Google Drive review

Part office suite and part file-syncing service, Google Drive retains all the best features and core functionality of its predecessor, Google Docs, while upping the ante on just how much it enables collaboration. It's one sweet package.
Photo of Google Drive

What started as a free online alternative to Microsoft Office has quickly become one of the most impressive services for creating, editing, saving, syncing, and collaborating on documents. Google Drive (freemium) has long impressed me in just how far it goes toward helping groups of people work together on files simultaneously. Some new features rolling out in a recent update add even more support for teamwork.

It hasn’t been long since Google Docs rebranded itself as Google Drive, so allow me to briefly recap: Google Docs took on the new name after it added local file syncing to its service. In other words, Google Docs—ahem, Drive—now works more like Dropbox , SugarSync, or any other file-syncing service you care to name, while still retaining the core office productivity apps. In that sense, its closest competitor may well be Microsoft SkyDrive, which also has online document creation tools.

With Google Drive, you can upload files to your Google account, convert them to Google’s file format to edit them online, create new docs in the Web interface, collaborate with other users in real time, and export the finished products to more standard file formats, such as .doc, .rtf, .pdf, and so on. The latest round of changes makes working with others in real time even more intuitive, because you can see their profile pictures on the screen, where formerly you only saw a line of text at the top and a color code indicating who else was looking at or editing the file.

Because of these wide-ranging capabilities and its dedication to collaborative document editing, Google Drive remains a PCMag Editors’ Choice. We have no hesitation recommending Google Drive—although it is important to understand how one of the new features works. The feature in question could potentially reveal your identity to others, but managing it is simple when you know how it works. And as much as Google Drive is an excellent platform and service, that doesn’t mean it’s the only file-syncing service you should use either.

What’s New in Drive?
The newest change in Google Drive, which will roll out to users slowly, is that Google+ profile pictures of collaborators now appear at the top of the file when they’re viewing or editing a document. Formerly, when collaborators opened a document, you would see a line of text reading “2 other viewers” at the top right, which opened to reveal their names or email addresses and a color code for each person. For example, if I invited Maria to edit a spreadsheet with me, I would see her name appear next to a pink square at the top of the spreadsheet any time she opened it. As she moved through cells, they would appear highlighted in pink.

The new feature adds Maria’s profile picture at the top of the document and would let me add her to my Google+ circles. There’s also now an integrated group chat feature that lets multiple collaborators hold discussions via text while they’re working.

Another fairly big addition is offline access to all your Drive materials if you’re using Google Chrome OS. To enable this setting, go to your Google Drive page and look under the “More” button the left for the offline access setting. Turning on this feature lets you read and edit your files offline; changes will sync to the cloud the next time you connect.

The toughest criticism Google Drive has faced amount to concerns over privacy and IP ownership. The new collaboration features could put your face in front of strangers if you’re not careful, but it’s very easy to manage this potential problem with an ounce of care.

Some Google Drive owners keep their documents open to the public, and if you’re signed into your Google account when you view these files, other users will be able to see your picture and name. When looking at public files, it’s a better idea to log out of Google, or use a different browser, and maybe also turn on incognito features if your browser has them to keep yourself anonymous. Anonymous users are assigned random profile pictures of animals instead, such as a dolphin, dinosaur, or beaver.

My feeling on the matter of privacy in Google Drive is this: If you are comfortable using Gmail, you should be comfortable with Drive. If you are skeptical of Google’s user agreements, don’t use Google products. For more in-depth analysis, see “Google Drive’s Terms of Use: Lazy People Should Worry.”

Main Features of Drive
The gist of Google Drive, and the main attraction to it, is it can store your files in the cloud where they are accessible to you and your collaborators, and become highly searchable.

One feature related to “search” stands out: Google’s ability to scan a photo and “read” it using optical character recognition, or identify it using its own technology. The only other app of this kind that uses built-in OCR nearly as well is Evernote , although you have to have a paid Premium account to use it.

Google also claims Drive allows videos to be uploaded, but we encountered some issues with that part of the service.

Like many other general file-syncing services, Google Drive works better for document files than multimedia. It’s not ideally meant to be a music and video streaming service—for that kind of product, you’ll likely need a paid service and device, such as the Verbatim Mediashare Mini, although SugarSync does offer some neat capabilities and support for streaming iTunes music. Amazon Cloud also offers some special support for music and movies. However, within the Google universe you can use Google Play in tandem with Drive (more on that in a bit).

Carryover Features from Google Docs
The core services and functionality that were in Google Docs, namely, a free online office suite where files are also hosted, remain intact in Drive. Google Docs is one of the best known free alternative to Microsoft Office, although it’s entirely Web-based—there’s no software to install to use it (the only downloadable part is the app for local syncing with Drive).

As with Microsoft Office, Google Drive lets you create word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentation documents, forms, vector drawings, and now in beta, tables. Google hosts your files, too, so when you log in, all your files are there. You can sort them into customizable folders, which appear along a left pane, or just search for what you need, using a standard search bar in the Web app.

When you create a document in Google Drive, the file format used is Google’s own. However, the system couldn’t be more flexible. You can export Google documents to more standardized files formats, like .doc, .rtf, .ppt, .pdf, and more; and you can import practically any document with the option of keeping it in its native format (which may limit your ability to edit it) or translating it into a Google doc file, which makes it editable in the online service. I’ve certainly had my share of moments when I was stuck on a computer that didn’t have Microsoft Office at the very moment someone emailed me an important file that required my feedback pronto. Google Drive saved the day. I could open the file in GoogleDrive, edit it, and export the revised file back out to its original form. Occasionally some formatting will go haywire during this process, but it gets the job done.

Price and Storage Allotment
The free version of Google Drive gives you 5GB of space—but in fact, that’s not the whole story. Google in fact provides much more space for free because files you create using Google Docs (that is, in Google’s proprietary, online formats, rather than documents uploaded from another format) don’t count toward that quota, nor do files shared with you.

But if 5GB isn’t enough, you can pay $2.49 per month for 25GB or $4.99 per month for 100GB, and both those paid plans come with bonus space for Gmail (25GB). Other plans let you choose 200GB ($9.99 per month), 400GB ($19.99 per month), all the way up to 16TB of space ($799.99 per month).

Whether you use the paid or free version, you won’t see any ads attached to Drive, anywhere–which is not the case with Gmail.

Cheapskates are better off with Microsoft’s SkyDrive, which offers 7GB (or 25GB if you were an existing user prior to April 22, 2012) and doles out an additional 20GB of space to anyone who buys Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium.

SugarSync meets Google’s freebie allotment with 5GB free space, but the bonus referrals are limitless, so you can easily earn a lot more. Dropbox starts you out with meager 2GB and lets you earn bonuses, but caps all free accounts at 16GB.

Installing Drive Locally
To get the local, desktop syncing part of Drive, you need to download a small installer for Windows or Mac. When the installation completes, Drive appears as a folder. If you add files to it, a recycle icon shows that they are syncing to the cloud. It’s fast, and as you’d expect, Google makes searching for a document quick and easy.

And as with any file-syncing service, do understand that if you delete files from your local drive, they will also be deleted from Google Drive.

Supported File Types
We 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. Remember, there’s also Google Play Music, a separate cloud service for your music files, along with rivals like MSpot. Our only issues arose with video files. We tried an .avi file; no dice. A .wmv? Nope. Mpeg files were hit and miss. Granted, there are almost dozens of different video formats available. We’re waiting to hear back from Google for a list of those supported.

Videos and Photos
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 with your phone and have it automatically upload into Drive. In other words, there’s not automatic photo syncing button. But you can take a picture with your Android phone, manually upload it to Drive, and it will upload with full resolution. Videos can be uploaded to Drive as well.

However, videos and image files that are stored via Drive must be downloaded each time they’re accessed. It not only costs you time, but also counts against your bandwidth cap. 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.

The coolest new feature in Google Drive is its ability to “read” photos with OCR technology. The only problem is that this feature seems confusing at first glance. If you take a photo of a page of a book, the photo will save as an image. But if you choose to save it as a Google document, the photo will be attached to a searchable block of text—not replaced by it, so you have side-by-side views of the OCR interpretation and the original. Google does an excellent job with OCR. Say you want to quickly sneak a snapshot of your favorite recipe into your own arsenal, well, this feature is just the thing.

Drive for Collaboration
Google Drive excels at supporting collaborative projects, which is something other file-syncing services don’t offer and big reason it’s an Editors’ Choice. It offers so many appealing features and capabilities that you’re missing out if you don’t use it. But there’s nothing stopping you from using more than one service, like another Editors’ Choice among file-syncing services, SugarSync or Dropbox, not to mention other options like SkyDrive, Box, and Amazon Cloud. Having more than one service lets you compartmentalize your home and work files, or keep photos separate from documents, and so forth. It also lets you decide which of your files to put in more secure cloud spaces and which to leave to the whims of Google’s money-making teams.

OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Linux, Mac OS, Windows 7, Windows 8
Type Business, Personal
Free Yes

Part office suite and part file-syncing service, Google Drive retains all the best features and core functionality of its predecessor, Google Docs, while upping the ante on just how much it enables collaboration. It's one sweet package.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc