Whether it's one of Apple's little MacBook Air laptops or one of the growing number of small ultrabooks running Microsoft Windows, small laptops with solid state drives have become increasingly popular.
These drives, with no moving parts, are faster and physically smaller than typical hard drives but -- in most cases -- store a lot less data. The least expensive MacBook Air drive stores only 64 gigabytes while most other SSDs store either 128 or 256 GB. By contrast, even low-priced notebooks with traditional drives usually store at least 320 GB and often a lot more.
But even 64 GB is a generous amount of storage compared with most tablets and phones. The iPad starts out at 16 GB and many Android tablets have as little as 8 GB.
While a small drive may be enough to hold the software you need plus the files with your work in progress, chances are you have lots of files you want access to that just won't fit. The 128 GB flash drive on my MacBook Air, for example, isn't nearly big enough to store all my music, photographs and video or all the other data on my desktop machine's 1 terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) drive.
Most of the time that's not a problem. But there have been times when traveling that I needed access to a file that wasn't on my laptop. So I turned to cloud storage, in which remote servers store data you can access from wherever you have an Internet connection. Thanks to these giant disk drives "in the cloud," you don't need a lot of storage on your local device.
There are several cloud storage systems -- including Google Drive, Dropbox and SugarSync -- that store your data on remote servers. Another option is Pogoplug, which enables you to connect an external hard drive to your home network to provide you with what the company calls a "personal cloud."
There are several advantages and a couple of drawbacks to remote server-based systems. One advantage is they are professionally managed and backed up. Although there is a possibility of them becoming temporarily inaccessible (as many people discovered when Amazon's servers in Virginia went down due to storm-related power outages), the odds of losing your data are a lot lower than if you store it on your own backup drive. And if there is a catastrophic event at your house -- like a fire or a flood -- your data is safely stored far away.
All of these services also allow you to share files and folders, which can be great for co-workers who collaborate on projects or family and friends who want to share photos, videos and other files.
While cloud services provide a limited amount of storage for free (typically 5 GB), they charge for additional storage. Dropbox charges $99 a year for 50 GB of storage. Google Drive is cheaper at $2.49 a month for 25 GB and $4.99 for 100 GB. SugarSync charges $50 a year for 30 GB, $100 for 60 GB and $150 for 100 GB.
SugarSync vs. Dropbox
Another issue, at least with Dropbox, is that it's designed to synchronize your devices so anything stored in your Dropbox account is also stored on your laptop's drive. That makes it faster to access, but it can unnecessarily take up space on your laptop's drive. SugarSync gets around that by giving you a choice of whether to synchronize or just back up any folder on any of your machines. I have large data folders on my desktop machine backed up to SugarSync that I don't sync to my little Mac, but I have smaller folders that SugarSync syncs between both machines and stores on its own servers. If I need any of these files while traveling, I can access them from my account on SugarSync's website, even from a mobile device.
With Pogoplug, you don't rent space on a server, but purchase a device that you install at home or at the office and attach one or more external hard drives, which means you can have almost unlimited storage for no monthly fee.
The company sent me its $99.95 Series 4 device that supports up to two fast USB 3.0 drives and a SATA drive. I attached a 1 TB Western Digital Passport Drive with a USB 3.0 connector (it cost $110; the 2 TB drive is $249). Most people will do just fine with Pogoplug's $49.95 "Classic" model that supports a single USB 2.0 drive. With their device you can connect a wide range of external drives including some that store up to 2 TB.
Pogoplug doesn't synchronize your computers, but it does allow you to remotely access that external drive from anywhere with an Internet connection. You can grab files via a Web interface or "mount" the drive so it appears as if it's a local drive on any PC or Mac.
When you're home, files are quickly backed up at the speed of your network. When you're on the road, both backup and restore speeds are based on your Internet connection. It's noticeably slower than a regular drive, but when you need a file, slower is a lot better than not at all.
This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News