'Plug Computers' May Web-Enable Hard Drives

Can a computer get any smaller and cheaper than a netbook? Marvell Technology Group Ltd. thinks so.

The Silicon Valley chip maker is trying to create a new category of inexpensive, energy-efficient devices it calls "plug computers," for which it would supply the integrated processors.

Strongly resembling those vacation timers that turn on your lights at night to ward off potential robbers, a plug computer is more of a home networking gadget that transforms external hard drives or USB thumb drives into full network-attached storage (NAS) devices.

That allows easy access to your files, particularly videos and songs, via your home network or the Web site provided by your plug computer's maker, according to Raja Mukhopadhyay, a product marketing manager for the Santa Clara, Calif., company.

Marvell officially announced the plug computer concept today. It is based on Marvell's SheevaPlug platform, which includes a 1.2GHz ARM-compatible processor with 512MB of flash memory and 512MB of DDR2 memory that roughly approximates the CPU-memory-storage trinity in regular PCs.

The target customers for SheevaPlug are software and Web companies with Linux and Java programmers and the chops to customize the SheevaPlug and create easy-to-use consumer gear.

The target customers for the finished plug computer would be not-terribly-techie multimedia junkies who want to store their TV shows on a drive at home so they can watch them from a laptop or netbook while on the go, Mukhopadhyay said in an interview Monday.

"We can provide the same services as a home server or a NAS device at a much lower price," he said.

San Francisco-based CloudEngines Inc. is beta-testing a $99 Pogoplug device running Marvell's SheevaPlug system-on-chip (SOC). Brent Evans, who writes a gadget blog called Geektonic, has written about the Pogoplug he is testing on Twitter .

"It's very easy to set up and use -- easy enough your average non-technical user could handle it," Evans wrote in an e-mail. "It is not a full-blown NAS and doesn't have all of the features you'd find with a more expensive NAS or Windows Home Server, but it seems like a great and easy way to do the NAS on the cheap."

Amy Stewart, owner of Richardson, Texas, graphic design firm Stewart Design, has already ordered a Pogoplug. "Being able to plug all of my hard drives into this device and create my own personal cloud of data seems incredibly useful," she said.

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