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Google Drive Has Quietly Become One of the Best Backup Options Around

Google Drive logo over hard drives---article header image.
Michael Crider/zentila/Shutterstock

Google Drive, compared to the attention services like Dropbox and iCloud get, seems to just sit out in the wings hardly looked at. But, much to my surprise, it’s a fantastic service with flexible backup options.

About six months ago I started looking for a backup service. Not just any old cloud storage service: one that could store the weekly backups from my massive desktop PC, holding a decade’s worth of photos, documents, videos, and even more exotic, larger files like virtual machines.

I settled on Google Drive, AKA the new “Google One,” as it’s sometimes branded for consumers. After trying out the general consumer tiers from Dropbox, Box.com, Microsoft’s OneDrive, and a handful of others. For the specific goal of backing up hundreds of gigabytes at once while preserving the file and directory structure of my desktop, while costing as little as possible, it met my needs perfectly.

I think I’m not the only one in this situation, and others would benefit from some head-to-head comparison of paid options. So, without further ado, here are the reasons I settled on Google Drive for my cloud backup system.

Easy File Management

When you install Google Drive’s desktop component, blandly titled “Backup and Sync from Google,” it’s all pretty straightforward. Log into the service, pick a primary folder location on your drive, and start downloading things from the cloud as the initial sync begins. But then you get to this page in the small program:

A look at Google Drive's Windows settings interface.

See that option to add external files to your account? It’s an obvious feature…but one that’s actually very rare, as these backup services go. Dropbox doesn’t do it: everything you want to put on Dropbox’s cloud drive has to be within its specific folder. Microsoft OneDrive, Box.com, and Apple’s iCloud don’t do it: ditto. For all of them, even if you’re paying for terabytes of space, you need to keep all your synced items in a single folder.

That’s a problem for me, since I use a speedy SSD for my desktop’s primary storage drive and a massive, cheap hard drive for backups and other space-hogging files. Google Drive allows me to keep a “primary” folder of synced cloud items on the desktop—a sort of quick “pocket” for frequently-used files that I often access from multiple devices—while also syncing my gigantic backup folder to the cloud.

Google search results
Clearly I’m not the only one.

To get the same thing done in the other services I tried, I’d have to either move my entire cloud folder to the big, slow hard drive (not ideal for frequently-used Photoshop templates), or sync files back and forth between the drives. That puts one more moving part in my setup, between my backup program (Cobian 11) and the cloud storage service itself. I tried to make it work with Dropbox and OneDrive, using tools like Boxifier or Microsoft Synctoy… and at one point managed to make a recursive backup system that kept backing up my SSD over and over again until the entire hard drive was full. iCloud and OneDrive offer desktop and document folder syncing, but still can’t add any other external folders or drives.

To put it simply: Google Drive makes it simple. And If you want your backups to be automatic and effortless, that’s worth a lot.

Excellent Web Tools

Let me tell you about my experience with Dropbox’s paid tiers, trying to handle over 400 GB of data in a single backed-up folder. At one point I realized I had made a mistake in Cobian Backup—a freeware backup application I was using with Dropbox—and would need to start over from scratch with my backup, which would take several days to a week to upload on my home connection. So I deleted the original backup C drive backup folder, and waited.

And waited.

Days later, the C drive folder was still taking up space in my Dropbox account, despite the fact that it was gone from the local machine. I could go to Dropbox’s web interface and try to delete it…but as it turns out, Dropbox doesn’t allow you to delete a folder with more than 30,000 files in it on the web. For some reason. It has to be done via the desktop. Where the folder was… not there anymore.

Okay. So I went to a second machine, the How-To Geek testing desktop, and installed the Dropbox Windows client. I set it to download the synced C folder, then deleted it as soon as it appeared, hoping the change would sync back to the server. Nothing.

A transcript from Dropbox support. It doesn't get any better after this.
A transcript from Dropbox support. It doesn’t get any better after this.

I tried this trick a few more times, on different Windows machines both real and virtual. None of it worked. In frustration, I reached out to Dropbox’s support, and they said it would take time for the change to sync and for me to get that space back. “It’ll be done by Friday!” the support guy said, on Wednesday. On Saturday I was still talking to support, telling them to just delete my whole account and let me start over if they couldn’t handle getting rid of that pesky folder. They responded with links to support articles that I’d already read, and tried, multiple times.

Google Drive web interface.

Contrast all of this to Google Drive, where you can log in on the web and access all of the files in your primary folder, all of your web-based documents in Google Docs, and all of the files you’ve backed up outside of that main desktop folder. You can download, or delete, any file or folder at any time. Even when I’ve deleted 400 GB directories, it’s never taken more than an hour or two for Google’s remote system to reflect that change. It puts Dropbox to shame.

Great Value

Google recently changed up its pricing model under the “Google One” brand. (Yes, that’s an awful name. We’ll elaborate in a moment.) At the $10 a month budget I was willing to spend for the peace of mind of having all my desktop files saved remotely, they offer a very generous two terabytes of storage. At the $10 level for consumers, Dropbox and Apple iCloud offered one terabyte, Box has 100 GB for $5 or “unlimited” for $15 (with a 5 GB file limit that doesn’t work for a full desktop backup). Microsoft OneDrive is the only major competitor that beats them at $10 a month, with 6 TB of storage for six users… but a maximum of just one terabyte each.

Google One's cross-service web interface.

So, Google is a pretty clear leader in terms of price. There are other, independent options out there that might beat it, but they don’t offer Google’s tools or service integration. That might be more valuable than you realize: that 2 TB of space also applies to Gmail, all of your Google Docs files, and Google Photos, too—for most users that means these services become practically unlimited.

But wait, pause for effect, there’s more. Google’s One storage plan can be shared with up to five other users for free, on an unlimited number of computers and mobile devices. The pooled storage doesn’t have the compartmentalized limitations of OneDrive. Paying for a premium plan also grants you 24-7 access to live support, over chat, email or (wonder of wonders!) a phone line. That’s a big deal in the world of Google, where getting a hold of a real live human being as a free user is almost impossible.

A Few Downsides

One of the reasons that I tried so hard to get Dropbox to work for my setup, despite it offering less storage on my budget and making me go through hoops to get my folders in order, is speed. Based on my calculations it was using 90-95% of my available upload speed, when I let it do so.

Google Drive is not fast. When syncing it’s using 50-60% of my upload capacity, even when no upload limit is set in the desktop program. I suspect this is because Google is doing much more file processing on its end: when I switched Cobian to create big ZIP files instead of a simple mirror setup, it went much faster. But because of the way the backup program works, this would mean making another complete upload of my C drive backup folder every week, instead of the incremental one I wanted.

Google Drive's upload notification in Windows.

Google Drive’s mobile apps aren’t as good as Dropbox, and I still keep a Dropbox account active for just that reason. When I take a photo or a screenshot on my phone and I’m on my home’s Wi-Fi, the Dropbox app is smart enough to sync the file directly to my computer at the same time it’s uploading to the cloud—they appear on my PC almost instantaneously. Google Drive still has to upload to Google, then download to the desktop, which can take several minutes. It puts a real lurch in my workflow.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the fact that Google Drive is, well, Google. While the company uses 256-bit SSL/TLS encryption, privacy advocates are probably still wary of using any of the big web services more than they absolutely need to, with good reason. Smaller and more independent services—inevitably more expensive and less integrated—may better suit your needs if security or privacy is a concern.

But for my setup, and the peace of mind I crave having years and years of work files backup both locally and remotely, I’m willing to overlook that—and for the ease of use and price, I think a lot of people will too.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »