Pogoplug recently joined the cloud storage craze, and now offers 5GB of free storage to everyone in a service similar to Dropbox, Box, iCloud, and SkyDrive. Before the cloud became a buzzword, however, Pogoplug was a hardware company, and the new $99.95 Pogoplug Series 4 is proof the company still believes mini servers that host personal hard drives are the solution for accessing data from anywhere, anytime.
Pogoplug's first piece of hardware (self-titled, like any true freshman effort), came out in 2009 and let you do one thing: plug in a USB hard drive and access its contents anywhere, from the web or from iPhone and desktop apps. The Series 4 does the same thing, except it has many more ports so you can connect multiple drives, and — more importantly — it's now integrated with Pogoplug's server-side cloud storage option and a wider selection of apps. There are Windows and Mac applications, along with iPhone, iPad, and Android apps that let you browse and play your files in addition to automatically uploading photos and videos as you take them.
The idea is that you'll start with Pogoplug's 5GB of free cloud storage, and when you need more space you'll "expand your cloud" with a hard drive connected to either a Pogoplug device like the Series 4, or an always-on computer running Pogoplug PC software. (Of course, if you'd rather not host your own data, the company does also offer increased storage on its servers for a monthly fee starting at $4.95 for 30GB.)
What we're looking at with the Series 4, then, is a feature-packed home server with an entire collection of apps that is designed to be easy to set up — unlike a NAS. Quite a lofty goal for a tiny $99.95 black box. Let's see how it fares.
I'm used to network devices being quite a pain to set up — getting a NAS up and running is not something I'd recommend to most people — but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it's quite simple to install the Series 4. After you take the device out of its box, you can just visit a website that'll guide you through the setup process. All you do is plug in the power, connect the Pogoplug to your router with the included Ethernet cable, insert the storage device(s) of your choosing, and then sign up for an account. Hopefully everything will go off without a hitch, but there's a simple workaround even if it doesn't: when I set up the Series 4 I was told that it wasn't automatically recognized on my network, so I had to type in a number found on the bottom of the device, which neatly solved the problem. As a bonus, after the initial installation, I didn't have to redo the process when I took the Pogoplug with me to another house — it just worked.
Plastic and ports all around
The Pogoplug Series 4 is an innocuous black plastic box about the size of a second-generation Apple TV (it measures less than five inches wide at its longest point). There's nothing wrong with the matte plastic that makes up the bottom of the device, but the semi-transparent, glossy black plastic used for the removable top lid scuffs easily and picks up fingerprints. There's a single status light on the front of the device — solid green means everything's A-OK and if it's flashing red you've got a problem — and the rest of the unit squeezes in just about as many ports as possible.
FireWire enthusiasts need not apply
You'll have trouble finding a storage device that you can't plug into the Series 4. On the left side there is an SD card slot, and around the back there are two USB 3.0 ports that are accompanied by a power port, gigabit Ethernet jack, and a tiny eject button. Take off that semi-transparent black lid, and you can also find a SATA connector and a USB 2.0 port. I really love that Pogoplug included that SATA port — not only does it let you plug in any bare laptop drive, but it's also compatible with Seagate's GoFlex hard drives, which let you easily swap from USB to FireWire to almost anything else.
The Series 4 heats up a bit when it's in use, but not enough to be a concern. More worrisome was that my GoFlex drive was always spinning when connected to the Series 4 over SATA — though it (and other drives) finally did spin down when plugged in over USB. When I asked the company about this issue, I was told that the Pogoplug tells drives to stop spinning, but some refuse to listen. Other than that, I can't find much to complain about in hardware as simple as this without nitpicking. Sure, it'd be great if the Series 4 had Wi-Fi so I could keep it on my desk — where I think it's more appropriate — and I'd like to see a physical eject button that didn't require a paperclip to use (though you can avoid the button by ejecting devices from within the software). The USB 3.0 ports could stand to have a bit more space between them, and FireWire ports wouldn't hurt, either. Still, the hardware's vastly better than the large, ugly, and USB 2.0-only Pogoplug Classic, and it's a solid improvement on the Pogoplug Mobile, which is identical to the Series 4 save for the fact that it offers only one USB 2.0 port and an SD card slot (it's currently available for $20 less than the Series 4).
Truthfully, it doesn't really matter how good the hardware is, because the Pogoplug is completely dependant on its software. It's how you access, share, view, and manage everything you've entrusted to the Pogoplug family of apps and devices. Unfortunately, this is where the Series 4 (and the entire Pogoplug ecosystem) starts showing some major flaws.
The software (available for PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Android) is, at its most basic, just a file explorer, and it looks just like you'd expect. In addition to viewing files and folders from each of your drives connected to your Pogoplug device, you can easily choose to view all of your media from all of your sources (e.g. a Series 4, cloud storage, and a drive on your computer) as if they were on a single drive. The apps feature full music players with background streaming, album art, playlists, and more. You can view photo slideshows (and even choose music from your collection to accompany them), and you can share any of your files over email, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and more with public links. Of course, you don't have to stream content; you and those you share with can download files and play them locally. In addition to sharing files, it's easy to give read and edit rights to others by inviting them to collaborate with you on a folder. With the mobile apps you can have your photos and videos automatically uploaded (à la Google+ or iCloud), and you can remotely access folders on your computer if you purchase a $29 upgrade to the desktop application, called Pogoplug PC. You can even stream media to UPnP and DNLA-enabled devices, like a PS3 or Xbox 360.
Software brings the Series 4 down
Never trust it to stream your videos
The idea is right, but the software isn't fully baked. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to which videos you can stream (though, here's a list of supported filetypes if you're interested). I had issues with AVIs, MP4s, WMVs, and MKVs, and at a certain point I just gave up on using the Pogoplug as a video-streaming device. Some videos played fine in the desktop app but refused to get going in the web browser or on my phone. In order to increase compatibility, the Series 4 offers to transcode video files into an "optimized" video format, but it takes hours for this process to complete and you'll have no idea when it's finished. If you plan on using the Series 4 to store videos, just know that you're probably going to need to download and save the files locally before playing them — you simply can't rely on streaming the files from Pogoplug apps.
This brings me to my next problem with the software: the lack of information when something goes wrong. Sometimes I'd try to open a folder or stream some media and I'd end up with a blank screen, leaving me guessing whether it was loading or if it was just broken. This was most often the case with the web app, which would intermittently fail to play media even when all of the native apps had no problem. Speaking of reliability, there was one time that I had to turn off the Pogoplug and remove the drive to get it working again — something that would've been really bad news if I were trying to access that drive while I was away from home. Anything that's holding your data really needs to be nearly 100 percent reliable — there's nothing worse than not being able to access your data when you know it should be available — and the Series 4 is not.
Even if I were confident that I'd always be able to access my data, I'd still be unhappy with the software. All of the functionality is there, but many things are finicky. On the Android app, for instance, there's no way to refresh your list of connected devices, so until you force close the app, it'll deceive you into thinking that you'll be able to access a drive that's unavailable. Since there are so few error dialogs, you'll be presented with a blank screen and have no idea what the problem is when you do try to access that drive. Also, thanks to a recent software update, the desktop software now has two options: "backup" and "restore." Despite the naming scheme, you'll actually have to go to "restore" if you want to stream any media, which really doesn't make any sense, and you'll have to tick a "enable file management" checkbox in the advanced settings menu to get the option to delete and share files. Even with that box checked, you won't be able to move files around, a feature that has inexplicably been relegated to the web app.
Mercifully, you can almost completely avoid using the software by setting up your Pogoplug as standard network-attached storage. This means that drives in your Pogoplug will show up in Finder or Explorer as if they were a hard drive plugged into your computer, and you can view, add, and manage files quickly and easily. Unfortunately, there's no way to have your Pogoplug act as a network device at startup — you'll still have to manually open the application every time you turn on your computer. Plus, even if you use the Series 4 solely as NAS, you'd still have to deal with the iPhone and Android apps when you're on your phone and you'd need to rely on that unreliable web app to share files with others.
Once a video starts playing, streaming performance is quite solid. I used the Series 4 on the Verge's 50Mbps / 50Mbps office connection as well as a 3Mbps / 0.5Mbps DSL connection, and streaming took about as long as I expected. I rarely had to wait more than five seconds for a video to start playing — if it was in a supported format — and music started almost instantly. Managing and exploring data on a drive is pretty quick, too — so long as the Pogoplug has had enough time to create previews of all your files before you start poking around. There's a big tradeoff here, however: files aren't viewed at anywhere near their full size, and whatever compression is being applied is very apparent — photos and videos looked nothing like their original files (yet another reason to avoid the Pogoplug software and use the Series 4 solely as network attached storage). It's also worth noting that performance was definitely improved when I connected my drive over SATA instead of USB 3.0. While your mileage may vary depending on your internet connection and the bitrate of your files, I only had a few issues with speed.
The Series 4 is undoubtedly the best hardware the company's put out to date — it's small and light, and has just about every port you would ever need for an external hard drive. It's also very simple to set up, but unfortunately the software just doesn't stand up. Everything the Pogoplug tries to do works most of the time without any problem, but you'll be very frustrated using the Series 4 those few times it doesn't do what it's supposed to. After all, a few times is far too many on a device like this. There are few similarly-priced alternatives, but rather than dealing with this half-baked software, I'd pay fees for a server-side solution like Dropbox, which I know I can depend on to sync reliably. While Pogoplug does have a history of supporting its older devices with software updates, there's just no way I can recommend the Series 4 as it stands today. It's a fantastic idea, but thanks to poorly executed software, the Series 4 isn't ready to be your sole link to your data.