Pogoplug Safely, Seamlessly Shares Your Personal Cloud with Others

| In-Depth Review

There are many solutions for sharing files with others on the Internet. Some have some risks, and some are rather technical and not appropriate for non-technical associates. Pogoplug is a device that serves files, isolated from your own LAN, to others on the Internet in an easy, secure fashion. Think of it as your personal cloud. And yet you can manage the shared files yourself from a Mac, PC, or Linux system.

Pogoplug author shot

Author's glamor shot with iPhone for size comparison

What is it?

The Pogoplug is a small device, basically a custom designed Linux computer with four USB ports (for your drives) and an Ethernet connection. You plug drives with shared files into the USB ports and then connect the Pogoplug to your home router (or switch) directly.

The shared files on those drives are channeled through the Pogoplug only, and visitors have no access to any other device or computer on your local network. You specify who has access to your Pogoplug, and they can access these files via a Web or application interface.

Why Do You Need it?

Say you have lots of files to share with other developers, colleagues, or even remote family members. In the case of family members, some of them may be non-technical. With the Pogoplug, you won't have to sign up for a service, pay a monthly fee, worry about the service divulging your files or going out of business, Also you won't have hand out geeky URLs, usernames and passwords. You simply send an e-mail invitation. It will contain a link that redirects the recipient to their browser, and voila! Now that person can see and download your files. It's that easy. Cloud Engines calls it "Your Personal Cloud."

The Full Review

They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. I think Cloud Engines took that to heart when they used a really first class piece of plastic around the packaging. Right away, you get the feeling that this is going to be a first class experience.

The feeling is reinforced when you take the Pogoplug out of the box. You've never seen a device like this, and all of a sudden you're taken aback, in a good way, by the industrial design. Everything about the design seems mysterious at first, and yet you sense there's a reason behind it. And there is. 

The Pogoplug device itself, available for now only in pink, was developed over a four year period. A Linux kernel was stripped of non-essentials and rebuilt from the ground up to do its specialized job. There is a 1.2 GHz ARM processor with 256 MB of RAM and a USB controller. That's about it. It's a very low power device, and while running consumes less than 5 watts.

The Pogoplug is suspended the way it is to allow for the weight of multiple USB drive cables. Little things have been taken into consideration. For example, the power supply is on the bottom of the case to keep the center of gravity low. The slotted loop is designed to easily slide cables in and out as well as keep them bundled.

Setup

Let's say you have a small HDD or a Flash drive with files you want to share. First, connect the Pogoplug to your router -- or switch if you have one inline with your router -- with the supplied Ethernet cable. (It's underneath the plastic mold in the box.) This is a gigabit Ethernet connection. Then connect the power plug. Then connect your drive(s). As soon as the Pogoplug boots up, it will take note of its presence on your LAN and send a bundle of information to the Cloud Engines server, essentially signaling itself as an unregistered product.

The Pogoplug will never alter your network, open any ports or ask you to make geeky changes to your router. 

Then, from your computer, which must be on the same LAN, you go to http://my.pogoplug.com/activate. In so doing, some behind the scenes Internet magic (NAT Traversal and UDP tunneling) will associate your new Pogoplug with the account you create. From now on, that Pogoplug is slaved to your e-mail and password only. Here are some screen shots from the registration process. Note how the Web registration graphically walks you through the connections. This is the best thought out registration process the author has ever seen for a hardware product.

Set up #1

Step 1, Connect Ethernet

Step 2,3

Steps 2 & 3, Connect Power, then drives

Step 4, verify

Step 4, Verify Green light on Pogoplug

Pogoplug - register

Register and create binding to device

Once you've registered the Pogoplug, you're ready to logon and manage the environment at http://my.pogoplug.com. For example, you can designate specific folders or the whole drive to be shared with people you invite. Newly created folders within shared folders are also shared. Here's what I see for my OWC 80 GB On-the-Go drive attached to the Pogoplug.

Pogoplug Web view

Web view of shared files & management center

Note the icon on the left side, in blue, for ejecting the connected drive(s). It's easy to overlook that at first and end up wondering how to eject drives from the Pogoplug.

Only the directory called "Shared" has been shared with a few tester friends, and it has a small green icon in the corner to indicate it is shared. To share it with someone new, just select the icon, click the "Sharing" button at the bottom and enter an e-mail address.

The recipient will receive an e-mail from the Cloud Engines server advising them that they have now have access granted by user X to directory Y. It looks like this:

Pogoplug -E-mail notice

E-mail notice

Clicking on the link "View it now" launches the recipient's default browser and provides an immediate view of the shared folder. Hovering the cursor over a file displays options for actions on the right: download, rename or delete. (That last option depends on whether you gave the recipient "View/Download privileges" or "Full Access" privileges. Files are transferred using HTTPS/SSL 128-bit encryption.

Note, however, that the e-mailed link is, by by default, valid for only two weeks. (Currently, the e-mail fails to include a note to that effect.) If you want the link to be persistent, go to the tab called "More sharing options" before you send the invitation and click the box: "Enable Public Viewing." Now the e-mailed link will remain valid for the recipient forever.

Also, in testing, we noted that if the default browser is OmniWeb, the access link won't work. Supported browsers are: Safari, FireFox 3, IE 7, IE 8, and Chrome.

That's basically all there is to the process using the Web access. The one gotcha in this Web access scenario is that the recipient who wants to see your files will have to be able to find that invitation e-mail over and over.

The Drive App

The Web interface is fine for casual users who download your files, but it's not so great for local management. Also, slightly more technical remote users may wish to use what Cloud Engines calls the "Drive app." This Application, available for Mac OS X, Windows or Linux, essentially mounts the remote drive(s) and makes them look like part of the local file system. For example, in the Mac OS X Finder, you'll see a volume in the device list. That makes it much more easy to manage directories and files for the administrator and guests.

To get the drive app, go to http://www.pogoplug.com/downloads/ and get the version you want. Be forewarned, however, the .pkg installer (for Mac) will not only put the Pogoplug app in /Applications, but it will also install MacFuse 2.0.3. If you already have MacFuse installed, perhaps because you use Parallels Desktop, the installer will see it and skip that part. In any case, MacFuse is easy to delete if you're just in experimental mode -- it's managed as a preference pane (in Mac OS X System Preferences) with a button there to uninstall. The installer, or related docs, should be more upfront about the installation of MacFuse.

Another gotcha with the drive app is that the remote user will have to create a user account. There's an invitation to do this at the top of the Web access where the yellow box says: "Click here to create your free account." You should use the same e-mail address that was used for the Web invitation. That's too easy to miss, and the invitation would benefit from a slight change. (See below.)

Now the magic happens. When you launch the Pogoplug app and logon, the remote drive(s) shared with you will mount on your desktop. It'll look like this.

Pogoplug Drive app mounts

Pogoplug drive app - Finder

Desktop and Finder view of shared volumes with Drive app

Note: In the screen shot above, supplied by Cloud Engines, some drives have multiple partitions. Hence there are more than four volumes mounted. (The Pogoplug has four USB ports.)

As mentioned, not only does the Drive app give the user more control over the management of files, in a friendlier way, but it eliminates the need to keep track of an invitation e-mail. However, this option should only be used by the Pogoplug administrator and more technically savvy colleagues with whom files are shared.

In the case of this reviewer, the Drive app would launch, but not mount any volumes. The problem turned out to be that the test Mac was running Snow Leopard in 64-bit mode and MacFuse is currently compiled only for 32-bit mode.  So MacFuse doesn't load.  Pogoplug's system requirements have been updated to reflect the requirement to run in 32-bit mode.

Documentation and Support

A small, red four page quick start guide should be sufficient for most casual users, but I think Cloud Engines, in an effort to make the product "Mac-like" in its simplicity has overlooked the need to provide more detailed documentation -- especially in the areas discussed above. It's similar to the Apple AirPort Extreme. If you muddle though the defaults, things will likely work, but once you start digging into options and complexities, questions arise. More detailed documentation on all the options is needed.

This reviewer spoke with Jed Putterman, Executive VP of Products, and he provided some of the details about how the Pogoplug first phones home, becomes bound to your registration data, and also how updates occur. In order to keep the usage of the device simple, updates are pushed out in the middle of the night, local time. If the device is in use, that is, files being accessed, the update is put on hold. When the updates are applied, the Pogoplug is unavailable for about 20 seconds. The light on the front of the PogoPlug (which is not an on/off switch, by the way) will blink during a reboot.

Support is available via e-mail only at support@pogoplug.com with a promised response within four hours during business hours and a little longer on nights and weekends.

The warranty is one year for parts and labor. Note that because the Pogoplug is essentially a gateway device, you never have to worry about sending in a device for repair that has personal data on it. Finally, the philosophy of Cloud Engines is to never charge for the service via their servers.  The cost is built into the hardware price, and it will stay that way, according to Mr. Putterman.

Pogoplug - front

Pogoplug Front - via Cloud Engines

Pogoplug's system requirements are listed as:  MS Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7, Mac OSX 10.5 and above (Intel and PowerPC) 32-bit kernel only, Linux. Drive formats supported include: NTFS, FAT32, Mac OS Extended Journaled and non-Journaled (HFS+), EXT-2/EXT-3.

Summary

For the money, this is an amazing device. It's well built, designed to work with most home routers, such as those from Linksys/Cisco, Buffalo, or Netgear -- and even worked with my high end SonicWall router. It does a very focused job of delivering files in a fashion isolated from your LAN and your home computers. Sharing files to others via e-mail invitations and the Web access couldn't be easier.

However, the product is fairly new. It first shipped in May, 2009 and a major update, V2 (pink, additional USB ports) shipped in December 2009. There seem to be some issues associated with explaining all the options to the administrator and users that have been glossed over for the sake of extreme (apparent) simplicity. It should be more clear, perhaps imbedded in the Pogo Drive app itself, how to register as a user for shared files.

The fundamentals are in place, and it seems to me that this product will just get better and better over time. For example, Mr. Putterman mentioned, on the record, that they're working on an update that will allow streaming to Xbox and PS3. Other cool refinements, that he kept of the record, are also coming.

I've now deployed this device in my office to share files, especially with some non-technical friends, and it's just what we needed. I've been waiting a long time for a product like this. You probably have too.

_____

Pogoplug is available direct or from Frys, Amazon, CompUSA (online) and J&K Electronics.

Product: Pogoplug

Company: Cloud Engines, Inc,

List Price: US$129.00

Pros:

Incredibly easy to set up, not expensive, no need for geeky access URLs and passwords with Web access, great industrial design, automatic updates, transparent to and isolated from network, encrypted file transfers, options for full or read-only access, Drive app mounts shared volumes like local drives.

 

Cons:

More extensive documentation needed for the advanced features.

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