What is cloud computing? Cloud computing refers to running applications online through a web browser and, often, storing the files that that you create with those applications on a remote server rather than on your PC or handheld device.

Cloud computing is becoming increasingly attractive and popular because of the proliferation of internet-connected devices. Also, in a cloud-based model, you no longer have to worry about installing applications, storing files, or synchronising them if you regularly work on more than one computer. The disadvantage of cloud computing is that an internet connection is required, so you have to remember to download files that you want to work on offline.

If you haven’t tried cloud-based applications in a while — or you’ve never tried them — you’re in for a treat. The best cloud-based apps are almost as powerful as their desktop equivalents, and they cover the range of tech tasks that most people need to perform on a daily basis.

Office apps

Google Docs (http://docs.google.com) and Microsoft’s Office Web Apps (http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/web-apps) are the two front-runners in the cloud-based office suite arena, and both offer a strong set of tools for creating everything that most people need, including word processing files, spreadsheets, and presentations.

The Office web apps have an inherent advantage if you’re already using Office 2007 or 2010 because the interface is familiar. And, of course, file formats are easily interchangeable. Google Docs, though, offers the quicker, more streamlined document creation experience.

Google’s apps themselves seem a bit more responsive, and unlike Office Web Apps, you don’t have to name a file before you start working on one.

Neither of the cloud-based office suites have the robust set of features of desktop programs. Tracking changes or creating macros is not available in either, for example. But for the types of tasks that most people need to perform, the cloud office apps have all you’ll likely need.

PDF creation

Being able to create documents in Adobe’s read-only PDF format is almost a requirement today, and the leading office apps do not yet allow you to perform a “save as” to create PDF files. But other free cloud-based apps can help.

7-PDF (http://www.7-pdf.de), for instance, will let you upload any document and convert it for you instantly. PDF Escape (http://www.pdfescape.com) boasts the ability not only to convert your documents to PDF format but also to provide PDF editing, form filling, and designing solutions as well.

ILovePDF (http://www.ilovepdf.com) lets you perform some advanced functions with PDF files, including merging PDFs and splitting an existing PDF into multiple files.

Scheduling and calendars

Google’s cloud-based Calendar (www.google.com/calendar) may be one of the handiest cloud apps going, primarily because of how useful it can be in helping both individuals and groups stay organised. The interface is as you’d expect: a calendar that can be shown in day, week, or month, four-day, or agenda mode. To schedule an event, meeting, or reminder, just click a cell, provide a title, and optionally add details.

The power of Calendar comes into full view, though, when you start exploring the options in the Settings link. For instance, you can share your calendar with others — and you can add others’ calendars to your view — to start synchronising your schedule with friends or colleagues anywhere in the world. Just as nifty, you can set up Google Calendar to deliver smartphone notifications of important events. The Labs tab within the Settings page reveals yet more goodies, including the ability to add a world clock to your calendar and upload attachments to events, either from your computer or from Google Docs.

Image editing

Image editing in the cloud seems counterintuitive. After all, image editors require some serious horsepower on the desktop, and internet connections would seem to limit the responsiveness. But Picnik (http://www.picnik.com) proves that cloud-based image editing can be fast, fun, and reasonably powerful.

A tabbed-based interface makes it easy to load, edit, and save photographs. Rotating images, cropping, and resizing are all simple to perform. Even sharpening and red-eye removal are possible. Perhaps best of all, you don’t have to upload your photos from a local computer. You can import them from other online services, including Facebook and Picasa.

Adobe’s Photoshop Express (http://www.photoshop.com/tools) is another capable cloud—based image editor. It offers some advanced tools — such as white balance adjustments, soft focus, and tinting controls — that Picnic does not, and its interface will be familiar to users of Adobe’s image browsing applications such as Lightroom.

And with the companion Photoshop Express Organizer (http://www.photoshop.com/tools/organizer), you can easily import images from Facebook, Flickr, and Picasa as well.

Offline access

Most people are worried about storing their files online. After all, how do you get to them when you don’t have an internet connection? Most cloud apps have that concerned covered. Some offer an offline mode that lets you work on your files regardless of whether you’re connected to the net, and all of them save files in formats that are easily editable with offline programs. The process is pretty seamless, and the payoff — not having to worry about backing up or synchronising your data — may just make you a cloud convert in no time.