Pogoplug Review: The Ups and Downs of DIY Cloud Storage

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

Between Dropbox, Google Drive, SkyDrive and SugarSync, there are plenty of options for backing up your files online. But to store an entire hard drive’s worth of data with any of these services, you’ll have to pay hefty, recurring costs.

Pogoplug offers an alternative: Pay once for the hardware to create your own “personal cloud” at home, and supply your own storage. That way, you can backup your data and access it from any device at any location without recurring charges.

The basic Pogoplug hardware costs $50 and includes a USB 2.0 slot for connecting external thumb drives and hard drives, plus an SD card slot. A $100 “Series 4” model adds a USB 3.0 slot and supports USM storage. Considering that Google Drive costs $50 per month to store 1 TB of data, you’ll come out ahead pretty quickly with a $50 Pogoplug and a 1 TB external hard drive, which currently costs about $100.

Cloud Engines, the company that makes Pogoplug, lent me a Series 4 device and a 1 TB external drive for review. I really like the idea of Pogoplug and want it to be good enough to replace true cloud storage services, but my concerns about reliability would make me hesitant to buy one.

Setup is pretty simple. Just plug the Pogoplug into an outlet, hook it up to your router and connect the hard drive. Then, visit Pogoplug’s website to activate the device and set up an account. At that point, you can upload and download files in any web browser, but you’ll also want to install Pogoplug’s companion software for Windows, Mac or Linux.

The desktop software is like a cross between SugarSync and Dropbox. It creates a separate drive on your computer, so you can drag and drop files, and it also lets you select folders on your PC to backup automatically. My only complaint with the desktop software is that it doesn’t back up files when the program is minimized to the system tray, but that’ll change in a software update coming this week, according to Pogoplug’s chief product officer, Jed Putterman.

On the road, you can access your Pogoplug files through mobile apps for iPhone, iPad and Android. The apps have a simple design with folders for music, photos and video, and they have built-in media players as well. The only major missing feature, on Android handsets in particular, is the ability to download files in batches.

Pogoplug’s mobile apps can automatically back up photos from your smartphone. This is one of Pogoplug’s best selling points, because with a big enough hard drive you don’t have to worry about hitting storage limits, as you would with Dropbox’s automatic photo backups. I do wish, however, that you could direct these uploads to their own folder, so they’re not mixed up with photos from other sources. (Related: I wish Pogoplug’s desktop software automatically grabbed photos from SD cards and digital cameras, as Dropbox can.)

On the downside, Pogoplug weakens its own value proposition by hiding some features behind paywalls. You can’t password-protect shared folders without a Pogoplug Team account, which costs $15 per user, though you can share unsecured links for free. If you want to divvy up your Pogoplug storage among family members, each with their own private access, you’ll need a $20 per year Pogoplug Family account.

It doesn’t help that Pogoplug advertises its add-on services in confusing or annoying ways. When you first set up the device, a web page immediately tries to sell you on Pogoplug Cloud, a subscription-based online storage service that’s just like Dropbox and its ilk–the very things you meant to escape by getting a Pogoplug in the first place. When you attempt to download Pogoplug’s backup software, you immediately see an advertisement for Pogoplug PC, a $30 program that uses your computer’s hard drive for online access in place of the Pogoplug/external drive combo. This page is confusing because it doesn’t explain that the backup software you’re downloading is completely different, and besides, why would you want to use your PC to host your backups if you just bought a Pogoplug device?

As for the reliability issues I mentioned above, on three occasions over roughly two weeks of use, my Pogoplug drive inexplicably stopped appearing online. In all cases, I fixed the problem by pulling out the Pogoplug’s power cord and plugging it back in, but the first time it happened, I was out of town for the weekend and therefore couldn’t access my files for a couple of days. I’ve found similar complaints at other sites, and on the page for Pogoplug’s iOS app, so I must not be alone. If a cloud storage service goes down, it’ll probably be back up in minutes or hours, but if your Pogoplug needs to be reset and no one’s home, you’re out of luck.

Still, no other cloud services will let you remotely access terabytes of data without significant monthly or yearly costs. Aside from Pogoplug, your other options are network-attached storage devices with built-in hard drives, but Pogoplug offers more flexibility and often comes out cheaper, and its software is quite good. For users who want simple storage backups with occasional — but not vital — online access, Pogoplug may be worthwhile despite its faults. It’s like anything you build yourself: If you can deal with occasional issues, you can’t argue with the value.

MORE: How to Choose Between Cloud Storage Services like Google Drive and Dropbox