Published on December 20th, 2012 | by Greg0
Drobo Mini: A Most Unusual Storage Option
If you’re a professional who deals with a host of files- big ones, like images or video or music- then you might be a bit frustrated at the backup options available. After all, few of them support Thunderbolt, and many of them are big and bulky and difficult to configure. If you’re in this niche, handling terabytes of data and looking for a solid solution for data storage, then consider this an early Christmas gift.
The Drobo Mini is a fast, tiny, and super-simple multi-disk array that makes it easy to backup your files. There are some details that make it less than perfect for lots of folks- the lack of built-in networking limits it as a solution primarily for a single individual, and the price renders it out of reach for many people. But the Mini offers an interesting set of features that make it a unique option.
We’ve seen Drobo units before- the bigger, older sister model the Drobo FS offers some of the same features. A quick rundown on what is special about the Drobo series: most multi-disk arrays require that the drives be the same size and sometimes the same model, and it’s generally impossible to upgrade them. What Drobo offers is dead-simple software that makes it easy to change out disks and swap them out, in case you want to increase the total storage size or in case one of the disks has an issue. You may already have a backup hard drive- there are many good options out there- but if that drives fails, then you’re often in serious trouble. A multi-disk setup allows you an extra level of safety, thanks to a system called RAID. Essentially, in the simplest setup, it ensures that even if one of the drives dies, you’ll be able to resurrect all of your data.
What the Drobo Mini offers over other models in the line is support for the new Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 interfaces, as well as a much smaller form factor. Cables are included (at this price, we hoped so, but a Thunderbolt cable can still run $50). You purchase the box “empty”, and can add your own hard drives, but they’ll be formatted, so don’t expect to use disks with existing data. This box supports four 2.5″ SATA I/II/III disks, as well as a single mSATA solid state storage (SSD) that is used for acceleration. We connected to the box over Thunderbolt from a Macbook Air (PC Thunderbolt support is not available at the moment), and from a Windows 7 laptop over USB 3.o, and started transferring terabytes of data.
The upside: the is the smallest unit we’ve seen, and looks great. But the footprint might not matter much for a unit that is going to be largely stationary and likely be stashed away. Unlike the Drobo FS, there is no networking built-in, no ethernet or wireless options. The Drobo Mini isn’t a NAS- a network attached storage device- so it isn’t meant for use in an environment with many computers. Of course, you can setup file sharing, but you’ll have to leave a computer on and connected.
There are three major factors to consider: speed, ease of use, and price. On the first factor, we saw some mixed results. Certainly, Thunderbolt is quick, and USB 3.0 can be several times faster than USB 2.0- but even with 7200 RPM hard drives and no RAID options, the Drobo Mini wasn’t lightning-fast. We saw sustained speeds of between 150-200 MB on Thunderbolt, with a bit less over USB 3, similar for both reads and writes. This isn’t bad, but won’t set any records and single-drive options will be faster, generally. On the second factor, setup was pretty straightforward- the software was simple, and the utilities well-explained. It’s not perfect- there are some confusing parts for novice users- but looks nice and runs well. One note on the SSD: we weren’t able to take advantage of this option, as the unit supports only a few, so make sure you check the (fairly short) list first.
Finally, the only major downside: the pricetag. This is among the most expensive storage options we’ve seen- but the Drobo Mini is in a class of it’s own, thanks to their proprietary system that allows for graceful upgrading and swapping. Priced at around $650 without any hard drives, it’s certainly an expensive proposition, though we appreciated the design. There are no tools required, no screws, and the metallic carbon fiber looks slick. If you need a multi-purpose, serious-capacity solution with both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0, there is nothing better out there. Available now.