Pros: A convenient way to archive and share data.
Cons: In most cases, you get little storage space and file transfer rates for modem users are slow.
Best use: Worthwhile as a cheap, easy way to back up documents, files, MP3 tracks and photos.
Apple's iMac is the future of personal computing: PCs will no longer contain a floppy drive. Where and how will you archive important files, shuttle work documents to colleagues and share family photos with relatives? High-capacity removable drives (such as the Iomega Zip) represent one option, but are costly. Fortunately, numerous Web sites these days supply storage space for free.
In exchange for some personal information (usually consisting of your e-mail address and your post code), sites such as FreeDiskSpace.com, I-drive and X:drive let you store or back up your files on their servers. Most sites allot between 25MB and 30MB, which should be adequate for saving small files, but won't suffice for backing up bulkier data, like graphics. Some of these sites let you buy additional storage. Other sites award you more space if you complete marketing surveys or persuade friends to join their service. For example, FreeDiskSpace.com gives you 5MB for each friend you refer who opens an account; if you fill out a fairly intrusive survey, you can earn up to a staggering 300MB. If that's still not enough space, you could always open an account at every free storage site on the Web.
Aside from being free, one big benefit of Web-based storage is that you can access your files from any Web-connected PC. This is a bonus for business travellers and telecommuters tired of transferring files between work, home and notebook PCs - or lugging a heavy floppy drive on trips.
Free storage sites also offer the advantage of letting you keep files in both private and shared folders. Friends, family and business associates can access specified parts of your private account, allowing you to share documents and photos without the hassle of e-mail attachments. (Some services permit non-members to sign on as "guests" and access your files; others reserve file-sharing options for members only.)Of course, you compromise the security of your data when you store documents on the Web. For this reason, many free sites keep multiple copies of your files on offline servers to prevent snooping or hacking. Finicky users may have legitimate privacy concerns. I-drive's user agreement, for instance, states that the company "does not guarantee the security of any information transmitted to or from this Web site".
For truly secure data transfers, you should opt for a pay service such as @Backup which employs heavy-duty 56-bit encryption to transfer your files across the Net. The service also lets you archive up to 100MB of data and its Windows program allows you to schedule automated backups and transfer multiple files in one session. In contrast, most free storage sites permit you to transfer only one file at a time.
Of the 10 free storage sites we reviewed, our favourites are X:drive, I-drive and FreeDiskSpace.com. X:drive takes top honours thanks to its reliable performance, its simple file-transfer tools and a clever virtual-drive utility that lets you treat your X:drive account as another PC storage device. To use this feature, you'll need to run Windows 95 or 98 and download a free 900KB applet from X:drive. (FreeDiskSpace.com plans to offer a virtual-drive feature soon, according to a company spokesperson.) One quibble about X:drive: it'll send you reminder e-mails if your account is inactive for more than 125 days, in an effort to keep you coming back.
I-drive is another gem. Perhaps most impressively, it packs three nifty free applications - FILO, Sync and Infinite Space. If you've ever bookmarked a Web page or article only to get a Page Not Found' error message when you try to access it months later, you'll love FILO: it lets you copy entire Web pages to your I-drive storage area, leaving all the linked URLs intact. Sync allows you to synchronise the contents of a folder on your PC with one in your I-drive account.
Finally, with Infinite Space, you can store an unlimited amount of Web content - including news, file downloads, MP3 tracks and other types of data - in I-drive's storage area. (I-drive limits desktop storage to 50MB.) And like X:drive, I-drive doesn't force you to trade information (by completing a survey) for space.
Our third favourite is FreeDiskSpace.com, which supports multiple computer platforms, including Linux and Macintosh. (I-drive supports Windows, the Mac OS and Linux, but its FILO and Sync tools run only on Windows and Mac OS.) FreeDiskSpace.com also wins points for letting you transfer multiple files simultaneously - a unique feature among free storage sites.
People at home who don't need a lot of space and are willing to risk their privacy will benefit most from a free storage site. If you connect to the Web via a modem, though, you'll suffer from slow data-transfer rates. Business users seeking a secure repository for corporate secrets are wiser to shell out some dough.