DISCLAIMER: Drobo sponsors the Photofocus podcast. This review was not purchased and is independent of our arrangement to promote Drobo products.
The folks over at Drobo have been on a rampage releasing new products lately with major upgrades across the whole product line. We’ve already given detailed reviews on the Drobo 5D and Mini which both Scott and I have been using. Just last week a new box arrived… the Drobo 5N. I’ve unwrapped and set mine up (Scott’s done the same) and we’d like to share a few thoughts on how the Drobo 5N fits into the storage workflow for any pro or serious photographer or pro video shooter.
What is the Drobo 5N
Simply put the Drobo 5N (retail $599 USD) is a networked storage device. It offers networked storage for a home/home office/small office. From the front, it looks just like a Drobo 5D… the visible difference is the backside. Here you’ll find a single Gigabit Ethernet port. The unit is meant to get plugged into your network. You can use an open ethernet jack on your network or plug it directly into your Wireless router. You can also direct attach it to a Gigabit ethernet port on your computer.
The unit has 5 bays. I dropped in five performance SATA Disk Drives. These can be found at just about any big box electronic store, computer retailer or online. I used the 3 TB models from Seagate (the Barracuda models to be exact — about $150 a drive). Drobo offers a useful page here telling you what drives work — http://www.drobo.com/products/choose-drive.php.
How many drives do you need?
You can start by putting in only one drive (although you don’t get protection that way). I chose to put in all 5 slots as I wanted the Drobo 5N to cover my entire home office and personal computers in the house. In fact, you can choose to set the Drobo up some one or two drives can fail, with no data loss.
Keep in mind… ALL drives fail… I mean ALL. It’s a matter of when… not if. Drives are like the tires on a race car… eventually they wear out. Drobo’s not in the drive business… so you can use just about any performance drive you choose. You can also mix drive sizes or brands if you need to. The best part is, you can upgrade storage by just popping out the smallest drive and replacing it with a larger one… the Drobo 5N rebuilds itself and protects your data.
What do you use the 5N for?
There are lots of reasons to use a Drobo 5N. Here are some of the ways I am using it. Think about it as an expandable backup disk that all your computers can see. Going with dual disk redundancy is a small performance hit, but the extra security is worth it.
- Shared storage. You can partition the Drobo 5N to have shares. A share carves out data for a particular user. All the software to create and administer users is included and runs through the Drobo Dashboard package. It’s easy to setup and I could make dedicated shares for each user in my home office. All shares have password controls and you can set it so users can only see certain volumes. Additionally, a share can be set so multiple people can log in at one time… allowing for collaboration.
- Automated backups. Using Apple Time Machine or a Windows utility like File History or Volume Shadow Copy? You can target the share for automated backup of your computer at a scheduled time. Mixing Mac and Windows on same network… consider MacDrive or the equivalent so you can mount Apple formatted disks on Windows boxes.
- A wireless parking lot. I have SSD’s in my Mac and HP laptops. They’re fast… but not very big. I find myself filling them up with movies, podcasts, photos, etc. I can quickly transfer files over my network (even wirelessly) to backup or clear off space.
- A backup for my primary storage. I have targeted several folders on my Drobo 5D and Drobo S for additional backup. This copy can run in the background, but still transfers quite fast.
- Remotely accessible. Using the Back to My Mac feature on my Mac, I can login remotely to one of my home computers. From (if you have a Mobile Me account, you can turn this on Under System Preferences. You then have storage you can access remotely by connecting to a computer that shares the same network as your Drobo 5N.
How fast is the Drobo 5N?
The Drobo 5N is meant to be a fast and easy to access storage device. I wouldn’t make it the device that I do my primary editing off of (the Drobo 5D is best for that as its a faster connection type). However the insides of the device seem to be MUCH faster than the Drobo FS (the previous network unit). Inside they’ve boosted the speed by about 5X.
If you really want speed, you can add a MSATA card which is a type of SSD Drive (supported cards here —http://support.drobo.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/664). These cards start around $60 and are a great add on for performance as they improve the cache (where files get stored). I didn’t test the 5N with one.. but have ordered another MSATA card from Amazon as I am pleased with the boost it gave my 5D and Mini.
I found that the Drobo 5N was nearly as fast as a USB3 hard drive when connected via Ethernet to my network. The speeds I got were fast enough for demanding tasks like photo and video editing. I got close to 100 MB a second (MB/s) — while FireWire 800 is about 80 MB/s. Keep in mind that factors like drives, network connections, and cables could impact this either way (up or down).
Over WIFI, I still got respectable speeds. Backing up 400GB as a new Time Machine backup took about 6 hours over WIFI. By comparison, the Apple Time Capsule required almost 3 days for the same task (Drobo kicks Apple Time Capsule’s a$$). This was a huge plus for me as I travel a lot. I want my computer to backup quickly without having to plug into the wired network. Wireless automated backups have saved me before.
The Bottom Line
The unit itself has killer features that normally cost a ton of money. The SSD slot we mentioned earlier… plus the ability to set two a two drive threshold for failure. If a drive does go down, the system can send you an email notice. Accidentally lose power and the unit’s built-in battery will ensure that the Drobo stays alive long enough to get any data in transmit recorded to a drive.
Scott put the Drobo 5N through his usual torture tests: removing and adding drives during read/write operations, using different sizes and brands of drives, mixing old and new drives, pulling the power cord out “by accident,” etc. In every case the Drobo was able to rebuild and retain all data. No loss. None.
The Drobo 5N is an easy way to add redundancy to your storage regimen. it works for single users, homes, or small teams. It’s easy to set up (just follow the setup card in the box). In about 10 minutes I had a network drive up and created shares for 6 users. If you want the ability to backup your files or computers to a second location, this unit is a clear winner.
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