CloudEngine's Pogoplug and Seagate's DockStar are NAS (network attached storage) boxes that provide file sharing over a LAN or the Internet. They are designed to provide local as well as cloud accessible storage (see Cloud Storage Delivers Reliability and Accessibility).
They are based on Armada microcontrollers from Marvell designed for plug computing platforms with a Gigabit Ethernet port. Both utilize external USB disk drives. Both also take advantage of CloudEngine's My PogoPlug website for remote access and distribution of files. This makes it possible to access your files over the Internet even using smartphones like the iPod and the Droid. It is this service that makes these products stand out from the conventional NAS boxes. They compete with products like TonidoPlug (see Tonido's Personal Cloud Storage) from Tonido and Ctera Networks' CteraPlug (see New NAS is More Than Storage).
Internally the Pogoplug and DockStar are almost identical although the Pogoplug hides its power brick inside while DockStar has an external power brick. Both support up to four USB 2.0 disk drives. This includes most hard disk drives and flash drives.
The CloudEngine's Pogoplug has three USB connections on its back panel and one on the front. Typically the connections on the back are used for long term connections while the front panel is handy for a flash drive. This allows the front panel connection to be used when copying files to and from the flash drive.
The Seagate DockStar is designed to work with the Seagate FreeAgent Go (see Seagate FreeAgent Go External Hard Disk) 2.5-in hard drives. There is a micro USB connector on top with a holder allowing the FreeAgent Go to drop onto the connector. The other three USB connectors are spaced around the DockStar. These are handy for permanent connections but it is a two handed operation when using a flash drive.
I would have like to see one of the DockStar's extra USB ports on the top of the unit allowing a single handed insertion and removal of a flash drive. Still, one of the three ports is to one side providing convenient access for a flash drive with two on the rear for long term hard drive connections.
My Pogoplug Interface
Setting up the systems is interesting because it requires an Internet connection. First you sign up for a My Pogoplug account and then add your newly purchased Pogoplug or DockStar to the list of devices you have access to. This means you need an Internet gateway and a running NAS box. The Pogoplug or DockStar essentially calls home when you plug it in. The matching of the device to your account occurs once and the device can only be controlled by one account at a time. This prevents someone taking control of your NAS box if they get a look at the serial number on the bottom.
The main different between CloudEngine's Pogoplug and DockStar is that Seagate will start charging you for use of My Pogoplug after a year. CloudEngine's support is free. The DockStar will still work locally after a year if you don't sign up for a longer support term but any Internet support would go away.
Setting up the account and gaining access to the device is just the first step. This alone will access to any drive you plug into the NAS boxes via the Internet. This includes the use of smartphones described later. Access via a PC requires installation of a device driver. Unlike many NAS boxes, the Pogoplug and DockStar cannot be accessed using the built-in file server access software found in most operating systems such as Windows or Linux. Luckily, CloudEngine's provides drivers for all the major flavors of Windows, Linux and the Mac. Installing these drivers was uneventful and it provides a number of advantages.
First, the drivers provide the usual drive or folder interface. It supports various combinations as the number of drives attached to the boxes as well as the number of devices increases. This is important because CloudEngine's allows sharing of folders with other My Pogoplug users. More on these details later. This does make is probably that you will have access to more than a single drive especially as you talk about the advantages of these boxes to friends and family.
Second, the drives are logical regardless of the kind of connection between the NAS box and the PC. If the NAS box and PC are on the same network then the PC has direct access to the NAS drives. These days this will be at gigabit speeds. If NAS box is on the home network behind a gateway then the PC can still access the drives but through the My Pogoplug connection. From the user and application perspective, the connection is the same. Only the speed of transfers and latency changes.
Finally, the driver can also provide similar access to other devices like these if they have been shared with you as noted earlier. These connections operate in the same fashion as accessing your own drives. Likewise, the logical drives also provide access to multimedia content regardless of where on the NAS storage a file is located. This is similar to the way most MP3 and smartphones work with multimedia content so multimedia files do not have to be placed in a particular folder.
The web interface to the NAS boxes also provides a way to manage and access multimedia content. This includes images, videos and audio files. This system is integrated with the file sharing facility that allows you to give access to folders to other My Pogoplug users. This lets you share a collection of photos or other files.
The software supports users and group accounts with varying levels of access controls and security. It is not as sophisticated as some networking systems like Microsoft's Active Directory but it is simpler and more than adequate for most personal sharing of files and multimedia content.
One of the nice features of the system is the ActiveCopy support. Adding a file to a selected directory causes the file to be copied to another directory. This makes more sense when the destination directory is on another system such as the PC or a shared NAS device. This is where the more sophisticated device driver and My Pogoplug support comes into play. This would let you save your latest photos from a digital camera to your NAS device and have them replicated to your friend's NAS devices so the pictures are now local. This facility is more of a distribution system rather than a backup service. In fact, a separate backup application or service is recommended for providing scheduled backups.
This form of publishing actually extends to many of the social networks available on the Internet such as Facebook. It is even possible to publish an RSS feed or send a web link to files via an email message. The single Pogoplug web interface provides support for this, ActiveCopy and the other features already discussed.
Just quick closing comment regarding the user interface. In most instances, the web interface is more interactive than most. If you check options the action is performed immediately. You do not need to click Submit button. This is more natural but a bit different than most web interfaces especially those found on other NAS boxes.
Android and iPhone Apps
There is a Pogoplug app for Android and the iPhone. It provides limited access files stored on the NAS device. It is actually possible to see all the files on a drive but only multimedia files can be streamed and uploaded. This limitation can be bit annoying if you need to upload or download a file that does not contain video or music. On the other hand, if multimedia is what you need then the service works quite well.
The ability to transcode multimedia files can come in handy with remote devices like the iPhone and Droid. The horsepower in these systems is sufficient for a couple streams but they are not designed to be heavy duty streaming servers. Besides, the interface requires the Pogoplug app making it more of a personal streaming server.
From a cost standpoint, the Pogoplug makes more sense than DockStar that will cost you after the one year free subscription is up. The cost is not high but free tends to be better.
Overall, I am very impressed with My Pogoplug as well as both hardware implementations. Using a Pogoplug or DockStar on a local network or via the Internet is simple and secure. Many, such as myself, would prefer a conventional LAN interface but the availability of drivers for Mac and Linux in addition to most Windows platforms make these NAS servers accessible from most platforms. On the other hand, most users will be much more comfortable with the package that CloudEngines has delivered.
And In Closing ...
I will close with this caveat. In the past I have set up a NAS box for my sister that used a custom driver like the one used with these NAS platforms. The device worked well with Windows XP but there is no driver for Windows Vista or Windows 7. The NAS box is now usable with her old laptop but not her new one that runs Windows 7. CloudEngines looks like it will be around for awhile and it has done a very good job supporting the popular platforms. Hopefully this will continue.
Those looking to hack these platforms should wander over to PlugApps. This open source project targets plug computing platforms like Pogoplug and DockStar. Keep in mind that this is not supported by CloudEngines and using PlugApps will essentially disable the Pogoplug Internet services. PlugApps can actually be placed on an external drive allowing it to be disabled easily.