Files, Files Everywhere: Storing Your Documents in the Cloud
With work and school increasingly being done remotely, especially with the current COVID-19 situation, accessing files from multiple devices is becoming ever more important. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of cloud storage solutions available. Many of them have the same basic features:
- The ability to upload files
- A certain amount of free storage, with paid plans available
- Synchronize one or more folders between the cloud and your devices
- Share files with others
- Desktop clients and mobile apps
Some also have collaboration features such as the ability to edit documents online and work with others. There are too many services to reasonably discuss here, so we will focus on some of the most used: Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and a brief discussion of iCloud.
What to Look for in a Storage Service
With so many services out there, it can be hard to determine which is the best one for you. Here are some points to consider when choosing a storage service.
- How much storage do you need? Most services offer some amount of free storage, which is often between two and five gigabytes (GB) of storage. Some allow you to gain extra storage by doing things like referring friends, setting up the mobile app, etc. Additionally, services will offer paid plans which will generally be one terabyte or more of data.
- Security is always a factor to consider when uploading potentially private files to the internet. You may want to consider:
- Does the service offer two factor authentication?
- Does the service encrypt your files during transfer?
- Mobile apps: While nearly all services offer mobile apps, some offer additional features such as automatically uploading camera pictures.
- Sharing: Most services offer a public link you can send to anyone. Some offer restrictions such as only sharing to specific people or requiring the recipient to sign in with an account. For services with collaboration features, you can restrict editing of the shared document.
In your search you may also find online backup services. These services work differently in that rather than storing a number of files for sharing purposes, they backup all the files on your computer. Also, your computer must connect to the service every so often or the files will be deleted. If you delete a file from your computer and don’t restore it from the service, it will be deleted after a certain amount of time. These services are beyond the scope of this post.
Dropbox was one of the first cloud storage services and continues to be one of the most popular. It offers many of the expected services of a cloud storage service, plus Dropbox Paper, a document editing and collaboration tool. The free plan comes with 2GB of storage, and more can be added by referring friends. You can also upgrade to Dropbox Business for $10/month. While syncing much of the interface is accessible, there are enough issues that will make some users hesitate. Also, Dropbox Paper is entirely inaccessible.
Signing Up for an Account
Creating an account is straightforward. Simply sign up on the Dropbox site with the usual name, email, desired password, etc. Once your account is created, you can download the desktop client or mobile apps.
When you set up the Dropbox client, you will be prompted to select a location for the Dropbox folder on your computer. Once this folder is set up, you can copy or save files to this folder like any other on your computer. Once a file is added to this folder, it will automatically be uploaded to Dropbox, and can be accessed from any device. Selecting a file and opening the context menu lets you copy a link to the file, view version history, or open the file on the Dropbox website.
Dropbox also places an icon in the system tray. If you are uploading a large file, you can see the status of the upload by focusing on the icon. You can also open a context menu to access preferences, the Dropbox site, or pause syncing.
Dropbox Web Interface
After signing into Dropbox, you will be on the homepage which shows recent activity, favorite files, and more. To access your files you need to click on the files button in the navigation pane. Once there, you will have a table with the files in the current folder. You can select the checkbox to take action on one or more files, or select the file name to open a dialog with actions for that specific file. You can copy, move, delete, or download the file, but I couldn’t find any way to share a file from the site.
Dropbox Accessibility Issues
The Dropbox client and site both have a number of issues that will negatively impact the experience for blind users. When first starting the client, it is not possible to see the proposed location for your Dropbox folder, or the text of the other screens during initial setup. Also, when accessing the preferences, some controls aren’t labelled, such as indicating which set of radio buttons control upload and download limits, and once again being able to see the location of your Dropbox folder. The Dropbox desktop client’s accessibility has also been known to fluctuate from version to version, which may be a concern if you rely on Dropbox for your work.
When on the Dropbox site and viewing files, you cannot use tab to move between the file names. Tab skips over the selection checkbox and the file name link, and only focuses on the “View File” button. If you have previously checked a selection box, the file name will appear in the tab order for that file only. When selecting a file name, a dialog opens which has a view of the file. This view is rendered as a graphic with the text as the alt attribute. This means that any headings or other structure in the file aren’t preserved. I also got two somewhat different layouts when using Firefox and Chrome. In Chrome, there are two menus at the bottom of the page that don’t have a proper label. With no files selected, the first one has options like new file, new folder, etc. Once a file is selected, the contents of this menu change to offer actions for that specific file. In Firefox, there is a list of buttons near the bottom of the page for all these actions, whether a file is selected or not.
As mentioned earlier, Dropbox Paper, the document editing and collaboration tool, is completely inaccessible. It is not possible to review the contents of a file, access the toolbars, etc.
Microsoft OneDrive is integrated into Windows 10, and can be downloaded for other platforms. OneDrive is attached to your Microsoft account, and comes with 5GB of free storage. The paid plans work a little differently with OneDrive. Instead of storage tiers, the plans are actually Microsoft Office subscriptions. Whether you pay $7 for a single license or $10 for five, you get 1TB of storage.
Signing Up with OneDrive
If you already use Windows 10, you may already have a Microsoft account. If so, there is nothing special to do to sign up for OneDrive. If not, you can create an account on the Microsoft site.
Once you have an account, either launch the OneDrive app built into Windows 10, or download the app for your platform of choice, and sign in.
Just like Dropbox, OneDrive creates a folder on your computer that you can copy files into and they will be automatically uploaded. You will be prompted for the location of this folder when you first sign in. One neat feature that the free version of Dropbox doesn’t offer is the ability to store files online, and only download them when you need them. When using this feature you will see a status column when browsing files which will show whether the file is online or on this device. If the file is online, opening it will download the file before opening it. You can share a file from the context menu, which opens a screen where you can enter email addresses to share with, copy a link, and set editing permissions.
OneDrive also has a system tray icon with similar functionality to that of Dropbox. You can view the status of large or multiple files and open the preferences or the OneDrive site.
The OneDrive Web Interface
The OneDrive site is very accessible. Once you sign in, you are presented with a nicely formatted table of all your files. You can choose among several different views, with the table being my preferred. For each file you can choose to share, download, move, etc. with a button right next to each file, or by checking the checkboxes to manage multiple files. Selecting a document opens it in the Office online programs, which seem reasonably accessible but are beyond the scope of this post. Sharing a file from here brings up the same accessible and robust screen as from the desktop client.
OneDrive Accessibility Issues
Fortunately, OneDrive has very few accessibility issues. If you are using an earlier version of Windows 10, say from 2017, you will likely encounter significant issues during the initial setup, but the file explorer integration is still accessible with that version. These issues have been resolved in current versions of Windows 10. If you open a link to a shared document, you must use Control+F6 to get to the download button, but otherwise accessing a shared file is accessible.
Similar to OneDrive, Google Drive is linked with your Google account. If you use Gmail, Calendar, or any other Google product you likely already have a google account and thus Google Drive. Google Drive comes with 15GB of free storage. Its paid plans are called Google One, and start at as little as 100GB for $0.99 per month. Like the others, Google has all the same features you would expect. Additionally, it is tightly tied into Google’s other products, such as saving attachments from Gmail directly to Google Drive, and Google Docs saving its files there.
Using Google Drive
If you don’t have a Google account, create one through the Google site. Once you have the account, you can download the client, called Backup and Sync from Google. You can also download the mobile apps.
Just like the others, Google has the usual file system integration, with various options in the context menu. You will find a Google Drive submenu, which lets you share the file with specific people, get a direct link, or view the file on the web. One different feature of Google Drive is that you can select specific folders on your computer to back up to Google Drive, and even optionally automatically back up USB drives, SD cards, and phones when they are plugged into your computer. Otherwise, this works just like any other storage service.
Google Drive also has a system tray icon like the others. Opening it brings up a pane with buttons to view your Drive folder, open the Drive site, and change preferences. You can also view recently synced items or any errors here.
Google Drive on the Web
Google Drive’s web interface is broken down into a folders list and a files list, along with a number of toolbar buttons. One difference here is that Google Drive has a significant number of keyboard shortcuts. It works more like a web application, and will not work properly if you try to browse it like a regular web page with your screen reader. I’ll discuss this more in the accessibility issues section below. From the web interface you can upload new files, share or download them, or copy and move files and folders. You can also create new items in Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, or Forms.
Google Drive Accessibility Issues
The Google Drive desktop client is generally very accessible. If the recently synced section has nothing in it, it just announces with no other details. As mentioned previously, the web interface works differently than most. If you’ve used the regular Gmail web interface or Google Docs you’ll know what I mean. To use it properly you’ll want to have Forms mode on in JAWS, or Focus mode on in NVDA. You use the arrow keys to navigate the list of files and folders. Press G then L to jump directly to the files list, or Shift+T to create a new document. The full list of keyboard shortcuts can be accessed with Shift+Slash. Once you’re familiar with it, Google Drive is very easy to use. The main concern here is for new users as they will likely not know how to use it properly, and may become frustrated.
iCloud is Apple’s way to manage your email, calendar, notes, etc. on Apple devices. A relatively recent addition is iCloud Drive which allows you to store any file in iCloud just like the other services we’ve discussed. iCloud is integrated into Macs, iPhones, and iPads, and can be configured on Windows if you download the iCloud control panel program. There is no way to access iCloud Drive on Android. I attempted to check iCloud.com’s accessibility, but I couldn’t arrow through anything, and since I don’t use an iPhone, I needed to access alternate options for two factor identification, which were inaccessible, so I couldn’t get past the login.
These are just four of the many services out there for storing files online. All of the ones discussed here have reasonable accessibility, accept for iCloud on the web, and all have very similar features and pricing. Personally, I’d recommend going with whichever storage service is most tied into what you use. If you use Office or Windows then OneDrive will be the simplest to set up and use. If you’re an Android or Chromebook user, then Google Drive is likely best. Given the access issues and Dropbox Paper’s complete inaccessibility, I can’t really recommend it at this time.