Editors' note: After testing a third Drobo unit, we have updated the review and revised the rating.
The third time isn't exactly a charm for Drobo, but it certainly yielded better results than our first two cracks did at the second generation of the so-called storage robot. We originally published our review of the new Drobo on July 30, and we weren't very high on the device because our testing--on two Drobo units on multiple test systems running both Windows XP and Vista--showed very slow throughput speeds and repeated occurrences of instability. Drobo's makers, Data Robotics, insisted the results we saw were due to a problem with its preproduction units, a driver issue with Windows Vista, a conflict with our test systems, or some combination of the three.
We acquired a third review system, this time a retail unit direct from Newegg, to test the validity of these claims. While its USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 performance on Windows XP was still very slow, we did see better numbers with 32-bit Vista. More importantly, our third test unit acted much more stable, assuaging our fears of data loss. Caveats remain for using the device with a Windows PC via FireWire 800, particularly if you are running 64-bit Vista, but we're starting to reestablish the warm feelings we had for the original, USB-only Drobo last year. Do note that last year's model can be had for $349, while the second-generation Drobo costs $500 for the addition of FireWire 800, a slightly faster processor, and a better cooling system. In the end, if you want a flexible and a fully automated redundant backup storage device, no other product works the way Drobo does.
Design and features
A year after Drobo Robotics introduced its Drobo drive to general acclaim, including an Editors' Choice award from us, the company has released the next iteration of the product. The new Drobo looks and functions basically the same as the original, but adds FireWire capability by way of two FireWire 800 ports on the back, next to the USB 2.0 port. Still, the device doesn't come with an eSATA connection--the fastest solution to connect external storage devices to a computer--nor does it feature networking abilities (for that, you'll need to purchase the separate DroboShare unit, which adds Gigabit Ethernet).
Like the original, the new Drobo can house up to four internal SATA hard drives of any capacity and blend them into a proprietary configuration that balances between the highest data security and the most storage space. As long as only one hard drive fails at a time, whether it's the largest one or not, your data is safe. The device is also able to predict which hard drive is prone to fail and prompt you to replace it via a big LED corresponding to that particular hard drive's bay.
There are a couple of catches, however. First, you will never get total-combined storage space of the hard drives, as some space is reserved for data redundancy in the event one of your drives fails. The Drobo is designed to give you the most possible storage capacity and peace of mind regarding data integrality. For example, if you pop in a pair of 250GB hard drives, a 350GB drive, and a 500GB drive, Drobo provides 789GB of total storage. The good part is that Drobo does all the work itself--all you're required to do is insert the hard drives, which is as easy as inserting a CD into a CD-ROM drive. Secondly, if your Drobo fails, or in the event of disaster, it could be very hard to recover the data. Due to its proprietary format, the Drobo's hard drives can't be read by any other third-party machine.
The new Drobo also comes with better ventilation: a larger fan spins at a lower rate and is, therefore, significantly quietier than the original Drobo. Still, if you stand close to it, you will hear a subtle humming sound.
It was fairly easy for us to get the new Drobo up and running using its included Drobo Dashboard software. We did notice, though, that the drive took a relatively long time (up to a minute or more, as opposed to seconds in other drives) to get started. We were able to swap out hard drives with the device while it was still working. Once a new hard drive is put in, the rebuilding process started and took about five minutes to finish. This amount of time changes, of course, depending on the size of the hard drive and the amount of data stored on the device. Conveniently, you can still access data on the other drives inside your Drobo during this process.
Finally, $500 might seem a bit steep for a storage device that doesn't include any storage out of the box. But the 2TB Drobo goes for $899, which is comparable to the 2TB LaCie Biggest Quadra, which also includes eSATA ,and can currently be found between $835 and $1,099. The 2TB Netgear ReadyNAS NV+ RND4210 is sold online for as little as $1,272. It's a NAS drive with an Ethernet connection, but a 2TB Drobo plus the $200 DroboShare product that aids Ethernet still costs less. Moving the other way, the two-bay empty costs $200 or less, and a two-bay WD My Book Mirror delivers 2TB of storage out of the box for $500 or less.
Data Robotics provided us with the two prior units we reviewed, both of which proved to be finicky and slow, regardless of which version of Windows we tested them with. We reported the problem to the company, and Data Robotics, after having taken the test units back, found a soldering problem on the first preproduction unit, and suspected that our test methodology, our test bed, or a driver or firmware issue was to blame for the same performance issues we saw on the next one.