You might be familiar with Google Drive from its web interface or its mobile apps. But desktop software is available as well, allowing you to seamlessly sync files stored in your Google Drive with the file system on your Windows or macOS computer.
After four years since its last update, that desktop software setup is changing again, and the current tools (Backup & Sync for free account holders, and Drive File Stream for enterprise customers), will be replaced by a new, single platform called Drive for Desktop.
You can carry on accessing Google Drive in your web browser and mobile apps as always—creating Docs, Sheets, and Slides just the same as before. But if you want to keep data from Google Drive on your computer and sync it to the cloud, or if you’ve got large batches of files you need to upload to your Drive, then you’ll want to download the desktop application.
What Drive for Desktop does
Drive for Desktop turns Google Drive into a fully-fledged file syncing service rather than just a cloud storage locker—think Dropbox, OneDrive, and iCloud. When using the software, your documents will be simultaneously on your hard drive and available on the web, though you can choose which files and folders are stored locally and which aren’t.
There are a few reasons to sync files locally rather than just accessing Google Drive through your web browser every time. First, it means that if your computer is offline or has a slow internet connection, you can still watch those HD videos you’ve got stored in your Google Drive folder.
Using the desktop software also makes the uploading process much easier, as it’s a more automated process. As soon as something new moves into the local folders Google Drive is keeping an eye on, the files will be uploaded to the cloud in the background.
The new Drive for Desktop software can upload files from external drives as well, and it’s smart enough to manage multiple Google accounts at once.
If you have a second computer, then you have double the efficiency—Google Drive will keep all or some of your files and folders synced between your devices, and once you’ve installed and set up the software, everything just works.
Over the next few weeks, Google will start sending prompts in the Backup and Sync and Drive File Stream tools to encourage users to start switching over. You can keep using the old platforms, but that won’t last long—at the start of October 2021, you’ll need to update to the newer application to access your files.
How to install and use Drive for Desktop
If you’re running Backup and Sync or Drive File Stream, get rid of these programs first.
On Windows, open the main Settings pane and choose Apps, Apps & features, the program to remove, and Uninstall. On macOS, drag the app icon down to the Trash icon on the dock or from Applications in Finder.
At the time of writing, Google hasn’t put up a proper landing page for the new Drive for Desktop software, but you can download both Windows and macOS versions from the Google blog.
You’ll first need to sign in to your Google account. You’ll go through a series of introduction slides, and after that, the wizard will guide you to the Google Drive folder in File Explorer (Windows) or Finder (macOS), and you’ll be able to browse your files straight away. Anything you add to this Google Drive folder will automatically be uploaded to the cloud.
By default, everything is kept in the cloud and only in the cloud—the blue cloud symbol on each file icon shows that they’re not locally stored. You can use these symbols as a bookmark to know what’s stored on your system and what lives in the cloud
If you open files with the cloud symbol, they will be temporarily streamed to your computer (just like a movie or music track) so you can view and edit it. If you leave Google Drive working like this, you’ll minimize the amount of local hard drive space your files take up. The biggest caveat is that larger files may take a while to properly load as Drive for Desktop will have to download them each time you access them.
In that case, it’s better to save large files you edit a lot both on your computer and in the cloud. That way you can work on them more easily, and any edits you make to them will also be synced back to the cloud once you’re back online again. To permanently save a folder or file to your disk, so you can access it even while offline, right-click (or Cmd+click on a Mac) on it and choose Offline access and Available offline.
The same right-click (or Cmd+click) menu offers plenty of other options as well: You can revert back to a previous version of a file for example, or get a link to share it with someone else. These same options are accessible through the Google Drive web interface as well, as they’ve always been, but you might find it easier to get at them from your Windows or macOS computer.
You can find a few more options on the Settings pane. Click the Drive icon in the notification area (Windows) or on the menu bar (macOS), then click the cog icon and pick Preferences. The screen that appears enables you to have the program start up at the same time as the operating system, and you can choose to move the location of the Google Drive folder on the local hard drive if you want to.