Remember the first time you tried to send a 4GB video file as an email attachment? Anybody who has tried to share a large file with a friend or colleague understands all too well to the problems that are involved. Email attachments can get rejected, especially if you don't know what the upper limit on a file size is for sender or recipient. Uploads and downloads can be arbitrarily slow. And the clunkiness of the whole process makes it hard to get real work done.
In the bad old days, if you wanted to distribute files that were too hefty for your email to handle, you had few choices. You could buy some web-hosting space and use that to distribute files on the fly to your co-workers and collaborators, you could burn a disc or copy the file to a USB drive and drop that in an envelope, or you could use that fabled legacy transport protocol, Sneakernet. Nowadays, however, there's a bevy of free services that offer tons of storage and bandwidth.
In this piece, I examine 10 file-hosting services that can be used to distribute files to an audience via links or email. Four are dedicated to sending and hosting large files in a corporate context ( MediaFire, RapidShare, ShareFile and YouSendIt), while the other six ( Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, Minus, SkyDrive and SugarSync) are more general, personal-use file-storage services that have mass distribution as an adjunct feature.
All of the services in question allow download links to be generated from uploaded files, which makes it easy to distribute them to a mailing list or other group. That said, they've all got a different mix of storage capacities, helper apps and quirks.
To check file transfer times for each service, I uploaded a 100MB ZIP file that contained a mixture of PDF documents, JPG images and TIFF images, using a connection with an average 2 megabit/second upload speed.
In the following descriptions, I deal mainly with the file-sharing features of each service. Computerworld has reviewed a few of these services separately, looking at their other tools more thoroughly; in that case, we've provided a link to the review.
Dedicated file-sharing services
While there are currently a variety of cloud storage services out there, they were preceded by dedicated file-sharing services, whose main purpose was to allow people to upload and download files that were too large to send via email. These services may be more focused, but they also tend to offer the chance to share larger files.
MediaFireClick to view larger image.
MediaFire is useful if you have lots of files you want to distribute, as long as they're under 200MB each. Uploads are scanned with the BitDefender antivirus engine; common document types can be previewed directly at MediaFire's site via a Flash-based previewer. Distribution includes sending file links to social media ( Facebook, Twitter) and emailing via contact lists from a variety of programs including Outlook, Plaxo, vCards and many more.
The MediaFire Express desktop application is currently in beta but shows a fair amount of thought. It provides a drag-and-drop target for quick uploading of files and folders; after uploading, a pop-up appears with a quick link to the uploaded files.
No limit Free account max file size: 200MB Paid account storage space: No limit Paid account max file size: 4GB ($9/month); 10GB ($49/month) File storage expiration: None as long as account is not inactive for more than 128 days Other paid options: Uploads do not expire for lack of activity; direct links to files without interstitial pages; removal of ads; custom domains and branding Time to upload 100MB file: 6 min. 30 sec. (includes BitDefender scan)
RapidShareClick to view larger image.
What RapidShare lacks in paid features it makes up for with few restrictions on its core product. The biggest limitations are on download bandwidth and file retention, not storage, so it's a handy way to quickly throw big files somewhere and distribute them to a broad audience on short notice.
Its desktop manager app, though, leaves something to be desired. It runs on Java and requires that you manually launch the installer as an administrator (most app installers do this automatically). Once set up, though, it makes uploading easy via an Explorer right-click context menu.
The "RapidSave" tool allows you to repackage your already-uploaded files for download as a single item. There's no apparent limit to how many files can be repackaged this way. However, while you can use RapidShare to send file links to multiple parties via email, there's no apparent way to import lists of contacts. (You can quickly access the names of previously emailed people, but that's not as useful.)
No limit Free account max file size: No limit Paid account storage space: No limit. With paid account, files remain, even after 30 days of no downloads; pricing starts at 9.90 Euros for 30 days (the payment system accepts PayPal and credit cards, but all payments are in Euros). Paid account max file size: No limit File storage expiration: Files deleted after 30 days of inactivity for free accounts Other paid options: Advanced admin tools; unlimited download speeds Time to upload 100MB file: 16 min. 10 sec.
ShareFileClick to view larger image.
ShareFile is clearly aimed at corporate customers rather than consumers. There's no free plan, although there is a 30-day free trial for all account tiers; the 10GB-and-up tiers include access to desktop widgets and Outlook plugins. Files can be assigned an automatic expiration period, from one day to two years after uploading.
The Windows desktop-sync application is written in Adobe Air, so it doesn't have amenities like a right-click context menu to Windows Explorer, but at least the app gives you the ability to generate a download link for each file or folder. In addition, distribution lists for mass mailings can be created from an Excel spreadsheet.
None Free account max file size: N/A Paid account storage space: 5GB & 2 employee accounts ($29.95/month); 10GB & 10 employee accounts ($59.95/month); 20GB & 20 employee accounts ($99.95/month); corporate plans (require rate quote) Paid account max file size: 10GB File storage expiration: Only as designated by uploader Other paid options: Outlook plugin; desktop sync; stored file encryption; drive mappings; SAML support Time to upload 100MB file: 7 min. 27 sec.
YouSendItClick to view larger image.
The lowest tier of YouSendIt is rather constrained, but the higher tiers are clearly aimed at business users, with add-ons like Outlook plugins (great for mass distribution) and Active Directory integration. Links to files sent via YouSendIt's mailer option -- as opposed to just generating a manually distributed link from an uploaded file -- can be set to expire after a given length of time (a paid option) or require a user login with a verified YouSendIt account to read the file (available for free accounts).
The desktop client works much like Dropbox: It creates a folder into which you drop files to be uploaded, with the sync status of each file displayed as an overlay icon. The only way to obtain a given file's direct download link is through the YouSendIt site; the desktop client doesn't provide a way to do this. But the site does have a good preview system for common file types.
2GB (max 1GB of download bandwidth per month) Free account max file size: 50MB Paid account storage space: 5GB ($9.99/month or $99.99/year); unlimited ($14.99/month or $149.99/year) Paid account max file size: 2GB File storage expiration: 7 days or 100 downloads, whichever comes first (free accounts only) Other paid options: Expiration date control; full-folder downloads (instead of individual files); premium file delivery options; phone support; upload to Dropbox; Active Directory integration and enterprise security options available via Workstream plan Time to upload 100MB file: 9 min. 23 sec.
General file storage
These services are known more for file storage and backup than for the distribution of files. However, they all have file-sharing capabilities, and if you already use one of them -- or if you're looking for a file storage service -- it could make sense to use that service for file sharing as well.
The basic free version of Box provides file management exclusively through its Web interface. You drag and drop individual files to upload them, but if you want to upload whole hierarchies of files (folders and subfolders) there's also a Java-based bulk uploader. A list of links is maintained for recently updated items, and discussion threads can be created for folders and files. Public file links can be automatically distributed via social media and email, with contact lists for the latter importable from many common services and applications.
5GB Free account max file size: 100MB Paid account storage space: 25GB ($9.99/month); 50GB ($19.99/month); 1000GB ($15/user/month); unlimited (custom quote) Paid account max file size: 1GB / 2GB File storage expiration: None Other paid options: Full text search; item version history; Google Apps / Active Directory / Salesforce.com integration; ECM cloud support; custom branding Time to upload 100MB file: 12 min. 24 sec.
DropboxClick to view larger image.
Dropbox was among the first services to offer seamless upload and storage via its client software. All you need to do to sync files to Dropbox is put them in Dropbox's designated folder on a system with the client app, and the sync happens silently in the background. Sharing links and other admin functions can be done directly from the right-click menu in Explorer, but the only way to share with predefined lists of people is through your list of Facebook friends.
A special "Public" folder in your Dropbox account allows files to be linked to directly, without a click-though download or preview page. This way, you can upload a web page into the Public folder, link directly to it, and in effect host impromptu websites in Dropbox. Note that Web pages need to be encoded as straight ASCII to render correctly, as that's the default for documents served from Dropbox.
2GB (up to 18GB with 500MB per referral) Free account max file size: None Paid account storage space: 50GB ($9.99/month or $99/year); 100GB ($19.99/month or $199/year); 1TB+ ($795/year and up) Paid account max file size: None File storage expiration: None Other paid options: Unlimited file version retention; multi-account controls for teams; at-rest file encryption; dedicated phone support Time to upload 100MB file: 8 min. 3 sec.
Google DriveClick to view larger image.
As with Dropbox and SkyDrive, Google Drive's desktop client creates a folder into which you can place files that are automatically synced to the cloud and to other devices running the client.
However, file sharing can only be set up through Drive's Web interface, not the desktop client. You can, though, use the client to easily distribute a file's link to Google contacts and groups (assuming Google is what you use to manage your contacts).
Files created and stored in Google Docs can also be synced to your Drive folders, although you can elect not to sync selected subfolders in Drive. Documents saved in Drive can also be opened as Google Docs documents, if Docs supports the format in question. Note that files converted into Google Docs-compatible formats aren't counted towards the storage total.
5GB Free account max file size: 10GB Paid account storage space: 25GB ($2.49/month); 100GB ($4.99/month); various other plans up to 16TB ($799.99/month) Paid account max file size: 10GB File storage expiration: None Other paid options: None Time to upload 100MB file: 6 min. 55 sec.
A still-evolving service (the company doesn't offer a paid tier yet), Minus allows signup via Facebook or Twitter and has browser extensions for both Chrome and Firefox that allow fast uploading of images and content.
Apart from allowing files to be shared for download, most of Minus's features seem geared towards Tumblr/Pinterest-like social sharing, not professional use. Users can follow each other and see feeds of newly uploaded content, which can be organized into publicly browse-able categories. Sharing is limited mostly to making a link public and manually distributing it.
The desktop client works as both a drag-and-drop uploader and a remote management tool for your stored files. It also has the ability to snap and upload screenshots. One handy function of the browser add-on: You can take a snapshot of a whole Web page and upload it.
10GB (up to 50GB as reward for recruiting other members) Free account max file size: 1GB Paid account storage space: None Paid account max file size: N/A File storage expiration: None Other paid options: N/A Time to upload 100MB file: 6 min. 50 sec.
Microsoft's SkyDriveClick to view larger image.
Part of the Microsoft Live family of services, SkyDrive provides client apps for Windows and Mac that sync to and from folders on a client machine. Drag-and-drop uploading through Web browsers is also supported, but only for individual files and not whole folders; to do the latter you need to use the client software.
The PC client comes off like a poor man's version of Dropbox; there's no way to share files with other users except through the SkyDrive website. On the plus side, the website previews Microsoft Office-format documents using Office Web Apps; these files can be created directly in SkyDrive with Office Web Apps as well. Files can also be mass-distributed easily to users in your Hotmail contact lists.
7GB (25GB for users eligible for free upgrade) Free account max file size: 2GB Paid account storage space: +20GB ($10/month); +50GB ($25/month); +100GB ($100/month) Paid account max file size: 2GB File storage expiration: None Other paid options: None Time to upload 100MB file: 8 min. 37 sec.
SugarSyncClick to view larger image.
SugarSync, a competitor to Dropbox and Box, has a somewhat more complex usage model. You can designate existing file folders in your computer to be synced to the cloud and to any other computers you designate. SugarSync also creates a "Magic Briefcase" folder in the Documents folder; anything placed there is automatically synced across all devices registered to your user account.
A "Web Archive" folder, on the other hand, stores files from devices but does not sync them automatically if the originals are changed. This makes the Web Archive a useful place for files intended mainly to be distributed to others, so they're not replicated unnecessarily.
The desktop client also includes a file manager application that lets you see what files are synced into the cloud and across your devices, all in one place. Note that files in your account can also be browsed via the Web, with limited preview functions for some file types (e.g., music).
5GB Free account max file size: None Paid account storage space: 30GB ($4.99/month or $49.99/year); 60GB ($9.99/month or $99.99/year); 100GB ($14.99/month or $149.99/year); 250GB ($24.99/month or $249.99/year); 500GB ($39.99/month or $399.99/year) Paid account max file size: None File storage expiration: None Other paid options: Business plans include at-rest encryption; Outlook integration; user management; unlimited devices per user account Time to upload 100MB file: 9 min. 20 sec.
If you already have Dropbox, Box, Google Drive or SkyDrive accounts, it makes sense to use them as default choices for file distribution -- as long as you don't mind the restrictions on storage, or the lack of contact-list support in some of them. Minus might be an interesting contender in time, although right now its feature set is still very simplistic.
If you only want to share files, MediaFire is a good choice (although a major constraint with free accounts is that individual files are limited to a maximum of 200MB); in addition, it makes mass-mailing easy. RapidShare's lack of file-size limits is a plus, but its distribution tools leave a bit to be desired.
My top selections? If you're looking for a service that both syncs and shares files, SugarSync is a good choice, since it doesn't have file-size constraints and does have some remarkable pro-level features. For sharing-only tools, YouSendIt's got heavy restrictions for free users and ShareFile's got no free tier at all, but both of those services have excellent professional-level features. They, along with SugarSync, are the best of the services to grow into as needed.
Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications.
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