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

Watch my video on the Drobo 5D3

Using the Drobo 5D3 has been a frustration experience. I would not recommend this device to anyone.

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 storage space. 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’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 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 loud. 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.

The website mentions two Thunderbolt 3 ports, one of which can be used for daisy chaining monitors on Mac OS 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 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’s a few reasons why you, whether you’re a Windows or Mac OS 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 proprietary software to the file system. If your Drobo 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 5D3 isn’t just a simple plug and play device. Drobo supplies the software needed for your PC to even see 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 is spinning 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 this thing isn’t cheap. I’m pretty sure you could build a more powerful DIY NAS for the same price. And I’m confident any selfbuilt 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 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. 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.

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

6 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.

    • 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.

  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.

  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.

    • 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.


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