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Home cloud: Hands-on with the new Pogoplug Series 4

Could a tiny box offer a perfect fusion between cloud storage and local backup? We take a look at the latest Pogoplug, a device that tries to do it all.

Sick of living in the cloud?

The new Pogoplug Series 4 is a device that looks to take the best of cloud computing and home network-attached storage and combine the two into a seamless experience. Available today, it certainly seems like a perfectly timed idea in the wake of seemingly daily frustrations with services like Apple's own iCloud and iTunes Match.

Now playing: Watch this: Pogoplug Series 4

Maybe the fourth time's a charm: I've reviewed multiple Pogoplugs before, but none of them came close to what this new version offers. The Pogoplug is a NAS drive without the complications, and it's finally hit a sweet spot for price, size, and feature set. The newly released Pogoplug Series 4 is a latecomer to the holiday shopping season, but if you're getting fed up with iCloud and what other cloud services have to offer, then this $99 device might be what you're looking for.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Yes, it looks like an Apple TV or Roku box, but think network-attached hard drive instead: this device plugs into your router via Ethernet, and it comes studded with ports that accept any variety of storage devices. Two USB 3.0 ports are on the back and an SD card slot is on the side, and under the removable top is an additional vertical USB 2.0 port and a SATA port for 2.5-inch laptop hard drives, or for compatible devices like the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex series of portable hard drives. It's an expanded version of the Pogoplug Mobile, a nearly identical-looking $79 device that debuted a few months ago with only a single USB 2.0 port and an SD card slot. I'd gladly pay the extra $20 for what's offered here, instead.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The top port lets you pop a hard drive right in and turn the device into a mini-NAS of sorts. USB flash drives, SD cards, additional USB hard drives: all can be plugged into the Pogoplug, in nearly any format. Pogoplug's software comes in several versions: a Web portal guides newcomers through an easy first-time setup and can be used to view and share media, but Mac, Linux and Windows users can also mount a remote Pogoplug like a regular hard drive for drag-and-drop use, just like you can with Dropbox, for instance.

Trying out the Pogoplug iPad app; hard drive and USB thumb drive in the Pogoplug to my right. Sarah Tew/CNET

On the app side of things, I've played with the iOS Pogoplug app multiple times over, but the universal app has a new wrinkle up its sleeve as of late. Photos and videos can now be automatically uploaded over Wi-Fi, creating a seamless method of backing up precious home movies and pics. Even more impressively, the uploading can happen in the background, or when your iPhone or iPad is in standby (a red number pops up in the corner of the app to tell you how many files are left to upload). I uploaded from my iPad 2 and iPhone 4S simultaneously without a hitch, although the auto-uploading did pause after a few minutes of standby.

Photo and video uploading is easy and automatic. Scott Stein/CNET

Why is this a big deal? Apple's iCloud service only supports photos via Photo Stream, and iPhone users are likely to fill lots of their onboard storage space with videos. If you use a Pogoplug, videos and photos are uploaded in their entirety--my iPhone 4S home movie of my son, clocking in at a whopping 794MB, slowly but surely made the journey to the Pogoplug's attached Seagate hard drive. I could then delete the space-hogging videos from my iPhone if I so wished.

Music, photo, and movie playback is possible via app, although, like previous versions of Pogoplug hardware, music and photos are far more successful. Any music files can be played via an in-app interface that's indistinguishable from the iPhone's music player, and music can play in the background. Photos and videos can be viewed or shared; links can be sent via e-mail, or through Google+, Twitter, and Facebook. Video's a mixed bag. The Pogoplug Series 4 is a DLNA device, so it can be recognized by a home media device, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3. Videos don't always play back smoothly, and some need to be transcoded by the Pogoplug before playing, which can take time.

To accompany the storage space offered by drives attached to the Pogoplug, an additional 5GB of cloud storage called Pogoplug Cloud is offered up for free, even to those who haven't bought a Pogoplug. The idea's an enticement to adopt the Pogoplug ecosystem; cloud storage capacity can be expanded if you choose to pay up, of course.

The seamlessly sharable method of plug-and-playing hard drives and now SD cards makes the Pogoplug a true home cloud device, and an extremely affordable and portable gadget. I'm even willing to forgive the video-playback quirks on the Pogoplug since the rest of the package is a compelling offering on its own. Stay tuned for our full review once I've put the Pogoplug Series 4 through the rest of our tests--maybe this is, at last, the Pogoplug I've been waiting for.

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Pogoplug Series 4
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Pogoplug Series 4