It can be a costly and emotional experience if you lose precious holiday snaps, important files and work. To make things easier and for peace of mind, use a free online storage service to back everything up.
This guide explains how online storage services work and how to make sure they're safe, then rounds up the best of the free services out there.
Best free storage options
Always check for compatibility. Make sure that the software you're using is compatible with your existing set-up. No liability can be accepted for any problems caused from acting upon the info given.
What is online storage?
Online storage systems, or "cloud" services as they're also known, use a virtual hard drive that's installed on your desktop and linked directly to your online space.
How do they work?
Once you've downloaded the storage service, you just open up the drive and copy and paste something on to it, like your holiday photos, for example. They'll then be uploaded to an online server and synced anywhere you've installed the software.
You can also share your photos and documents with friends and family (once they've installed the same service).
Are they safe?
The biggest issue with using cloud storage is data security, as you are relying on the service to keep your files and documents secure. If your account is hacked, your files are immediately available.
Cloud storage companies typically use encryption to keep your information safe and two-step verification to ensure the right person has access to the account.
Encryption scrambles your data so that anyone unauthorised is unable to use it. The strength of the encryption is at three levels, starting at 128-bit, rising to 192-bit and with 256-bit as the most secure. Two-step verification involves sending you a message and asking you to respond when you login or amend your account to check you have the authority to do so.
See below for our full help on how to keep your account secure.
Best free online storage services
There are a whole load of online storage services available, with many offering a few GB of free space. They're largely similar in what they do, although a few have special functions. There's no limit to the number you can use - sign up for them all and you can grab up to 57GB for nowt.
It's also worth checking if you can get any free online storage from your broadband provider. BT and Virgin, for example, offer a decent amount of free storage for their customers. BT customers can get 5GB-50GB depending on their broadband package. Virgin customers have access to the Virgin Media cloud and up to 50GB free storage to share with their household.
If you're just looking to back up photos and video, specialist photo storage and sharing service Flickr offers all new accounts a whopping 1TB worth of space - enough for some 500,000 photos. Flickr doesn't let you store other files though, so if you're looking for full online storage you're better off looking at another option.
15GB free, £15/yr for 100GB
If you're a Gmail user, you can sync Google Drive with your Google account to store and access files wherever you are.
Strengths? Simple to use. In total you can get 15GB of free storage spread over three Google services: Google Drive, Gmail and Google+ Photos. (You'll get 5GB for each).
What if you pay? There are a number of storage plans - full info on the Google Drive site. 100GB will cost you $1.99/mth (roughly £15/yr) and 1TB is $9.99/mth (c. £77/yr).
Anything else? As Google Drive uses your Google account login details, it's important you keep these safe. Google offers some top tips on keeping your account secure.
With Google Drive working for three services, it's also worth looking at what you can clear before you buy more space. Try converting PDF documents to Google docs and have a spring clean of your Gmail inbox. It might also be worth clearing out deleted files in your Google Drive trash as they'll continue to take up space.
What's the security? You can choose to add two-step verification to your account. This sends your phone a unique code every time you log in to check it's really you.
15GB free, £24/yr for 100GB
Popular with MoneySavingExpert.com's tech team, OneDrive (previously SkyDrive) is Microsoft's free online storage offering. You need to have a Hotmail or Live mail account, but as these email services are free, it's worth setting one up just for the free storage.
Strengths? 15GB of virtual storage space, easy to use.
What if you pay? 100GB costs £1.99/mth, 200GB is £3.99/mth. If you opt for the Office 365 packages which cost between £5.99-£7.99/mth (or £59.99/£79.99 for the whole year) you get 1TB storage.
Anything else? OneDrive has "public" folders and "shared" folders. Shared folders are only visible to specific people, but public folders (which you can turn off) are visible to all. OneDrive also gives you an extra 15GB if you back-up your photos and you could get upto 5GB if you recommend 10 friends (500MB for you and each friend you recommend).
What's the security?Two-step verification needed when you sign in using a device not previously associated with your account.
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Amazon Cloud Drive
5GB free, £32/yr for 100GB
Following in the footsteps of Google and Microsoft, online shopping giant Amazon runs a cloud-based storage service called, straightforwardly enough, Amazon Cloud Drive.
Strengths? As well as its free 5GB of storage space, Amazon also lets members store music in a personal library. You can store up to 250 songs in the cloud, so you can listen wherever you are, on your iPhone, iPod, Android mobile or Kindle Fire tablet. Amazon Prime members also get free unlimited storage for their photos. It's probably not worth forking out the £79 a year just for this service, but if you're already a member, there's no harm in trying it.
What if you pay? If you want more storage, there are several packages to choose from. Prices start from £6/yr for 20GB, and run up to £320/yr for 1TB.
Anything else? Some users have reported problems with Amazon Cloud Drive when using the latest version of Google Chrome, so if you use Chrome as your default browser, it may be worth switching to another browser to download the desktop app. Amazon has troubleshooting tips on its website to help.
5GB free, £10/yr for 20GB
If you're a diehard Apple fan, there is only one option for you: Apple iCloud.
Strengths? The free version comes with 5GB of virtual storage space, and is available on Macs, PCs, iPads, iPhones (3GS models or newer) and 3rd/4th generation iPod Touches.
Though it can't be used for syncing emails and backing up your files, it's the easiest place to store all your music, videos, books and photos. It's simple to use, and once set up, automatically adds all the photos you take using your devices to the Photo Stream album.
Apple iCloud's latest feature allows up to six members of the family to share their digital goings-on - from photos to their iTunes library, so you can all sync in perfect harmony.
Another bonus is the Find My iPhone feature. If you lose your phone or Apple device, you can sign into iCloud to track it down and lock it.
What if you pay? You can boost your free allocation of space with a subscription. You can get 20GB for £0.79/mth, 200GB for £2.99/mth and 1TB for £14.99/mth.
Smartphone apps? Yes, free for iPhones.
Anything else? iCloud requires iOS 5 on iPhone 3GS or newer, iPod touch (3rd and 4th generation) and iPad. On Mac computers you'll need OS X Lion or newer, or with PCs Windows 7 or Windows 8.
What's the security? A minimum of 128-bit encryption.
2GB FREE, up to 16GB with referrals - or £79/yr for 1TB
Launched back in 2008, Dropbox is one of the biggest names in online storage, and it's available to anyone with any kind of email address.
Strengths? You normally install Dropbox, but there is also an online version which you can use on any PC where Dropbox is not installed - just log in online.
What if you pay? You initially get 2GB of space, though this can be boosted by introducing friends to Dropbox. For every friend you refer, you'll both gain an extra 500MB, up to a maximum of 16GB. If this still isn't enough space, you can upgrade your account with a monthly subscription to Dropbox Pro. 1TB costs £7.99/mth or £79/yr.
Also see the Is there any way to get more space? FAQ on the Dropbox site.
Anything else? Other users can't see your private files in Dropbox unless you deliberately invite them or put them in your "public" folder. Be aware though that everything in your public folder is, by definition, accessible to anyone.
What's the security? Dropbox has 256-bit AES encryption and uses two-step verification to check it's really you when you log in.
Flickr (only for photos and videos)
1TB free - but you can't store other files
Owned by internet giant Yahoo, Flickr is probably the world's best-known photo-sharing site. It also allows you to store videos, but you can't save other files, so it doesn't really work as a full online storage facility.
Strengths? It's free to sign up and allows an enormous 1TB of storage space for photos and short videos. The site's designed to share and see others' photos, but if you want to keep some pics just for family and friends, you can set the privacy settings on each image to control who can see it.
What if you pay? You can double your storage space to 2TB for around £310/yr ($499/yr) - although you'll probably only need this if you're a professional or a true photography nut.
What's the security? Flickr uses 128-bit AES encryption.
If you've got a fair number of photos, files and documents and want the convenience of storing them all in one place, you'll have to pay to get more space. Several companies offer an additional 20GB or 50GB, but if you are going to pay it's more cost-effective to go for an option without any free storage.
Currys/PC World owned KnowHow offers a huge 2,000GB (2TB) for £30 a year. Pay in advance for 5 years and the cost drops to £90 for 2TB.
The best value add on is an extra 100GB from Google Drive, which costs $1.99 a month (approx £15/yr, although the cost will change as it is charged in dollars). Or if you're after a bit more, Copy offer 250GB for £30/yr.
|Google Drive||OneDrive||Copy||Amazon Cloud Drive||Apple iCloud||Dropbox||Knowhow|
|100GB||c. £15/yr ($1.99/mth)||c. £24/yr (£1.99/mth)||£32/yr|
|200GB||c. £48/yr (£3.99/mth)||£64/yr||c. £36/yr (£2.99/mth)||£15/yr|
|250GB||c. £62/yr ($99/yr)|
|500GB||£160/yr||c. £84/yr (£6.99/mth)|
|1TB||c. £75/yr ($9.99/mth)||
c. £59.99/yr (£5.99/mth)
|c. £64/yr ($9.99/mth)||£320/yr||c. £180/yr (£14.99/mth)||£79/yr|
Remember though, you're signing up for an annual cost, so if you just want to back-up your data, consider buying a portable hard drive instead. The cheapest 1TB of storage we found costs about £50. See Cheap Memory Cards.
Whether it's your pics, your financial information or just your favourite funny cat videos you are storing online, you need to take steps to keep your data safe.
Here are some tips to keep you, and your info, safe from the hackers:
- Keep your password secure. Change your password regularly and don't use the same password across multiple websites. If hackers crack one password it's a pain, but if they access all your online accounts it can be a nightmare. As many sites use your email as a login ID, using the same password increases your security risk.
- Don't use predictable passwords. Using family or pets' names or dates of birth is common, but hackers can access some of this data from public sources such as Facebook. Break up passwords by using ranDoM capiTal leTTers or numb3rs. Or for a truly random password, use a password generator.
- Use a password manager. If you struggle to remember large numbers of passwords, use a password safe or password manager to store them securely online. All you have to do is remember a master password and retrieve the others as and when you need them.
- Disable auto-uploads. If you are concerned about sensitive info or pics, turn off the auto-upload function on services such as Dropbox or iCloud. These services automatically save a backup version of your documents in the cloud but don't distinguish between everyday photos and files and the ones you really don't want getting into the wrong hands.
- Keep antivirus software up to date. Hackers are constantly developing nasty new computer bugs so you need to ensure that you've got decent antivirus and antispyware software in place and that it's up to date. Find out more in our Free Antivirus Guide.
- Avoid phishing emails to keep out the nasties. Viruses and malware often sneak in disguised as other attachments, so ensure that any files you are downloading and opening come from a reliable source. See Phishing Emails.
Which programs do you rate? We've only picked the big name online storage programs here, but there are loads more. Tell us which you like in the Free online storage discussion.