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Don’t Buy the Drobo 5D3 – Review as a Windows user

Drobo heavily markets their products, such as the Drobo 5D3, heavily towards photographers. I bought one and have regretted that decision ever since. Drobo products aren’t just not worth the price, the company also treats their customers poorly. Let me tell you how it all started and why I wouldn’t recommend the Drobo 5D3 to my worst enemy.

Have a look at the following tweets. It should give you a bit of an insight into how Drobo operates and my frustrations with them as a company. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about here, don’t worry, we’ll get to it in just a bit.

Over two years ago, I asked Drobo whether Thunderbolt 3 support on their Drobo 5D3 would be coming to Windows machines. They decided not to reply to my message. So about a month later I again asked for a quick update on the matter. This time I actually got a reply:

Almost another year went by and I was most certainly not kept up to date. So I left a bit of a snarky reply because by this time I had almost given up hope. This tweet was again left unanswered. What a surprise.

Why I bought a Drobo 5D3

You might be wondering why I bought the Drobo 5D3 in the first place. I store all my photos and videos on an external SSD and was looking to expand my available storage. I wanted an easy solution and discovered the Drobo 5D3 after a few days of research.

The Drobo 5D3 attaches directly to your rig and does this using the Thunderbolt 3 protocol (or so I thought). Thunderbolt 3 is fast, really fast. I liked the sound of it and as my Dell XPS 15 also supported Thunderbolt 3 I decided to go with it.

I didn’t think it was necessary to invest in a Network Attached Storage, also known as NAS, as only I would be using the device and no one else. I also liked the idea of using Thunderbolt 3’s speed in conjunction with an external SSD.

What I like about the Drobo 5D3

One thing the Drobo 5D3 has going for itself, and always will have, is its size. It’s really small and looks good considering it fits up to five drives. The front cover attaches easily with magnets and drives can be slid into the bays without any further assembly needed. But the small size does also have its drawbacks. This thing gets quite loud even when the drives aren’t being used. And there’s no easy way of replacing the fan.

What happened next

I’m going to give you the first example of how badly the Drobo 5D3 is supported on Windows. If I open explorer you’ll see that my Drobo apparently has a capacity of 64TB. How I wish that were true. In fact, my Drobo 5D3 has an actual capacity of around 9TB. The reported capacity of 64TB is the maximum the Drobo 5D3 supports and for some reason that number is reported to Windows. It’s not a biggie but I’d also imagine this bug could be easily fixed.

Update: This is actually a feature of the Drobo 5D3 called thin provisioning. I was wrong in my assumption that this was a bug.

The website mentions two Thunderbolt 3 ports, one of which can be used for daisy-chaining monitors on macOS devices. Not a problem, I thought, I only need the one Thunderbolt port to connect it to my XPS. As I soon found out, I was badly mistaken. Thunderbolt 3 is not supported, and this point I’ve given up all hope of it ever being supported, on Windows.

I was hopeful yet again when one and a half years ago Drobo announced that the 5D3 would soon support Thunderbolt on Windows. However, to this day Thunderbolt 3 is still not supported on Windows.

Why you shouldn’t buy Drobo 5D3

Now you might be thinking that the Drobo 5D3 just doesn’t suit my setup because I’m a Windows users. Well, here are a few reasons why you, whether you’re a Windows or macOS user, should consider anything but the Drobo 5D3 when looking to expand your storage space.

PROPRIETARY FILE SYSTEM AND SOFTWARE

Drobo is what I call the Apple of storage devices. They control everything from the proprietary software needed to access files on the Drobo 5D3 to the file system. If your Drobo 5D3 dies, you’re practically forced to buy a new one. There is no other way of getting your data back. In fact, Drobo even encrypts the log files so you’ll have no way of finding out what actually went wrong.

If Drobo, the company, ever were to go bust every Drobo owner should be looking to move to another device immediately. You see, the Drobo 5D3 isn’t just a simple plug and play device. Drobo supplies the software needed for your PC to even have access to the drive. There is no other way of gaining access. If the drivers were to disappear, the Drobo 5D3 will become a ticking time bomb.

THE DROBO 5D3 IS LOUD

As mentioned before, the Drobo 5D3 can get very loud. And not just under a heavy load. The fan inside of the Drobo 5D3 spins at all times, even if the drives are idle. Because the 5D3 is made by the Apple of storage devices, there’s no easy way of modifying it or replacing the fan with a quieter alternative.

THE DROBO 5D3 ONLY OFFERS LIMITED EXPANDABILITY

Right now, five drives might appear to be more than enough. However you never know how things will turn out in a couple of years. With 4K videos and high-resolution photos becoming the norm, those drives can fill up quickly.

Once your Drobo 5D3 is full there’s no way of expanding it any further. Your only option is to buy a new device. You can’t attach an external harddrive cage or anything similar. What you see is what you get.

THE DROBO 5D3 DOESN’T COME CHEAP.

Let’s not forget that the Drobo 5D3 isn’t a cheap acquisition. I’m pretty sure you could build a more powerful DIY NAS for the same price. And I’m confident any self-built NAS could run a lot quieter than the Drobo 5D3. Though it would be bigger. But that’s a price I’d be prepared to pay after my experience with the ill-fated Drobo 5D3.

Alternatives to the Drobo 5D3

Were I to start over again I’d definitely build my own NAS. It would have been nice to use Thunderbolt’s speed and even if I had been able to I think I’d still opt for a DIY NAS. You see, even when I’m at home I’ll sometimes sit in front of the TV and not at my desk when editing photos and videos. With a NAS I’d still be connected to my archive. But the Drobo has to be directly connected to the laptop at all times.

Combine a NAS with an OpenVPN server installed on a cheap Raspberry Pi and you can access your data from anywhere (assuming you have an internet connection).

I enjoy the process of building PCs so I’d probably build my own FreeNAS or Unraid system. A NAS will certainly end up being bigger, but it should be quieter depending on the hardware you use and is so much more flexible. And because my Drobo 5D3 can only be accessed via USB, a NAS could potentially be just as fast.

Alternatively, you could look in to a pre-built NAS from Synology. I have personally never owned or used one but people I trust are very happy with theirs.

To sum things up: Don’t buy the Drobo 5D3.

Synology DS920+

Bays: 4

CPU: Intel quad-core processor w/ AES-NI hardware encryption engine

Speed: Over 225 MB/s sequential read and write throughput

RAM: 4 GB DDR4 memory (expandable up to 8 GB)

Expandability: Up to 9 drives with Synology DX517

Synology DS418

Bays: 4

CPU: Realtek RTD1296 quad-core 1.4 GHz

Speed: Over 225 MB/s sequential read and write throughput

RAM: 2 GB DDR4

Synology DS1819+

Bays: 8

CPU: Quad Core 2.1 GHz

Speed: Superior sequential throughput at over 2, 045 MB/s reading and 656 MB/s writing

RAM: 4 GB DDR4 non-ECC SODIMM

11 thoughts on “Don’t Buy the Drobo 5D3 – Review as a Windows user”

  1. the drobo is a DAS device, not NAS… am i correct?
    no thunderbolt on freenas, if there is, please let me know.

    Reply
    • Hi. Yes it’s a DAS not a NAS. However Thunderbolt doesn’t work when using Windows – So no Thunderbolt speed for PC users. A NAS is connected to your Network and not to the PC which makes it so much more flexible.

      Reply
  2. The 64TB volume is reported to Windows on purpose. It’s called a thin volume. You’re thinking of a thick volume. Thin volumes are used on various NAS from the likes of Synology and QNAP among others. They do it for the same reason Drobo does – to allow growing the storage without having to retool the underlying file and extents table of the filesystem.

    By the way, these vendors also have Beyond RAID-like features that support drives of varying sizes. It’s always a good idea to use drives with the same spindle speed and write performance. Try to avoid mixing SMR drives with CMR/PMR drives.

    Reply
  3. Hi, thank you for your review. I have held my head in ongoing frustration on-purchase and setup of the Drobo 5D3 and ongoing, that I can’t count the times. It doesn’t mount/it does mount/it doesn’t mount. It requires reformatting/it works/it requires formatting. Ongoing 85% of the time. Customer support is the worst I have every experienced. I could go on but I will not. Liam, I use only two bays currently and need to expand. Both are 4TB Seagate Ironwolf [which I’m told are not reliable SSD]. I need to be able to : a) expand this 5D3 with 1,2, or 3 more SSDs and ask which you would recommend? b) i need a backup [daisy chained additional storage DAS unit] to backup the files on my current 5D3 in case it gets stolen. [a weekly b/up and storage unit taken off site]. I am a photographer that does small professional jobs occasionally. I would appreciate your advice in simple terms, if you have the time.

    Reply
    • Hey there. To answer your first question: I use mostly WD Red drives and have never had an issue with them. Though they are currently in some hot water for shipping inferior drives. I know Backblaze does a lot of testing on hard drives and it actually appears that Seagate drives fare quite well.

      For backups: If you are looking to buy a new device I would consider selling the Drobo and going with something like a Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage). Because a NAS has its own OS it can also do stuff such as backing up to an external site without your computer having to be connected.

      Honestly, if you’re having that many issues with your Drobo and it is negatively influencing your work I would consider ditching it. If you don’t have enough internal storage get an external SSD to work off and back that up to your NAS.

      Reply
  4. I’m done with Drobo… and I’ve got…. dang, I’ve got a BUNCH. 4 x 5D3 Thunderbolt 3, 3 x 5D3 Thunderbolt, 4 x 5D FW 800, 5 x 4 bay 2.5″ drive chassis… I’m on Mac OS. I will repeat what was written above…

    POS. Done… latest experiences pushed me over the edge. 78 hour rebuild of 5x6TB primary database. Reboot. Won’t mount. No drives recognized, mess with it for several hours, try the other chassis… some recognize some, others won’t. Back to original chassis, let it sit with all plugs and cables out for several hours… back up, 78 hour rebuild…

    4-bay mini-drobo were all useless within a few months of when we got them. I was a HUGE fan of Drobo when they first came out – they promised to be the answer to our prayers…. now I wouldn’t recommend Drobo to my worst enemy – it would violate the tenant of cruel and unusual punishment…

    Reply
  5. Like you, I wanted a DAS not a NAS – well another one as I have a Drobo (4 bay USB-C) I picked up on sale that’s worked out fine for me. Anyway, this time I decided to go for a USB 3.0 with 5 bays, non-RAID, enclosure (Yottamaster), and paired it up with DrivePool for just under £200. Great speeds, and protection for 1 or 2 drive failures with DrivePool, no proprietary software or drivers. Might be worth considering in future..

    Reply
  6. Must admit that as a Windows Drobo 5D3 user, I’m overall happy with the product and service, mine has been running for 2.5 years and hasn’t (so far) had any issues at all.

    The one thing that does annoy me is that promises were made around Thunderbolt 3 support, also the web site and packaging was at the time less than clear, so this point has always annoyed me.

    I’ve spent many years working in enterprise server build and management, so have experienced quite a bit around various storage arrays and the problems they all typically have. So when it came to my most precious memories and information, I wanted something that was simple and bullet proof, Drobo has delivered this for me. I’ve had two drive failures over the years, and each time all went smoothly.

    I’m thinking of moving my home server away from Windows (currently a Intel NUC8i7HVK) to a new M1 MacMini, so this will unlock Thunderbolt 3 for me, however this changeover will require a re-build of the Drobo (away from NTFS).

    I’ve never had to contact Drobo support, so can’t speak to this capability, but for me it’s been a great solution to my DAS storage needs.

    Reply

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