It wasn't the most secretive launch, but no matter, Google Drive has officially launched today with 5GB of free storage space for all users and paid options going up to a whopping 16TB. The cloud storage service is a replacement for Google Docs — if you've ever used the popular document-syncing service you'll be right at home with Google Drive. Just like Docs, the majority of the service is based in the web browser: you'll primarily be managing your account and viewing your files from the web app. There are, however, native apps available for PC, Mac, and Android, and an iOS app is currently in the works. We've just spent some time with the new service across all of these platforms, so read on for some of our first impressions.
It's very important to note that this is an evolution of Google Docs. This will become very apparent when you first open up the web app. Once you agree to upgrade your account to Drive, you'll notice that not much has changed. The URL is now drive.google.com instead of docs.google.com, and in a few other places "Docs" has been replaced by "Drive," but the interface appears to be identical. What's new then? Well, of course you can upload any file to Drive, not just work documents, though only the latter will take advantage of the live editing features made famous by Docs. Unfortunately, while the interface is familiar, it also carries along the same issues we've had with Docs for years. Sharing features are still overly complicated: you can invite individual users to view and collaborate on folders and files, and through some advanced settings you can make a publicly-viewable link. We really wish that Google overhauled all of this a bit — in Dropbox, for example, it's very easy to right-click and get a public link instantly.
If you've used Dropbox you'll be familiar with the desktop apps
Other than the web app, there's a native client for both PCs and Macs that'll be very familiar if you've ever used Dropbox. The program makes a new folder on your computer called "Google Drive," and everything in that folder is synced with the cloud. You can just drag and drop folders and files into the Drive, and it'll upload everything automatically. There's a small manager app that has a few options, including the ability to only sync select folders within your Drive. Just like in the web app, there is no simple way to make public links from your desktop — you'll have to go into the web interface and wrangle with the sharing tool. That isn't the only time when you'll be kicked out to the web browser: the same will happen if you attempt to open any Google Docs file. These live-editable files are essentially just web shortcuts when they're on your desktop — there's no way to open these files with Word, TextEdit, or any other program on your computer.
On the mobile side, so far only an app for Android phones and tablets is available, though Google says that it's working on an iOS version. The Android app, just like on the web, completely replaces Google Docs. The app is has been redesigned, but the functionality is essentially the same. You'll see that there's a list of files and folders, all of which you can add collaborators to and make available offline. Sharing, once again, is a bit of a letdown. It looks like Google intends to add the ability to make files publicly-viewable, but when you try to switch permissions you're told that "changing this option is not yet supported." Another disappointing aspect of the Android app is that, other than Google Docs files like spreadsheets, presentations, and documents, you'll have to first download a file before viewing it with the appropriate app on your phone. For example, to play a song or view a picture you'll have to wait for it to download and then it'll automatically open in Gallery or Music — there's no way to preview these files within the Google Drive app.
Good for those of you with lots of pictures of the Golden Gate bridge
While there definitely are some issues with Google Drive's interface, there's certainly one area that it shines in: performance. We haven't yet had the time to do exhaustive testing, but uploads on our speedy office connection took no more than a second or two for JPEGs, and was appropriately fast for all filetypes. Google's also made some improvements when it comes to search: it's easy to universally search across all files in your Drive, and not just for folder and file names. Drive uses Google's image recognition technologies to associate words with pictures. In our testing with buildings as iconic as the Eiffel Tower, the image popped up right away even though the filename didn't include either of those words. Additionally, Drive scours images and PDFs for words using OCR, so you'll be able to search for words contained in those types of documents as well. Overall, with all of these features, Google Drive certainly won't be a bad choice for your file-syncing needs. If you're not sure whether or not it's the best for you, be sure to give our in-depth comparison of all the current cloud storage options a good, long read.