Google Drive is much more than just a cloud-based storage and syncing service. It also excels at letting you create, edit, store, and collaborate on documents. The service is truly impressive in just how far it goes to help you create and edit files, whether you’re working solo or as part of a team.
There are some secrets to getting the most out of Google Drive and its companion apps Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides (more on these in a bit). But there’s little question this is one of the sweetest cloud offerings you can find. Furthermore, it’s free—unless you need to store more than 15GB of files not created with its online apps. Even then Google Drive offers a good deal on storage, and the newly announced Google One storage plans look like they’ll also be an excellent value once they launch—more on Google One below.
Google recently updated and renamed Drive’s local application to Backup & Sync; this app adds the ability to sync almost any file or folder on a computer, no matter where it lives in your folder structure. The feature is a plus, but it’s somewhat quirky, and it doesn’t yet turn Drive into a full backup utility. See our full analysis of the new feature in the section dedicated to it below.
Google Drive’s closest competitor is Microsoft OneDrive, a service that we also rate very highly. Both Google Drive and OneDrive are PCMag Editors’ Choice products. To boil down how they differ most: Google Drive offers better tools for real-time collaboration and more free storage than the rest. OneDrive, which is also an excellent service, integrates tightly with installed Office apps, and it may be a better choice if you need to edit offline. Apple has also gotten into the file-syncing and cloud storage game, with iCloud Drive, and it too offers collaborative online document editing, though not in as robust a form as the Google and Microsoft offerings. Box, another Editors’ Choice in the file-syncing category, doesn’t offer built-in document editing but does offer more workflow tools.
What Is Google One?
The recently announced Google One doesn’t exist yet. When it comes, it’ll be a reorganization of Drive’s paid cloud storage platform for consumers. Drive will continue to function the same way it does now, but Google One will become the storage component of your Google Drive (and most other Google services, for that matter). The cheapest plan will still cost $1.99 per month for 100GB, but Google One will offer a 200GB plan for $2.99 per month. Currently, a 1TB Google Drive account cost $9.99 per month, but Google One will soon give you 2TB worth of storage for the same price. Current subscribers to the 1TB plan will be automatically upgraded. The higher-tier 10TB plan will still cost $99.99 per month. Google Drive currently offers a generous 15GB of free storage and this free tier will remain in place even after the new Google One plans take effect.
Notably, Google is adding one-tap access to support experts as well as the ability to share accounts with up to five family members to all Google One plans. It also plans to offer extras, such as “credits on Google Play or deals on select hotels found in Google Search,” with more benefits to come in the future.
By comparison, Microsoft’s One Drive offers 5GB of storage for free. To upgrade, your options are a $1.99-per-month 50GB plan, and $6.99 per month for 1TB. That last option also bundles in Office 365.
Keep in mind that not everything counts towards your storage limits. Files you create using Google Docs, Sheets, and other in-Drive apps (in Google’s proprietary, online formats) don’t count toward that quota, nor do files shared with you. You can still export these files to more standard formats, so it’s really no loss. Gmail messages and all email attachments, however, do count against your limit. Photos may or may not count against your quota; it depends on your upload choices. You can upload photos to regular Drive folders or use the Google Photos feature. Both show up on the left menu panel in Drive. With Photos, uploads only count against your limit if you choose Original quality; choosing High Resolution limits your photos to 16 megapixels. Of course, for many cameras and cell phones, that is full quality.
What Is Google Drive, Exactly?
Ever since Google Docs was rebranded as Google Drive, we’ve found a bit of explanation is in order regarding the name. Google Drive is the whole shebang. It comprises Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides, or at least it works very tightly with them. The issue of separate apps gets confusing when it comes to the mobile version of Google Drive, but online it’s much clearer. Google Drive and its apps work basically the same way Microsoft OneDrive does with the online versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Google Drive, OneDrive, and Apple iCloud Drive also replicate the core service provided by file-syncing services such as Dropbox and SugarSync. With all file-syncing services, you download and install a program on all your computers and mark files or folders to sync between the devices. That means that if you work on a file from the office, and then go home and want to pick up where you left off, you can do so seamlessly. When you finish working on the file at home, rest assured that all your work shows up on your office computer in the morning. Syncing relies on having an Internet connection, but as long as you have that key in place, it’s a piece of cake.
Just to reiterate: Both Google Drive and OneDrive offer desktop-to-desktop syncing service in addition to their Web-based office-productivity apps and straight-up online file storage. Though, despite the nomenclature of the new Backup & Sync desktop app, we don’t strictly consider Google Drive an online backup solution, saving files to it can serve as a sort of backup as well as merely a way to access the files.
Compatibility is rarely an issue with Google Drive: You can upload files, convert them to Google’s file format to edit them online—or create new documents, spreadsheets, and slide presentations in the Web interface—and export the finished products to standard file formats, such as .doc, .rtf, .pdf, and so on. With the recently introduced Microsoft Office plugin for Google Drive, you can now use your Google Drive as storage for files you edit with the installed Microsoft Office apps, removing any chance of incompatibility.
Google Drive’s Web Interface
Google Drive’s online design has improved over the years to become more intuitive than ever. You start on the main Drive page, which shows thumbnails of documents in the middle and a menu of your folders, shared files, photos, recent, starred, and trash along the left rail. On the right are buttons for sharing, getting a link to, deleting, previewing, and seeing information about a selected file. There are also buttons for Settings and switching between list and thumbnail view here. Strangely, the webpage is not responsive like OneDrive’s. Resizing to a narrower page cuts off interface features.
The company has ditched calling folders “labels.” It now calls them folders, like everybody else does. You can create subfolders to your heart’s content, too. You can still organize by other means than folders, though, including through color-coding and stars.
Once you open or create a document, you’re taken to a new tab for Docs, Sheets, Slides, and so on. Note that Drive can handle more than just the big three types of office document: There’s also Forms, Drawings, and Maps, and you can even integrate third-party Web apps to work with even more types of documents, such as CAD or music files.
You can view a document in three different modes: Editing, Suggesting, and Viewing. The first is self-explanatory; Suggesting puts collaborators’ changes in brackets, which the document owner can accept or not; Viewing simply shows the final edited document. When you collaborate, collaborators’ names appear when they’re editing a document you’re also working on. Color-coding throughout also helps differentiate where each user’s cursor is within the file when multiple people are making changes at once. Google Drive even supports Microsoft Office revisions mode; Apple iCloud’s online version of Pages only lets you view revisions, but you can’t edit using them. For deep dives into the online productivity suite, read our review of Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
Backup & Sync
Google recently replaced its installable syncing software with a new tool called Backup & Sync. It reintroduces the concept popularized by SugarSync, of letting you designate any folder on your system for syncing. Other services like Box, Dropbox, iCloud, and OneDrive stick with keeping synced files in a set folder with as many subfolders as you like. The sequestered syncing approach simplifies and clarifies the cloud-syncing concept, since all your backed-up content is neatly tucked into one mother folder. You may, however, want to be able to mark any file anywhere for syncing or backing up, the way online backup services such as Carbonite and SugarSync allow.
You can still use Drive as a special synced folder of its own, but the new program makes Google Drive more of an online backup play, as opposed to only offering cloud storage and syncing. Installing Backup & Sync resembles installing Chrome, with the same “on your marks, get set, go” messages during installation. After installation, you sign in to your Google or Gmail account and choose folders you want it to sync. By default your Desktop, Documents, and Pictures folders are selected. You can add any folders on the computer, except for the C: Drive or This PC folders. That’s significant, since it means that Google Drive cannot be used as a full-system online backup service the way IDrive and SOS Online Backup can. Those services let you make an image of everything on your disk, including programs and operating system files.
Next comes syncing from the other direction, and this part is important for existing Drive users: You choose folders from your online Google Drive that you want synced to the computer. As with Google’s previous solution, Backup & Sync creates a specific Google Drive folder on your computer in addition to syncing the other folders you designated. This folder also gets a top-level File Explorer icon the way Microsoft OneDrive and iCloud do, and installs a small icon in your notification area from which you can call up its Settings dialog at any time.
Once you’ve completed the setup and synced your PC, you’ll see a Computers tab in the Google Drive web and mobile app interface. We installed Backup & Sync on a Windows laptop and an iMac for testing. The Computers tab showed both. Some upload attempts kicked an error message, but tapping the Retry All button remedied that issue. Also note that when we tried to add the Windows PC’s Programs folder, a message popped up saying something went wrong. This is likely due to that folders read-only setting requiring admin privileges. Another reason why Google Drive still can’t be considered a full backup service.
In the Windows File Explorer, a right-click choice let us open the file in the browser or share it, with view-only or editing rights, via email. The context menu doesn’t, however, let you add files and folders to the online repository the way Carbonite and IDrive do—you can only add files or folders through the Backup & Sync app, a minor inconvenience.
When it comes to deleting files, Backup & Sync offers three settings: You can tell it to delete the file everywhere, only on the current machine, or prompt you for what to do. This approach makes it somewhat of an archiving service, that is, a repository for your entire history of file contents. One great benefit of Drive is that it saves every edited version of files you store in it.
In the past, syncing services that let you specify any folder or file on your system created confusion, because you’d have to map that folder to one on the other synced computers. And then there’s the issue of having a file open at the same time in both locations—which version should be saved as the latest. Google Drive’s solution sidesteps these issues by keeping separate folders for each machine, all accessible from the browser.
Working Without a Connection
Another fairly important capability is offline access. You can enable offline access to your Drive files if you use the Chrome web browser with a Google Drive extension installed and you’re signed into your Google account. Turning on this feature lets you read and edit your files offline. Changes sync to the cloud the next time you connect. Notice though, that it’s all-or-nothing: You can’t specify certain files or folders for offline access. You have to sync all your Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Drawings files or none. Fortunately, that doesn’t include non-productivity files like photos.
You can’t edit files in Office format offline, however. Only documents converted to Google’s formats are eligible. We successfully created new documents offline, but hitting the Docs menu after doing so resulted in an error saying, “The server encountered an error. Please try again later.” If you install the syncing software utility, you do get to choose which of your Drive folders you want locally available, though this method also downloads everything to the local machine. Another issue to be aware of is that if you open a Word doc as a Drive doc, you’ll have two copies of the file in two different places on Drive, each with different revision histories.
Web and Mobile Features of Drive
Since Google Drive stores files in the cloud (and since it comes from the preeminent search company) those files are highly searchable. A recent update added drag-and-drop functionality to search results, letting you drag a result file to a folder on the left. Another feature related to search is particularly cool: Drive can scan a photo and interpret it using optical character recognition (OCR) or identify it using its own technology. OCR also works in Google Drive on PDFs. We had a PDF with a unique string of text in the file, but not in the file name, and when we searched for it, Google Drive delivered the right result almost instantly. Other similar apps that use built-in OCR include Office Lens, Adobe Scan, and Evernote, although you have to be a paid Adobe or Evernote user to get the OCR in PDFs (OCR for images works for free users, too).
You can also get Google Drive as an iPhone app, iPad app, and Android app. Windows Phone users can find third-party clients that tap into Google Drive, but there’s no official app. With the apps installed, you can get to all your files in their most-updated versions. Personally, we tend to access Google Drive files more via the Web than locally, but if you have limited Internet access, you’ll definitely want to make use of the local functionality.
What Else Could You Possibly Want?
Despite its wealth of tools and slick operation, there are still a couple things we’d like to see improved in Google Drive. Multimedia features aren’t all that robust. For example, we noticed a number of duplicate photos, with no way to delete the doubles easily, except by eyeing them. But this is a problem shared by OneDrive.
If you are a power user of Office apps, there may be features you’d like to see added to Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides, such as convenient right-click mini toolbar formatting options, and spreadsheet Spark Lines, but these apps include enough tools to get most jobs done. Sometimes it takes a little searching to figure out how to enable a feature or add-on, but there are enough to make Google Drive and its apps entirely capable for most basic business needs.
A potential concern about Google Drive is privacy. Google collects other information from your online activity to serve you targeted ads. If privacy is paramount for you, we suggest sticking with a file-syncing service that puts anonymity first. BitTorrent Sync keeps your data off the cloud, instead using direct P2P connections. Cloud-sync player SpiderOakONE puts an emphasis on security and privacy. Or you could build your own cloud using a NAS, with Transporter or Western Digital My Cloud.
In the Driver’s Seat
There’s nothing stopping you from using more than one file storage and syncing service. Having more than one service lets you compartmentalize your home and work files, keep photos separate from documents, and more. It also lets you decide which of your files to put in more-secure cloud spaces and which to leave to at whims of Google’s tracking policies. Google Drive is, however, unrivaled for collaborative document-editing projects, and that means productivity. That’s a big reason Google Drive is a PCMag Editors’ Choice for file syncing and storage. The service is so chock-full of appealing features that you’re missing out if you don’t use it. Two more Editors’ Choices in the category, Box and OneDrive, are also well worth your consideration.