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 D-Link DNS-323 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.
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.