Microsoft’s most under-appreciated utility.
If you don’t trust Microsoft, stop reading. You probably won’t trust OneDrive with your files.
If you’ve already decided you’re never going to trust “the cloud”, you can stop reading now as well. There’s no getting around the fact that OneDrive is a cloud-based service.
If you have Windows 10 or 11, and especially if you have Microsoft’s Office 365, you already have OneDrive available to you. If you’re interested in learning how you can put OneDrive to use, read on.
I’m convinced that OneDrive is one of Microsoft’s most under-appreciated services.
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Uses for OneDrive
- Off-site backup
- Continuous backup
- Copying files between machines
- Copying work setups between machines
- Sharing files with others
- Collaborating with others
What is OneDrive?
OneDrive is similar to other cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, and others.
At its most basic, it’s simply file storage on Microsoft’s servers (aka “in the cloud”.1) By storing files in OneDrive, you can access them anywhere, from almost any device with an internet connection.
You can access your OneDrive files by visiting onedrive.com. Once you log in to your Microsoft account, all the files and folders you’ve added to OneDrive will be available to you, along with the ability to create more folders and upload more files.
While OneDrive is, in one sense, nothing more than an online repository for the files and folders you care to share, its true power comes from using the OneDrive app rather than just visiting the website. Using OneDrive on your PC, you designate a folder (typically “C:\Users\<username>\OneDrive”) as your OneDrive folder. This folder contains a copy of all the files you have stored in OneDrive.
And it keeps that folder in sync with what’s stored in the cloud.
That means when you add or change a file or folder within your PC’s OneDrive folder, it’s automatically uploaded to the OneDrive servers. Similarly, if you upload a file (or folder) to the OneDrive servers — perhaps using the OneDrive website to do so — that file or folder is automatically downloaded to your PC running the OneDrive app.
That simple concept — automatically keeping your PC’s OneDrive folder in sync with the files stored online — enables some powerful features.
1: Off-site backup
One rule of thumb for a comprehensive backup strategy is to have important files backed up “off-site”, meaning stored in some other physical location. That way, if your home suffers a catastrophe destroying your computer and the backups you keep there, you’ll still have a copy of everything important elsewhere.
It’s a perfect scenario for the cloud, and a perfect way to use OneDrive.
Copy the files you want to back up into the OneDrive folder on your PC, and OneDrive will automatically upload them to the cloud: instant2 off-site backup. I used this technique extensively on a recent overseas trip: each night I copied my day’s photos into a OneDrive folder, and the pictures were automatically uploaded and backed up.
2: Continuous backup
It’s simple to copy files to your OneDrive folder in order to get them backed up — but it could be easy to forget.
Instead, let the computer do it for you: move your working folder into your OneDrive folder.
For example, configure your word processor to create new documents within your OneDrive folder by default. Now every new document you create will automatically be uploaded. Every time you save the file, the update will be automatically synchronized online without your needing to think of a thing.
I do this all the time. The default storage location I use for screenshots is in my OneDrive folder. My default Documents folder is a sub-folder of my OneDrive folder. Without having to lift a finger, any documents I edit or create there are backed up online.
3: Copying files between machines
This is almost embarrassing, but it’s the reality of the state of networking today: it sucks. It should be trivial to connect two computers together on a local network and use that connection to quickly and easily copy files from one to the other. Sadly, many people resort to copying files to USB sticks and physically transferring those between machines because it’s easier than trying to get networking to work.
OneDrive to the rescue.
Install the OneDrive app on both machines and configure it to use the same Microsoft account on both. Both machines will automatically synchronize with the OneDrive servers.
Place a file into the OneDrive folder on PC #1. The OneDrive app will dutifully upload it to the OneDrive cloud servers. The second PC will notice there’s a new file in your cloud OneDrive copy and download it.
You’ve just copied a file from machine to machine without the hassle of figuring out how to network them to each other. Bonus: the machines don’t need to be in the same place. OneDrive will transfer the files whether the machine is in the next room or on a completely different continent, as happened on my overseas trip. The photos I uploaded in The Netherlands automatically downloaded to my computers back home. A bonus bonus: you’re not limited to two machines.
4: Copying work environments between machines
Earlier, I mentioned I save screenshots into a folder in my OneDrive. I don’t do it to back them up; I do it because the machine I’m taking the screenshot on is often not the machine on which I’m doing my work.
For example, I often take screenshots in a fairly pristine Windows environment.3 By automatically saving those screenshots in OneDrive, they show up on my other machines within moments. Without thinking about it at all, I can work on any of my machines at my convenience, and while it may sound a little far-fetched that I’d need my screenshots on multiple different machines, it comes in handy more frequently than you might think.
If you have multiple computers — particularly if you have multiple different computers in different locations, such as work and home — OneDrive is a convenient way to automatically replicate the files you work on to other locations or machines.
5: Sharing files with others
You can create a publicly accessible link to any file or folder you have stored in OneDrive. This makes it a great way to share files with others without resorting to emailing huge or multiple attachments.
For example, here’s a link to an image I have stored in my OneDrive.
Anyone can click on it to see the picture — no OneDrive or Microsoft account needed.
There are even links to “download the original”, so whoever has the link can download the actual image file to their computer.
I wish more people would use this technique rather than sending bloated emails.
6: Collaborating with others
I mentioned you can share a link to a folder as well. While that link can be public, as in the example of the image above, it can also be specific to an individual recipient using their own Microsoft account. You can grant the recipient the ability to edit or add to what’s in that folder.
This is a recipe for collaboration.
For example, let’s say you and I are working on a project and need to collaboratively create a document. We can each take turns working on the same document in a shared OneDrive folder. Depending on the document type and the document-editing program’s abilities, we may even be able to work on the document simultaneously.
I use this technique extensively with my assistants. We each have shared cloud folders4 in which we have documents accessible to each of us. It’s a key component of how we pull together Confident Computing each week.
Sensitive data on OneDrive
Whenever I talk about cloud storage, I immediately get pushback relating to security, breaches, hacking, and all other possible forms of data compromise.
There are three approaches to dealing with that:
- The “head in the sand” approach: don’t use the services at all and miss out on the functionality I’ve described above.
- The “limit your exposure” approach: put nothing sensitive in the cloud. (Spoiler: you almost certainly already do so regularly.)
- The “I’ve got this” approach: use encryption.
I use a combination of the latter two.
Plenty of items in my OneDrive are simply files I’ve placed there. Should someone hack my Microsoft account,5 or should the OneDrive servers become compromised, those files will be visible. Oh, well. My approach to this is that for these files, “oh well” is the appropriate answer.
I also use BoxCryptor to encrypt anything I consider sensitive. This allows me to use almost all the features and functionality built into OneDrive while being confident my files are accessible only to me.
Naturally, other encryption tools are also useful, including VeraCrypt, encryption provided by various zipping utilities, and others. Tools like Cryptomator and BoxCryptor, however, automate the process of encrypting individual files, making them perfect to use with cloud services like OneDrive.
You automatically have 5GB of free storage with your Microsoft account. If you have Office 365 (Microsoft’s subscription service for the Office programs) you have up to five terabytes of OneDrive storage (1TB per user for up to five users). Compared to other services’ premium storage plans, it’s almost worth getting Office 365 for the storage alone!
There’s more to OneDrive I’ve not covered here: things like mobile apps that allow you to access your files anywhere, expiring sharing links, automated photo backup from mobile devices, the OneDrive Recycle Bin, and still more.
Think about how you can use OneDrive.
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Footnotes & References
1: “The Cloud” is a marketing term more than anything else. It refers to any internet-connected server or service. It’s often been referred to as “using someone else’s computer”; in this case, Microsoft’s.
2: Well, not literally instant. Of course it’s subject to the speed of your internet connection and assumes you are connected to the internet and have OneDrive running and configured. The rest of this article makes that assumption.
3: Typically, not a separate machine at all, but a virtual machine.
4: Full disclosure: we happen to use DropBox for this, but that’s entirely for historical reasons at this point. We could, and sometimes do, use OneDrive as well.
5: I’d have bigger problems than my OneDrive files if this happened, which is why I make sure to enable two-factor authentication on this account. It’s an important one.