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It's been a long time in the making, but the once-mythical cloud storage service known to all as Google Drive is real, and it made its official debut today -- and even though Goog's taken plenty of time to make it available to the masses, our impatience certainly got the worst of us, and we immediately started digging through the new service. So what does this online storage option entail? Will it make you delete your Dropbox and SkyDrive accounts and jump for joy? Or has Google simply waited too long to start playing the game? Read on to find out our first impressions.

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Google Drive hands-on

Features

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Cloud storage. You have it with Dropbox, SkyDrive, iCloud, and a gazillion other third-party providers. There's absolutely no shortage of services available for your desktop and virtually every smartphone and tablet on the market. And oddly enough, Google has kept itself largely out of the game until now, content with simply offering Docs, which was doing double-duty as an online document suite and online data storage service.

As it turns out, Google's had much grander plans for Docs -- perhaps from the very beginning -- and this is manifesting itself in Google Drive. Ultimately, that's really what it is so far: a slightly evolved version of Docs with some new sharing, integration and developer features. Note that we use the term "so far," since the tech giant has a knack for pushing out a service in its basic state and expanding its functionality and usefulness over time (one needs to look no further than Google+ as evidence of this). Drive, as we see it today, will likely be a much different service a year or two from now as it progresses.


As you begin using Drive, you're given 5GB of space to play with for free, with options to pay $2.49 / month for 25GB, $5 / month for 100GB and $50 / month for a full terabyte. Upgraded accounts will also be blessed with 25GB of Gmail storage, a nice perk compared to the 10GB Google gives you gratis. If you're looking for a price comparison between this and the competition, check out our table here.

Drive doesn't seem to be terribly particular about the types of files you choose to store in your cloud -- we uploaded everything from .mov files to Office docs and even APKs, and each one was easily downloadable -- and every one can be shared with your peers. The only requirement we've seen so far is that no file can exceed 10GB, a milestone that far outpaces many of Drive's major competitors.

Overall, there's not much to the service beyond that. Google's keeping it all simple for now, offering a desktop app that makes file transfers much faster and easier than what was available on Docs previously. Let's dive into some of the features that Drive offers.

SDK

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Not surprisingly, Google didn't leave its developers in the dark when Drive launched. The Chrome web store already features 18 web apps with Google Drive integration, and the SDK is now available to everyone else that wants to add an extra dose of happiness to their own projects. Doing so will certainly beef up the appeal of the service as more choices get tossed into the web store, and we were anxious to check out a few of the apps already waiting for our perusal. So how can devs take advantage of Drive?



MindMeiser, a brain mapping application, now gives you the ability to view, share and edit map files directly from Drive. HelloFax lets you sign and fax docs, and even installs a folder within Drive that can store all of your incoming and outgoing faxes. Lulu's web app now offers you the chance to publish your docs to its service. Aviary photo editor makes it possible for you to take any of your images, edit them in a new window and save the new version -- as well as every previous iteration of the edited file -- in your account. This is just scratching the surface, but we're quite certain we'll be seeing a lot more handy uses come as a result of the Drive SDK.

Browser interface

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Have you used Google Docs recently? If you have, you won't need to worry about getting used to some brand new user interface within the web browser. In fact, Drive exhibits the same minimalistic-style user experience we've come to expect across the board with Google's suite of services, so it won't take much time for you to get everything figured out.

Drive is set up with the search bar on top and two panels encompassing the remainder of the screen: the menu panel on the left and the list of docs on the right. From the left, you're given the opportunity to either create a new doc or upload an existing file from your desktop. Below this, you'll see My Drive as well as options for shared, starred and recent docs. There's also a "more" section, which you can use to filter your choices to match whatever specific criteria you're interested in. Above the standard list of docs on the right panel you'll see a row of sorting and viewing options as well as a settings menu. Right-clicking folders or docs will also prompt a special menu of available features: you can go here to share, download, rename and reorganize the selection. There's plenty more here for you, but many options will vary depending on the kind of file you're trying to access.

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All of the sharing functionality has been brought over from Docs. This includes public file sharing, a feature you'll find on SkyDrive but not Dropbox. And as we've come to expect with any of the myriad services that the company boasts, it has been integrated (to an extent) with its social network, Google+. When writing up a new post, you're now given the ability to attach an image that you've stored on Drive. Integration options will continue to expand over time, according to the company blog, as we'll soon be able to attach stuff from Drive into Gmail (although this is admittedly already possible by using the Android app).

Something that threw us off at first was the matter of photo compression. We were concerned that large image files would be significantly compressed when we uploaded them to the service, and fortunately it appears that each picture remains fully conserved at its original size. The only exception to this that we could see is that when viewed directly from the browser, 4MB photos would show up as only 0.2MB. Downloading the file to your computer or Android device, however, still offered us the full monty.

Desktop apps

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Apple and Microsoft fans alike can relish in the spoils of Google Drive, because the company has made a desktop app available for both Mac and Windows. This app works in a very similar fashion to the kinds you'd find in other cloud storage options such as Dropbox: after a quick and easy installation process, you'll see a Google Drive folder pop up on your desktop (or wherever on the computer you'd prefer to store it). Once there, the folder begins syncing the contents of My Drive, and within a matter of minutes you'll see a representation of everything you have hanging out in your online storage. From here it's just a matter of dragging and dropping the files you choose, no matter what type of file format you want to add. This is a great option for heavy Drive users that don't want the hassle of uploading files directly through the browser's interface.

After dragging and dropping your docs into your desktop folder, they'll automatically pop up in the Drive on your web browser -- regardless of which kind you prefer to use -- and the service's corresponding Android app. You won't have to refresh the browser to see the recent changes, but you'll need to manually do so on the mobile version.

Android app

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The Google Drive app on Android is going to be an experience much similar to what we had with the web browser: the user interface doesn't vary much from the original Docs app. Since Drive is essentially a one-upped version of Docs, it shouldn't surprise you that the Drive app isn't even a separate program -- if you've been using Docs on your Android device already, a simple update is all you need in order to start using the new service. Upon opening the refreshed program, you'll see a menu that offers to take you to the full listing or you can opt to see only items that have been shared, starred, or made available for offline use.

No matter which option you choose, you'll still be able to access the usual menu in which you can create a new document or upload an image, music track or voice recording. You can also change how the docs are sorted or just simply refresh (read: sync) your folder to see any additions that have been recently thrown in there.

One of our major concerns when testing out the Drive app was if and how our docs could be saved directly onto the phone, without needing to access the app each time. Naturally, since every document can be saved for offline use, you can still easily view the ones that are most important to you regardless of your data connection. However, what if you want to save an image from Drive into your gallery? Or a PDF? How about a song or movie? That's a completely different story, in most cases.

Certain doc formats, such as PDF and Word types, can be easily added to your phone's file system without a huge amount of hassle. Upon accessing the file within Drive, you can go into menu, then file, and finally choose "save as," which gives you the ability to save directly to your device (Dropbox and Skydrive are also included as options as well, though this can be done even faster by choosing the "send" feature). It takes a few steps, but it's at least doable in a reasonable amount of time. They can also be reformatted to fit your mobile's screen so they're easier to read without pinching-to-zoom. Fortunately, these file types can also be sent to your local printer with no need to leave the Drive app at all.

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What if you want to save a music file on your device? It's possible, provided you're willing to email it to yourself, open it on your phone or tablet and save the attachment from there. If you don't want to worry about going through the process, you can still listen to it within the app itself, but it won't play in the background, which means you'll run into a major problem if you want to do anything else on your phone while you groove to your favorite jams. This whole frustration goes for several other file types as well, such as movies, images and even files that use the standard Google Doc format (Gdoc spreadsheets, for instance, can be emailed in PDF format, but can't be directly saved onto your device that way by default).

If you'd like to watch one of the videos from Drive and you don't mind watching it directly via the app, you can do so -- but each movie file is highly compressed. When we uploaded a 350MB .MOV video to the cloud, our Android app proceeded to download a 7MB version of the movie instead. This makes sense for such large files, as a means to cut the downlink time and save your capped data plan from getting completely annihilated in one fell swoop, but don't be expecting to get the best possible quality from it.

Are you an iOS user that pines to have the same kind of functionality? It's coming sometime in the next few weeks, we're told. In the meantime, just point your Safari browser to Drive's mobile site and you'll find that plenty of the same features are available to you.

Wrap-up

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As Google mentioned in its introductory blog post, this is just the beginning. And for the company's sake, we hope it is. What we see today is more of an evolution from Docs than it is a revolutionary new service that will blow the mind of anyone that experiences it. That said, we also recognize that there's plenty of room for growth, as well as further integration with the vast expanse of Google's universe. Ultimately, we're witnessing the company's pledge to take on the likes of Apple and Microsoft with a fully capable cloud service of its own. Given its shortcomings, it's got a long way to go -- but at least it's off to a respectable start.

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Google Drive preview: an in-depth look at features and functionality