|Introduction & Specifications|
For many, just the thought of setting up and using a network attached storage (NAS) device makes their eyes cross and their pulses increase. While even the technophobic recognize the benefits of having a network-based repository of files for sharing and backup, the concept can still seem daunting to some. The reality is that NAS devices have become surprisingly easy to set up and use, but most still require at least a modicum of networking knowhow. In a bid to allay the fears of even the greenest of computer users, however, CloudEngine's Pogoplug makes setting up and using a NAS device as easy as it can possibly be.
The Pogoplug is the size of large AC adapter. It has Ethernet and USB ports; and instead of using built-in hard drives for storage, you provide your own USB-based drive, such as an external USB hard drive or USB thumb drive. The Pogoplug should be accessible over a network connection by any device with a built-in Web browser; but CloudEngines also offers free client apps for accessing the Pogoplug directly from within Windows XP and Vista (32 and 64-bit), the Mac OS, and Linux (32 and 64-bit--albeit, the Linux versions are presently in beta), where the Pogoplug simply appears as connected drive. CloudEngines even has a free iPhone app for accessing the Pogoplug on your iPhone or iPod touch. Best of all, the Pogoplug sells for only $99--which is a great price for a NAS device--assuming, of course, that you already have a USB drive to attach to it (and don't also have to purchase a new USB drive).
The Pogoplug is actually a full system-on-chip (SoC)-based device, which uses Marvell's SheevaPlug Development Kit. The Pogoplug is one of the first Plug Computing devices to come to market.
The Pogoplug essentially brings cloud-based storage into your home: Not only can you access the Pogoplug over your local network via your OS as a networked volume or via a Web-based interface in your browser, but you can also access the Pogoplug remotely while away from home by these same means. Taking it a step further, you can even dole out folder-level read and write access to other local or remote users as well.
The Pogoplug is a service-based appliance, so even though the device is attached to your local network and could be sitting mere inches from you, it still requires CloudEngine's Internet-based Pogoplug service to work. If your Internet connection goes out, you won't be able to access your Pogoplug. There is no fee to utilize the Pogoplug service (the fee is included in the price of the device); but requiring such a service to access the device, begs the question as to what happens if CloudEngines ever goes out of business? CloudEngines had addressed that very issue here on its blog. The answer is not an elegant one, and probably won't make users happy who seek simplicity, but CloudEngines states that "the source code for Pogoplug's back-end services" has been placed in an Escrow account, which will be released on SouceForge to the open source community should the company ever file for bankruptcy.
|Design & Build Quality|
The Pogoplug measures 4x2.5x2-inches and comes in a mostly plain-white chassis. The top of the unit includes two LED status lights. One shows the device's status and the other indicates if there is a message waiting (such as a new firmware update being available). Our unit came with a glued-on logo badge on its top, but earlier models lacked this design. Our unit also included a removable sticker with instructions on how to activate the device, by visiting a specific Website and entering a lengthy identifier code. Lucky for us, however, due to a recent firmware update, activating the Pogolug was a much easier process--the Pogoplug can now be auto-identified during activation (although, if for some reason the Pogoplug is not automatically identified, you will then need to type in the 26-character code).
In the time that we used the Pogoplug, we encountered no less than two different firmware updates, which offered additional features and better performance. This should act as a testament to the Pogoplug's continued development and refinements. In fact, CloudEngines proudly claims:
"Pogoplug is getting even better all the time. Our system is expandable over the Web. Soon, your Pogoplug can connect directly to popular sites such as backup, file synchronization, photo printing and more."
While the Pogoplug can plug directly into an AC outlet, this is not your only option. The AC plug slides out and you can instead use the bundled AC cord. The only ports on the device are a single USB 2.0 port and a Gigabit Ethernet port--both sitting next each other on the bottom of the unit. The Pogoplug is a sealed device and is not meant to be user serviceable.
|Setup & Configuration|
It's difficult for us to remember another product that was as easy to set up as the Pogoplug. In fact, CloudEngines claims that you can get the Pogoplug up and running in 60 seconds. While this is likely feasible, it will probably take most users a little longer--especially those who need a little handholding. And handholding is what users can get, if they choose to view the optional videos embedded in the online, Web-based setup wizard.
To get the Pogoplug operational, you first need to attach it to your router and plug in its power cable. The next step is to activate the device--which in our case, took just a few seconds. Once the device has been activated, you attach a USB drive. The drive you attach must be pre-formatted--the Pogoplug's interface does not permit for formatting attached drives. If you have a powered USB hub handy, you can instead attach the hub to the Pogoplug and then attach multiple USB drives to the Pogoplug for multiple networked drives. As of the most-recent firmware update, the Pogoplug supports drives formatted with NTFS, FAT32, HFS+ (journaled and non-journaled), and EXT-2/EXT-3 file systems.
Once your USB drive is attached, the next step is to create a Pogoplug account, which is based on your e-mail address and a user-created password. A confirmation e-mail is sent to you, from which you click on the embedded link to take you to your personal My Pogoplug Web portal. The My Pogoplug portal is the default interface from which you interact with the Pogoplug, both locally and remotely. While this is the default interface, it is by no means the only way to access the Pogoplug.
The free applications for Windows, Mac, and Linux, which CloudEngines makes available for download here, enable access to the Pogoplug directly as an attached drive. Essentially what these apps do is automatically map a drive letter for the Pogoplug device, so that you can drag-and-drop files to and from the Pogoplug as you would any other type of drive. These apps operate whether the Pogoplug is on the same local network as the user, or even if the user is connected remotely--albeit, remote access is likely to be noticeably slower than local networked access. There is even a free iPhone Pogoplug app that lets you access your Pogoplug locally or remotely.
As you can see from the dearth of configuration options in the screenshot (below) of the Pogoplug's settings options, the device's nearly single-minded focus is on ease of use. The Pogoplug's settings allow you to add additional e-mail address for accessing the device, change your password, rename the Pogoplug and attached drive names, and add additional Pogoplug devices to your account. The settings also show the Pogoplug's firmware version, the file format of the attached drive, and how much of the drive's total storage is available. If you ever need to remove an attached drive from the Pogoplug, you are advised to first eject it via the Pogoplug's settings menu, less you potentially corrupt any files stored on the attached drive.
To access the Pogoplug via a supported Web browser you simply point your browser to the My Pogoplug portal and enter your login credentials. Supported browsers include Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer 7 (and above), Chrome, and Opera. During our testing, Firefox 3.5 was released, and we encountered a few issues where some media types that successfully played back in the previous version of Firefox were no longer playing in the updated Firefox 3.5 Mac client--Safari 4.0 appeared to work fine with the Pogoplug. The Windows version of Firefox 3.5 also appeared to work fine, as did Internet Explorer 8.
When you first login to the My Pogoplug portal, you are taken to a screen that shows you all of the folders on the root of the attached drive. Single-clicking on any of the folder icons, changes the view to the contents of that folder. You can choose to view the folder contents via list view, or as small, medium, or large thumbnails. If the interface recognizes the file type, it will assign a relevant icon to the file, such as an Acrobat icon for PDF files, or a speaker for audio files. Recognized image and video files use a frame from the actual image as its thumbnail.
We found that the Pogoplug's Web interface could play MP3 and AAC audio files; BPM, GIF, JPG, and PNG image files; and H.264-encoded video files. A Pogoplug representative told us that the Web interface should also be able to display TIF image files and play FLV video files, but we didn't have any luck accessing these files types on either our Windows or Mac testbeds, using a variety of browsers.
Navigating the Web interface is easy and fairly intuitive. Buttons on the bottom of the page allow you to upload files, create new folders, copy files, and share folders. The copy files feature, lets you copy files from one folder on the Pogoplug to another Pogoplug folder. Sharing folders is as easy as typing in someone's e-mail address. The people you choose to share folders with will receive e-mails with links that take them to the shared folders; those users can then choose to create free Pogoplug accounts, or just continue to access the folder directly from the e-mailed link.
Users who are granted access to a shared folder can download folders and files, as well as view and listen to supported media types. You can also grant "upload" access to users, which additionally allows users to upload files, create new folders, copy files, rename folders and files, and delete folders and files. We would have liked to see more flexible user rights, such as the option of allowing users to upload files without letting them also have the ability to delete and rename folders and files. Calling this kind of access "upload" is deceiving--in fact, users who have "upload" shared access to a folder can do everything to the folder contents that the main Pogoplug user can do, with the exception of granting shared access to additional users.
Pogoplug users--as well as users who have been given shared access to a folder--can download a small application that will provide access to the Pogoplug (or Pogoplug's shared folders) directly from within the operating system, without needing to launch a browser. The Windows version of the app lets you enter your username and password, and choose to start the app when you login into Windows. If you choose the "Start on login" option, the app automatically maps the Pogoplug as a drive letter. When the Pogoplug app is running, it appears as an icon in the Windows taskbar.
The Mac client works similarly; however, on both our iMac and MacBook Pro testbeds, the app would not automatically mount the Pogoplug volume. The app launched on login and placed an icon on the Mac menubar, but we still had to manually login to the Pogoplug via the app's preferences in order to make the Pogoplug appear as a mounted volume. Once the app mounts the Pogoplug volume, a Pogoplug icon also appears on the desktop, which acts as a shortcut to a Finder window for the drive.
CloudEngines also has a free iPhone app that let's you access the Pogoplug. Not only can you can browse the contents of the Pogoplug, but you can also listen to audio files (AAC and MP3), view images (GIF, JPG, and PNG), and even watch videos (H.264). The app worked great on our first-generation iPod touch, but there was one feature of the app we really couldn't take advantage of without having an actual iPhone--and that is the ability to upload photos from an iPhone directly to the Pogoplug.
The Web interface, system apps, and iPhone app can be used by Pogoplug users as well as by users who have been granted shared access to a Pogoplug's folders. All three means of accessing the Pogoplug function the same whether you are accessing the Pogoplug over your local network, or remotely over the Internet.
|A Linux Computer Under The Hood|
While the Pogoplug is designed primarily to be a simple and inexpensive NAS and remote file-access solution, let's not forget that the device is actually a functional Linux-based computer. What this means is that anyone who has the wherewithal and means to expand the functionality of the Pogoplug, can add additional features to the device. In response to a query we had about the Pogoplug's ability to also act a print server, CloudEngine's CTO, Brad Dietrich, told us: "Many of our customers have added CUPS and SAMBA to the Pogoplug using either pre-built packages for other ARM distributions or from the source code to fully enable USB print serving."
The vast majority of users, however, are not likely to want to hack their Pogoplug--at least not the user base that CloudEngines is targeting. As to what sort of functionality we might see added over time to the Pogoplug, this is what Dietrich had to say:
"We are focusing most of our time on differentiating our product with remote access and ease-of-use features. Saying that, we will continue to innovate and add features even to existing Pogpolugs in the field. We listen to our users and add the features that are in high demand with automatic firmware upgrades in the field."
In order to test the functionality of the Pogoplug, we placed it on a Gigabit-Ethernet network and accessed it from a variety of Windows and Mac desktops and laptops. We connected to it via both wired and wireless connections, as well as remotely over the Internet.
To test the device's performance, we conducted a number of data-transfer tests to and from the device over our network using an HP Pavilion Elite m9550f desktop (2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300, 8GB PC2-6400 DDR2 SDRAM, 1TB NTFS 7200RPM SATA hard drive, ATI Radeon HD 4850 512MB, Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 64-bit) via a Gigabit-Ethernet connection. We conducted large-file write and read tests where we copied a 1.7GB ISO file between the Pogoplug and the m9550f. We also conducted small-files write and read tests where we copied a 267MB folder made up of 70 JPGs ranging in size from 2.27MB to 4.38MB between the Pogoplug and the m9550f. We conducted these tests by dragging-and-dropping the folders and files in Windows, with the Pogoplug connected as a mapped drive.
We compared the performance of the Pogoplug against that of a number of NAS devices we've looked at recently, including the WD My Work World Edition, Maxtor Central Axis Business Edition, Linksys by Cisco Media Hub, and the HP MediaSmart Server LX195. We also repeated all of our tests on an older 500GB Maxtor Shared Storage NAS device--copying files between the Maxtor Shared Storage device and the m9550f. Additionally, we ran our tests on an external hard drive connected directly to a USB 2.0 port on the m9550f; the drive we used was a 320GB Western Digital Caviar Blue drive (7200RPM SATA-II, 16MB cache) placed into an external enclosure and formatted using the NTFS file system.
We also included performance numbers from the Addonics NAS Adapter, which is a similar product to the Pogoplug in that it is also a small box that allows you to turn a USB drive into a NAS device. Because of problems we ran into during testing, we never posted a full product review of the Addonics NAS Adapter, but you can a find a detailed blog post here about what the Addonics NAS adapter does well and where it falters.
During our testing, CloudEngines released a firmware update for the Pogoplug, which--among other things--was supposed to increase the performance of transfer speeds with NTFS-formatted drives. We tested the device with both versions of the firmware (126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52), and we saw more than a doubling in the performance of writing a large file to the device. With the older firmware, it took the Pogoplug 333 seconds to write a 1.7GB file to the Pogoplug, while it took only 156 seconds with the newer firmware. Oddly, the device's performance with reading a large file actually degraded with the firmware update--the amount of time it took to read the 1.7GB file was 97 seconds with the older firmware, but took 235 seconds with the newer firmware. With the firmware update, the Pogoplug's large-file transfer rates on our tests equate to about 11.2MB/Sec (93.9Mb/Sec) for writing and 7.4MB/Sec (62.3Mb/Sec) for reading.
The Pogoplug's original 97-second large-file read time with the older firmware might be an indication of the Pogoplug's full performance potential--as this time is even better than a number of the recent NAS devices we've looked at. However, its slower read performance with the new firmware and even its adjusted write performance show rather unimpressive performance. The product is still being tweaked with more firmware updates, so it will be interesting to see what kind of additional performance its developers can squeeze out of it.
We ran into a problem with our small-files performance test where our test results were wildly inconstant. Eventually, with the help of CloudEngines, we figured out that as our small-files workload is made up of JPG image files and the Pogoplog automatically creates thumbnails for uploaded images on the fly, the Pogoplug was likely devoting some of its resources to making thumbnails and therefore diverting some CPU cycles away from the file transfers. Unfortunately, we couldn't alter our test methodology at this point, as all of the comparison data was already generated from testing done during previous product reviews. We did our best to pause between test runs to give the device enough time to index uploaded images before we clobbered it with more images from subsequent test runs, but the upshot here is that our small-files transfer test is more of a measure of the Pogoplug's performance of transferring JPG image files than small files in general.
We experienced a minor improvement in performance with the small-files read and write performance when we upgraded the Pogoplug's firmware; but this performance was still lackluster when compared to the majority of NAS devices we've run this same test on. We decided to put together an ad-hoc test to measure the Pogoplug's small-files performance when it was transferring files that weren't images. This quickly-thrown-together workload consisted of a 266MB folder of 78 MP3 files that ranged in size from 1.98MB to 4.35MB. It is important to keep in mind that you can't directly compare the results from this ad-hoc test to any other results presented here, but we did see the promise of some potential speedy performance--the Pogoplug performed this set of small-files write in 23 seconds, and read the files in 16 seconds. The ad-hoc test results work out to be roughly 11.7MB/Sec (98.0Mb/Sec) for writing small files, and 16.8MB/Sec (140.5Mb/Sec) for reading small files. Once again, we get a glimpse at the potential of the Pogoplug's performance.
|Summary & Conclusion|
The Pogoplug represents a curious dichotomy: To some the Pogoplug is a very easy way to set up and use a NAS device, share access with other users, and repurpose an existing USB hard drive. To others, the Pogoplug is a fully-functional Linux PC that can serve a variety of advanced tasks--perhaps limited only by their Linux skills. CloudEngine's attention is primarily focused on users from the first camp; but it is certainly keeping its eyes on what the advanced users are doing with their devices, as there might be lessons to be learned and best practices to be gleaned, which can be rolled up to the larger user base with subsequent firmware updates.