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Online storage eases file access

Moving digital files between your work and home computers can be a pain. Add smartphones and tablet computers to the mix, and you've got yourself a giant headache.

Google Inc. unveiled its solution to the problem last month, while two other companies, Dropbox Inc. and Microsoft Corp., improved their existing offerings. The idea is to leave your files on their computers, so that you can access them from any Internet-connected device, wherever you are.

That means you can stop emailing big files to yourself, and you can stop carrying those USB thumb drives that fill up quickly, especially when transferring photos and video. These services also make it easier to share documents with others.

The three services I tried are free, though you'll have to pay if you need more than your allotted storage.

Google Drive, Dropbox and Microsoft's SkyDrive share many core features, but here is a comparison of their individual services.

>Storage

The services give you plenty of free space for word processing, spreadsheets and other basics, but not enough for extensive storage of photos and video.

You get 2 gigabytes for free on Dropbox, 5 GB on Google Drive and 7 GB on SkyDrive. Those who used SkyDrive before April 23 can claim 25 GB of free space, though others might be eligible too. Dropbox lets you earn additional free space by recruiting friends or performing such tasks as installing Dropbox's software.

Signing up for additional free accounts gets cumbersome, so count on paying if you need more. An extra 100 GB will cost $50 a year on SkyDrive and $59.88 on Google Drive, while 100 GB including the free space will cost $199 on Dropbox. Cheaper plans with less storage are available.

Winner: SkyDrive, with the most free storage and cheapest upgrade plans.

>Sharing

All three let you share content by creating links.

On Dropbox, friends with that link can view the content, though you'll have to go through extra steps to create a "shared folder" for others to edit documents.

With SkyDrive, you can give people editing capabilities with that link. In fact, you can give some people a view-only link and others a link with editing privileges. You can share via email and decide whether recipients can edit documents. You can also post content to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks directly from SkyDrive.

Google Drive also lets you choose whether links come with editing capabilities. But unlike SkyDrive, you can't create view-only links for some and editing links for others. It's one or the other for particular files and folders. You can also email items as attachments or as a link to your Google Drive account.

Dropbox and SkyDrive can automatically turn the photos you share into galleries, so that friends can view them through an interface that resembles what you'd get on Facebook or a photo-sharing site.

Winner: SkyDrive, with the most options for sharing.

>Search

Not surprisingly, the best search options come from Google, the Internet search leader.

Searching on Google Drive is fast and versatile. You can search not just by file name, but also the contents of documents in a variety of popular formats. It uses an optical-character reader to pull out text from newspaper clippings and brochures you scanned. I was impressed that it found multiple references to "cockatoo" embedded in some scanned brochures.

Dropbox searches based on file names only. SkyDrive searches contents of documents in Microsoft formats -- Word, PowerPoint and Excel -- but it won't even index the file names for other types, including photos.

Winner: Google Drive

>Software

Dropbox has the most software options.

For desktops, there's a Linux version besides ones for Windows and Mac computers. Microsoft and Google support Windows and Macs only. Microsoft's software won't work on Windows XP, an older, but still widely used system. It also won't work on earlier versions of XP's successor, Vista. So many SkyDrive users will be stuck with the Web-based interface.

Dropbox also is the only service to offer phone apps for Apple and Android devices. It's also the only one to support BlackBerrys. Google doesn't have a version for iPhones or iPads yet; its app only works on Google's Android system. Microsoft doesn't make one for Android, though it has one for its own Windows Phone system besides the Apple devices.

Winner: Dropbox

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Learn more

Google Drive: drive.google.com

SkyDrive: skydrive.live.com

Dropbox: //dropbox.com