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In an era of ever-smaller computing devices and the promise of cloud services descending from every direction, it can get a little numbing and confusing for the owner of an iPad, a smartphone, or even a laptop to figure out how to access and sync data such as photos, music, and documents. Devices like home NAS servers try to bridge the gap for home storage, but most of them require a long learning curve to set up and use.
That's where the Pogoplug is trying to fit in. The product is basically a bring-your-own-storage version of the NAS (network-attached storage) --a "home cloud" that's composed of whatever USB thumbdrives and hard drives you have lying around the house, plugged into the Pogoplug, which is in turn plugged into your router. It shares your media and music across mobile devices, computers, and the Web. It even supports DLNA, the Digital Living Network Alliance standard, which enables streaming playback of video and music on compatible TVs, Blu-ray players, media boxes, Xbox 360s, and PlayStation 3s.
This new $99 box is small, unassuming, and studded with useful ports: USB 2.0 and 3.0 (for portable hard drives and flash drives), an SD card slot, and even a topside slot for 2.5-inch SATA hard drives. It's easily the best version of the Pogoplug yet, but there are two notable caveats. First: video nuts hoping this will be a perfect TV-friendly media box will be sorely disappointed. And secondly, you'll want to determine if you even need a "home cloud" hardware product. For light users, it may well be redundant when there are so many free and inexpensive online file services out there (Amazon Cloud Drive, Dropbox, Box.net, SkyDrive, iCloud).
If, on the other hand, you're craving a compact way to get the contents of your storage devices online and shareable, you'll enjoy this simple, versatile little box.
The new Pogoplug Series 4 is a device that aims to take the best of cloud computing and home network-attached storage and combine the two into a seamless experience. That's been the goal of each Pogoplug released over the last few years, but this latest version dumps the weird boxy look of recent iterations and adopts a far more home-friendly and port-studded solution.
I've reviewed multiple Pogoplugs before, but none of them came close to what this new version offers: USB 2.0, 3.0, SATA, and an SD card slot vary the input options beyond mere USB 2.0, and while there are fewer USB ports than on earlier versions, they're much more logically placed now.
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 a wide 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 are 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.
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. (In other words, a hard drive connected to your Pogoplug just shows up as the "F:" drive, for instance--pretty much indistinguishable from your other internal or plug-in hard drives.)
One issue is worth reporting: when we plugged a Kingston USB 3.0 flash memory stick into the Pogoplug's USB 3.0 port, it eventually became quite hot to the touch. Usually, that's something we'd overlook--lots of products heat up--but considering that the ill-fated Pogoplug Video product was recalled because of a fire hazard, heat from this product does give us pause.
The Pogoplug app
Any device accessing the Pogoplug does so via a Web browser interface or an app, downloadable on PCs or Macs, from the iOS App Store (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad), and for Android and BlackBerry devices. Pogoplug has been slowly streamlining and perfecting its software for years, and it's gradually been improving in simplicity and user interface.
For instance, the iOS iPad and iPhone apps now much more closely resemble Apple's own music and photo gallery app interfaces. Music stored on the Pogoplug can only be played via the app, but the scrollable song list works as expected, and music plays in the background and can be controlled via quick-access controls or headset remote.
One of the most important new additions to Pogoplug's apps (at least, "new" since the last time we reviewed a Pogoplug) is background uploading. Photos and videos can now be automatically uploaded from a mobile device over Wi-Fi, creating a seamless method of backing up precious home movies and pictures. Apple's iCloud backs up photos via Photo Stream, but does nothing for videos shot on the iPhone or iPad camera. The Pogoplug App handles movies as well as photos, and does so admirably. Even more impressively, the uploading can happen in the background, or when your iPhone or iPad is in standby mode (a red number pops up in the corner of the app to tell you how many files are left to upload). I uploaded files from my iPad 2 and iPhone 4S simultaneously without a hitch, although the autouploading did pause after a few minutes of standby (a quirk that apparently comes from a clever trick of app design, since high-intensity background processes like these tend to not be allowed in the iOS ecosystem).
This is a big deal for those who fill lots of their onboard storage space with videos, especially on the iPhone 4S. 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 attached Seagate hard drive. I could then delete the space-hogging videos from my iPhone if I so wished. Maybe Apple's iCloud will eventually support videos, but until that date arrives, the Pogoplug is a helpful stopgap and a great way to locally offload video without syncing with a computer.
Music, photo, and movie playback is possible via app, although, as with 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.
Still, the playback experience was more successful in terms of format and codec recognition. Different formats, surprisingly, all worked: WMV, MOV, MTS, M2TS, MPEG, TS, AVI and VOB. Some looked better than others, but they all played. On the Xbox 360, however, most files had problems playing. If you're using the Pogoplug in any DLNA capacity, go with a PS3 as a conduit.
To accompany the storage space offered by drives attached to the Pogoplug, an additional 5GB of cloud storage called Pogoplug Cloud is offered for free, even to those who haven't bought a Pogoplug. The idea is it's an enticement to adopt the Pogoplug ecosystem; cloud storage capacity can be expanded if you choose to pay up, of course.
Home cloud: For now, or the future?
The seamlessly shareable method of plug-and-play hard drives and now SD cards makes the Pogoplug a more useful "home cloud" device, and the new size and design of the Pogoplug Series 4 has transformed the previously cumbersome device into the best Pogoplug iteration yet.
Still, as time has worn on after my initial experience with the Pogoplug Series 4, I admit I'm skeptical about the long-term future of such a device. At best, the Pogoplug is a temporary measure until cloud services get more robust. Its media functions can't compete with a device like the $50 Roku LT. Of course, these are apples and oranges--why am I even comparing them? I am because there are only so many small, pucklike black boxes a person will buy for the home. Boxes like the Roku handle streaming media; the Pogoplug handles locally stored files.
Someday, these services need to combine into one miracle device, or these functions need to be absorbed into the cloud or the inner workings of our TVs and tablets. I've always fantasized about an easy-to-use black-box storage solution that could suck up all my photos, videos, and music and spit them out when needed to whatever I'm using, be it phone or tablet or computer or TV. The Pogoplug comes close in some regards, but it's still awkward with video, and requires you to bring your own storage. The Pogoplug Series 4 isn't an essential item to own. It could be very useful for some, but it's a niche device. As such, it's a fascinating but ultimately imperfect online media storage and backup solution. That said, if you've been ogling a Pogoplug for a while, this is the definitive version to buy.