This is the third time we've visited the Pogoplug, a plug-and-play device designed to turn any USB hard drives or thumbdrives into Internet-connected data drops for storing or sharing files. The Pogoplug Pro is basically the same device as the second-generation Pogoplug we reviewed back in May, except that the new model sports built-in Wi-Fi. This review covers what we reviewed about the earlier Pogoplug, along with added software features and our experiences using Wi-Fi.
The desire for easy file storage and cloud sharing has only increased in the past year, especially with the growth of cloud-based storage and streaming options. The biggest appeal of the Pogoplug is its economy, in principle: the device uses whatever USB hard drives you have lying around and instantly turns them into online-sharable drives, doing away with the need for any additional hard drive or NAS purchases.
When we first reviewed the Pogoplug, we found its oversize wall-wart design to be refreshingly simple and compact, and its purpose streamlined. Although somewhat utilitarian, at least it didn't waste any space.
The Pogoplug Pro (like the second-generation Pogoplug before it) seems to have forgotten the lessons of the original product. The curved, awkward shape and bizarre springboardlike base, combined with its ribbed glossy minitower look, it can't help but make it come across like an iMac peripheral made in 1998. Thankfully, the Pogoplug Pro has shifted to a black color scheme, leaving the previous, frankly hideous pink design in the dust. At $99, the Pro is actually $30 cheaper than the second-generation Pogoplug was--essentially, the same as what the original Pogoplug cost in the first place. Plus, it has Wi-Fi.
Note: Despite its confusing "Pro" name, this is a consumer-oriented device that's the best version of Pogoplug, the one anyone interested should buy. A business-targeted Pogoplug with multiple user access functionality also exists, but it's called Pogoplug Biz, and costs a hefty $299.
The original Pogoplug got its name because it was a big wall wart: you could plug it directly into a wall AC outlet (though an extension cord was provided as well). Alas, the newer Pogoplugs need to stand on a table or other surface and use a long power cord by default. The Pogoplug Pro's squat and somewhat bulky box has three USB 2.0 ports in the rear and one poking out the front above a Pogoplug logo that lights up when the box is powered on. The box looks large enough to possibly house its own storage, but that isn't the case: you still have to plug in your own USB-connected hard drives or thumbdrives. With four attached at once you'll have an impressive, almost NAS-like online multidrive, but the setup will also look bulky and full of snaky USB wires. The Pogoplug Pro has a curved, springy stand that doubles as a cable organizer, but there's no rack or method for holding plugged-in hard drives. Hard drives can be unplugged and swapped easily, but we noticed that plugged-in USB thumbdrives got disturbingly warm after only a night of staying in the Pogoplug.
In terms of usability, the experience is straightforward if all you want to do is plug in and share a hard drive. The Pogoplug is compatible with NTFS, FAT32, Mac OS Extended Journaled and non-Journaled (HFS+), and EXT-2/EXT-3 formats, covering most bases for nearly any hard drive. Connecting a drive is as simple as plugging it into the Pogoplug after plugging the Pogoplug into a router via Ethernet and a power socket. The whole system recognizes itself and is ready to go, as advertised, after you log in to Pogoplug's Web site and register.
There are three chief methods of interfacing the drives connected to Pogoplug: directly through a Web browser via the my.pogoplug.com Web site; via a downloadable software client for Mac, PC, and Linux that shows the Pogoplug-connected drives directly on the desktop; and via mobile phone apps. Originally, the Pogoplug app was only available for the iPhone and iPod Touch, but it's since expanded to Android, BlackBerry, and Palm (WebOS) phones.
Wi-Fi capability on the Pogoplug Pro works very easily, refreshingly so. The Pogoplug must first be plugged in via Ethernet to a wireless router, and then the device can be wirelessly connected to any available networks via a settings tab on the my.pogoplug.com Web site. The password settings are retained even when the device is unplugged and moved. That the Pogoplug can be used anywhere in an office or home, plugged into an outlet and tucked near a bookshelf or closet, really makes it a far more versatile device.
Wi-Fi worked great for sharing files like music and pictures, but videos suffered an expected bandwidth drop and slowdown. MP4 files that effortlessly streamed via the Pogoplug to our iPad when directly connected to a wired router suffered pauses and a long buffer time using Wi-Fi.
On the browser side, folders can be viewed, and music, photos, and video can be seen and streamed. All files can also be downloaded, and folders can be selected to be publicly shared via direct link or through social media such as Facebook or Twitter. Music streaming works after a short delay, but the controls are as small and awkward as before, and playlists can't be easily created--it's on a song-by-song basis. Video has a huge delay over the Internet; if you're on the same home network as the Pogoplug, the streaming result is markedly better, but--for video, anyway--still not reliably smooth.
The downloadable client offers the greatest flexibility, allowing drag-and-drop uploading and downloading of files. Deleting files was an awkward process, and sometimes we hit a few lags, but it's still a far cheaper and easier solution than most.
For mobile smartphone apps, interaction is limited largely to viewing and streaming of documents, photos, music, and video--again, with mixed success for video. But the problem is that it's something of a walled garden compared with the computer-based Pogoplug interface: you can't really do everything you'd like with the remote files. Yes, you can view and even download them to the phone, but once you do, you're not always free to share them outside of the Pogoplug ecosystem. For instance, we pulled down a PDF that we needed on our iPhone, but we couldn't e-mail it to anyone; instead, we'd be forced to set up a Pogoplug share with the intended recipients. That works, it's just more involved than we'd prefer for a one-off document.
Since our last review, a few new features have been added. The iPhone app now allows photo and video uploads from an iPhone or iPod to a Pogoplug-connected drive, but we were never able to make it work without crashing. There's also an iPad app which works well, provided you're not uploading. Interfaces on all apps still don't feel smooth, though: it took deep diving into the iPhone app to even discover we could upload at all.
Pogoplugs can also connect to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, use a NAS-like backup service called Active Copy to redundantly copy often-used files, and even cloud-print to an attached printer. The Pogoplug's list of proffered features is long and eye-opening, but the more fantastic the promised features get, the less likely we found the Pogoplug to be able to deliver on them.
The PS3 and Xbox 360 functionality is great in theory: music, photos, and videos all stream to a nearby console, which reads the Pogoplug drive like a nearby wireless drive. What's not to like about that?
However, in our home usage it worked with major reservations. First, setup wasn't intuitive. For some odd reason, Pogoplug-connected hard drives aren't automatically ready to stream--you have to check off a box in "media settings" on the my.pogoplug.com Web site to activate. We then had to access independent message boards and discussions to figure out how to activate the 360's drive recognition, which didn't kick in automatically on our system (we had to download a 360 plug-in first and then restart). When it finally did work, the drive showed up under the Video Library blade of the dashboard. Clicking on the Pogoplug, however, opened up a list-style system of browsing files that was inefficient. For videos, a list of more than 1,000 files stretched out with only confusing file names to identify them, and with no capability to search or preview before playing. Photos worked the same way. Testing which videos could stream and which couldn't was a trial-and-error affair. MP4 files worked fine, but DRMed iTunes shows, unsurprisingly, didn't play. For music, a slightly friendlier browser for albums, songs, and artists, along with visualizer, appeared--the same interface you'd see if you connected an iPod, Zune, or external drive. The same "playlist problem" of browsing thousands of songs remained.
The PS3 recognized the Pogoplug with less effort: it showed up clearly as an icon under the Videos, Photos, and Music lists in the Media Bar. Clicking the icon brings up a list of Music, Videos, and Photos folders that Pogoplug sets up for converted video files (it will convert incompatible formats, according to Pogoplug, but our experience with that was mixed). Or, alternatively, you can browse the drive by file folder and pull up lists of files, resulting in the same trial-and-error playback.
For both the Xbox 360 and PS3, even when videos could play, they stuttered and were prone to pausing midstream. The experience is hardly newbie-friendly, and isn't a good system for storing and playing shows and home movies, either. Photos and music do play well, but slideshows and file browsing are a pain. Also, on both consoles the list of media files didn't appear immediately; a file directory queued up after a painful delay, which on our connected Seagate hard drive took so long that we wondered if it would work at all.
For any of the media-streaming capabilities of the Pogoplug Pro, you're best served by having the device directly connected via Ethernet; via 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, streaming slows down significantly with the added wireless step.
Active Copy is another great idea, in theory: with four USB ports to connect to, the Pogoplug can act as a redundant system for backing up important files. Unfortunately, the Pogoplug won't actively copy any files that aren't in a drive directly plugged into it. In a nutshell, this means no Time Machine-style backups of your computer. However, selecting a folder on one connected drive will enable backups to be made whenever files are added or changed to the original, which would be useful for an external photo collection. Files did copy over from one selected drive folder to another, but not immediately. It's debatable how much we'd really use or trust this system for copying valuable data.
On a positive note, we have to credit Pogoplug's compatibility with the iPad's Safari Web browser. Pogoplug has a media setting allowing you to select the autoencoding of movie and video files to HTML5 playback, and loading up my.pogoplug.com on the iPad brought up a clean but slightly difficult-to-browse version of the standard Web site interface (the folder window needs to be scrolled through with two fingers instead of one, which isn't explained). Video files, however, did play back when tapped: some played immediately in surprisingly strong resolution (MP4s, generally), whereas others played a brief 10-second preview and claimed the rest needed to be converted and queued. It was never clear how to find and play files once they'd been converted, and we imagine few users will have the patience to figure it out. Still, the Pogoplug seems like a very viable solution for iPad users looking to store and browse content without needing to have a powered-up PC to stream from. Pogoplug also has an iPad app that works well for media browsing, although the app doesn't allow easy access to Pogoplug settings like the Web site does.
Cloud printing is another new feature unveiled this year, still advertised as being in beta. You can connect a printer directly to the Pogoplug Pro via USB and print any Word file or PDF on any drive the Pogoplug's attached to. You can also send a file remotely to the Pogoplug, then print. Or, you can simply e-mail an attached file to a dedicated e-mail address set up in the Pogoplug Web settings. Printing works, in theory, even when the Pogoplug's in Wi-Fi mode, making it a wireless bridge for printers. It also supports printing from an iPad or smartphone, but only for files accessed in either of the two categories above. It worked in our tests, but spottily: an Epson Workstation 520 finally printed from our iPad, both an e-mailed Pages file converted to a .doc and a Word doc stored on a USB thumbdrive attached to the Pogoplug. A connected printer could also function as a networked printer for remote use. There were problems, though: we weren't able to get cloud printing to work on an HP Envy printer, or on an older Brother laser printer at home. The supported printer list currently covers Epson and HP printers only, but with the hit-and-miss success we had, you might be better off with an ePrint HP printer or good old-fashioned laptop-to-printer printing instead.
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the Pogoplug, but to be honest, there are also many reasons to be wary. For all that it can do, the only truly useful feature we've found has been its ability to instantly share a hard drive over a home network or the Internet, and many NAS devices do the same thing, although with a bit more complicated setup. Video streaming, cloud printing, multidevice use, and music storage are all clever, but imperfectly executed. Better solutions exist in other products, although those products tend to cost more money.
In the end, we still recommend Pogoplug as an affordable method of connecting and sharing content from hard drives over the Internet, but other options are increasing in number, and dropping in price. The walled-garden style of the Pogoplug's connectivity precludes it from easily compatibility with services such as Apple's Time Machine, and its media-streaming features leave a lot to be desired. Its capability to essentially create an ad-hoc home server from spare USB hard drives remains unique, but it's not a device a general home consumer would feel comfortable with. It's a device that tech-oriented folk will do best with, but those people are precisely the ones who probably use NAS instead. Wi-Fi definitely makes the new Pogoplug a lot more hassle-free, but its bugs and quirks--not to mention its weird design--still leave something to be desired.
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.