Review: Drobo 5D – Powerfully Simple Thunderbolt Storage for Your Mac

Rating: 4.5/5

Posted in Mac, Reviews on 16/01/2013 by J. Glenn Künzler

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We’re big fans of Thunderbolt here at MacTrast, as well as any and all cool storage devices we happen to come across, so naturally we (and specifically, I) got pretty excited when Drobo released their first Thunderbolt-enabled storage products: The Drobo Mini and the Drobo 5D.

I’ve been a fan of Drobo for a few years now, and could not resist taking the opportunity to take the new Drobo 5D out for a spin. I did my best to it through it’s paces to find out just what it is capable of – and whether it is truly worthy to be called a Drobo. To make a long story short, the answer is yes – the Drobo 5D  ($850, link) is a fantastic device well deserving of the Drobo name. This review will discuss the reasons why I feel that way.

Drobo Full Spread

Overview

The Drobo 5D is, in its most basic sense, a 5-bay modular RAID enclosure capable of reading from 5 drives at once. Like all RAID enclosures, the main idea behind a Drobo is to store and access huge amounts of data at rapid speeds, usually with enough redundancy to account for one or more drives failing. Basically, it doubles as a way to both access your files quickly, and protect them from hard drive failure.

Drobo’s products have always been a bit unique from other RAID solutions, however, providing a much simpler and faster way to set the device up, swap out one or more failed drives, and expand the storage with larger drives. Indeed, perhaps one of the biggest draws of a Drobo is the ability to easily expand your storage volume without affecting your data. More on this later.

With the 5D, the Drobo gang has taken everything great about their previous products, and updated the package with a pair of lightning-fast Thunderbolt ports, as well as high-speed USB 3.0. They’ve also added a unique feature called Data-Aware Tiering, which lets you use an mSATA SSD to speed up your read and write speeds.

Design

I don’t like to spend a great deal of time talking about design when it comes to storage products (because ultimately it’s the performance that really matters), but there are a few stand-out design features of the Drobo 5D that I feel merit specific mention.

Drobo 5D ShellFirst, the Drobo 5D provides perhaps the easiest drive installation and removal experience I have ever seen. To install a drive, just press it into the enclosure until it clicks. This is a breath of fresh air – many RAID systems require drives to be mounted with screws or bolts. The Drobo drive bays do not, which makes them a simpler and faster solution than most competing products.

To remove a drive, just pull the tab on the site, and the drive will pop forward, allowing you to pull it out. It’s that simple. To finish out the simplicity of the system, Drobo has chosen to use a metal cover for the front of the device that also pops on and off without metal fasteners of any kind.

Despite the ease with which you can add and remove drives, the Drobo also serves as a tough protective enclosure with thick metal walls and shock protection features to preserve your data in case things get shaken around a bit. Add to this the inclusion of dual Thunderbolt ports to allow for daisy chaining, and the Drobo’s design becomes just about as close to ideal as you can get. It even includes a Thunderbolt cable so you don’t have to buy one separately. Also, it’s shiny!

Features

  • Data-Aware Tiering

This is a new feature introduced with the Drobo 5D and the Drobo Mini. As we briefly mentioned above, it serves as a way to speed up your data transfers by using an SSD. The mSATA SSD fots into a special slot at the bottom of the unit, and is used by the Drobo as a sort of cache, enabling the device to operate much faster than it could if it were using spinning drives alone. Think of it as a way to turn the Drobo into a giant hybrid drive.

Drobo_5D_Bottom_Low

  • Dual Thunderbolt Ports

Inclusion of two ports is becoming increasingly common in Thunderbolt-enabled products, but still merits a mention because of just how crucial it really is. Including dual Thunderbolt ports allows you to daisy chain a second Thunderbolt device to the Drobo, such as a display or another storage device. Without this, you’d be stuck at the end of the chain as soon as you plugged your Drobo in.

  • On-Board Battery Backup

icon-battery

Arguably one of its best features, the Drobo 5D includes a powerful built-in battery to protect against data loss in the event that you lose power. Once it detects that the power has been cut, the battery kicks in, allowing to Drobo to finish writing whatever it needs to in order to prevent data loss or corruption.

  • Automatic Data Redundancy

Drobo 5D Redundancy

The Drobo 5D allows you to choose between a single-drive or a dual-drive redundancy option. Put in simpler terms, this means that it can offer protection in case a single drive fails, allowing you to remove the drive and add a new one without losing data. For even more safety, you can also choose to set it up to compensate for two drives failing at around the same time. The best part is that you don’t have to rebuild your RAID array if a drive fails – just pop out the old drive, insert a new one, wait for the status light on the new drive to turn green, and you’re good to go.

  • Nearly Limitless Upgradability

Another unique aspect of the Drobo 5D (and all other Drobo units I can think of) is the way it handles volumes. When setting it up, you can choose a volume size up to 16TB. That means when storage capacities increase and drive costs fall, you can easily expand your Drobo without modifying any of it’s settings. As long as you don’t exceed 16TB worth of drives, you’re set. When drives evolve to sizes greater than the 16TB limit allows for, Drobo can release a firmware update to increase the limit.

By comparison, increasing the storage on most other arrays requires significant knowledge of how RAID works, and some manual tweaking to make it all happen.

  • Intelligent Status Indicators

droboThe Drobo 5D includes several sets of blinking LED status lights. First, a set of 5 lights that show green, yellow, or red. These lights reveal whether a drive is installed in a certain bay, and whether or not it is healthy. It also includes a light to show when the Drobo’s internal processor is busy, when data is being transferred to or from the Drobo, and a set of lights along the bottom which show how full the Drobo is. It even alerts you when it’s time to add more storage or remove a few files.

These lights come in handy a lot, and provide a great at-a-glance overview of all aspects of the device’s status.

  • Extreme Easy of Use

All of the above 6 features contribute to the single best feature that Drobo has to offer: Extreme simplicity and ease of use. This is Drobo’s real strength – they’re so easy to set up, upgrade, replace drives in, and use that anyone who can read a traffic light can use a Drobo. They’re dead simple, and to steal a phrase from Apple’s book, they just work.

Performance

Now that we’re square on the cool (and in many cases, quite unique) features offered by the Drobo 5D, it’s time to put the Drobo to the test to find out how well it performs. After all, what good will all those features do you if the end result is as slow as paste? Fortunately, that’s not the case.

I tested the Drobo 5D using my 15-inch mid-2012 non-Retina MacBook Pro, and found some very promising results. Using BlackMagic’s DiskSpeedTest (free, Mac App Store link), I was able to measure write speeds of up to approximately 145MB/S and read speeds of just over 240MB/s. Those speeds were achieved with the Drobo backing a 32GB SSD, 3 7200RPM drives, and 2 5400RPM drives. While that’s not quite up to the speeds offered by a device like the Pegasus R4 (as TheMacObserver illustrates in their handy benchmark charts), it’s not too shabby.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 8.00.16 PM

Second, I tested file copy speeds by transferring chunks of media to and from the drive. I transfered 600 files of various sizes (about 15GB total) to the Drobo, measuring the speeds using the OS X Activity Monitor as I went, and found those benchmark speeds to be fairly accurate in real world usage as well.

It’s worth noting that the mSATA SSD makes a world of difference – without the mSATA SSD, I was only able to achieve about 170MB/s read speeds and 130MB/s write speeds at the very best.

Drobo Dashboard

Finally, all hardware and benchmarks aside, it’s also worth taking a moment to discuss Drobo’s free management software: Drobo Dashboard. The software is required to setup and use the Drobo, and is as easy to use as the unit itself, providing a simple and painless way to manage your Drobo, check it’s health, shut it down, see which drive is installed in each bay, and more. The experience of using Drobo Dashboard is unlike using any other disk utility I have ever used, for one simple reason: I didn’t feel like a nerd while using it! In fact, it was so seamless, I was hardly aware I was using it at all. There’s some real power in that level of simplicity.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 8.46.03 PM

Verdict[rating:4.5]

I’m just going to come right out ad admit that the Drobo 5D is not the most advanced storage device available. It’s also not the fastest, or the cheapest (actually, it’s kind of pricey at $850 with no drives). It is, however, my preferred Thunderbolt storage device, and the one I am most likely to recommend to others. And why is it my preferred choice? It’s fast, it’s simple, it requires no extra knowledge, and it just works.

Can you get a faster or more advanced drive for the same amount of money or less? Yes. But you won’t find a simpler or more fool-proof solution for users from varied technical backgrounds. That’s why the Drobo 5D has earned MacTrast’s first Editor’s Choice award of 2013. I highly recommend it.

For more details, visit Drobo’s 5D product page on the web. The Drobo 5D is available direct from Drobo ($850, link), and can often be found for a significant discount from Amazon.com.

Pros

  • Fast read speeds – especially with an mSATA SSD installed.
  • Very easy to remove, add, or expand storage.
  • Includes dual Thunderbolt ports for daisy-chaining purposes.
  • Extremely simple to setup and use. Requires no knowledge of RAID or storage arrays.
  • Intelligent LED system provides full Drobo status at a single glance.
  • Includes a Thunderbolt cable (which would otherwise cost you another $40).

Cons

  • At $850 with no drives, the Drobo 5D is quite expensive.
  • If your Drobo fails, you must use another Drobo to recover your data.
  • Requires a full-blown desktop adapter (such as this one from IcyDock) to install most SSDs into the array (although 3.5-inch SSDs should work as-is)..


Author

J. Glenn Künzler

Glenn is Managing Editor at MacTrast, and has been using a Mac since he bought his first MacBook Pro in 2006. Now he's up to his neck in Apple, and owns an old iBook, a 2012 iMac with an extra Thunderbolt display for good measure, a 4th-generation iPad, an iPad mini, 2 iPhones, and a Mac Mini that lives at the neighbor's house. He lives in a small town in Utah, enjoys bacon more than you can possibly imagine, and is severely addicted to pie.