Hands on with Google Drive

Start your engines: Google's long-rumored Drive service is officially out and ready for a test... well, drive. The search giant's answer to services like Dropbox, Drive offers 5GB of free online storage space that also syncs with a local folder on the desktop of your Mac or PC. (An Android app is currently available, with an iOS app in the works.)

So what's different about Google Drive? What's the same? Should Dropbox be worried? I decided to investigate these questions and a few others by going hands-on with the service.

Sign up and set up

Like Dropbox, I found Google Drive fairly simple to set up—and surprisingly, you can enable it from either a regular Google account or a Google Apps business account without too much fuss.

To sign up, you need only to head to drive.google.com/start, click Go to Google Drive, and agree to the company's terms and conditions. Google will then check your computer's operating system and prompt you to download a copy of the Drive software for your Mac or PC.

Google's service installs by dropping a Google Drive folder in your user folder and a menulet in your menu bar, much like Dropbox does. The app's preferences allow you to unlink your account, expand your storage beyond 5GB, selectively sync folders, sync files from Google Docs, launch Google Drive on startup, and send the company crash reports and usage statistics.

Google Docs no more

One caveat for heavy Google Docs users: Once you sign up, Drive will replace your Docs tab on the Web. Though it doesn't get rid of your saved documents, it does move a few things around.

Within the Drive tab on the Web, your documents have now been sorted into two categories: My Drive, and Shared With Me. Even if you've chosen not to sync Google Docs on your local drive, any Google document you personally own, along with any folders you've made, will show up under My Drive on the Web; Shared With Me contains any document that's been shared to you. As such, documents you don't own will not be synced by default to your Drive—you can add shared files by dragging them from Shared With Me to My Drive.

As with Google Docs before it, you can easily share a document or external file with others on Google Drive, though it requires using the Web interface.

On the Mac

If you choose to sync your Google Docs locally, any document you've previously worked on will appear in your Google Drive folder. This currently doesn't appear to take up any of your 5GB of space, though Google isn't entirely clear on this point.

If you attempt to double-click on one of these files, it will automatically launch the document on the Web, where you can edit, share, and save it. (Supposedly, you can also enable an offline working mode from within the Chrome browser, but I wasn't able to get it to work when I tried.)

Like Dropbox, you can sync other file types by dropping them into your Google Drive folder from elsewhere on your Mac. However, Google being Google, the company is also adding a few extra goodies for your files: support for optical character recognition (OCR) and location recognition. The former will scan your PDFs upon upload and yank out any recognizable text; you can then convert the PDF into an editable Google document. The latter—location recognition via Google Googles—attempts to add searchable tags to your images (for instance, if you take a photo of the Empire State Building, Google should theoretically label it "empire state building" for easy searching later). That said, the company describes location recognition as "still in its early stages," and rightly so—it's likely that Google will need to index quite a few Empire State Building pictures before it can identify yours.

Dropbox or Google?

For Mac users new to the concept of cloud storage, Google Drive may prove to be more popular in the long run. It has a built-in base of Gmail users, and Google Docs integration is pretty great for anyone who collaborates on documents and likes to be able to easily launch or sort those documents without working through a Web interface 100% of the time.

That said, I'm personally unconvinced as to Google Drive's superiority. Though Google's monthly space subscriptions are cheaper ($5/month for 100GB versus Dropbox's $20/month), we have yet to see Drive's stability in comparison to Dropbox's. (As with many of its new services, Google appears to be rolling Drive out gradually, presumably to manage the demand.) Upload and download speeds also seem drastically slower for Google Drive than for my Dropbox, at this point.

For many, though, it will come down to trust. While I don't necessarily think Google is going to do nefarious things with my data, the service operates like many of the company's other offerings, relying on your information to anonymously improve its services for other users—in this case, OCR and location recognition.

In addition, Google's terms of service are worded in a way that gives me pause when it comes to uploaded material. Though the company notes that "what belongs to you stays yours" when you use the service, you give Google "a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content." While many of these terms can be traced to various parts of the company's offerings (text-to-speech for those with disabilities, for example), it still seems like a broad license for such a service. In either case, if you don't feel comfortable with your files being crowdsourced or used in such a manner, perhaps Google Drive isn't for you.

For now, I'm going to try using Drive for just my Docs organization. Folder creation and file movement is vastly simpler than on the Web, and it's certainly nice to have an easy to find link for important documents I use often.

This story, "Hands on with Google Drive" was originally published by Macworld.

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