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Cloudy, with a chance of video

While cloud computing promises solutions to many problems, video is still a dicey affair. We try out Cloud Engines' Pogoplug Video as a home remedy.

Will iCloud help with my video woes?
Will iCloud help with my video woes?

With Apple's iCloud coming next week, hot on the heels of Amazon and Google's cloud services for music, it seems like the years-old dream of cloud media streaming is coming to greater fruition than ever before. That's promising news to me, a person who cut the cord on his cable TV over a year and a half ago. I live off the Internet and my various devices--my laptop, game consoles, iPhone, and iPad--to get my media, be it TV shows, movies, music or books.

So far, it looks like 2011 will be more the year of Cloud Music than that of Cloud Video. And that's a shame, because I'm getting fed up with my half-baked digital-video life.

I've spent the last week with a product called Pogoplug Video, which attempts to do what no one's currently offering yet: the ability to stream multiformat video files easily across multiple platforms, be they gaming console, computer, or phone/tablet, even across the Internet or 3G.

I held high hopes for the Pogoplug Video. The $199 device is much like the Pogoplug Pro we reviewed last year, equipped with a more powerful processor. And, it does what it promises, to a point: video files stored on hard drives or USB sticks plugged into the Pogoplug do indeed technically play back on iPhones, iPads, laptops, or even via DLNA on an Xbox 360 or PS3.

Pogoplug Video Cloud Engines

But I say "technically" because the interface on the Pogoplug app is a little odd and muddled, and not every video file is compatible. The Xbox 360 and PS3 have their own oddities: each one streams certain files but not others. An MP4 didn't play on my Xbox, but it streamed perfectly on the PS3. iPhone 4 home movies didn't play well on either. Needless to say, neither did DRMed videos.

I don't mean to harass the Pogoplug Video (a full review of the Pogoplug Video will come after my return from E3). My home Synology NAS server exhibits similar oddities. Video comes in too many versions, too many file formats, and bit rates. It's a standards-maker's nightmare, and a casual consumer's landscape to avoid.

My point is this: when it comes to video, I sometimes feel like I'd just be better off playing DVDs and hooking up my cable/DVR again.

My Xbox 360's greeting to my video file.
My Xbox 360's greeting to my video file. Scott Stein/CNET

My dream is for a cloud service or home device that would help collate and play my videos. I hold onto some small hope for Apple's iCloud, but I'm not expecting the solution I'm looking for to emerge now. Of course, I could always use YouTube or Vimeo. Yes, for my own content--but that does nothing to help me organize my TV viewing and movies. For that, I resort to streaming services, like everyone else.

But even the available landscape of TV and movie-streaming sites has never been more daunting or confusing.

First you have Netflix, Hulu Plus, and every other streaming-media service with their fluctuating and incomplete libraries, offering a beautiful product that never has exactly what you're looking for.

Then there are services like iTunes, which offer chunky media files that are DRMed and single-download, unless you opt for ever-so-brief 24- to 48-hour rental windows through services like Vudu, iTunes, or Amazon. Apps like Fanhattan aim to consolidate search, but the database wasn't complete the last time I checked.

Yes, we're going deeper into cloud computing than ever before, but that's mainly for documents, photos, and music. Video is the final frontier, and the one that seems hardest to conquer. Unfortunately, I've yet to find any hardware that will help, either. And I'm not sure how much I want to keep searching.

What's your solution for video?