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1. Discovering Plug Computers

Looking for a way to share your files form one central location, via your network or the Internet?

One relatively new option is to invest in a "Plug Computer", a common name for a relatively new type of small, energy efficient computer. Plug computers first hit the scene in early 2009, when companies like CTERA, Cloud Engines and Marvell committed to releasing new low-power, small form factor (SFF) computers that would focus on data backup. While the hardware has been around for about two years now, the included software has now evolved into something more than just a data backup service. Printer sharing, social networking, smartphone connectivity and dozens of other applications are now being included (or at the very least can be downloaded from an app portal).

Some of these plug computers are about the size of those lamp timers that you plug into an outlet (or a Clapper, if that's a more hip analogy), while some are slightly bigger, resembling a network router. They are meant to be headless—meaning no monitor, keyboard, or mouse—and used remotely.


Plug Computers can serve many purposes, the biggest of which is creating your own personal cloud, allowing you to access your files, printers, and other services from anywhere on the Internet using PCs and mobile devices. They are basically a low-cost and energy efficient alternative to using a traditional server, such as Microsoft's Windows Home Server. They can be used for personal use, to access your files when at work, school, or traveling. They can also be used to share and collaborate among your family, friends, or small business.


Plug Computers can be preloaded with a Linux OS and the vendor's software that integrates it with their third-party apps and services—which is the type we're going to discuss. Alternatively, you can buy a bare Plug Computer with no third-party integration and use a Linux OS and applications. Keep in mind; you can also usually access the core Linux OS on devices powered by third-party services for further customization.

There are several solutions or devices you can use to create your own personal cloud. In addition to reviewing two Plug Computers, we'll discuss some alternatives, such as Network-Attached Servers (NASs) and network drives, routers with USB storage, and home servers.


2. Typical Features of Plug Computers

Having your own cloud means you'll have access to most of your home network from anywhere, on anything.


Here's a rundown of the typical features you will find on Plug Computers powered by third-party services:

·         Centralized file access: Plug USB drives (external hard drives or flash drives) directly into the Plug Computer to access them on your local network and via the Internet. Access is typically provided via network shares and mapped network drives, native mounting to imitate a real drive, or through an Internet browser (Firefox, IE9, etc). On mobile phones and devices, the vendor might provide an app for access.

·         Centralized backup: Since Plug Computers provide connectivity on your network; you can usually use them as a backup destination for all your PCs, or vice-versa if you want to back up the drives connected to the Plug Computer.

·         Printer sharing: Plug in a USB printer so you can print from computers and devices within the local network or via the Internet.

·         Sharing and collaboration: Share files or collaborate with family, friends, or colleagues. Since your hosting your own cloud, you don't have to upload files to share or remotely access them. They can be downloaded over the Internet directly from your Plug Computer.

·         Media Streaming: Access and stream your MP3s and music to PCs, mobile phones/devices, and gaming consoles.

Plug Computers provide similar functionality of traditional Network-Attached Servers (NAS), but on a Linux powered minicomputer. The biggest advantage here is power consumption, since Plug Computers can us as little as 4 watts, compared to 60 – 250 watts used by a typical monitor-less desktop tower.

3. Reviewing the TonidoPlug

First, we'll review the TonidoPlug, which retails for $99. It lets you run the Tonido software and services from a small energy-efficient Plug Computer rather than from your desktop PC. It plugs directly into a wall outlet and measures 4" long, 2.5" wide and 2" deep. The hardware specs (sans storage) sound a lot like a smartphone, since it packs a 1 GHz ARM processor with 512 MB of DDR2 memory and 512 MB of flash storage. The Tonido software is installed on top of the embedded Ubuntu Jaunty Linux OS.


The TonidoPlug has one Gigabit Ethernet port for plugging it into your router for local network and Internet access. The single USB 2.0 port lets you plug in a single external or flash drive, or multiple drives if you have a separate USB hub.

The TonidoPlug features can be accessed via Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, and/or via Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari. They also provide apps for the iPhone, Android, and Blackberry platforms.

Here are the apps that come preinstalled:

·         Explorer: Manage files and folders on the drives connected to the TonidoPlug.


·         Backup: Enables backup of files/folders to any remote computer running Tonido.

·         Photos: Easily share photos among other Tonido users.


·         Jukebox: Music player enables streaming to your devices.

·         WebsharePro: Enables sharing of large files directly from your drives.

·         Workspace: Personal Information Manager (PIM) to store contacts, calendars, tasks and files.


·         Torrent: Bittorrent client to manage files transfers.

·         Thots: Private blog or journal to store notes, bookmarks, web clips, and other info.

·         Search: Quickly find files or information on your drives.

There are even more apps available via add-ons from the app store.

Setup went smoothly and we didn't run into any major problems. Overall I liked the TonidoPlug and found some interesting features. Since the apps run locally on the TonidoPlug, you can still access your drive on your local network when there's no Internet connection.

We should note that TonidoPlug doesn't natively support printers. If you need to share a printer through the device, there's a handy set of instructions on the TonidoPlug discussion forum.

4. Reviewing the PogoPlug


Now we'll take a look at the PogoPlug, which also sells for $99. Like the TonidoPlug, the PogoPlug is loaded with similar software and services, called PogoPlug desktop edition. The PogoPlug looks more like a router, and sits on a desk instead of sitting flush on a power outlet.  It has a 1.2 GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, and 128 MB of flash storage.

The PogoPlug has one Gigabit Ethernet port for plugging it into your router for local network and Internet access, but it also has Wi-Fi connectivity (802.11b/g/n) if you want to place it away from the router. It sports four USB 2.0 ports for plugging in external hard drives or flash drives, and can be expanded with even more ports with a separate USB hub.

Like the TonidoPlug, the PogoPlug features can be accessed via Windows, Mac and Linux, and/or via Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari. They also offer apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, and Palm platforms.

You'll find the following main features of the PogoPlug:

·         Files: Browse, preview, download, share, or manipulate files and folders on the drives connected to PogoPlug.


·         Media: Browse and preview media files sorted by photos, movies, and music, and create and save slideshows.


·         Sharing: Displays the files and printers you're sharing, and those shared to you by other PogoPlug users.

·         Printers: Lists the printers you're sharing and their settings.

·         Backup: Configure the Active Copy feature that automatically syncs files from one folder to another on the same or different drive connected to the PogoPlug. To sync from your PCs to PogoPlug you must install and configure the Pogo Drive software on your PCs.

Like the TonidoPlug, setup was simple and we didn't run into any issues. The PogoPlug features are very useful yet simple to use, and we were very impressed with the baked-in sharing features. In addition to creating public links that anyone can access, you can post content directly various social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc).


Our only gripe about the PogoPlug is that you can't initiate a connection to it when your Internet connection is down. You can only access your drives if you were connected to the PogoPlug prior to losing the internet connection.

5. NAS, Network Drives and Wireless Routers, Compared

If you're looking for centralized local/remote file access or backup, you might also consider traditional Network-Attached Storage (NAS) servers or network drives. NAS servers are typically small enclosures that house one or several hard drives.


NAS can also be simple adapters that you connect external USB drives to, similar to Plug Computers.


Network drives, however, usually come with a built-in drive and may also have USB ports for plugging in additional drives.

NAS and network drives typically provide the same basic file and printing sharing features as Plug Computers, however not all provide access via the Internet. Like Plug Computers, their specific functionalities can vary depending upon the vendor's software.

ZoomYou can find some comparable NAS devices for as low as $50 or network drives for $115+ with up to 1 TB of storage. Plug Computers, with no internal storage, are typically are priced at $99. If you don't already have an external drive or you don't like the particular features of a Plug Computer, you might want to go with a traditional network drive that has Internet functionality, such as the Iomega 34763 1 TB Network Hard Drive.

Another alternative to using Plug Computers are wireless routers with a USB port and NAS functionality. You can just plug your external drives directly into your router, and no extra hardware is needed. However, some require you to install a third-party software utility to access the drives from Windows. Additionally, only basic NAS and Internet sharing features are usually provided.


If you already have a router with a USB port, you might consider using it instead of purchasing a Plug Computer. If you are thinking about upgrading your router, you can find some with USB ports for as low as $70. Here are a couple routers you could consider:

·         TRENDnet 300Mbps Wireless N Gigabit Router (TEW-634GRU)

·         D-Link Xtreme N Gigabit Router (DIR-655)

·         NETGEAR Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router (WNDR3800)

·         Belkin Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router (N600 DB)

6. Investing in a Home Server

Setting up a traditional home server is another option to get network storage and cloud features.

Microsoft provides Windows Home Server (WHS), an operating system that can be purchased preloaded on a server or separately and installed onto a PC or server. It can act as a backup device for up to 10 PCs on the network, provide remote access, media streaming, and more. The biggest benefit is that it works with the native backup and previous version features of the Windows platforms.  However, WHS requires at least $100 for the operating system and a decent PC to install on, or $350+ for a pre-built server. While you get a ton of great features with this setup, you're definitely paying for it.

There is a free and open source alternative to WHS, called Amahi Home Server. It offers similar features plus a few more, such as a VPN server, shared calendar, and Outlook synchronization and sharing. Even more features are available via add-ons from their App Store. Though the main edition of Amahi requires a dedicated PC, the system requirements compared to WHS are a bit relaxed: a 1 GHz 32-bit or 64-bit processor, 512 MB of RAM, and 4 GB of disk space.

There's also Amahi Plug Edition which you can install on Plug Computers. Because Plug Computers are headless, there are a few more steps than with the installation of a normal Amahi Home Server. Most of the same features are supported, but some add-ons don't work—see the app list for more details. If the apps and features look appealing, consider buying a bare Plug Computer or use a preloaded one (such as TonidoPlug or PogoPlug).

7. Summary/Conclusion

We discovered how you can create your own private cloud with Plug Computers, and reviewed two different models. We also discussed several other types of devices that can help you access and share your files via the Internet.

Before purchasing anything, first check if your network router has a USB port. If it does indeed have a USB port, then it likely supports printer sharing and/or network storage (most new router support both, whereas older models might only support one or the other). If not, you might consider a Plug Computer if you already have external drives. Plug Computers are probably your weapon of choice if you're a Linux enthusiast, too. Otherwise, it's probably cheaper just to go with a network drive that comes loaded with storage space.

If you do go the Plug Computer route, you should strongly consider the two products that we reviewed, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. The TonidoPlug has tons of features and works offline, but it also lacks WiFi, multiple USB ports and official printer support. The PogoPlug has four USB ports, WiFi, and out-of-the-box printer support, but it's also a more simple devie with limited functionality.


6:00 PM - April 19, 2011 - by Eric Geier

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