There are few more disheartening life events than hearing your computer’s hard drive do its dance of death: bzzzm, bzzzm, whirrrrr, tjick, tjick…and then silence. When was the last time you backed up your work? Last Friday, maybe, or was it September?
Using free cloud storage can alleviate this anxiety. Not only is it good for backing up important files, but it also allows you to free up space on your phone with a few screen taps, lets you share holiday photos with select family and friends without making everything available on Facebook or emailing them individually, and become much more productive by letting you and your colleagues work together on a project while all remaining on the same page.
We’ve slapped together a list of the best free cloud storage solutions out there. Most have a variety of paid plans, too, though you’ll normally not need to worry too much about these unless you have a ton of data to store. Before we get to the reviews, though, let’s take a look at the fundamentals of free online storage:
Table of Contents
- 1 What Is the Cloud, Really?
- 2 The Benefits and Disadvantages of Using Free Cloud Storage
- 3 Pros of Free Online Storage
- 4 The Cons of Free Cloud Storage
- 5 The Best Free Cloud Storage Solutions in 2021
- 6 Google Drive
- 7 Box
- 8 Microsoft OneDrive
- 9 DropBox
- 10 Amazon Drive
- 11 Apple iCloud
- 12 Mega
- 13 MediaFire
What Is the Cloud, Really?
The easiest way to answer this question is to start with what the cloud is not.
In the early days, computers looked like this:
They took up whole rooms, required a team of engineers to maintain and another to run, consumed vast amounts of electricity, and required special air conditioning equipment to keep them from catching fire. Over time, of course, they became less colossal, but were still way too expensive for individuals and even companies to own one. This led to the timeshare system, where people with a remote terminal – basically just a keyboard and text printer or monitor – could phone the computer no matter how far away it was located, enter and run their program, and pay only for the processing power they used:
Costs kept going down as technology sped up, which is fortunate or you would be reading this on something other than a screen. As personal computers became the norm, there was still a need for centralized, shared resources: mass storage, access to printers, email, databases, ISDN modems, and so on. In the client-server model, one principal computer would partition these out to cheaper, less capable computers on the same network:
This worked pretty well, but engineers eventually realized that the logical next step wasn’t just to have bigger, more redundant servers but to make the server itself an abstraction. With the proper software and a fast, reliable internet connection, the user of a PC doesn’t even have to know whether the resources they’re using are located on their own device, a server they’re connected to or some computer they’ve never even heard of:
This is, in a word, pretty cool. Buying your own hard drive will cost you about $30 per terabyte. If, on the other hand, some company buys a few hundred thousand terabytes worth of storage, economies of scale start to kick in. They can then lease storage space to whoever needs it at a fraction of the price. Alternatively, they may offer (say) 1TB free cloud storage as part of another service, to attract new customers, or whatever.
Similarly, companies no longer have to spend a ton on hardware for computationally intensive tasks like machine learning over large data sets. Instead, they can rent the hardware from someone who may be on the other side of the world, run their programs, and get the results back for pennies on the dollar.
The Benefits and Disadvantages of Using Free Cloud Storage
The average computer user may do exactly the same thing without even realizing it. Some antivirus programs, for instance, use remote servers to take the processing load off your own computer so it won’t slow down during scans. We’re more concerned with free cloud storage for the moment, though, so let’s quickly compare the pros and cons:
Pros of Free Online Storage
It’s, Well, Free
The best free cloud storage feature is undoubtedly that you don’t have to pay for it. This makes online storage convenient if only because you don’t have to worry about whether whatever you’re storing is worth the expense of keeping it. Too many photos crowding your phone’s memory card? Just send them to the cloud and sort through them when you have time. The documents folder from your old PC, which may or may not contain anything you’ll need later? Back it up to the cloud, just in case. Some files your colleagues could conceivably want access to while you’re on vacation? Cloud.
Seamless Integration with Third-Party Services
The best cloud storage companies have no problem with other apps using their free online storage on your behalf. This is particularly useful in a business environment: dozens of people, for instance, can work simultaneously on a complex multimedia project without stepping on each other’s toes, supported apps on your computer can access files in the cloud as if they were on your own hard drive, and you can link free services like Slack and Trello to a free cloud storage account for even more efficient collaboration.
Home users can benefit, too, by letting their security cameras stream footage to the cloud or running backup software that doesn’t require a separate, local hard drive. Just make sure the app or device you choose is supported by the service you prefer to use: the largest cloud storage available to you isn’t necessarily the easiest to make work in this way.
Everything in One Place
Have you ever needed to hunt down the latest version of a file you saved, at various times, on your PC, tablet, pen drive, and server? It’s exactly this kind of thing that can put the brakes on an otherwise productive day. With online storage, you can organize your records logically instead of in whatever way seems easiest at the moment. If you regularly deal with big volumes of data, like CAD projects, 3D renders, and certain types of databases, this advantage alone is a good reason to search for the largest cloud storage solution you can find.
Available (Nearly) Anywhere, on Any Device
The best cloud storage solutions typically have dedicated apps for at least Windows, iOS, and Android. Even if your device isn’t supported in this way, you can usually access your account through a simple browser interface without any problems. You can also share some or all of your files with whoever you choose, adding trusted users and revoking access privileges at will.
If one device gives up the ghost, you’ve lost nothing and can keep right on working. Should you want to double-check something you left at the office after hours, nothing is stopping you, and you never have to forget a thumb drive containing an important file again. Even a complicated document that took hours to create on a desktop can be viewed on your smartphone in a pinch. Together with the convenience factor mentioned above, the portable nature of free online storage makes it an essential tool for the person on the go.
Plenty of computer users, including yours truly, are guilty of keeping backups on a removable hard drive that lives right next to the computer. This is perfectly adequate protection against hardware failures…but if a burglar manages to break into my house, he’s almost certainly going to snag both, leaving me digitally bankrupt in one fell swoop.
I could always put the external hard drive in my safe, but then my house might burn down. A safe deposit box at the bank would prevent this, but only at the cost of making backups way too much of a hassle. With only 1TB free cloud storage, the problem simply disappears: I don’t even have to be aware of backups until I need them. Since the files are actually stored on multiple servers, it would take a major global disaster to make all copies disappear.
Included Free Apps
Last but not least for the benefits of using free online storage, one enormously powerful feature the best cloud storage providers offer is the ability to edit files directly in your browser or another program, without downloading it first and then saving your changes to the cloud. One good example of this would be Google Docs, which offers an administrative software suite comparable to Microsoft Office for free to anyone.
Dropbox, for its part, integrates with both Google Docs and MS Office. It also has a huge selection of programs on tap, from image editors to survey creators to support desk software.
The Cons of Free Cloud Storage
Free Cloud Storage Has Privacy Implications
You may have heard the saying: “If you’re not paying for a service, you are the product.” Even the best free cloud storage provider has to make money somehow, whether this is by enticing you to upgrade to a paid subscription, collecting personal data, or in some other way.
It is always possible that the company hosting your free online storage sifts through whatever you store there in order to get a clearer picture of who you are as a consumer. If, for instance, you have thousands of pictures of bunnies on your cloud drive, along with numerous text documents on rabbit-related topics, you may be more likely to receive advertisements for rabbit food. In general, you can avoid this horrible fate simply by reviewing your account’s privacy settings.
You Don’t Have Total Control Over Your Data
At least emotionally, using physical instead of free cloud storage has one major advantage: your information is quite literally in your own hands. You can lock it away from prying eyes, control who has access, and even destroy it if necessary.
In practice, this is only rarely a concern. Companies like DropBox and Google have excellent reputations in the computer security field due to their commitment to and skill in preventing and resolving threats as quickly as possible. A few cloud storage data breaches have indeed taken place, but the risk that your account in particular will be compromised is actually minimal. If you use one of the best free cloud storage companies, your data is probably safer with them than it is on your own computer.
Potentially Restrictive and Confusing Terms and Conditions
Have you heard about the woman who won a $10,000 prize simply for reading the Ts & Cs of a travel insurance policy? This illustrates how few people actually check this legally binding document.
As far as free cloud storage goes, you don’t need to worry too much, though. In general, you are only prohibited from using it for illegal purposes (copyright infringement, spreading malware, etc.), in a way that can damage other users’ experiences (DDOS attacks, for instance), or, for some companies, for any but non-commercial purposes. That’s right: if you want to use online storage to help run a business, you may have to pay a few dollars a month. In any case, you’ll have some trouble finding an amount as large as 1TB free cloud storage anyway, which is what you’ll need for any kind of heavy use.
Offline Means out of the Loop
Using free cloud storage can be so convenient that you may forget that your files aren’t actually on your device. During an internet outage or while on the road, critical information won’t be available. There is, with the best free cloud storage providers, a simple solution: simply set things up so that the local and cloud versions of your files will always be synced up.
The Best Free Cloud Storage Solutions in 2021
What exactly do you need free online storage for, anyway? Perhaps you’d like to archive a bunch of photos you may have some use for someday. Maybe you frequently need to share files with coworkers in a way that lets all of you edit them without worrying about who has the latest version. It could be that you simply need a safe place to store your important documents so you’ll have access to them anywhere, whatever happens.
One of the following best free cloud storage providers is sure to meet your needs. Also, remember that there’s nothing stopping you from signing up with more than one of them: even if space is a concern, you may not have to spend a dime on online storage.
The undisputed king of the digital jungle is the company Alphabet, of which Google is a major part. Over the years, they’ve often followed the clever and largely successful strategy of giving ordinary internet users something they love to use for free (Google Search, Chrome, Hangouts) in order to make themselves more attractive to business customers (AdSense, Google Workspace, Google Meet).
For this to work, Google has to work hard at keeping even its non-paying users loyal and happy. One way of achieving this is to tie as many of their services together as possible, including through their free cloud storage platform: Google Drive. This is where both your Gmail and Google Docs end up; with 15 gigabytes of free storage, you’re not likely to run out using it only for these purposes. You can also, of course, upload whatever files you want to preserve and/or share to Drive. The browser-based interface is a little difficult to get used to, but you’ll be happy to know that you can download sync clients for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android to make things a little easier, especially if you work on multiple devices.
Another good option with apps designed for Windows, Android, Mac as well as iOS, Box is nearly as generous as Google Drive: with 10 GB on their free tier, this is not the largest cloud storage option you can use without paying but still perfectly adequate for most tasks.
As with Google Drive, Box allows you to edit documents in common formats on their platform even if you don’t have software like Microsoft 365 at your disposal. Unlike most free cloud storage platforms, however, it can take you a while to get up to speed: instead of one single app, there are a number to choose from that each does something different. Box is, after all, primarily designed for business use, not casual storage.
One major limitation of the free Box plan is that uploads are restricted to a maximum file size of 250 megabytes. This should be fine if all you’re interested in storing and sharing there are documents and photos, but limits its usefulness for any kind of multimedia work. Should you wish to upgrade to a paid plan later, $10 gets you 100 GB of storage with an upload limit of 5 GB per file, making Box much less economical than several other options.
Another tech behemoth’s attempt to offer the best free cloud storage solution, Microsoft OneDrive lets you use 5 GB of space on their servers without paying. Should you be a Microsoft 365 subscriber, however, you automatically get 1 terabyte of storage. While 365 is pretty pricey compared to its free competitors, 1TB free cloud storage is nothing to sneeze at.
Synchronization client apps are available for all common operating systems, not just Windows. It works exceptionally well with Windows 10 and Outlook, though, and also makes it easy to scan and upload documents using your phone. Files can be edited online, including some requiring third-party software like AutoCAD. OneDrive is also one of the best cloud storage providers when it comes to sharing files even with non-users, as you can set various permission levels and even share a file for only a limited amount of time.
Though only offering 2 GB when you register with your email address, DropBox is still considered among the best free cloud storage options. Aside from sync apps for Windows, Linux, Android, Mac, and iOS, its chief selling point is that it’s very simple to use.
Other features that make it stand out are the ability to digitally sign documents, a 30-day recycle bin for your DropBox folder (including the ability to roll back any file to a previous version), and DropBox Paper, a collaborative workspace that makes it easy for several people to plan and execute a project in real time.
Like Box, DropBox limits the maximum file size free users can upload to 250 MB – graphic designers and sound engineers will want to give this one a pass. On the plus side, it works well with nearly any app you can think of that requires free online storage. You may want to get free cloud storage here for a specific task like automated website backups and use another service for day-to-day storage and sharing.
Though Amazon has long been a major provider of cloud computing services to industry and government, its free online storage offering has been less than competitive until recently. Today, however, Amazon Drive is certainly worth looking at, especially for Amazon Prime members. Significantly, it now has apps to synchronize your offline and cloud files, a capability which it previously lacked, including for iOS and Android.
When you sign up, you’ll receive 5 GB of storage plus unlimited space for your photos. Unfortunately, unlike most of the best free cloud storage providers, Amazon doesn’t encrypt your files on their servers, potentially making them vulnerable. Also, unlike DropBox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive, there are no productivity-enhancing tools to speak of included with Amazon’s free cloud storage.
With Apple’s characteristically intuitive interface, iCloud is probably the go-to option for anyone who owns a Mac or iPhone. Windows and Android are also supported, though not particularly well.
Signing up nets you 5 gigabytes of free online storage if you own an Apple product; 1 GB otherwise. Apple users also have access to document editing and productivity tools similar to those of Google Suite. Windows and Linux enthusiasts will probably want to look elsewhere, though, especially as there is no shortage of free cloud storage options out there.
Mega works somewhat differently from the free cloud storage providers we’ve discussed up to this point. In the first place, they place a lot of emphasis on your privacy: all uploaded files are automatically encrypted using your password, so even Mega itself can’t see their contents. In addition, the company makes its architecture and even the source code for its apps available for public review, proving that they’re confident in their security measures.
More importantly to the average user, you can store up to 50 gigabytes in your Mega account (subject to a couple of terms and conditions). Sharing some or all of these files is very easy, too: just email your friends or colleagues a hyperlink. Though Mega doesn’t have the advanced collaboration features included in free cloud storage platforms like DropBox and OneDrive, they do allow you to communicate with coworkers through encrypted text chat, messaging, and voice and video calls.
Like Mega, MediaFire will give you up to 50 gigabytes of free online storage – you get 10 GB as soon as you register, then earn additional storage space by doing stuff like getting friends to sign up. What sets them apart is that they offer unlimited downloads without any hurdles like wait times.
If, for example, you want to share a video advertised on your company’s Facebook page with hundreds or potentially thousands of viewers, MediaFire is the way to go. With a maximum file size of 4 GB, you needn’t scrimp on resolution either. If you want to share a file with only a select group, on the other hand, you can email them a link that only they can use. Google Drive identifies each user by requiring them to log in, but it’s unclear if services like Mega have a similar function. In short, while you will probably still use another free cloud storage solution for day-to-day tasks, MediaFire is a solid choice for video content creators.
* * *
Given all the options for free online storage available to you, what are you waiting for? It seems incredible that you can get up to 1TB free cloud storage without jumping through too many hoops, but it turns out that you only need to know where to look. Once you add in extras like the ability to edit documents online and share large files with ease, you’ll never look at email attachments and thumb drives the same.
Have you had any especially good or bad experiences with one of these best free cloud storage companies, or perhaps one we didn’t get around to mentioning? We’d certainly like to know and perhaps update our reviews, so leave us a comment with your opinion.