Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The new Google Drive desktop app

Google Drive is a free cloud-based file storage service provided by Google. It allows you to browse, upload, and download files in the cloud using a web browser. For more convenient access to your files, Google provides a Windows desktop application that allows you to access your Google Drive files through File Explorer without needing to use a web browser.

This application used to be called “Backup and Sync”. A new and improved version, not-so-creatively dubbed “Drive for desktop”, has recently been released. This new version is considerably different from its predecessor.

Streaming

The biggest improvement in my opinion is the ability to stream files. With Backup and Sync, you had no option but to download a copy of every single file to your computer (Drive for desktop calls this “mirroring”). This approach is problematic if you are short on disk space or have a slow internet connection. While Drive for desktop continues to support mirroring, it also provides a second option called “streaming”. This means that the files are only downloaded when you open them, saving a lot of disk space and bandwidth. Files and folders that you need offline access to can be marked as such using the right-click context menu.


Microsoft Office support

Another improvement is better integration with Microsoft Office. When you have an Office file open, such as a Word document, Drive for desktop will notify you if the file was changed by somebody else. This helps to prevent you from blowing away edits made by somebody else you have shared the file with. However, if you are doing a lot of collaboration work, I recommend using Google’s web-based office suite instead (Google Docs, Google Sheets, etc), as it handles simultaneous, collaborative editing much more effectively.

Backing up external drives

As with Backup and Sync, the new app makes it easy to back up any external drives, like flash drives, that you plug into your computer. Upon connecting a drive, a popup immediately appears asking if you want to back the drive up or not. Unfortunately, unlike Backup and Sync, there is no option to completely disable these notifications.

Location in File Explorer

An interesting change is where it puts the files in File Explorer. With Backup and Sync, it simply stored the files in a folder at the root of your user directory. Drive for desktop, however, takes the meaning of “drive” quite literally: it stores the files in their own drive under “This PC”, as if it were a flash drive or external hard drive. It assigns the drive to letter “G” by default (for “Google” I presume), but it is possible to change the drive letter in the settings. Every Google account you add gets its own drive with its own letter. One feature I wish it offered was the ability to customize the drive label, which defaults to “Google Drive” if you just have a single account connected, or “<email address> - Google Drive” (truncated based on the max character length of this field) if you have multiple accounts connected. You can change the label yourself in File Explorer, but the change is not preserved between reboots.

Summary

Overall, I would say the new app is an improvement over the old one. Google has not forced Backup and Sync users to update yet, but you also cannot download Backup and Sync anymore. The download page only offers Drive for desktop for download. See the full feature comparison listing.

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