The Web's always been great for e-mail, shopping and entertainment, but it's also quickly becoming a virtual filing cabinet for our digital lives.
Thanks to a growing range of services, it's now possible to keep all your personal digital information in the Internet "cloud", as they're calling it these days. Everything from documents and e-mails to photos and music can be stored -- often for free.
The benefits of storing your digital life this way are considerable. You're no longer tied to a particular computer or location, and you can access your data from any Internet-connected device.
There are a vast number of Internet-based storage services available and growing user demand is leading to some of the world's biggest IT companies offering more. Interest surged recently when Microsoft launched its SkyDrive service (see below) in more than 30 countries around the world, including Australia. Meanwhile there are strong rumours that Google is planning a similar service, likely to be called GDrive, that will offer masses of online storage space to anyone who wants it.
The Internet storage services we've chosen for this round-up can be divided into two categories: those intended primarily for storing and sharing files, and those designed specifically for backups. While some can be used for both, a quick check of their features will determine what they're best at delivering.
Storage capacity: 5GB | Cost: Free
SkyDrive is part of the growing range of services that form Microsoft's Live portfolio. Having been in beta for around 12 months, it was released to the public earlier this month.
It offers 5GB of password-protected storage, and is designed to be used as an extension to your computer-based storage. To access the service, you'll need to create a Live ID or use an existing Hotmail or Messenger ID. This becomes your identity when using SkyDrive as well as other Live services.
Once logged in, you're presented with a simple interface in which you can create folders in one of three categories: personal, shared or public. Personal folders can only be accessed by you, shared folders by friends or associates you approve, and public folders by anyone.
Uploading files is simple: you can either select them from a list, or install a small ActiveX control that allows them to be dragged and dropped onto a box on your screen. To retrieve a file, just click on its icon within the folder.
Storage capacity: Unlimited | Cost: Free
At first the MediaFire storage service seems too good to be true: unlimited storage space for free! Yet the company continues to power ahead, claiming to have more than 500,000 users around the globe. It's obviously following the strategy of building a following first and figuring out the money bit later.
Unlike other storage services, you can use MediaFire without registering. This is possible by the site storing a cookie on your computer, which not only means you're limited to accessing your stored files from that machine, but if you delete the cookie, you'll lose access to your files -- so take our advice and register for a free account!
While MediaFire offers unlimited storage space, it does enforce a 100MB limit per file. In practice this poses little problem, as the vast majority of files you'll want to store will be smaller than this. More annoying is that while you can upload up to 10 files at any one time, they must be individually selected -- which can make the job of storing large numbers of files quite tedious. In its favour is a slick interface, which provides an estimate of the time any uploads will take to complete, and the speed they're transferring at.
MediaFire doesn't have a restriction on the volume of uploads or downloads you can make each day, making it an attractive option for frequent sharers. Uploaded files can be password protected and stored in multiple folders as needed. You can also set certain folders to be accessible by friends, while keeping others personal.
Storage capacity: Up to 50GB | Cost: First 5GB for free, then US$9.95 per month for up to 50GB
Operated by AOL, Xdrive offers a useful 5GB of free storage space. Should you need more, up to 50GB can be purchased for US$9.95 a month, or US$99.50 per year.
To use Xdrive you need to create an AOL username, and then an Xdrive account. Once in, the interface is clean and easily understood. Files can be uploaded by selecting them individually, or you can use the service's Java-based Accelerator Plus feature to upload multiple files simultaneously.
There's also an Xdrive Desktop Lite application that allows files to be dragged and dropped from any connected storage device directly to your Xdrive account.
Like some of the other online storage services, Xdrive allows you to share the contents of selected folders with other people. They can also be accessed and downloaded from any Internet-connected device.
Mozy Online Backup Home
Storage capacity: Unlimited | Cost: 2GB for free, unlimited for US$4.95 per month
Bought by storage equipment company EMC in November last year, Mozy has been a popular remote backup service since its launch in 2006. The company claims to have around 400,000 consumer and 10,000 business customers around the world.
Mozy offers both Home and Pro services. We used the Home service, which costs US$4.95 a month for as much space as required. There is a free service for those who like to try before they buy or have lesser needs, which offers a handy 2GB of space.
To use Mozy you'll first need to install an application. This tests your connection speed and then scans your hard drive, generating a recommended list of files that should be backed up, including e-mail, contact lists, documents and photos. Switching to expert mode allows you to add to or remove files from the recommended list.
Then you select when you want backups to occur: either a continuous mode where data is transferred whenever your computer is not busy, or you can specify a set time each day or week.
Once the initial upload of all files is complete (a process that can take many hours if you have a lot of files), Mozy continues to run in the background whenever your computer is turned on, monitoring for changes to files and adding them to your backup. Access to backed-up files is via a simple Web interface.
Storage capacity: Unlimited | Cost: US$4.95 per month
Similar in concept to Mozy, Carbonite is designed to run continuously on your PC, monitoring files and folders and transferring any changes to its central backup servers.
The company has been offering its service since 2006 and recently announced an Australian equivalent -- available at www.carbonite.com.au in the coming weeks.
To use Carbonite you'll need to download and install an application, upon which you'll be presented with three choices: to back up your Desktop and My Documents folders, to back up everything except executables, system and temporary files, or to manually select which files to include.
When you've made your choice, the software is remarkably set-and-forget. It gets to work and backs up all your selected files in what can initially be a very long process. Once done, it monitors for changes and adds those to your centrally stored backup.
For added security, the Carbonite application encrypts your files before sending them to the company's storage servers, with the ability to password protect them once they are stored.
Carbonite also adds colour-coded dots to each file on your PC so you can instantly tell which have been backed up. A green dot next to a file's name means it's backed up, a yellow dot means it is queued for backup, and no dot means the file has not been selected for inclusion. An icon in the system tray provides an overall view of backup status: green means all is well, yellow means a backup is being performed and red shows there's a problem.
Storage capacity: Up to 5GB (Individual plan) | Cost: 1GB for free, 5GB for US$7.95 per month
Box.net is designed specifically for people looking to store files online and easily share them with family and work colleagues. It comes in Lite, Individual, Business and Enterprise flavours, each offering different storage capacities and price structures.
The Lite option provides 1GB of storage to which you can upload individual files of up to 10MB in size. There's also a 10GB per month bandwidth limit which covers both uploads and downloads. Choosing the US$7.95/month Individual option gives 5GB of storage and the ability to upload individual files of up to 1GB in size. There are no download or upload bandwidth limits.
Files can be uploaded individually or users can opt for the Java-based drag-and-drop feature that allows entire folders to be uploaded in a single action. Files can also be e-mailed directly to your Box.net account. This can be a handy way of keeping a copy of all e-mail attachments you send, by simply copying them to your box.net address at the same time.
You can also use the service to host photos and files used on blogs or services such as eBay. Simply upload the required files and then place the generated link on the appropriate page.
If you're on the go, Box.net also has a mobile access service. By calling up m.box.net on your mobile Internet device, you can access all your stored files.