window to upload files to the service.

The SkyDrive website offers other niceties too, including the ability to create Office documents in Microsoft’s Web-based tools. And you also use the website to share your documents—with everyone; with specific people; with Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn; or even with collaborators who can edit your documents in realtime along with you.

Windows vs. Mac

When you take advantage of the new SkyDrive option to see your cloud storage as just another folder on Windows, the SkyDrive app that makes it all possible hides out of your way in the system tray. The icon animates when files are syncing; right-clicking on it exposes a menu that indicates how much data is left to sync, along with options to edit your settings, manage storage, sign out, and the like.

On the Mac, the new SkyDrive app tucks an icon up in the menu bar, and that menu behaves just like the system tray icon on Windows. The big difference, however, is that SkyDrive on the Mac runs as a traditional application, meaning it plunks its icon right in OS X’s Dock. If you quit the app, your files stop syncing.

Windows users get another new, even more significant benefit, too: You can access any files on your Windows PC running SkyDrive from another computer, via SkyDrive.com—even if the files you’re after aren’t in your SkyDrive folder. That feature requires that you enable two-factor authentication, but it can be handy if you need to get at a file that’s not already in the cloud.

SkyDrive offers a modest set of preferences, whether you’re using it on a Mac or Windows machine.

The software doesn’t offer much in the way of preferences. On the Mac, you can toggle an option to launch SkyDrive at login, and there’s a grayed-out option to “Occasionally send data to Microsoft to improve SkyDrive.” On Windows, you get the launch at login setting, only with a toggle for controlling whether to enable that ability to access other files on your PC via the SkyDrive website. More nuanced controls—ones offered by Dropbox such as bandwidth limits and selecting syncing—aren’t available.

Storage

SkyDrive in its iOS form

You get 7GB of free storage with SkyDrive. But if 7GB won’t cut it for you, Microsoft now added a few premium options: You can spend $10 per year for 27GB, $25 per year for 57GB, or $50 per year for 107GB. Those prices compare quite favorably with Dropbox’s premium rates; Dropbox’s free offering starts at just 2GB.

Mobile

Microsoft offers free SkyDrive apps for iOS and Windows Phone, and recent updates to those apps make them even more straightforward to use. On each platform, the app lists all of your SkyDrive-stored files and folders, and you can preview many document types directly within the app. A Recent tab lists those documents that you’ve opened or added recently, and the Shared tab lists those files that others have shared with you through SkyDrive.

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