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Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS review

Gordon Kelly

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Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS
  • Drobo 5D Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 DAS

Summary

Our Score:

8

User Score:

Pros

  • Strong Thunderbolt & USB 3.0 performance
  • Intuitive hardware and software setup
  • Quiet in operation

Cons

  • Thunderbolt support Mac OS X only
  • mSATA makes little difference
  • Expensive

Key Features

  • 5x 3.5in/2.5in SATA HDD Bays
  • 1x mSATA
  • 2x Thunderbolt, 1x USB 3.0
  • BeyondRAID
  • Manufacturer: Drobo
  • Review Price: £475.00

What is the Drobo 5D?

The 5D is Drobo’s high performance, five bay DAS targeted at prosumers. DAS (Direct-attached storage) may be a term less familiar to you than NAS (Network-attached storage) but it simply means the device is designed to connect directly to your computer rather than over a network. Why would anyone buy the 5D over a traditional NAS? In a word: speed.

Drobo 5D – Design and Features

Separating the 5D from its NAS equivalent, the ‘5N’, is virtually impossible from most angles and this is entirely a good thing. The 5D may look like a typical NAS, but at 262 x 185 x 150mm and 3.8Kg unpopulated it is smaller and lighter than many four bay rivals. It is also better built. The 5D has a brushed metal chassis, unlike the prevalent plastics seen elsewhere, and it feels virtually bomb-proof as a result.

The 5D lacks an LCD status panel, but it has an array of smart status lights. Green, yellow and red LEDs indicate each drive’s health plus there’s a separate LED for the power mode and temperature. Meanwhile a series of blue horizontal lights show the available storage capacity. When the 5D boots it is something of a light show, but in practice they are extremely useful.

Drobo 5D lights

Also worthy of attention is the 5D’s smart functionality. It is the first DAS we’ve seen to come with both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connectivity and there are two of the latter to allow up to six 5Ds to be daisy-chained together. The snag is the 5D only supports Thunderbolt using Mac OS X. This is a shame as Thunderbolt is starting to find its way onto a number of PC motherboards and is part of our test rig.

On the upside the 5D can hold an mSATA SSD without compromising any of its five HDD bays. This is courtesy of an ‘Accelerator Bay’ on the bottom of the 5D and Drobo claims this will be intelligently allocated to store frequently accessed files. The theory is this combination means the best of both worlds: the speed of SSD with the capacity of HDDs.

Drobo 5D 4

Like Netgear’s X-RAID and Synology Hybrid RAID, Drobo has 'Beyond RAID' – a proprietary RAID array that allows a volume to be dynamically enlarged using drives of any size. While both Asus and Western Digital still don’t offer a rival for their storage products we’d argue it is a must have for any serious DAS or NAS contender these days.

Last but not least Drobo fits the 5D with a small battery that protects data in the event of a power outage. The battery keeps the 5D operational for long enough to finish writing any data in memory to the drives and recharges itself automatically when the 5D is in normal operation. It is a clever feature and one we’d like to see more widely implemented by rivals.

Drobo 5D error

Drobo 5D: Setup

In principle setting up the 5D is a breeze. Its bays are not only tool-less, but tray-less so drives simply slide in and lock in place while BeyondRAID automatically configures them to maximise capacity with built in redundancy. Setup times are extremely quick with the 5D configuring five 3TB Barracuda drives in under thirty minutes.

The reason we say 'in principle' though is because it took several attempts to get our 5D to recognise the drives. Ironically they were supplied to us by Drobo, but first required a firmware update to identify them and once identified they were declared to be incompatible (below). It took several restarts before they finally were identified.

5D dashboard

Searching online suggests this was a rare occurrence so we’re willing to give Drobo the benefit of the doubt, but it is worth checking your drives are on the company’s recommended list.

The good news is from this point onwards the experience couldn’t have been more user friendly. The user goes to drobo.com/start, picks their product, downloads the clear and concise Drobo dashboard and the setup wizard does the rest formatting the drives and assigning them with a drive letter. From there you’re good to go. Arguably it may have been nice to offer a browser-based dashboard, but as a local storage product this isn’t really necessary.

MattMe

February 19, 2014, 11:11 am

Don't most NAS devices has USB 3.0 nowadays as well? Why not just get a NAS and connect over USB when, on the rare occasion, you do require this extra performance?
My DS213/214 has this functionality - but you never tested it, as far as I'm aware. Or with SSDs, either.

I'm failing to see the appeal. And no Thunderbolt support for Windows? Wowzers.

It does look like a nicely made piece of kit, but I can't see anyone choosing this over a NAS.

GeekinOut

February 19, 2014, 7:44 pm

I don't know of any NAS devices that can use a USB port to directly attach to another computer to share data. I've only known the USB ports on NAS devices to be used to attach printers or other USB drives - never to another PC.

I was curious about your claim that the DS213/214 supported this, so took a look at their Quick Start Guide... exactly as I expected: "The Synology DiskStation offers USB ports for adding additional external hard drives, USB printers, or other USB devices." A USB device is not another computer.... so I wish you luck in making that work.

I'm surprised to hear about the Thunderbolt support for Windows. I know it's new for Windows - they must be working on it. Especially now that the PC/laptop manufacturers are starting to rollout models with Thunderbolt.

MattMe

February 20, 2014, 5:10 pm

You know what, you're right.

I had mis-understood the functionality of the USB ports when I first looked into it. That's a shame, isn't it?

I still stand by the fact that it's only very rarely you'd notice these improved transfer speeds over what 1Gbps Ethernet offers. You'd have to be doing some serious amounts of data transfer on a fairly regular basis to consider this over a NAS, in my opinion. Even consider using iSCSI.

Might have a word with Synology, let the know they're missing a trick here...

GeekinOut

February 20, 2014, 8:47 pm

For me, I need the low-latency of a direct attached solution for my photo library and all my other media files... so a NAS (or even iSCSI), although convenient, doesn't offer me the speed I need without spending a bunch more money.

Gordon Kelly

February 21, 2014, 7:24 pm

You're both spot on! Most won't miss the speed difference, but for those who need it then it is a brilliant solution. Very niche though.

Neil

April 10, 2014, 6:44 am

The Drobo 5D should be nice piece of kit. It combines multiple disk drives into a single giant drive, which can cope with a single drive failure (you just pop it out and replace it with a new one).

In reality it has cost me a fortune in additional drives, and has proven extremely unreliable. I purchased a Drobo 5D with five 3TB WD NAS drives. This is what happened:

1) The USB cable supplied with the Drobo 5D didn't work. Drobo support blamed my USB 3 card and recommended a list of expensive cards. Fixed with a new USB cable.

2) The Drobo has a “feature” whereby it cripples itself if it goes over 95% full and the transfer speed plummets to about 2MB/sec. The problem I had is that I was using an encrypted partition (Truecrypt) that can't reduce in size! I couldn't copy the data off the Drobo because it was so slow so the only solution was to upgrade my 3TB drives to 4TB drives.

3) I bought two 4TB drives (Seagate ST4000VN000) from two different sources and put them in. This gave me the space but file access speed varied enormously, some files were 60MB/sec and some were still 2MB/sec. Drobo support said my new drives were faulty and recommended some nice expensive ones to buy. I pointed out that the chances of two drives from different suppliers being faulty in exactly the same way was unlikely, and asked if there were any compatibility issues with these drives. I'm still waiting for an answer to that several months on. The Seagate drives work fine on their own in the main computer.

4) I bought three 4TB drives (WD WD40EFRX) and they worked fine for a few months. Then one day a red light appears indicating a drive has died. I reboot the computer and the Drobo recovers, but takes 2 days for it to rebuild. I buy another 4TB WD drive to replace the one which produced the red light as I no longer trust it.

5) I ask Drobo support if they think the problem was with the drive or the Drobo. They ask for diagnostics but when I send them the file produced by the Drobo they say they it has missing information and ask me to reboot the Drobo. I do that and it no longer comes up. It's now a very expensive doorstop.

6) Drobo support say that it will take 10 days to replace it as it has to be shipped to Germany, and I have to pay the postage.

So to summarise, so far I have bought a Drobo 5D and 11 large and expensive multi-terabyte disk drives - and have zero Drobo storage.

I do not recommend this product.

Andrew Clarke

April 25, 2014, 3:41 pm

Anything that benefits from lots of transfer between the computer and drives would be better with a DAS over NAS. Try running VM on the drive and see the difference. Open an iPhoto or Aperture library and compare the two.

It won't make a huge difference for streaming movies or your iTunes library, but there are a whole host of instances where the speed is welcome. Think of how much nicer it is to have a SSD than a spinny disk.

Drobos aren't mass-market devices. They're too expensive for the average home user and that's not their target market. I have three Drobos here and so far I've had no problems with any of them. I guess I'm lucker than some.

Komrad

October 30, 2015, 2:21 am

Mine lasted 1 year and died a few weeks after the warranty expired. I'm never buying one again.

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