A five-bay network storage box with hot-swappable drives
£474 (enclosure only) FROM Drobo, drobo.co.uk features Gigabit Ethernet port, five SATA disk bays, one mSATA bay NEEDS OS X 10.9 or higher, router with a spare LAN socket
Drobo has built its business on storage systems that allow you to mix and match disks of different speeds and capacities and from different manufacturers and hotswap them when you need to add capacity or replace
a failing disk. The Drobo 5N provides these features and many more.
First the name: the ‘5’ is a reference to the number of hard drive bays and the ’N’ to the fact that this is a network storage device. To that end, the Drobo 5N has a Gigabit Ethernet port that enables you to connect it to your router – or directly to your Mac if you want to copy lots of data at the fastest possible speed.
The 5N has one additional storage slot, into which you can fit an mSATA SSD to use as a cache of the files you use most often, in a similar way to Apple’s Fusion Drive. If you want, you can fit SSDs in the other five disk bays too, but this is much more costly than using hard disks, prohibitively so for most of us, and unnecessary. The configuration of the SSD/hard disk arrangement, like that of everything else in the 5N, is automatic.
The 5N has built-in redundancy, so if a disk fails the storage array is automatically reconfigured to avoid using that one and rebuild the storage plus redundancy setup using the remaining disks. You can then whip out the failed disk, slot in a replacement and the drive rebuilds the array to include it.
Setting up is straightforward enough – hard disks and SSDs are easy to slot into position. We experienced one or two hiccups while the Drobo Dashboard software was configuring the 5N, however. It seemed to take an age to find the drive on the network and then it insisted on updating the firmware. Once done, the 5N restarted automatically but again took several minutes to be ‘found’ by the software. Once the unit had been discovered, the manual prompts users to set up an admin password, but doesn’t mention the need to wait 20 minutes for the 5N to configure itself.
Once set up, the 5N worked like a charm. It took six minutes to copy 24GB of data from our iMac, and we were able to remove one hard disk and add two more without any interruption to the copying process.
A drive of many talents
As with many network drives, there are a number of apps you can install on the 5N. These enable you to host a Wordpress blog, use the drive as a DLNA or Plex server, download using BitTorrent, or back up your data to Crashplan, for example. There are also iOS apps that enable access to the 5N while away from your local network, and to simplify moving and accessing photos and videos from an iPhone or iPad to and from the drive.
We have only two minor qualms about the Drobo 5N. One is the noise it makes. It’s not excessive, but sitting on a desk next to you, you’ll notice it. The fan is noisier than the two-bay Synology NAS we regularly use.
The other is price. At a shade under £500 for the enclosure alone, the 5N is significantly more pricey than four-bay NAS enclosures. You pay for the convenience of mixing and matching drives and being able to hotswap them, as well as the extra bay. If that’s important to you, the 5N won’t disappoint. If not, you may be better looking elsewhere.
There’s also a slot for an mSATA SSD to use as a cache, in a similar way to Apple’s Fusion Drive
The Drobo 5N has five SATA hard disk bays and a slot for an optional mSATA-connected SSD.