SkyDrive Delivers Solid Cloud Storage Integration With Office 2013

 
 
By Jeff Cogswell  |  Posted 2013-02-19
 
 
 

SkyDrive Delivers Solid Cloud Storage Integration With Office 2013


I recently started using Microsoft’s new Office 2013 along with its SkyDrive integration. This has allowed me to put SkyDrive through the wringer and see if it works as well as Microsoft claims.

I wanted to learn if this cloud-based storage was fast, reliable and, most importantly, was it useful?

For starters, let’s talk about what it is. Simply put, SkyDrive is yet another cloud-based storage system. It’s integrated into Windows 8 and with Microsoft Office 2013. (Later this month I’m providing a full review of Office 2013, as these topics overlap a bit.)

At the time of this writing, Microsoft is giving you free 7GB in their cloud servers. More storage capacity is available for a fee. SkyDrive isn’t technically new; it has grown out of an older cloud-based storage called Windows Live Folders that dates back to 2007. But with the release of Windows 8, Microsoft has revamped SkyDrive, including the online user interface as well as providing the integration with Windows 8.

Starting Out With Sky Drive

Signing up with SkyDrive is easy, especially if you have Windows 8 and created your Windows 8 login attached to your Windows Live account. When SkyDrive is activated, you get a folder in your Users directory called SkyDrive, such as c:\users\jeff\SkyDrive. That folder maps to your cloud storage.

Files saved in this file are automatically stored in the cloud in a secure location. The SkyDrive system is aware of changes to this folder, and continually updates the files to the cloud. Similarly, if files are added to the cloud from another device sharing the same cloud drive, those files will get copied down to your local computer. In general, the files all stay synchronized.

You can access your SkyDrive right from the Windows desktop Explorer just like you can with any other folder. It looks the same as other folders, except the icons have a little green checkmark on them if they are synchronized. If for some reason SkyDrive can’t synchronize the folders (such as you’re offline), then you’ll see a little error icon.

There’s really not much more to it from the desktop end. There’s an icon in the system tray in the lower-right corner of the traditional desktop (as opposed to the new Windows 8 desktop). Right-clicking this icon gives you a popup menu that includes access to SkyDrive settings, as well as access to manage your storage.

The settings is a little window that opens on the desktop. It lets you check whether to start SkyDrive when Windows starts. With most software I don’t use that feature. But in this case I do since I’m making heavy use of SkyDrive. Another option lets you check whether to allow SkyDrive to access all the files on your PC.

SkyDrive Delivers Solid Cloud Storage Integration With Office 2013


With that option checked, if you have another computer at another location, you can log into SkyDrive and connect to the first computer and access all your files. (Does that sound safe to you? You decide, and I’ll discuss more about security later in this article.) There are other options, such as choosing the folders on your computer that map to SkyDrive.

As for managing your storage, that takes place in the SkyDrive Website. The page shows you how much storage you have, and how much you’ve used. There’s also a link where you can purchase more storage above the free 7GB. (At the time of this writing, you can move up to 20GB for $10 per year, 50GB for $25 per year, and 100GB for $50 per year.)

SkyDrive Online

In addition to storing your files in the cloud, you can also access the cloud versions directly through the Web browser by going to https://skydrive.live.com. (See the slide show for screenshots.) On the left side of the window you see a menu, including menu items Files, Recent Docs and Shared.

Clicking on Files, you see blue rectangles (that look like the new Windows 8 interface). Each rectangle is a folder. You can click on one to go into that folder and see that folder’s contents. Also, if there are documents and images in the folder, the folder isn’t just a blue rectangle; it shows a thumbnail version of the first file in the folder, and even rotates through the different files.

I’m not sure how useful that is, but it looks pretty (if that counts for anything). When I click on my QuinStreet folder, I see the articles I’ve written for eWEEK that I saved in my SkyDrive, including the one for the review I wrote of Eclipse Orion. That’s a Word document, and it has a little Word icon. If I right-click it, I get a popup menu, with the top two items being Open in Word Web App and Open in Word. I’ll cover that next.

Integration With Office 2013

I’m only touching briefly on this, as I’ll explore it more in my article later this month about Office 2013.

But for now I’ll say that Office 2013 is fully integrated with SkyDrive. By default, Office encourages you to save your files in your SkyDrive, although you’re free to save them anywhere on your computer as before. When you do, your files get stored both locally in your SkyDrive folder (or a subfolder you created under it) and are uploaded to your cloud drive.

You can then open your files from within Word, for example, by simply accessing the SkyDrive folder. Or, from the SkyDrive folder page in the browser, you can use the popup menu I mentioned a moment ago. Clicking the second option, Open in Word, you get a popup for permission. I’m using Chrome, and I see “Run this time” and “Always run on this site.”

SkyDrive Delivers Solid Cloud Storage Integration With Office 2013


Also the first time, another message in the browser appeared saying, “Stream and use your Word 2013 subscription!” I clicked “Use Word 2013” and never saw the message again when I clicked the “Open in Word” option.

Then Chrome popped up a warning to ask me to launch the application; from there, Word opened, but only after it popped up a warning about opening remote files and that they can contain viruses. And finally back in the browser, the SkyDrive page asked me if it opened successfully and if I had any issues. (Whew!)

The other option is to run right in the browser using Microsoft’s online version of Office. It works great and it’s something I’ll cover in the next article about Office 2013.

But before wrapping up this discussion of Office, I need to say a couple more quick things. Because of my years of programming and my experience with lost files, I tend to be a bit obsessive about saving my files. I’ll press Ctrl+S very often so I don’t lose anything. And apparently I’ll press it a second time right afterwards, even though it doesn’t do anything different other than to save the file again.

But this double-saving causes problems in Office and it’s a habit I had to break. When I press Ctrl+S while editing a file saved in a SkyDrive, Word (and the other Office programs) show a little bar at the bottom with the words “Uploading to SkyDrive.” It only takes a couple seconds to upload, and Word lets me continue working during that time. But if I press Ctrl+S a second time before it’s done uploading, I’ll get an error message at the top that says the file couldn’t be uploaded. It gives me the option to save again, which I do to make the error go away.

Also, I did encounter a little confusion because it apparently has its own integration tools that operate separately from those built into Windows 8. I can see two icons in my system tray in the lower-right corner of the screen. One is the SkyDrive icon and one is a separate one for office called Microsoft Office Upload Center. I’ll cover the Upload Center in the next article.

Sharing

One handy feature is the ability to share files. My own experience in sharing files on other platforms, such as Google Documents, is usually a rather clumsy approach to collaboration. (Why would two people be working on a document simultaneously?) With SkyDrive, you can similarly share a document with friends or co-workers, and you and other people can use the files simultaneously. Office is, again, fully integrated here, and even provides notifications as you’re typing if the other users changed a section of the document.

Bugs

SkyDrive isn’t technically brand new, as it has its roots in Windows Live Folders, which came way back in 2007. However, I did encounter a few bugs. At times, even though my connection to the Internet was fine, my files just wouldn’t upload after I saved them and I would see an error message in Word.

SkyDrive Delivers Solid Cloud Storage Integration With Office 2013


I don’t know why it didn’t work. But eventually it would start working again and all was fine. But there was a bigger, more troubling bug that I can’t deal with and I had to take measures to prevent a loss. Several times while working on this very article, I would take screenshots for the accompanying slideshow. I’m sort of low-tech on my screenshots; I just press Alt+PrintScreen to capture a window, and I then paste the image into IrfanView.

I was saving all my images into a subfolder under SkyDrive that I made specifically for this article. And on three separate occasions I went back and those image files simply weren’t there. The first time I wrote it off as user error, figuring I had saved the file in a different folder by mistake. But then it happened a second time an hour later. This time when I noticed the file was gone, I still had IrfanView open with the image, and at the top was the full path and filename of where I saved it. I looked at it and it was indeed the SkyDrive folder. But it wasn’t there. So I saved it again. This time the file stuck.

But, after completing this article, I came back to this problem and noticed something odd: The files weren’t totally gone. SkyDrive maintains a recycle bin that you can access from the Web interface. I happened to look in there and lo-and-behold there were the missing files. At this point I’m not sure how they ended up there, nor am I confident that if the problem happens again the files won’t disappear altogether. So I’m keeping a separate backup folder on my computer and I periodically do a full backup there too of my SkyDrive folders, especially with important files pertaining to my work. I strongly encourage you to do the same until we hear from Microsoft on this and they issue a patch.

In addition to native Windows 8 support for SkyDrive, you can also get apps for SkyDrive for the Mac, iPhone, iPad and Android. However, there have been some issues regarding the iPhone and iPad.

Additionally, there’s an API so third-party developers can integrate their apps. (If there’s interest from readers, I can provide a review of the API tools.)

Security

Before wrapping up this review, let’s talk about security. Over the past few years of being involved in tech journalism and hearing from readers, I’ve heard many times people voice concerns about saving their files in “the cloud.” Indeed, there have been problems where services have lost files.

Here’s my brief opinion on that, and this is strictly an opinion: Cloud storage services may lose files, but is that really a problem? In general, I’m very meticulous about my backups. I back up to multiple locations. I have thumb drives that I back up to for immediate problems.

SkyDrive Delivers Solid Cloud Storage Integration With Office 2013


I regularly burn to DVD and store the DVDs in a fireproof safe offsite. And for non-critical files that really don’t matter if hackers get them, I save them in various locations in the cloud. Now I’m using SkyDrive. Even if Microsoft fixes the bug I mentioned earlier, I will continue to back my files up locally. It’s just good common sense. So if there is a disaster, then it won’t matter. I’ll still have all my files.

A bigger issue is security regarding people gaining access to my files. Again, what I consider my best practice is this: I do not put sensitive data on the cloud. Yes, it’s encrypted, and will probably be safe. But in the unlikely event somebody does access it without authorization, big deal. They’ll find the pre-edited version of my article for eWEEK about SkyDrive, and the raw screenshots. As for my private banking information? Nope. I don’t have that on there, and I won’t be putting it there.

Security problems are a reality, and they aren’t likely to ever go away. But if you expect them, and follow best practices, you can plan accordingly and not have a disaster should a breach occur.

Conclusion

When I first started using SkyDrive, I was reminded of a tool from many years ago on Windows called the Briefcase. I had just bought a laptop computer (a big clunky thing for $2,500 that ran Windows 95). I had a desktop as well, also running Windows 95. I must have spent hours fussing with the Briefcase to try to keep my files synchronized between those two computers. I didn’t have any kind of home network yet and I had to purchase some special cord to connect the computers. Thankfully, SkyDrive is actually nothing like that nightmare I went through. It’s so easy to use; ultimately you just store your files in the SkyDrive folder and then they get backed up to the cloud and can be accessed anywhere.

Now, before I close up this copy of Microsoft Word 2013 with SkyDrive integration, I will first back up the copy of the file to another location. But if I do lose it, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll have to rewrite this article, but my bank accounts will still be safe. And meanwhile, I’m pretty well sold on SkyDrive. I’ll continue using it.

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