Mar 012014
 

I have a thing for cheap, usable computers. If it’s $20 or less and sounds like it might do something useful, I’ll probably buy it.

I’ve been very impressed with Pogoplug ARM-based computers. They were originally designed to act as personal cloud servers, but are easily hacked to install Arch Linux. I have two, an E02G (similar to the pink one pictured) and a V4-A1 (the black one pictured). I’ve connected old USB hard drives to both to serve as file storage. Flash drives would work as well, but the hard drives were “free” and the flash drives would push the price over $20 per computer. A new E02 can run to $24 or $30, but a used one can be had for under $20 including shipping. Similarly, the V4-A1 is typically $15 new, $10 used, including shipping.

I use the E02G to host a homebrew web-based RSS feed reader (a replacement for Google Reader, RIP). Which I use every day, and which pushes the E02G to its limits in terms of both its 1.2 GHz CPU and its 256 MB of RAM. The feed reader uses MariaDB–a spinoff from MySQL–for database stuff, and it’s really the SQL server that keeps the Pogoplug busy and its memory chock-full.

Because the E02G is busy doing something I care about, I use the V4-A1 for tinkering. The V4-A1 is a bit more limited than the E02G, with only 1 USB port, 128 MB RAM, and an 800 MHz CPU. It’s also smaller and cleaner looking. (Honestly, the E02 is pretty ugly.) If I end up buying a third Pogoplug, I’ll probably spend the extra (gasp!) $5 or $7 and get another E02.

Compared to the more expensive Raspberry Pi, the Pogoplugs have the following pros and cons:

Pros

  • Comes complete, including case and power supply. The bare Pi costs $25 – $35, but adding in a power supply and case can add $15 or much more.
  • Designed from the outset as a personal server to run continuously.
  • Cheap!
  • Easy to get Arch Linux–a complete, secure, and well-supported version of Linux with all the modern conveniences–up and running.
  • Faster CPU than the Pi’s 700 MHz one.
  • 3 USB ports instead of just 1 or 2.
  • Gigabit ethernet port (not that the Pogoplug can really use that much bandwidth).
  • Like the Pi, the Pogoplug runs silently without fans.

Cons

  • No video support; no VGA or HDMI port. You SSH into the Pogoplug from another computer over the internet.
  • No GPU or FPU, so tasks involving heavy computation–like recoding video files–can be very slow.
  • Half the RAM of the Pi model B rev 2 (but same as earlier models).
  • The Pogoplug company makes their money off of their cloud service, not the computers, and definitely not off of homebrewers (mis)using the computers. So there is no support from them.
  • No edgy chic hipster cred like the Pi. Or community support like the Pi has.
  • No analog or digital I/O lines.

In other words, if you’re looking for a cheap, reliable little box to reliably do boring, stodgy things like act as a file server or SQL server, the Pogoplug is definitely worth a look. If you’d like to mess around with tiny ARM-based computers at minimum cost, it’s hard to find a cheaper alternative to the ‘plug.