Cloud storage has become increasingly popular, both for individuals and companies, as a place to stash everything from tax records to family photos. Services such as Dropbox, Box, SugarSync or Google Drive offer the chance to easily store your data and then access it from any of your devices.
But while the services are secure, generally immune to disasters and usually offer several gigabytes of space for free, there are problems. To begin with, when you use a public cloud storage service, you essentially give up control of the data. It's stored on distant servers, often with many copies spread throughout the world. Even if you erase a file, you'll never know if it's truly gone.
And if you need more than the free space allowance, you have to take annual fees into consideration. For example, Dropbox offers 2GB of free storage space (up to 18GB if you refer friends); after that, it costs $99 annually for 100GB, $199 for 200GB and $499 for 500GB.
There are, however, alternatives for individuals that combine the security of personal storage with the convenience of the cloud. Called personal cloud storage, this method combines the best of both worlds by storing files on a local networked drive and allowing you to retain full control over your data, while still making files available just about anywhere you can get online.
Rather than having your data stored on an anonymous server (or series of servers) spread across the globe, it is right next to your router. (On the other hand, you're vulnerable to a personal disaster, like a fire or flood -- so it's a good idea to arrange for off-site backups.) The data is password protected and encrypted, and when you delete something -- whether it's an embarrassing photo or confidential financial document -- you know it's gone.
And once you buy the equipment, there are no annual storage fees -- ever.
To see how this class of personal cloud systems can help put data in its place, I obtained three new devices: the LaCie CloudBox, Western Digital's My Book Live and D-Link's ShareCenter 2-Bay Cloud Storage 2000.
Each offers its own mix of ways to connect locally or remotely via computer (and sometimes game consoles). The devices also offer a variety of remote access apps for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone devices. Shop carefully, though, because not all these devices cover every OS.
Although they look quite different, these devices have a lot in common. All are small enough to fit on a bookshelf or otherwise sit out of the way. Each device uses a wired Ethernet connection to connect to a router; none uses Wi-Fi. Finally, they all provide data encryption.
How you access your files differs from device to device, with some offering preview thumbnails of the documents, others only a list of file names. Click and the documents appear on-screen, although there's a lot of variation in how long this step can take. In addition, each of the systems offers a way to share documents, images and videos with others.
I put each cloud device through its paces, checking for how hard it was to set up and how easy it was to access my files remotely. I also did performance testing for how long it takes to send files to the drive and retrieve them on the go.
Whichever one you choose, you can be sure exactly where your bits and bytes are and that -- after the initial purchase -- they're not costing you a penny in rent.
Price: 1TB: $120 (list), $104-$134 (retail); 2TB: $150 (list), $145 - $166 (retail); 3TB: $180 (list), $169 - $199 (retail); 4TB: $250 (list)
If ease of use is what you're after, LaCie's CloudBox is the easiest of the three devices reviewed here -- from opening the box to having your data available wherever the day takes you.
The sleek, white CloudBox has minimalist styling and is the smallest of the three, measuring 1.7 x 4.8 x 7.6 in. The review unit came with a 1TB drive (920GB available for data) installed; LaCie also makes 2TB, 3TB and 4TB versions for $150, $180 and $250, respectively.
The CloudBox doesn't have a fan, but it has lots of vent holes in the back and underneath; after about a month of usage it stayed cool. Under the front panel is a hidden LED that lets you know if the drive is on and active, but it's harder to see from across the room than the lights on the other storage systems.
I found setting up the CloudBox to be the easiest operation of the three in this roundup. All the software is on the drive -- just plug it into the router or a network node, power it up and open Windows Explorer (for PCs) or the Finder (for Macs) to start the Dashboard software. If you get lost during the procedure, there's a Help link on the right side of the Dashboard interface.
The CloudBox also works with Linux computers as well as PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game consoles, but you'll need to set access up manually. It took me about 10 minutes to get it going with a Windows 8-equipped Dell Inspiron 15 laptop.
LaCie's Dashboard software provides a way to pick automatic or static IP addressing, change the drive's name, map it and adjust its power conservation settings. The system can store backups produced by Time Machine or Windows Backup, but it lacks a network diagnostic test like the one on the My Book Live.
Your stored files are accessible from local or remote computers using the company's myNAS website. Once you've logged in, the site shows a list of the drive's items along with details like size and image resolution; click on any to see a thumbnail version in the lower left corner and save the file locally.
There's an iOS-based app called MyNAS (none for Android, BlackBerry or Windows Phones). The app works with Office, PDF, MP4 and MP3 files. It presents you with a list of folders and files that you can click on to view -- the images are rather small (not surprisingly); they can be blown up to fill the screen, but in that case, they're rather fuzzy. Images can also be viewed as a slideshow.
There are two ways to share files stored on the CloudBox. As with the others, you can create a special log-on and password for a guest to have access to a special folder.
Alternatively, you can use LaCie's Wuala online storage service, which provides 5GB of free space. To share items, Wuala creates a Web link that can be emailed. The recipient doesn't need a Wuala account.
The CloudBox led the three in transferring 430MB of assorted files onto the drive with an average speed of 7.0MBps. Its 10.6MBps read and 11.4MBps write operations as measured by Crystal DiskMark were in the middle of the pack.
It took 42.2 seconds to get a 3.2MB image on the screen, the slowest of the three by a wide margin.
LaCie offers a two-year warranty on the CloudBox, a year shorter than the others. Its $120 price tag, good performance and general ease of use make it a good buy.
Price: 1TB: $140 (list), $109 - $271 (retail); 2TB: $160 (list), $140 - $291 (retail); 3TB: $190 (list), $150 - $326 (retail)
If getting to your files from a variety of different devices matters, then My Book Live from Western Digital (WD) should satisfy. It has the widest assortment of remote access apps of the devices reviewed here.
With its rounded front and upright orientation, My Book Live could easily be mistaken for a hardbound book (and can easily be stashed in a bookshelf). At 6.5 x 2.0 x 5.5 in., it is midway between the smaller CloudBox and the larger My Book Live.
It has an easy-to-see LED up front about 2.5-inches from the bottom of the unit that glows green when everything is working. The Ethernet port is in the back.
Inside the dark gray case is a single 1TB hard drive ($140) that yields 992GB of available space for files; there are also models with 2TB ($160) and 3TB ($190). If you want something with RAID functionality, My Book Live Duo comes with a pair of drives that are available with three different capacities: 4TB ($360), 6TB ($460) and 8TB ($610).
According to company representatives, WD is transitioning to a CD-free installation for the My Book Live, but the hardware I looked at required installing software from a disc. After plugging the drive in and running the software it took about 10 minutes for the drive to be ready.
The My Book Live works with PCs and Macs but has no Linux software. The device does include SmartWare for backing up a PC, but not a Mac; you can use the drive to store back-ups from Time Machine and Windows Backup. There's a helpful diagnostic test routine for your network connection, which is great for quickly troubleshooting a connection problem.
It is the only one of the three installation routines that installs a task tray icon. The icon shows how much disk space remains, whether the drive is overheating and if there are software updates to install.
The WD Dashboard software links with the drive and lets you create a password, set up email alerts and control when the drive goes into power-saving sleep mode. I was able to change its name, go between static and auto-IP addressing and map the drive.
Getting remote access to your files requires first obtaining a 12-digit access code that's generated in the Dashboard program, but you only need to enter it once on each device. The code must be used to set up a machine within three days or it expires.
The drive uses its remote-access software, WD 2go, to give you access to your folders and files via a browser; it also gives you the option of opening your files in Windows Explorer.
You can access your data via a mobile device using the mobile version of WD 2go, which is available for iOS, Android BlackBerry and Windows Phone devices. None of the other drives covered here have as wide a variety of remote access apps.
The WD 2go app is a general-purpose tool that provides a list of files that are available, but no preview of what they look like. When I tried it on my iPad I was able to open image, Word, PDF and MP4 video files. And it lets you tap into files stored on DropBox and SkyDrive online storage accounts.
There's also WD Photos, a mobile app that lets you see your pictures in folder, album or thumbnail formats. You can also search based on when an image was shot or by name, and view photos as a slideshow with a small variety of transitions.
Having two apps -- WD Photos and WD 2go -- is a bit redundant, but the added flexibility of having the dedicated WD Photos app is nice for quickly finding and showing images to friends, family or co-workers.
You can also give friends, family and co-workers access to the actual files. You'll need to create a special folder for the files on the drive and create an account and password for them to use.
The My Book Live was the slowest of the three devices; when transferring 430MB of files, it ran at a rate of 5.3MBps. Its Crystal DiskMark score of 10.6MBps and 11.7MBps for reading and writing data were slightly faster than the others.
The system displayed an image in 37.3 seconds, nearly 6 seconds faster than the CloudBox but much slower than the ShareCenter.
Although My Book Live may not be the fastest device of the group, its wide range of apps and other software is a strong recommendation for those who need to get access to their data via a variety of ways.
Price: $200 (list); $145 - $258 (retail)
D-Link's ShareCenter 2-Bay Cloud Storage 2000 is for digital DIYers who like to customize their equipment and set it up exactly the way they want it.
Unlike the other devices reviewed here, the ShareCenter is a full Network Attached Storage (NAS) system that doesn't come with its own hard drive. Instead, it has two empty drive bays that accommodate 3.5-in. SATA drives. If you fill both bays, you can take advantage of the ability to use RAID 0 or 1 or the JBOD striping method to get peak performance or fail-safe operations.
The ShareCenter is, of course, larger than the others at 7.5 x 3.4 x 5.6 in. Because of its greater capacity, it uses a cooling fan, although while I was using the device, it never got annoyingly loud. It can hold up to 8TB of data with a pair of 4TB drives. There is a USB slot in the back for use with an external drive or a printer.
Its LEDs are the most efficient of the three systems here at showing what's going on. There are four lights that indicate if it is turned on, if the USB is active and if one or both bays are occupied.
Setting up the ShareCenter is a little more involved than the other two personal cloud devices. You need to screw a small red plastic strap onto each drive before inserting it into the bay. Unfortunately, it's easy to put the straps on backwards -- I did it wrong the first time and had to re-attach them. Also, if you use only one drive you have to use the right-hand bay or the system won't recognize it.
Like the WD storage system, you need to run installation software from the included CD to get started. D-Link offers software for Windows, OS X and Linux computers. The system can be used for storing backups made with Time Machine and Windows Backup.
Start to finish, it took me about 10 minutes to get the D-Link online and ready to receive data. Five minutes of that were dedicated to formatting the drive; I used an off-the-shelf 1TB Seagate Barracuda drive, which yielded 915GB of available space.
Once the ShareCenter is set up, you can map the drive, using static or automatic IP addressing. I connected the ShareCenter to my network directly with the router and via a LAN switch; there were no problems.