Editors' Note: As of November 2009, this product has been replaced by the second-generation Pogoplug.
Wouldn't it be nice to quickly access your data from anywhere without a complicated network setup? That's exactly what the Cloud Engines Pogoplug offers. Priced at $100, this tiny gadget turns any USB external storage devices--anything from a Seagate FreeAgent Go to a Western Digital Passport or even a standard USB thumb drive--into a network file server.
The device itself is almost shockingly small; it's a tiny white box--measuring just 2 inches by 4.25 inches by 2.75 inches--that resembles an oversize wall wart. It comes with only two ports: a USB 2.0 slot and a Gigabit Ethernet jack. The Pogoplug can be plugged straight into an AC wall outlet but it also comes with an extension cord in case you want to keep the power outlet clear.
The USB connection will accommodate any USB external storage. By default it supports only one device but you can change that by using a USB hub. And the Pogoplug isn't picky; it supports basically all existing popular file systems including NTFS, FAT32, Mac OS Extended (Journaled and non-Journaled), and EXT-2/EXT-3.
Once you've plugged in the USB drive, the included Ethernet cable (running to your home network's router), and the power, you should get a couple of green lights on the unit indicating that it's properly communicating with your home network. Then you need to go through the setup process. For most network devices, that's where the aggravation begins, but the Pogoplug setup process is about as simple and stress-free as it gets. Just fire up your PC's Web browser, go to my.pogoplug.com, and follow the onscreen setup wizard. If the system doesn't automatically recognize your Pogoplug on the home network, you just need to type in the unique 26-digit serial code printed on the unit. Finish up by creating a Pogoplug account (mercifully, you need only supply an e-mail address and password), and you're done.
There are two ways to access files on the PogoPlug: via my.pogolug.com or by using Pogoplug's drive-mapping plug-ins. Both work on a home network or over the Internet. We started with the drive mapping plug-ins, which are available as free downloads on Pogoplug's Web site for 32- and 64-bit Windows (XP, Vista, or 7), Mac OS X, and Linux (including a 64-bit version as well). Downloading any of these will enable the Pogoplug-connected drive to appear as a regular local hard drive.
We tested the Cloud Engines Pogoplug by loading it up with an assortment of iTunes music and video files--some DRM protected--as well as a folder of photos and a few short homemade videos. We tried it on both Windows and Mac laptops and found it worked as though the Pogoplug drive was connected directly to the computer. We noted some occasional hiccups when working over the Internet, from our office to our home, several miles away, but when working within our home network, everything was smooth.
Web access also allows users to view or even download and upload files from nearly any popular browser. We tried Chrome, Internet Explorer 7 and 8, Firefox 3, and Safari, and all worked fine. The simple interface shows your files in a list of icons format, and downloading or sharing any of the files only involves clicking one of the few buttons that appear below each. While other NAS solutions offer Web-based access, it's the ease of setup here that will appeal to novices. We were also glad to find out that we could download individual files or the whole folders. Performance-wise, downloading five or so albums' worth of personal music to a work PC took the better part of an hour and a half, but individual file downloads were far more tolerable. As always, this depends a lot on the upstream and downstream Internet connection, so your performance may vary accordingly.
The Web application also includes media streaming for music and videos as well as photo viewing. While the music playing was seamless, video streaming ("previewing") was much less reliable: if the video came up at all, it took several minutes to buffer. Specifically, M4V files worked occasionally, even on solid internal network connections. Thankfully, you can just download these files to play locally. Our biggest gripe was the dearth of bulk upload via the Web interface--you have to pick files to upload one at a time, rather than choosing multiple files or uploading a whole folder at once--though using the drive mapping software obviates that problem.
The Cloud Engines Pogoplug also makes it easy to share files with others. You can set the whole drive or specific folders for sharing via an RSS feed or an e-mailed link. You can also open drives or folders for public viewing for anyone via a specially generated URL (similar to how Google Docs works). And a recent update allows for files to be shared by links via social media sites (such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace). While this works well, we found a potential bug: the notifications (via e-mail and social networking) seemed to only work the first time but not every time a shared folder was updated with new content, even when we made sure this option was enabled.
As a bonus, there's an iPhone app that works very well in several respects. Files can be accessed remotely and even downloaded to the app itself for offline viewing. Music streaming over 3G sounded excellent and worked smoothly, but the app only plays individual tracks--you can't access playlists, nor can you play all songs in a folder. Video playback was slow and problematic, even over Wi-Fi, but we could view Office docs in full formatting.
Security is always a concern for "cloud-based" applications, but Pogoplug's developers claim that the company doesn't keep any data on its servers. Likewise, the company has a "doomsday plan" in place, should it ever go out of business, that would open the source code to a possible successor to restart the service.
The Pogoplug is covered by a one-year warranty for defects, as well as a 30-day return policy. The Pogoplug Web site offers plenty of useful tutorials and FAQs, and the support staff is reachable by e-mail from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. PST. Also, Pogoplug has licensed its technology to Seagate for inclusion in that company's DockStar base station. However, Seagate is going to charge $30 per year for the capability to access the DockStar drives from outside your home network--which makes the no-fee Pogoplug a better deal, since it also works with Seagate drives.
Our biggest and only beef with the Pogoplug was its inability to share files with anything besides a PC or iPhone--it doesn't offer DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance), UPnP, or SMB file-sharing support. That means you can't access Pogoplug-based files on non-PC media devices such as the PS3, Xbox 360, and network music players such as Sonos and Squeezebox. This is not a deal-breaker considering the device's niche, but still we hope that this will be added via new firmware sometime in the future.
If you don't need that sort of support, though, the Pogoplug is definitely a "greener" alternative for anyone who would normally use a PC as a file server. The Pogoplug draws between 6 and 8 watts of power while operating (with a Western Digital Passport drive plugged in), which means it'll cost less than $2 per year to operate. That's compared to a desktop PC, which would cost $20 to $60. That means, over the course of two years, the Pogoplug's energy savings could literally pay for itself, if you replace your PC-based file server with it
All in all, the Pogoplug make an excellent network device for anyone who wants a simple and quick solution for sharing files on a network or over the Internet. For $99, it's a fun way to build yourself a cheap online storage drive.
Editors' note: We consider the Cloud Engines Pogoplug an accessory and therefore didn't put it through the same testing process as standard NAS servers.