Store your files on the Net, free

Do you ever wish you could store important files in a safe place off your PC, ready to grab whenever you need them, from anywhere?

Lucky for you, free Web storage services are becoming as common as free Web-based e-mail. SpaceForFree (which offers 20MB of free storage space) and SwapDrive (25MB of free space), are just two recent additions.

Both services make getting up and running easy. SpaceForFree makes you choose a user name and password, and also supply your real name, address, and e-mail address. In a few minutes I received an activation key via e-mail and could use my personal space.

SwapDrive's registration procedure is similar, but also asks for basic demographic and PC information (such as your browser and operating system). As soon as you enter your information, your space becomes available.

Choose your interface

If you plan on accessing your data from a variety of PCs, especially those with older browsers, SpaceForFree has the edge. Its HTML-based interface allows it to be used with virtually any browser. It worked well even with a version 3.0 of Internet Explorer. And it's simple: just choose the file you want to store and upload it. You can also easily view and download the files.

SwapDrive has a fancier interface -- actually a choice of two, Java or ActiveX. You can switch interfaces at any time. SwapDrive's Java interface has a few more bells and whistles than SpaceForFree. Most notably, a viewer lets you eyeball text or graphics files before retrieving them. However, you'll need 4.0 or later versions of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator, or any other platform with suitable Java support, including the MacOS, Sun Solaris and Linux.

SwapDrive's ActiveX interface lets you drag and drop files if you're running Windows 95, 98 or NT. This is a more natural approach and it almost makes SwapDrive seem part of your machine, although obviously it is much slower than your hard drive or Zip drive.

Share not alike

Remote storage services like SpaceForFree and SwapDrive are especially handy for sharing files, allowing you to leave a file for others to grab at their convenience.

The two services offer this feature in quite different ways.

SpaceForFree lets you choose individual files that you want to share. You enter the e-mail address of the person you want to access the file, and they're sent e-mail with the URL for downloading the file. I like this approach, which emphasises privacy and security.

But with SwapDrive, all who share your files must have an account on the service. And while this is simple to set up (just enter their e-mail addresses), they gain access to all your files. The only work-around is a pain: you must sign up for a second SwapDrive account that holds only the files you want to share.

Down on the server farm

According to their representatives, both SpaceForFree and SwapDrive run huge Windows NT server farms with terabytes (thousands of gigabytes) of disk storage. SpaceForFree says it has plans to support up to 5 million users. SwapDrive currently can support 1 million users and plans for more.

As far as security goes, both services shield your files from direct access to the Internet by using database servers as a front end to stored data. Only the database servers that point to your files are directly connected to the Internet. The companies claim this prevents hacker attacks from accessing data without knowing specific user names and passwords. All files on both services are also scanned for viruses daily.

Both services stress that they do not access user files, although their user agreements emphasise the fact that they take no responsibility for the content of the data. And the services will release your data if they receive court orders. The files you store aren't encrypted, but you can always use an encryption utility.

Extras, for $$$

Of course, 20MB or 25MB isn't exactly a huge amount of storage. But these services are meant for temporary storage of relatively small amounts of data for sharing or (relatively) quick access. More space is available, for a price.

SpaceForFree offers an additional 10MB of storage for $US10.99 a year; an additional 15MB for $US20.99 a year. Becoming a paid member also gets you backup and data recovery, additional storage options, and Secure Sockets Layer file transfers.

A SwapDrive representative says the service will also offer additional paid storage space in the near future, although pricing hasn't been decided yet.

Overall, I prefer SpaceForFree. Its no-nonsense interface and effective file-sharing abilities reflect the way most of us want to work. And it's faster than SwapDrive. But if you want more storage, remote file viewing, and drag-and-drop transfers, then check out SwapDrive.

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