Review: 2 USB devices offer easy remote access

The Pogoplug and I'm InTouch SecureKey let you access files remotely without negotiating complex remote-control software.

We've become a mobile society -- but very often, the majority of our data remains at home. If you want to access your data when you're away from your desk, you can use remote access software like LogMeIn Pro, pcAnywhere or GoToMyPC. However, there's now a new generation of USB devices whose purpose is to help you easily work with your home-based files from any connected computer.

Actually, the two USB remote access devices reviewed here couldn't be more different. The $100 Pogoplug acts like a mini remote file server that hooks into your home network and gives access to the contents of an external USB-connected hard drive or memory key. On the other hand, the I'm InTouch SecureKey ($130 annually) is a USB memory stick that goes where you go, plugs into a computer and makes it easy to remotely use your home or office PC.

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Pogoplug

If all you're looking for is access to your data while you're on the road, you can't do much better than the $100 Pogoplug. The small (4 x 2.5 x 2-inch), white Pogoplug box is actually a mini file server that uses Linux software to allow remote connections, dole out files and save material remotely. It plugs into your network router and works with a variety of USB storage devices, such as external hard drives or USB keys.

On the downside, Pogoplug works only with external drives and can't connect with your computer's native hard drive. This means that it won't be connected to all the data on your PC's hard drive, something that SecureKey can do. As a result, if you want to have access to all your favorite files, you need to back them up to an external hard drive or memory key and connect that to Pogoplug on your way out the door -- hardly an efficient solution.

Getting Pogoplug started took about 5 minutes; it was much quicker and easier than setting up the SecureKey. In fact, the hardest part was typing in the product's 26-digit license code; I was glad when a recent upgrade to the product did away with that process by adding an auto-discovery feature. Now, all you have to do is plug the Pogoplug into your router, power it up and connect an external USB drive to its USB port. After a minute, it's ready for mobile access.

Once it's connected, Pogoplug can read from and write to drives that have been formatted using NTFS and FAT for PCs, EXT2 and EXT3 for Linux systems and HFS+ for Apple Macs (although you'll have to disable the journaling feature of the last). If you connect it to a USB hub, the device can work with several drives at once; for example, I was able to use it with both a 2GB memory key and a 60GB external hard drive.

You can access Pogoplug remotely from either a PC or a Mac, and there's a simplified interface available for iPhones. The connection is password-protected and uses Secure Sockets Layer technology.

Using Internet Explorer and an AT&T 3G connection, it took only 15 seconds for me to connect to a 2GB memory key plugged into the Pogoplug device in my home. All the drive's images, music and documents were available and showed up on the system's simple, well-designed interface.

You can configure your drive for public or private access. To give access to private materials, you specify which e-mail addresses you want to allow to see the material. The recipients then get an e-mail with a link to the material. In my tests, it worked like a charm.

Anything can be downloaded, but don't be in a hurry -- using a 3G connection, the Pogoplug's speed averaged 42Kbit/sec. Using a public Wi-Fi connection at a public library, I was able to boost that to 100Kbit/sec., which is better but still entails a long wait for larger files.

In the final analysis, if economy and ease count for more than the ability to take control of your PC, Pogoplug can deliver your favorite files anywhere in the world.

I'm InTouch SecureKey

The essence of 01Communique's I'm InTouch SecureKey is the ability to take control of your home or office PC from any connected PC. You can download files, read e-mail and even look through the system's Web cam. However, it's not the easiest system to set up and you'll need to use the special SecureKey memory stick on the remote system.

Unlike the Pogoplug, the SecureKey is for PCs only. The setup is kind of complicated -- after installing the 230KB applet, you create an account, enter a user name, give the host PC a name, activate the program on the host PC and set up the included SecureKey USB memory key.

In my case, it took about two hours and a couple of calls to the company's support staff to get it properly set up and working.

At first, the SecureKey wouldn't accept my password; after they fixed that; it wouldn't connect because the key didn't have the right data on it. After the support tech reinitialized my account, everything finally worked.

It was worth the effort. With the SecureKey memory stick connected to the remote computer, I was able to access the host PC's desktop 21 seconds after starting a connection and logging in, only a little slower than Pogoplug's connection to an external drive. The host PC's desktop and apps show up in their native resolution on the remote PC, so things can look a little pixilated.

Using SecureKey, you can do just about anything remotely that you can do sitting in front of your host computer, regardless of whether you're using a netbook in Nanking or a library computer in Cleveland. You can even let your system hibernate if you wish; the program wakes up your computer remotely when needed. However, the computer does need to be left on.

As with the Pogoplug, speed is not of the essence. It was able to grab the same Acrobat document over the same AT&T 3G connection at 54Kbit/sec., slightly faster than access via Pogoplug, and at about the same 100Kit/sec. with a public Wi-Fi connection. But the nice thing about SecureKey is that you don't have to download the file -- you can remotely open it and let SecureKey relay what's on-screen. Using that method, I was able to view the contents of the same Acrobat file in less than four seconds.

With Secure Sockets Layer software behind the scenes, SecureKey has strong enough security for most company information and your credit card data.

A one-year subscription to the I'm InTouch Premium service, which includes the SecureKey, costs $130 per host PC (the price goes down to $100 per host PC if you plan to use it with more than three host machines). You can also try the service for free without the SecureKey, but you're limited to using it with one remote PC and can't wake up the host PC remotely.

Conclusions

Both of these USB remote access systems make it a simple matter to access files remotely with very little effort. They both, however, left me wanting more. While I found them easier to use and more reliable than the remote access software I've tried, they both showed the rough edges of first-generation hardware. I wish I could have the ease of setup and use of the Pogoplug combined with the ability to control my entire PC from afar that SecureKey offers.

In addition, neither product can be called a speed demon; it can be slow going, with requests and files slowly traveling over the Internet to their destination and back. Still, it's better than calling home to get someone to e-mail a needed document to you.

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

This story, "Review: 2 USB devices offer easy remote access" was originally published by Computerworld .

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