Cloud. Today, it’s all about the cloud. Store in the cloud, work in the cloud … live in the cloud. Google even created ChromeOS to embrace the cloud – and we now have laptops that do practically nothing unless they are connected to said cloud. While you could argue the merits of cloud computing all day and night – we’re only going to look at one aspect of it in this article. Storage.
Cloud storage has been around for a very long time and there are more players in the space now than ever before. There are venerable favorites like Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, Skydrive/OneDrive – and even more you haven’t heard of like Copy.com, Rackspace and Amazon S3. With so many choices, you would think that competition would get the best of the market and drive prices down and features up, but oddly enough that hasn’t happened. Sure, some cloud services have better features and cheaper solutions but there still isn’t really one to “rule them all”.
Where Is The Drive Letter?
Popular cloud storage solutions like Dropbox and Drive use a “mirrored folder” approach with synchronization. That means that you’ll have a local copy of your entire cloud storage solution right on your PC. When you change or add something to this magic folder, a background app picks it up and shoots it to your cloud storage. If you make changes directly on the cloud via the web or some other app, these changes get synced down locally.
Skydrive/OneDrive (to my knowledge) is the only one that “integrates” your storage with the operating system – but even that has limitations and restrictions.
This all begs two questions; one, why are we storing our cloud locally in full and two, why can’t I mount my cloud storage – in the cloud – as a drive letter in the OS?
If you do a Google search for this, you’ll find many people telling you how to do it; but what they are doing is mapping a drive letter to you local copy of the cloud. The goal is to map a drive letter DIRECTLY to the cloud storage so you don’t have to keep a copy local.
ExpanDrive To The Rescue
There have been attempts in the past to hack online web cloud storage into “network storage” so your computer could access it directly. Most of them have been buggy, glitchy epic fails (to use the vernacular). But I saw ExpanDrive and thought I’d better take a look.
ExpanDrive is so easy and simple to use – it almost makes you wonder why it has been so long coming.
The basics? You install the program. Choose a cloud service to use, sign in, choose a drive letter – and you’re done.
Yeah, that’s it. No kidding.
There isn’t much more to see, really. You can map all your favorite cloud services to the drive letters of your choice. You can dismount the cloud connection easily – and re-establish it only when you need it. You can also mount the drives on start up.
You can also use multiple accounts on the same cloud service. If you have multiple Google Drives (say, you and your spouse – maybe one for work) you can mount them all.
Once mounted, the drives allow you direct access to the files you have stored. If the files are “virtual” (like say, Google Docs) then you are give a .url file that will open that file within the cloud storage web access.
As you may suspect, access to cloud files may not be instantaneous. After all, a 4MB image still takes a few seconds to download before it can be viewed or edited. This lag should be expected.
Once opened, the file acts like any other file on your computer you’ve opened.
The real power of ExpanDrive is in how it saves content to your cloud service. The save operation is cached so your application is released and you can continue working. In the background, ExpanDrive will quietly upload your content back to your cloud. This is a key feature and really makes the app as simple and unobtrusive as possible.
Answering the Tough Questions
I got in touch with the developer to answer those questions I know you will be having about the product.
The product is about $50 and comes with a year of free updates. After the year, the software will continue to work but you will receive no updates. Normally this isn’t a big deal but cloud services are known to change up and alter their APIs, so keeping current on this software might make more sense.
New services are added two or three times a year.
Anytime you’re working with web-centric apps, there is always the concern that somehow the data flow loops back through the developer’s own servers. This could impact privacy, up-time and future support. The developer assures me there is no loop through their servers to your cloud storage.
When moving content between clouds (even two instances of the same cloud service) the data will be downloaded locally first, then uploaded to the other cloud service; there aren’t any “site to site transfers”. Keep that in mind when moving large quantities of data.
If you have two accounts on a given cloud service, you can assign them to different drives. Perhaps you have a work Google Drive and a personal Google Drive. You can mount them both as drive letters at the same time.
The Dark Side
No app is perfect. While ExpanDrive does exactly what is promised, there are a couple of areas for improvement.
You will see an occasional UI issue when editing existing cloud services. You might have to scroll the window down a bit to get to certain fields and buttons. Not a big deal, but worth mentioning.
There is no progress indicator or queue to view. I understand the idea is to be “seamless” but there were times when I would like to know what’s going on. When double clicking a 112MB PDF from Google Drive, I received no indication that the file was “opening”. I suggested to the developer that some indicator of activity (even just a discrete flashing of the systray icon) would help out. Maybe flash different colors to indicate uploading and downloading. Some apps like file managers have their own progress displays that will show this, but most of the time, this isn’t present.
As a power user, I’d like to be able to see what is happening in the background. A simple queue window to show me what is currently uploading and what still hasn’t been updated yet would suffice.
I saw a couple of crashes when internet connectivity was spotty (work wi-fi goes up and down more often than a yo-yo). It’s really hard to factor that sort of thing in as a developer, but perhaps this could be better presented as a connectivity failure instead of an app crash? 99.9% of the time, this won’t be an issue but I felt it was worth noting.
Perhaps toast typing indicators that pop up and go away on their own would make sense? Showing when a background upload is done … showing when you lose connectivity with a cloud service … that sort of thing.
If what you want is to access your cloud services with a mapped drive letter and NOT have to keep a local, synced copy of all your data (despite that it is in the cloud) – this is the app for you. If your Google Drive or Dropbox is a mess (which mine currently is), it is far easier to clean it up with a quality file manager like Directory Opus (review) than to try to use a web interface to tidy things up.
For me, this is the brass ring when working with cloud services and I know a lot of my readers will find this app indispensable.