Cloud storage gives you 24/7 access to your documents, photos, music, and you can access them wherever you are and on whatever device you're using. It also makes sharing photos, videos, and documents easy. Even better, a number of services are free. Here's the scoop on four of the biggest cloud services:
Apple iCloud: Best for Apple users. Apple iCloud is built into many Apple apps, including Keynote, Pages, and Numbers. You can start writing a to-do list in Notes on your iPad, for example, and finish it later on your iPhone. iCloud also syncs your e-mail, contacts, and calendar on whichever Apple gadget (or Windows PC) you're using.
Other cool ways iCloud automatically syncs your stuff across all of your Apple devices: Snap a shot with your iPhone, and you'll find it on your Mac. Buy a song on iTunes on your desktop, and it downloads to your iPod Touch. Bookmark a site on Safari on one device, and it updates your bookmarks list on all of your gadgets. 5GB of storage is free; you can add more starting at $20 a year for 10GB.
Dropbox: Best for sharing files. Store and sync documents, photos, videos, and other files on your computer, tablet, or smart phone, then invite others to download. Just be aware that your allotted free storage includes data others share with you, so clean out your folder periodically and ask people who have shared their folders with you to remove them from your account. 2GB is free; add 100GB for $99 a year.
Google Drive: Best for collaborating in real time. Two things distinguish Google Drive from iCloud and Dropbox; first, you get the tools you need to create presentations, documents, spreadsheets, and drawings right from Google Drive. And once you create a file, you can not only share it with someone else, but you can also work collaboratively on it. When you make a change, the person you're sharing with sees it right away.
It works well for work but has handy personal uses, too. For example, you and your siblings can work together on an anniversary-party invite for your parents, even if you live miles apart. Whenever your device goes online, Google Drive automatically syncs the latest versions of all of your documents. 5GB is free; add 25GB for $2.50 a month.
Microsoft SkyDrive: Best for Windows fans. It's a no-brainer for Microsoft users, but SkyDrive has another big upside: It's the best deal of these services. You can collaborate on projects and edit documents with free online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. SkyDrive works on computers using Windows 8 (including Surface tablets), 7, and Vista, and Mac OS X Lion. You get 7GB free; add 20GB for $10 a year.
Some final advice: Always be familiar with your chosen service's policies. And never use a cloud service as the only storage for files you can't afford to lose. Your best option for backing up everything on your computer is still an external hard drive.
This story originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of ShopSmart magazine.