Drobo Mini RAID
$419 / £263 (without drives) www.drobo.com

"Too much storage" is a phrase that does not exist in photography. Those who work with RAW files and high-definition videos know that every gigabyte is sacred, and most likely have an arsenal of external hard drives gobbling up the open areas on their desks. This is a predicament I've found myself in as well, but just in time, before I ran out of desk space entirely, the folks at Drobo sent me one of their Drobo Mini ($419 without drives) models to try out.

The Drobo Mini offers RAID storage on the go with four hot-swappable 2.5-inch hard drive bays. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, and describes a type of storage whereby data is scattered across more than one harddrive in an array, to protect it from loss in the case of hardware failure. What you lose in available storage you gain in peace of mind.

The Drobo Mini is aimed at professionals and enthusiasts who shoot a lot of stills and/or videos in the field and want the protection of RAID when they're away from home. Featuring a relatively small (~7in x 7in) footprint, handy LED status lights, speedy Thunderbolt or USB 3.0, a desktop application for monitoring usage and other tools, as well as the ability to keep adding more storage as you go, the Drobo Mini looks like an attractive storage solution for photographers and videographers.

I spent over a month using the Drobo Mini, so hang on to see if this mini RAID is up your alley.

Specifications / Key Features

  • Up to four 2.5in SATA I/II/III hard disk drives or solid state drives – 7 mm and 9.5 mm in height (sold separately).
  • One mSATA solid state drive in the Drobo Accelerator Bay for increased performance (sold separately).
  • Drives of any manufacturer, capacity, spindle speed, and/or cache can be used. No carriers or tools required.
  • Expandable by adding drives or hot-swapping drives with larger ones. Use the Capacity Calculator to estimate available storage in various configurations.
  • 2 x Thunderbolt ports; second port for daisy chaining Thunderbolt devices (Mac OS X only)
  • 1 x USB 3.0 port
  • Drive bay indicator lights, capacity gauge, status lights
  • Drobo Dashboard version 2.3 or later
  • Single – or Dual-Disk Redundancy
  • Power Fail Protection
  • Kensington Lock Port for Security (lock not included)
  • OS X Time Machine Support
  • Dimensions: 7.3 in (187.2 mm) x 1.8 in (44.6 mm) x 7.1 in (180.0 mm)
  • Weight: 2.2 lb (1 kg) without hard drives, power supply, or packaging
  • One year warranty in the US or outside the EU or two year warranty in the EU.

The 'Mini Me' of RAID Storage

The Drobo Mini houses up to four 2.5in harddrives - the same size that you'll find in laptops. Basically, a 'Mini Me' of the RAID iteration. Each hard drive is hot-swappable, meaning it can be removed and replaced safely without the drive needing to be turned off, or with any risk of losing data. This process involves simply pushing in on a drive and having it gently spring out, and vice versa for installation. This also means storage capacity can be increased or decreased in a matter of seconds, though the latter option is not very likely, unless there's an emergency and the drive fails and needs to be replaced. This is a bit of foreshadowing, by the way.

Any 2.5in SATA I/II/III hard disk drives or solid state drive will do, and Drobo publishes a recommendation chart for hard drives which are preferred for the Drobo Mini. As with any storage, it's probably best to opt for the recommended models, which appear to be Enterprise SATA drives. However, the likeliness of drive failure is reduced if you opt to use solid state drives because of their lack of spinning parts. The Drobo Mini does feature an mSATA solid state drive bay, or Accelerator Bay, located at the bottom of the unit. This is for speeding up the performance of the drive, especially when working with taxing cache files.

The four hard drive bays, all in good health, indicated by the solid green corner lights. Max capacity is roughly 1/3 consumed, courtesy of the blue indicator strip.
The Accelerator Bay, which houses mSATA SSD chips for improved hot data caching.

The Drobo Mini is svelte and attractive, constructed of a 'metallic carbon fiber' (whatever that means) with a rubberized soft-touch coating. The Mini weighs around 3 lbs. fully loaded with drives and measures 7.3 in (187.2 mm) x 1.8 in (44.6 mm) x 7.1 in (180.0 mm). Personally, I've been spoiled with a LaCie Rugged hard drive that is about 1/3 the size of the Drobo Mini and weighs well under a pound, so it took some acclimation during travel. The Drobo Mini also ships with a long power cord and supply, which takes up more space in the bag, as well as a 3.3 ft (1 m) USB 3.0 cable. But alas, the LaCie is not a RAID drive, and does not come close to the features offered by the Drobo Mini.

Architecturally, the Drobo Mini is a success. It features a magnetic face plate that covers all four hard drive bays for easy, tool-free access. Connectivity is composed of two Thunderbolt ports, a USB 3.0 port, and the power cord terminal has a locking feature that prevents it from being pulled out and ruining your work day. The Drobo Mini even has a Kensington Lock port for security, though the lock is not included. Two cooling fans bookend the terminals in the rear of the unit, so you can expect some operational sound from the drive.

The Drobo Mini employs a system of LED lights that keep you updated on the unit's status at all times. Each drive bay has its own illuminated corner strip that indicates whether the drive is in good shape, nearing max capacity, or has failed and needs to be replaced. Furthermore, a long blue strip underneath the Drobo logo on the faceplate indicates the ultimate capacity of all four drives, allowing the user to monitor how much storage is free. Power and operation lights sandwich the blue max capacity bar, and that just about rounds up the aesthetic tour of the Drobo Mini.

RAID status can be checked via the Drobo Dashboard software. Capacity can also be monitored.

One of the nifty features offered by the Drobo Mini is its Drobo Dashboard software. Drobo Dashboard enables the user to monitor the health, capacity, and preferences of the Drobo Mini right from a desktop. A visual of the Drobo Mini, including each hard drive bay and SSD drive, is available to understand which drive is in which bay without having to physically take them out. There are also pie and linear graphs of the Drobo Mini's capacity, displaying the used and free space. A Tools menu enables the drives to be formatted, reset, shutdown, and even engage the LED lights so that they blink continuously for 15 minutes, creating what I like to call a RAID party.

The LED lights on the Drobo Mini can actually be dimmed on a 10 notch slider, and a power savings feature called Disk Drive Spindown triggers the hard drives to idle after a period of inactivity. But perhaps the most important feature on the Drobo Mini is its Dual Disk Redundancy. With Dual Disk Redundancy, the Drobo Mini will spread your data across the four drives such that even if two of the four drives fails in a short space of time, you won't lose anything. While it was tempting to use all of the available combined space of the four drives, I went with Dual Disk Redundancy for the purposes of this evaluation, and to assuage any paranoia of losing crucial photo and video files. All I can say is, boy am I glad I did.

My Drobo Mini Experience

The Drobo Mini takes up a fair amount of space compared to single external HDDs, especially since it can only be oriented horizontally.

Let's start with my impressions of the Drobo Mini's design. The unit is nice to look at and it truly is constructed using quality components. Two Thunderbolt ports enable the unit to be daisy-chained, and I ended up powering my external monitor using the Mini. While the Drobo Mini has a USB 3.0 terminal, Thunderbolt is faster, so I stuck with that connection throughout the entirety of the review.

While the layout of terminals makes sense, the Power button is a bit of a pain to access. It's located a few millimeters to the right of the Power cord connection, making it impossible to access the button without rubbing a finger up against the Power cable connector. While the Power cable has a lock feature that prevents it from popping out, it was still a pain to have to contort my hand in a way that would hit the Power button. Also, while the magnetic faceplate is a swanky touch, it's difficult to remove. I have to kind of use two fingers along the bottom and pry upward while holding the unit down with my other hand. A small groove along the top or one of the sides would make accessing the hard drives much easier.

The Drobo Mini can only be oriented in this way, and its 7.1 x 7.3in footprint is considerably greater than that of a typical single-disk external harddrive. It's a shame that it can't easily be used vertically, to save desk space. 

In addition, the Drobo Mini can only be oriented horizontally. Now, I know this is a feature that is only offered on certain hard drive and RAID models, but I'd expect dual axis orientation to be possible on product like this intended for traveling. There's nothing wrong with letting the Drobo Mini sit horizontally on a desk, but in tight situations with limited desk space, I'd much rather have it standing vertically to conserve surface area. While on the subject, the Drobo Mini is not as travel friendly as I was expecting. Yes, it's quite petite for a RAID unit holding four hard drives and an mSATA SSD bay, but it really consumed a lot of backpack space on trips. Add in the Power cord and Thunderbolt cable, and I'd need a very large backpack or individual carrying case for the Drobo. Compared to my LaCie Rugged drive pictured above, which can fit in an accessory pocket in a backpack, there's no question I'd opt for it when space is extremely constrained. The Drobo Mini would be my choice for more intense projects where hours of video footage or gigabytes of RAW images need to be stored and protected on the road. 

Speed

At first, Drobo sent me four slim hard drives: two 500GB Western Digital WD5000LPVX 500GB 5400 RPM 8MB Cache SATA 6.0Gb/s drives, and two 750GB Seagate Momentus 7200 RPM 16MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s units. I was also sent a Crucial M4 128GB mSATA SSD to use in the Accelerator Bay for increased performance speeds. All testing was done with the Drobo Mini connected via Thunderbolt to my 2011 MacBook Pro, which has a 2.5GHz Intel Core i7 processor and 8GB of 1333MHz DDR3 RAM. I ran Adobe Photoshop CS5, Premiere Pro CS5, and Soundbooth CS5. Testing was performed at home at my desk, and on the road in a few hotels in order to get a feel for the true travel experience.

With this hard drive configuration, the maximum storage capacity offered by the Drobo Mini tops out at 2500GB, or 2.5TB. That's a lot of space, but I opted to use the Drobo Mini in Dual Disk Redundancy mode, which slices that attractive 2.5TB figure in half and creates an identical file for every bit of recorded information. And at 1.25TB, I really could only bet on under 1TB for actual recordable space after expansion, protection, and overhead capacity was factored in. Still, a terabyte of protected data is appealing to a traveling photographer.

Since hard drives vary greatly, the following observations are not meant to be universal - I worked with the drives that I was sent. What I could benchmark, however, was the SSD Accelerator Bay to see if it was capable of speeding up daunting processes like saving cache files and accessing them. Drobo told me that when using Lightroom, Premier, or any application that uses a metadata database, the performance for accessing files will be much faster (hot data caching).

I tested the Drobo Mini via the Black Magic Disk Speed application, logging 10 cycles and averaging out the Read and Write Speeds of the Drobo Mini with and without the SSD drive. What I discovered was a 20% boost in write and read speed with the mSATA drive in the Accelerator Bay (Drobo told me to expect a 10-30% performance increase). Before adding the SSD drive, my averages were 126MB/s write and 98MB/s read. After adding the SSD drive, my averages leaped to 140MB/s write and 121MB/s read. Note that the screen grabs below are of one cycle, and do not depict the average speeds, though they are in the ballpark.

To gauge speeds of the hard drives Drobo sent me, I ran the Black Magic Disk Speed Test on my MacBook Pro's 256GB SSD hard drive. My MacBook Pro's SSD registered 146MB/s write and 196MB/s read speeds, which represent a marginal increase in write speed and giant bump in read speed. This brings into light the myriad of factors that come with speed testing hard drives. It all depends on the computer, connections, external drive hardware, etc. For my purposes, the spinning drives Drobo sent fell short of my MacBook Pro's SSD hard drive, even with the mSATA SSD in the Accelerator Bay.

Mishmash of hard drives without the mSATA SSD in the Accelerator Bay, average speeds were 126.4MB/s write and 98MB/s read. Mishmash of hard drives with the mSATA SSD drive in the Accelerator Bay, speeds jumped by 20%, recording 140.2MB/s write and 120.5MB/s read averages.

 My 2011 MacBook Pro's 256GB SSD drive.

Not satisfied with the speeds of the random hard drives Drobo had initially sent me, I informed the Drobo team about it. They sent me four HGST Travelstar hard drives (a model Drobo recommends for use with the Drobo Mini), and four 256GB SanDisk X300s Solid State drives to test. I ran the same tests I ran on the first batch of mismatched drives and my own hard drive, cycling the Black Magic Disk Speed Test 10 times and recording the averages. 

What I found was that the HGST drives averaged 193MB/s write and 229MB/s read times without the SSD in the Accelerator Bay, and 203MB/s write and 243MB/s read with the SSD installed. That's a definite improvement, and low and behold, this beat out my MacBook Pro's SSD. But as expected, the most impressive performance came when I used the four SanDisk SSDs, which averaged 256MB/s write and 304MB/s read speeds without the additional SSD in the Accellerator Bay and an impressive 267MB/s write and 352MB/s read speeds with the extra SSD installed. Shazam!

HGST drives without the mSATA SSD in the Accelerator Bay. HGST drives with the mSATA SSD in the Accelerator Bay.
SanDisk SSD drives without the mSATA SSD in the Accelerator Bay. SanDisk SSD drives with the mSATA SSD in the Accelerator Bay.

So, the Drobo Mini, like any hot-swappable RAID storage unit, is very dependent on a particular drive configuration when it comes to performance and speed. Enterprise 'spinning disk' drives are recommended for sheer out and out reliability over time (making them a good choice for a home RAID system used for long-term storage or backup) but they're slow.

Solid State Drives are the best option for speed and yield the greatest performance when used in the Mini, especially with an extra boost in the Accelerator Bay. If you think about it, that's an army of five SSDs working together to provide maximum speed. The HGST spinning drives came in second place, churning an impressive performance that suited many multimedia projects, while my MacBook's SSD took third and the disjointed collection of hard drives Drobo initially sent me came in dead last. If there's anything to take from this, it's that if read/write speed is your priority, you should always go for SSDs. If they're too expensive, opt for Drobo-recommended drives. Also, adding an mSATA SSD to the Accelerator Bay will increase speed and performance regardless of your hard drive configuration.

Here are the results in an easier-to-follow format:

 
Hard Drive ConfigurationWithout mSATA SSD Boost - WriteWithout mSATA SSD Boost - ReadWith mSATA SSD Boost - WriteWith mSATA SSD Boost - Read
Seagate/Western Digital/Toshiba Concoction  126MB/s  98MB/s  140MB/s  121MB/s
My MacBook Pro's SSD  146MB/s  196MB/s  N/A  N/A
HGST Travelstars  193MB/s  229MB/s  203MB/s  243MB/s
SanDisk X300s SSDs  256MB/s  304MB/s  267MB/s  352MB/s

In real usage, I tested the Drobo Mini as a scratch drive for some intense media projects that are capable of producing massive cache files. The first was an Adobe Soundbooth project, in which I selected small bits from over 100 podcasts to put together a "best of" episode. Each podcast averaged 66MB, and after a while, the cache files were enormous, many ending up larger than the actual source files. I could actually see the Drobo Mini's blue capacity light bar increase as I added more and more sound files to the table and began manipulating them. Even simple tasks like splitting an audio track were extremely taxing on processing speed, but working with the Drobo Mini, I did not encounter any crashes.

The next project was an Adobe Premiere Pro video in which I drew from about 20 large MOV files and employed lots of Motion, green screen Keying, and various other video effects and transitions. While my MacBook usually struggles with large MOV files (it tends to do better with captured MPEGs), I was able to scrub and preview in real time, which was excellent. Lastly, I used Photoshop to edit hundreds of RAW images via Adobe Camera Raw and standard Photoshop tools. I suffered no hiccups throughout the process, and never crashed. So, as far as performance goes, the Drobo Mini was top notch.

Again, performance in these scenarios was the fastest with the SSDs, so if you have the cash, pull the trigger on a quartet of the speedy fellows.

A Close Call

Now, after a few weeks of using the Drobo for the various aforementioned projects, I decided to travel with it, placing it in my Kata backpack and setting it up at a hotel I was staying at. When I first fired it up away from home, one of the hard drives failed. Crikey! I learned this after reading the colors of the indicator lights––three of the hard drives displayed flashing yellow lights while one illuminated a solid red glow. The latter, as I had come to find out, was the hard drive death knell. So, one of the 750GB Seagates had failed me. In a panic, I hyperventilated, thinking about the gigabytes of RAW images, video, and sound files that were long gone. Then I remembered I had set the Drobo Mini to Dual Disk Redundancy, which keeps a second copy of each and every file in case of events like this. I then discovered what the blinking yellow lights meant on the other three hard drive bays. Basically, the Drobo Mini was going into recovery mode, shifting and redistributing data from the bad drive over to the remaining three good drives. While all of this was happening, I was still able to use the Drobo Mini like I had in the past.

The only difference was that during data recovery, Drobo Dashboard did not recognize the Drobo Mini when connected, even after a good hour of troubleshooting with the Drobo team. However, when Drobo sent me a new 1TB Toshiba MQ01ABD100 1TB 5400 RPM 8MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s 2.5" hard drive, and all lights had returned to a happy and stable solid green, Drobo Dashboard recognized the Drobo Mini instantly. Now it's worth noting that data recovery may take a few days, and the Drobo Mini must be plugged in and powered on during that time period. The more data you're storing, the longer it will take, of course. As for the Drobo Dashboard situation, the Drobo team informed me that my case was a rare one, as the Drobo Mini should be recognized by Drobo Dashboard, even with only three drives installed. Whatever the case, I was just happy to have my data backed up and recovered, thanks to Dual Disk Redundancy and the Drobo Mini's excellent data recovery feature.

Summing Up

It's been a long, strange trip with the Drobo Mini, but a worthwhile one. I learned a lot about read and write speeds as they pertain to real life workflow, and that Solid State Drives are unbeatable in the performance department. But I also learned that Dual Disk Redundancy is a very good friend that will always have your back. In the Drobo Mini's case, Dual Disk Redundancy saved all of my files when a drive bit the dust (and in theory would have done the same even if two drives had died) all the while allowing me to use the drive regularly as it shifted and reconfigured all of the data. This is beyond impressive, and that experience alone leads me to put my faith in Drobo when considering external storage in the future.

The Drobo Mini may not be 'mini' in the literal sense, but its performance (when configured correctly with the right drives) leaves little to complain about. The Drobo Dashboard software is intuitive and welcoming, and the ability to backup all of my data via Time Machine is stellar. Photographers, Videographers, and and any other member of the digital arts community will certainly reap the benefits of RAID on the go with the Drobo Mini.

What we like:

  • Dual Disk Redundancy to the rescue
  • Hot-swappable modular storage capacity
  • Excellent Drobo Dashboard software
  • Apple Time Machine backup support
  • Increased performance via mSATA Accelerator Bay
  • Speedy performance when configured with the right drives
  • Well built and smart LED architecture
  • Two Thunderbolt ports for daisy-chaining and secondary display support

What we don't like:

  • Power button too close to Power cord
  • Not as 'mini' as we'd like
  • Inability to mount vertically