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The Drobo is a fairly small black box that sits next to your computer, into which you can put up to four storage devices. It's a simple, easy to use product that lets laypeople overcome two main inherent problems with storing files on computers, namely:

  1. The amount of storage space eventually seems inadequate as you create or receive more files.
  2. Eventually, the device storing the files will stop working.

If you had an external hard drive, solving this first problem would be either difficult or just plain tedious, depending on how technically minded you are. You'd need to format the new drive so that your particular computer can read it, then you'd need to copy the files across from the old drive to the new one, then you'd need to sell or give away the old one - or put up with the hassle of having two separate external drives to keep track of.

This problem is solved more easily with the Drobo: slot another storage device into one of its free slots. If all of its slots are already filled, then take out one of the old drives and put one with a bigger capacity in its place. The Drobo automatically makes it seamlessly merge with the other drives as if it was one big drive.

The second problem is a bit trickier. If you have an external hard drive, and it breaks, then you're probably out of luck. Hopefully you'll have enough warning to copy the files off it while it's still on its way out. If not, you've just lost them, regardless of whether they're just your iTunes library or something more important, such as that new novel you've been working on. This is why a technically minded person can sometimes get obsessive about making frequent backups of her files while her drive is still perfectly healthy.

Again, the Drobo easily solves this problem. If one of the drives in it breaks, you can simply remove it, buy another drive of equal or greater storage capacity, and slot the new one in its place. This is possible because it stores everything in a somewhat redundant manner - not quite creating two whole copies of every file, but doing something that works in pretty much the same way.

The downside to all this is cost: you need to start out by buying the Drobo itself, which isn't exactly cheap, plus at least two drives to put in it. (It always needs at least two drives, in case one of them fails.) You also need to remember to only buy a very specific type of drive for it, namely a 3.5" SATA drive. (Don't worry if you don't know what one of those is, just remember that it's what you need to buy. In the shop, it'll have 3.5" SATA written on its box.)

In the Drobo's defence, at least you don't need to buy particularly spacious storage devices, because you can add to them or replace them later. This means that you no longer need to buy a drive that will still comfortably contain all your data several years down the line - you can buy a more modest drive now, and in several years' time, buy another modest drive, which would be much more spacious by today's standards, without having today's high cost.

Hardcore computer geeks may not like this device too much. The Drobo is technically the kind of thing that hackers have had for a long time, only made easy to use. Let's face it, to some people, the awkward rituals of maintaining a computer is part of their appeal. Quite frankly, though, I don't really want to be one of those people - I just want to be able to create things without having to worry about the technical aspects of where to put them.

As good as the Drobo is, the thing that most amazes me - in hindsight, at least - is that no one had the idea and ability to make this kind of product earlier. Its creators took an existing technology and gave it a simple interface, and an expensive price tag.

I'd recommend one to anyone who has a large amount of very important files, such as a musician or a photographer, but who doesn't have the time or inclination to waste her life making endless backups. For anyone else, while it's a nice idea, it's probably too expensive to warrant the purchase.

(For the technically minded, the Drobo is almost - but not quite - a RAID 5 device that connects to the computer over a USB 2.0 interface, and connects to its four drives using SATA I or II.)

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