|At a Glance|
|Product||Seagate FreeAgent DockStar (STDSA10G-RK)|
|Summary||Gigabit network adapter for sharing FreeAgent Go portable drives or up to three USB drives on your LAN and the Internet.|
|Pros||• Simple web-based file sharing via Pogoplug service
• No port forwarding or DDNS setup required
• Links with Twitter, FaceBook and MySpace
• Low power consumption
• Transparent remote file access using drive connection client.
|Cons||• Limited Seagate documentation
• Limited management w/o PogoPlug service
Seagate’s new $99.99 FreeAgent DockStar network adapter lets you share the contents of a FreeAgent Go external hard drive or up to three connected USB drives with any networked devices that support SMB/CIFS file sharing. So File sharing between Windows, Mac OS, Linux and pretty much any other computer or device that sits on a network couldn’t be simpler. And as an added bonus, your files are available anywhere on the web via Pogoplug, courtesy of Seagate’s partnership with Cloud Engines,
It’s important to note that the DockStar is not a full-featured NAS, nor is it intended to be. There isn’t a web-browser-based management interface built into the device. The management features that exist are managed through Pogoplug after you activate your account. The DockStar comes with a one year subscription to Pogoplug and the Pogoplug subscription costs $30 after that.
You can, however, connect the device to your local network and use it as shared storage without activating a Pogoplug account. The DockStar will show up when you browse your network either in Windows as shown in Figure 1 or in the Mac OS finder. Of course, If you don’t activate a Pogoplug account, you’ll give up all of the remote access and file sharing features which I’ll cover in detail below.
Figure 1: FreeAgent DockStar access via network browsing
The DockStar is designed to be an accessory for Seagate’s line of FreeAgent Go portable external disk drives. Figure 2 shows the DockStar with an optional FreeAgent Go drive. The drive slides into the dock and connects via a mini USB connector. FreeAgent Go drives are available in a variety of capacities ranging from 160 GB to 1 TB. For the fashion conscious consumer, the drives are also available in a choice of 10 colors. My test drive was a 320 GB green drive.
Eco-conscious consumers will appreciate that the tested configuration consumed only 8 W with the drive running, and 6 W with the disk spun down. You can’t, however, control the spin down time.
Figure 2: Optional FreeAgent Go installed in DockStar
Though a FreeAgent Go drive is the ideal companion for the DockStar, you don’t have to use one. Figure 3 shows that you can connect up to three drives via USB 2.0 ports. Two ports are located on the rear of the device adjacent to the Gigabit Ethernet port. The other USB port is located on the right side of the device.
Figure 3: Rear view
On The Inside
Figure 4 shows the top side of the DockStar circuit board. The DockStar is powered by the Marvell 1.2 GHz Sheeva Plug CPU with 128 MB of RAM. This is virtually the same platform as found in Pogoplug’s device. The Gigibit Ethernet port is a Marvell 88E1116R and the bottom view of the board reveals the 512 MB of Samsung flash memory.
Figure 4: Board – top
As you would expect from a consumer oriented product, setup is quite simple. Seagate includes a three step quick start guide that shows you how to connect the DockStar to the network, insert or connect a drive, and then directs you to the Pogoplug activation web page. Figure 5 shows the three setup steps.
Figure 5: FreeAgent DockStar setup
Once you’ve connected to your network (with an internet connection), the status LED will glow a solid green indicating that it is communicating with Pogoplug. The registration process gives you a confirmation that Pogoplug has found your device and that you can continue with account activation. Thereafter, you merely enter your email address, a password, and optionally a screen name, and Pogoplug creates the account. Pogoplug will send an activation link to the email address you entered. Once you click on that link, you’re all set to go. All of the hard work normally associated with sharing a device on the Internet, such as port forwarding or possibly setting up a DDNS account is done in the background.
In my tests, prior to activation, I browsed my local network both in Windows and on my Mac. The DockStar appeared as FsdaXXXXXX where XXXXXXX is the last six digits of the DockStar’s MAC address. I was able to successfully map the volume under Windows and mount the volume on the Mac OS desktop. It’s important to note that there is no user or group security on the local network. The only security that’s available is through Pogoplug as you decide which folders to share.
After activation, however, I noted that the DockStar’s FreeAgent drive no longer appeared either via Windows browsing or on the Mac Finder because Pogoplug disables SAMBA for security reasons during registration. You can, however, optionally re-enable SAMBA for each mounted drive under Pogoplug’s Windows File Sharing menu as shown in Figure 6.
Figure 6: Windows File Sharing options
Even with Windows File Sharing enabled, however, I had difficulty mapping (or mounting) the shared devices through the Windows explorer or the Mac Finder. Pogoplug’s tech support, however, was able the help me resolve the problem.
Apparently there’s a bug related to Samba that when you insert additional USB drives, they may not show up in Windows networking. Toggling the newly installed device to disabled and then re-enabling it restarts Samba for that device, and seems to have solved the problem. Pogoplug is aware of the problem and will perhaps fix it in a firmware update that they can automatically push out to the DockStar.
Pogoplug provides downloadable clients that will automatically map drives (Windows) or mount volumes (Mac OS) for drives attached to the DockStar. There’s also a client that will provide access to your files on an iPhone, but I didn’t test it. One of the real advantages of using the Pogoplug drive client is that mapped drives will work anywhere. Even if you are traveling and aren’t on your local network, the drives connected to the DockStar will still appear as a mapped drive (XP or Vista) or will be mounted on the Mac desktop. Of course, to have full access to the devices connected to your DockStar, you must log in with the credentials you used to create your Pogoplug account.
I downloaded the clients for both the Mac and PC platforms and installed them. Each client, using my Pogoplug credentials, properly mounted the drives. Windows mounted the drives using ascending drive letters and the Mac OS mounted the drives on the desktop as shown in Figure 7. The client also mounts any other folder that other Pogoplug users may have shared with you.
Figure 7: Pogoplug Mac OS client
Note the Pogoplug drives mounted on the right side of the screen. The preferences box is where you enter your Pogoplug credentials. If you do a “get info” on the drive, you’ll notice that the description says Generic File System (MacFuse).
One of the strengths of the Pogoplug is the simplicity of the browser-based web interface. Figure 8 shows the user interface when I logged in with my sign up credentials. With these credentials, I have full access to all of the folders and files on all attached drives. You can sort files and folders using the drop down options shown. You can also search for photos, music and videos or search by time. This screen also shows you a summary of files/folders shared with others as well as files shared with you.
Figure 8: Web User interface
If you click on a folder containing photos, you’ll see a page of thumbnails displayed. Pogoplug indexes images and creates thumbnails when you first copy the files to the drive. Figure 9 shows the first image on the upper left corner selected. Your options are zoom (magnifying glass), download (down arrow), rename (pencil) or delete (trash can). Other options for different views as well as file copy, new folder, upload and sharing appear at the bottom of the screen.
Figure 9: Photo thumbnails and file management
The “Play” icon, adjacent to the upload button, starts a slide show. A single click on an image enlarges it. And if you hover your mouse cursor over the enlarged image as shown in Figure 10, the slide show control appears. A filmstrip also appears at the bottom with the thumbnail of the current photo highlighted.
Figure 10: Slide show via Pogoplug web interface
Unfortunately, you don’t really have much control over the slide show. You can’t, for example, change the duration of the slide, or associate the images with background music. Nor are there any image editing capabilities – the images have to be ready to publish when you drop them into a directory. Still, for a quick and dirty slide show that you can easily share with your friends, it’s dead simple to setup.
The real magic of Pogoplug lies in its ability to easily share files and folders with others on the Internet (Figure 11). You just select what you want to share, and enter in the email address of the person(s) you want to have access to your files.
Figure 11: Folder sharing
For each person, you can restrict rights to view/download, or grant full access. Each invitee will receive an email with a link that will take them directly to the files/folders. Alternatively, you can choose to make a folder public. If you do, a link will be generated that you can use to paste into emails or put on a web site.
Feature Tour – more
With many online users, social networks are very important. The latest firmware, which Pogoplug automatically updates, added features to connect shared folders directly to Twitter, Facebook or MySpace.
In the lower right quadrant of Figure 12, you’ll see the publishing options. For each social network, you have to log in, and permit Pogoplug to publish using your social network’s login credentials. You can also notify people on your social networks if you add, delete or modify the contents of a folder.
I enabled Pogoplug to update my Twitter account for this shared folder. I selected the Twitter checkbox and clicked on Publish to Twitter. The message entry box doesn’t have a character countdown, so I kept my message short. I was pleasantly surprised that Pogoplug automatically shortened the URL using bit.ly. Note that when you publish to a social site, the folder permissions are automatically changed to Public Viewing. Figure 13 shows the resulting tweet.
Figure 13: Twitter post with bit.ly link to my shared photo album
For testing purposes, I also shared my files with one of my alternate email addresses. Figure 14 shows the email that I received with the link to the shared folder. When I logged into http://dockstar.pogoplug.com using my alternate credentials, I could only view the shared folders. No other folders were visible.
Figure 14: Email notification of a shared folder
Since the DockStar isn’t a full-fledged NAS, we just ran the Vista SP1 filecopy tests from our normal NAS test suite. This test copies a directory containing slightly more than 4 GB of files of various sizes. Read and write tests were performed both with the 320 GB FreeAgent Go mounted in the Dockstar as well as with the drive directly attached to a computer. Here are the results:
Table 1: Performance summary
For write operations, you only take a small performance hit when writing to the FreeAgent Go drive when it’s attached to the DockStar. You do get noticeably better read performance, however, with the drive directly attached. The “Using DockStar” results of 22 – 23 MB/sec are comparable to middle of the pack single drive NASes and are pretty much at the maximum rate that a USB 2.0 port supports.
I really liked the DockStar and think that for simple home networking and file/photo sharing with friends on the Internet, the DockStar coupled with Pogoplug’s service is an excellent choice. The browser-based experience for sharing files and photos on the Internet is quite simple to use, and the connections to popular social networking sites would be real plus to some consumers.
One key negative is that as a local shared storage device, all users have equal access to all files. So for parents who may wish to partition their files from their children’s files, a more traditional NAS with user and group security capabilities might be a better choice. Still, you could accomplish the same type of security by disabling Windows File Sharing (disabled when you activate the Pogoplug service), and just “invite” your children to a “kids” folder. Using their login credentials and the Pogoplug drive connection client, they’ll have access only to the folders you explicitly share with them.
I’d also like to see Pogoplug add some enhancements to the user interface such as the ability to move files (rather than copy/delete), and to add drag-and-drop moves and file / folder uploads. Some additional controls of the slideshow, such as the time between slides would also be welcome.
For me, there are several compelling reasons to consider the DockStar and Pogoplug’s service. First, the DockStar and FreeAgent Go combination use only a fraction of the power used by my aging (5 year old) server. And, since there’s no fan, it’s extremely quiet. Second, using the Pogoplug drive connection client, the DockStar appears as a mapped drive whether I’m at home on my local network, or traveling on the road. Finally, since it’s expandable and can mount up to three USB storage devices, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever run out of room.
I doubt that I’ll use the Internet file sharing and social networking features, and my online photo albums are already using a service with better presentation capabilities. But for remote access, simple file sharing, low power consumption and decent file transfer speed, it’s a compelling solution. Looks like a keeper to me!