July 12, 2011, 3:23 PM — Heading off to school doesn't have to mean leaving your old life behind. With the right mix of Web-based apps, you can take your entire digital life with you--and keep it handy on practically any device you carry.
Cloud apps and online storage services give us constant access to the most important data from all of our devices, and more computing power at our disposal than ever before. Online productivity suites let you work with Microsoft Office documents on your laptop or smartphone, and keep them perpetually available on the Web for easy access. Cloud streaming services make your entire music library available on any device you have handy, or let you tap into an unlimited supply of free tunes from a personalized online radio station. Web-based phone services allow you to call anyone in the world--with video--for next to nothing, and receive calls on any phone. You can even protect your PC with online antivirus apps.
In this article, I'll explain the pros and cons of moving your digital life to the cloud as you head off to college, and I'll discuss the very best free and paid cloud-based services for storage, security, entertainment, communications, productivity, and more.
Can You Trust the Cloud?
If you're asking whether you can really trust cloud services with your data, we like the way you think. Regarding any online service with a healthy dose of skepticism will generally serve you well. As with most things in the tech world, cloud services make compromises between security and convenience.
To keep your data secure, you want to protect your files from prying eyes while also preventing them from being lost or inadvertently destroyed. Those two objectives aren't mutually exclusive, but can often seem that way.
If your primary concern is making sure that nobody but you ever sees your data, the cloud may not be for you. While most reputable cloud services offer strong guarantees that your data will be heavily encrypted and that no one inside the company has direct access to your files, you can never be 100% certain that something won't go wrong.
At the same time, cloud services run on massive, enterprise-grade server farms with tremendous redundancy, so there's little chance your data will be lost accidentally--the risk is far lower than that of keeping data on your own hard drives. Historically, even when cloud providers go belly up, they often keep the servers active long enough for customers to retrieve or delete their files.
Another compromise involves service reliability. If you depend on a Web-based productivity app, it had better be working when you are. A few high-profile Gmail outages have highlighted this concern in the past year, but it's important to note that the likelihood of your PC's broadband service going down is far greater than the likelihood that a major cloud service will suffer significant downtime.