Hands On With Google Drive

  • Category: Internet Services

By Mark Hachman

While Google has positioned its new Google Drive cloud-storage service as one that straddles the consumer and business space, those using it for collaboration will probably get the most out of it.

Google launched Google Drive on Tuesday, promising, according to Google's blog post, the ability to collaborate, to store your stuff in the cloud, and to search it. That's entirely on point. Drive does do a bit more than that, but those additional capabilities are rudimentary at best.

One, however, stands out: Google's ability to scan a photo, and either "read" it using optical character recognition, or identify it using its own technology. On the other hand, Google also claims Drive allows videos to be uploaded. I had issues, and found that part of the service hit or miss.

I've tried a few cloud services over time, but never quite found what I, as a consumer, was looking for: the ability to store gigabytes of multimedia and other files in the cloud, plus the service's ability to stream that multimedia to my phone, on demand. All for free, of course. Perhaps with a pony as well.

For cheapskates or freebirds like me, you'll be better off turning to (or remaining with) Microsoft's SkyDrive, which offers 7GB of free storage; Google Drive offers five. (SugarSync, which I've also used, does as well.) Microsoft also gave existing SkyDrive users 25GB of free storage. Google, however, would like you to pay them for the privilege of mining your files: 25GB for $2.49 per month, 100GB for $4.99 per month, or even 1TB for $49.99 per month. However, you won't see any ads attached to Drive, anywhere, unlike Gmail.

For those familiar with Google's services, you'll be happy to know that Google fits within the ecosystem relatively smoothly. "Drive" appears in the black navigation bar at the top of the screen. You'll most likely think that you've wandered into Google Docs by mistake, because, essentially, Drive is Google Docs, at least to begin with; your initial list of files stored within the Drive framework will be the spreadsheets and documents you've already used.

To access Drive from the desktop, you must download a small installer, which creates a small running service under Windows or your Macintosh. When the installation completes, Drive will appear as a folder. If you add files to it, an icon will appear as they sync to the cloud.

I tried a number of different items: folders, Word files, Excel spreadsheets, JPEG image files, MP3s, PDFs, an AMR audio file, an image resizing application (.EXE), and MPEG, .WMV, and .AVI files. Previously, when I imported a Word file into Google Docs, Google would save it in a .GDoc format. Not so with Drive; Word files remain as Word files. However, documents, spreadsheets and presentations in the Google Docs format do not count against your storage limit, according to a Google spokeswoman.

And remember, there's also Google Play Music, a separate cloud service for your music files, along with rivals like MSpot. My only issues arose with video files. I tried an .AVI file of my son at Halloween; no dice. A .WMV file of some Lenovo ThinkPad promotion? Nope. With MPEG, I couldn't upload a 70s street scene, but a video of Weezer's "Gone Fishing" floating around my hard drive uploaded with no problem. (I have no idea where I got that from.) Granted, there are almost dozens of different video formats available; I've asked Google for a list, which I hope they'll provide soon.

One of Drive's strengths is collaboration: it allows you to basically share any file you'd like, and attach comments to it as well. I confess that I felt a little awkward commenting back and forth within Drive (as opposed to, say, Twitter or Facebook) but, clearly, this is a legacy feature from Google Docs. And in that case, collaborating on a project, presentation or documents feels much more natural.

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Mobile Magic

In each case, the files that I uploaded appeared almost instantly within the Google Drive Web page, and on the mobile app, as well. Did I mention that there's a mobile app? There is, but currently just for Android.

Like Drive for the desktop, any changes or additions made to Drive's list of files are almost instantly pushed to the mobile device. It's fast. As you'd expect, Google makes searching for a document quick and easy.

For someone used to the automatic photo and video uploading of a SugarSync, Drive may feel awkward: Google places that capability within Google+, and also limits your photo resolution as well. In other words, you can't take a photo and have it automatically upload into Drive. But you can take a picture with your Android phone, manually share it with Drive, and it will upload with full resolution. Odd, but it works. Videos can be shared with Drive as well.

However, videos and image files that are stored via Drive must be downloaded each time they're accessed. This not only will cost you time, but also count against your bandwidth cap as well. On the other hand, this also means that you have the option of storing them locally, too. While Drive appears to use its own generic media player for video, Drive will open music via Play Music.

It's not entirely clear that Google's first priority is multimedia playback, optimizing the video to eliminate latency. We'll need a full review to determine that.

I apologize for saving the best for last, but the coolest feature of Google Drive is its ability to "read" photos via optical character recognition. Unfortunately, this feature may seem a bit confusing at first glance: if you take a photo of a page of a book, the photo will save as a photo. But if you choose to save it as a Google document, the photo will be attached to a searchable block of text. Google does an excellent job here, and if you want to quickly sneak a snapshot of your favorite recipe into your own arsenal, well, this feature is just the thing.

Really, there's no reason not to use Drive, SkyDrive, Box, and other services all at once, and I'm a bit surprised that there isn't some metaservice that will divvy your available files up across all of these services.

I found Google Drive to be competent, with flashes of magic. Is it any better than SkyDrive, Dropbox, Box, SugarSync, or others? Maybe, maybe not. With Google, I always feel that there's a lack of polish; most services the company puts forward are structurally sound, but with few sharp corners and unfinished edges that can become annoying over time. But I think that we can all hope that Google sees Drive as a viable project, and works to improve it. Oh, and 25GB of free storage wouldn't hurt, either.

This article is in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.