Drobo second generation review: Drobo second generation

We acquired a third unit from Newegg to avoid any preproduction issues. We tested it on our standard Windows XP test bed that we use for all storage products, and we also tested it on the same test bed with 32-bit Vista Home Ultimate, as well as a Dell Dimension PC with 32-bit Vista Home Premium. We tested all of the units with a mixture of 500GB, 400GB, 320GB and 250GB hard drives setup in different sets of 3 and 4.

We are happy to report that this third Drobo unit proved to be much more stable than the previous two. We were able to move it from one system to another, and swap drives in and out without incident. We did come in one morning to be greeted not by Drobo's green status lights but a yellow light prompting us to believe the device had hung (the yellow light generally indicates that the device is not connected to a computer, which it was at the time). Data Robotics claims that this is just an energy saving feature (as in, the Drobo would go to sleep after being idle for a certain amount of time), but we couldn't get the drive back to work by touching the mouse or keyboard, or even rescanning the hardware list. Nonetheless, we were able to quickly reset it by simply unplugging the power cable and plugging it back in; the Drobo then restarted without any loss or corruption of our data.

Since the biggest change to the product from last year's model is the addition of FireWire 800, the logical expectation from the new Drobo is a bump in performance. We didn't test the original Drobo's throughput performance a year ago (now, we wish we had), but we tested the new Drobo (three times) with both its FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 connections.

The third unit did nothing to change our opinion of its performance over Windows XP, where its FireWire 800 write and read speeds were consistently around a pokey 96Mbps. The situation improved when we moved to Widows Vista Ultimate and Home Premium and used a third-party Unibrain FireWire 800 card and driver. Write speeds increased to 128Mbps and read speeds increased to 160Mbps.

Testing Drobo via its USB 2.0 connection, on the other hand, registered more consistent scores across different operating systems, including Windows XP and Windows Vista, coming in at around135Mbps on our write test and 74Mbps on our read test.

It's worth noting that our test data--a 10GB folder that consists of roughly 37,000 small files--is not optimized for throughput speed, but rather to resemble real-world usage. We ran some anecdotal tests with other data sets that included fewer but larger files under Windows Vista, and the Drobo's FireWire 800 performance was much better--up to 200Mbps for writing and 320Mbps for reading. This difference, however, is generally common for all direct attach storage devices

All in all, we found the second generation Drobo's performance to be below average for external hard drives, including those set up in redundancy RAID configurations, in both FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 connections. The device was also inconsistent and registered scores with noticeable discrepancies between tests. For example, at a demo of the third unit with Data Robotics' representatives, we downloaded and installed the latest firmware (version 1.2.2 ), which the company claimed to improve the throughput up to 25 percent. The Drobo actually took almost 13 minutes to finish a job it had taken only a little more than 11 minutes to do with the old version of the firmware.

Though not tested, Data Robotics informed us that there are currently driver issues that affect FireWire 800 performance for the Drobo or any other such device when working with a 64-bit Windows Vista PCs (and even some 32-bit Vista systems). The company advises you to use Windows' own FireWire driver instead of Unibrain's driver; you'll be able to run only at FireWire 400 speeds, but the connection will be stable. Unibrain is aware of the situation and is currently working to resolve the issue with its next driver release.

We didn't compare the Drobo against any other direct attach devices because the Drobo is the only product that offers automated data protection and writes data across up to four drives (most external drives we test are single-drive devices). To put Drobo's read and write speeds in context, however, direct attach external storage drives we've tested with our official test data typically register about 200Mbps on our write test and 230Mbp on our read test for USB 2.0 connection. These numbers jump to roughly 350Mbps and 380Mbps, respectively, for FireWire 800. By comparison, the new Drobo's performance is approximately two times slower than these averages.

We worked closely with Data Robotics on the performance issues and tested the device thoroughly. Overall, we tested three units (two provided by Data Robotics and one we purchased ourselves) with three different test machines, under both Windows XP and Windows Vista 32-bit (both Ultimate and Home Premium editions). In total, we spent over a month testing the units, between our first Drobo test and the last, and we feel confident in our test results. While Drobo is no speed demon, at least in the end it appears the device is stable.

Service and support
Data Robotics backs the new Drobo with a standard one-year warranty, which is disappointing considering other storage vendors sometimes offer up to five years for their products. Its toll-free phone support is supposedly available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PST, excluding holidays. We tried the number listed on its Web site and were greeted with a prerecorded message saying the phone support is only available to registered products. After that, we found ourselves on hold for 30 minutes before finally hanging up the phone. You can also send an e-mail to tech support or fill out the online support form. Drobo's site offers FAQs, documentation, downloads, and a user forum.

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About The Author

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews networking and storage products, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.