If you don’t trust Microsoft, you should probably stop reading. If you don’t trust Microsoft, you probably won’t trust OneDrive with your files.
If you’ve decided you’re never going to trust “the cloud”, you can probably stop reading now as well. There’s no getting around the fact that OneDrive is, at its heart, a cloud-based service.
If you have Windows 10, or especially if you have Microsoft’s Office 365, you already have OneDrive available to you. (If not, it’s easy to get.) If you’re interested in learning about ways 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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What is OneDrive?
OneDrive is very similar to other cloud storage services, like DropBox, Google Drive, Box, and others.
At its most basic, it’s simply file storage space on Microsoft’s servers (aka “in the Cloud”1). By storing files there, you can access them anywhere, from almost any device with an internet connection.
You can, of course, access your OneDrive files by visiting onedrive.com. Once you log in with 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 cloud servers. Similarly, if you upload a file (or folder) to the OneDrive cloud servers — perhaps using the OneDrive web site to do so — that file or folder is automatically downloaded to your PC running the OneDrive app.
That very simple concept — automatically keeping your PC’s OneDrive folder in sync with the files stored online — enables some incredibly powerful features.
1: Off-site backup
One of the rules of thumb for a comprehensive backup strategy is that you have important files backed up “off site”, meaning stored in some other physical location. That way, if your home suffers a catastrophe that destroys your computer and the backups you keep there, you’ll still have an additional copy of everything important elsewhere.
It’s a perfect scenario for the cloud, and a perfect way to begin to use OneDrive.
Simply 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 seems like that 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 update to the document will be automatically synchronized to online storage 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 subfolder 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 area network (LAN) 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 that 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’ll often take screenshots in a fairly pristine Windows 10 environment3. By automatically saving those screenshots in OneDrive, they show up on my other machines within moments — including the Mac Pro I’m writing this article on. Or the Dell laptop in the other room. Or the MacBook Pro with which I travel. Without thinking about it at all, I can work on any of those machines at my convenience, and while it may sound a little far-fetched that I’d need my screenshots on upwards of four machines, it actually comes in more handy 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 any of the locations or machines you might want to work.
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 within my OneDrive.
Anyone can click on it to see the picture — no OneDrive or Microsoft account is 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 The Ask Leo! Newsletter 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, missing out on the functionality I’ve described above entirely.
- The “limit your exposure” approach: don’t put anything sensitive into the cloud. (Spoiler: you almost certainly already do so on a regular basis.)
- 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 account5, 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 Cryptomator (and previously6, BoxCryptor, which operates in the same fashion) to encrypt anything I consider to be sensitive. This allows me to make use of almost all the features and functionality built into OneDrive, while being confident my files will be accessible only to me. (It turns out that nearly two-thirds of my OneDrive usage is in encrypted form.)
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 for use with cloud services like OneDrive.
You probably already have OneDrive
Microsoft has been promoting OneDrive, most notably by including it in Windows 10. You automatically have 5GB of free storage with your Microsoft account. If you happen to 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 service’s 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.
As I said, it may be Microsoft’s most overlooked service.