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Media Playback

But that's not really what we're interested in here, right? We want to know how it works with mobile devices! For testing, I used an AT&T iPhone 4S, a Verizon Wireless iPhone 4, and a Wi-Fi-only iPad 2. Not to leave out the Android folks, I powered up my Asus Transformer running Honeycomb 3.2.

I was somewhat concerned to see the 3/5 star ratings on both Android and iOS app stores when installing the Pogoplug software. On iOS, it's an unfortunate fact that free apps do tend to get a bad rap because people download the app and don't know what the app is for. When it turns out the app is unusable, regardless of reason, they flock to the review and one-star it.

However, reading the reviews shows most of them were complaining about not being able to stream movies. So naturally, the first thing I did on my iPhone 4S was try to stream one of the movies Cloud Engines had provided on the SDHC. This worked OK, although the software said that it was not optimized to be streamed, which is the Pogoplug way of saying it wants to re-encode the video to reduce the size. The original streamed OK over my Wi-Fi connection, but was unplayable over 3G. So I let the Mobile optimize the video.

Optimizing the video dramatically improved performance over 3G on my AT&T iPhone, but no so much on my Verizon iPhone. It was much more playable than videos in previous reviews, especially if I allowed the video to buffer (controlled on the player side). Moral of the story: 3G is going to be a problem for video playback, especially for unoptimized videos. But optimizing video introduces pixelation, which was noticeable on the iPhone 4/4S and iPad 2 screens. Also, optimizing the video removed the option to watch the original video, which I consider a negative, since the original worked fine via Wi-Fi connection.

Optimizing video is not a well explained process. For example, on Android, the .MOV files Cloud Engines provided would not play as the original format. However, the "optimized versions" are H.264 .mp4 files, and those played just fine. It's notable that this file format change is unexplained to the end user. The mobile apps do not update their displays to indicate the file has changed, or even that optimization is occurring or has completed. Finally, optimization is not done on the fly, and takes quite a long time to complete, even on smaller movie files.

To that end, I tried some of my own files. MP4 files encoded with H.264 played fine. MKV files refused to play on iOS but were fine on Android. I have a movie player on iOS that supports MKVs. But the only way to use it from within the Pogoplug app is to have the app download the file, and then open it within the third-party movie player. This experience was much more seamless on the Android app. This is pretty much the experience when trying to play movies on mobile platforms in general: as long as you play nice in the Apple sandbox and use their file formats., the experience is better. Once you have "oddly" formatted files, Android provides a better experience.

Overall though, the experience on the Mobile devices was fairly seamless. The Android application is pretty much exactly like the iPhone app, with the exception of a "Filmstrip" interface for navigating photos (on iOS this would be analogous to Cover Flow, except Apple has copyrighted the design and so can't be made available in 3rd party apps). On Honeycomb Tablets, the app is just stretched to fill the screen.

Uploading photos worked nicely, and seemed fairly quick. It looks like the Mobile apps are not smart enough to go over the local network to find the Pogoplug. So even if the two devices are on the same network, they will still need an internet connection to find each other. This would be a nice performance improvement. But it might be undoable, due to the constraints of the mobile platforms.

Streaming music worked, although that's pretty much worked since I originally started reviewing the Pogoplug's mobile software. File sharing can now be managed from the mobile devices and this worked as well. Overall, I can't really see where the three-star reviews were coming from, although the interface on the iPad app is somewhat annoying to use if you're not familiar with the Pogoplug iPad apps from the past.

Closing Thoughts

Cloud Engines continues to refine its product lineup, and I think the Mobile ties in nicely. I'm not sure why Cloud Engines' named the Mobile as it did, because it doesn't do anything that the other two Pogoplugs also do. But it knocks $19 off the price of entering the Pogoplug cloud and requires only the sacrifice of three USB 2.0 ports. So maybe that will improve the mobility of the product off retailers' shelves?

I can see future 'Plugs adopting a similar form factor, though, since there is plenty of space on the case to add more USB ports. The recently-updated mobile software also provides a good experience, and makes up for the lackluster performance of the Pogoplug Browser. But again, the updated apps work with any Pogoplug device.

That said, I think Cloud Engines still could do with some performance improvements, either from the software or hardware side, but mostly the hardware. Optimizing a 50 MB video took close to 3 hours to complete, and that was with the device solely dedicated to that task.

For $79.99, Cloud Engines will continue to drive the "Cloud" further into users homes, especially those users wary of having their files stored on some third-party's servers. Once again though, this all requires a good broadband internet connection. So people with entry-level DSL packages will probably have a different experience that those with a decent cable or fiber connection.

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