I first heard about the Transporter through a podcast advertisement, in which the product's pitch was real simple: Dropbox, but without using the cloud. It's an idea that sounds appealing on the surface; as we increasingly rely on file-syncing services for increased productivity, there's a growing concern over the security of that remotely-stored data and the cost of upkeep. Dropbox and SkyDrive aren't actually free if you need to sync more than a few gigabytes.
So I called in a Transporter to test, and have been trying to use it as an alternative to Dropbox whenever possible for the past month. Unfortunately, while the product fulfills its promise of giving you access to your data without any third party storing it, Transporter falls short of being a fluid and competent Dropbox replacement for personal day-to-day work.
Transporter was created by the guys who made Drobo, a novel NAS box with RAID-like functionality--that is, it used custom software to unify the storage on multiple hard drives to give users access to large amounts of backup and web server space. It's a feature that eventually was replicated in Windows Home Server and other backup boxes, but the point is that Transporters creators have a strong technical pedigree. These guys know networked storage. As a new company called Connected Data, they funded production of Transporter through a successful Kickstarter at the beginning of the year with the concept of secure private storage with no recurring costs. Last month, they released a big 2.0 update to the Transporter's desktop software, which is how I tested the unit.
So here's how it works. $200 gets you the Transporter, which is a plastic carriage for a single 2.5-inch hard drive. 1TB and 2TB kits are available for $100 per terabyte, and my review unit came with a 500GB Western Digital Blue drive. The drive is easily removed and upgradeable, but there's not much else to the box itself. Below a color light-up indicator ring are ports for power, Ethernet, and an optional USB dongle for Wi-Fi connectivity.
Setup was honestly dead simple, both on the software and hardware side. I created an account on Connected Data's website, installed desktop software, and registered the Transporter. Like Dropbox, the software adds a new folder to OS X's Finder and Windows Explorer, as well as System Tray shortcuts for settings and quick access to files. But the hardware setup is what Transporter's makers are proud of, because there is no configuration required to get Transporter's wired connection resolved and running on your network. In three different setup scenarios I tested: at home, at our small office, and at a corporate office, Transporter quickly and automatically figured out what network ports it needed to work. Some users have reported that troubleshooting was needed at businesses with multiple layers of network routing, but worked through their problems with Connected Data's responsive support staff.
So what can you do when the hardware is all set up?
You can drag and drop files into the Transporters Folder, which sends them over your network to the Transporter box, and then uploads them to other registered computers with Transporter software installed. In this sense, it works exactly like Dropbox, with the catch being that there is no central server distributing your files to registered computer--files are only uploaded off your home internet upstream. More on that in a second. The more interesting application for Transporter is using the Transporter Library, a feature that keeps those uploaded files only stored on the Transporter and not synced to remote computers. Signed-in computers will be able to see those files as if they are on a local network, and only downloads them when they're opened.
For my workflow, the Transporter Library made a lot of sense. One of the problems I have with Dropbox is that my synced folder fills up quickly when I move large movie files around, and because I have much less space on my laptops than on my desktop PC, I'm constantly reaching local storage capacity or crashing OS X. Selective syncing in Dropbox solves that to an extent, but Transporter's 'Folder' and 'Library' features make a clear distinction between what's pushed to every computer and what's only stored on Transporter. What I end up doing is making a copy of all the files on my desktop (which serves as my work space for temporary assets) to Transporter Library, so I can download those files at the office and keep my home computer turned off.
Of course, the obvious limitation is bandwidth, since file transfers work off of your own internet connection. This might not be a problem for businesses using Transporter, but as a home storage solution, I definitely felt the limits of my cable connection's upstream. Big files moved at around 1MB/second--which also slowed down other users' web experience at home--and my connection wasn't solid enough to smoothly play a 1080p video remotely. With home internet, I wouldn't recommend using Transporter Library as a shared work disk--even loading thumbnails for images in a folder requires an inconvenient delay.
Transporter recommends adding a second unit to the setup, which allows for automatic syncing between Transporter devices so you always have a copy of your data on your local network, even when local computers are turned off. That's another $200 per device and the cost of storage, which for this added benefit is overkill and not worth it.
Connected Data tells me that Transporter software is in a state of constant development, but that's another way of saying that it's missing many desired features that you would want from a full-blown NAS. There's no backup software of any kind included--I ended using Windows' SyncToy to backup my desktop files every night. You can create shared folders and links to files for sharing with people who don't own a Transporter, but they'll need to download either the desktop software or a small Downloader app to actually start downloading--once again uploaded from your own internet connection. And even though you can manage registered Transporters through Connected Data's website, you can't get web access to your files. That's understandable since Transporter isn't sold as a web server, but it's still an inconvenience if you're used to Dropbox, Box, or SkyDrive.
Transporter has an iOS companion app that lets you download certain file types to your iPhone or iPad, but a promised Android app has yet to show up in the Google Play store.
I ended up being disappointed by Transporter, and that's largely because the bar for my expectations was set by proven and reliable cloud syncing services. Take those data centers out of the equation and you're left with some inherent limitations. I have no doubt that this approach appeals to some people, but privacy concerns are probably the only way to justify using a device like this. On the cost side, Transporter only starts looking attractive when you're syncing hundreds of gigabytes of data. Transporter can functionally replicate the core abilities of cloud syncing services, but it's just not a practical replacement.