Coding on My iPad Pro

Last month, my 9-5 job was kind enough to gift me an iPad Pro and its new keyboard. I’ve had a few iPads in the past, but they’ve always ended up stashed away, unused, in a drawer somewhere. I simply never got hooked on their utility. I never found that killer app, which, for me, would be the ability to code anywhere. This Pro model, however, has changed all of that.

I’ve always had two Macs. One to take places and another to get “real work” done. In the past that meant a spec’d out iMac and an 11″ MacBook Air. More recently, it’s been a work-issued 15″ MacBook Pro that stays plugged into my cinema display 99% of the time and a MacBook (One) when I travel. The new MacBook is certainly the most portable Mac I’ve ever owned, but it’s slow and lacks the screen space to do any UI intensive work.

Now that I have an iPad Pro, I’ve sold my MacBook and only touch my MacBook Pro when I have serious work to do. The iPad has replaced nearly everything I use my laptop for. That may not be so unbelievable. Lots of folks like Viticci have moved to an iOS only way of life. As I do more and more tasks on my phone, I’ve been tempted to try going iOS primarily, but I could never make that jump because I code for a living.

Until now.

I was screen sharing from my iPad to another machine on my local network, when it dawned on me how great it could be if this particular Mac were always available to me – even from outside my house. So, I splurged and ordered a datacenter-hosted Mac Mini from MacStadium. Ten minutes later I was connected to my new Mac in the cloud. And ten minutes after that, I had Xcode open and started testing the waters.

I’m using Screens.app to connect. And with a good internet connection there’s virtually no lag when screen sharing with my new Mac Mini. I’m able to run a native Mac resolution of 1920×1200 on my iPad in full screen. That gives me plenty of room to run Xcode and the iOS Simulator. With Apple’s new external keyboard, all of my usual Xcode and OS X keyboard shortcuts work just fine. And since coding is primarily a keyboard driven activity, my arm doesn’t get tired from reaching out and touching the screen like a designer’s might.

All in all I’m thrilled with my new setup. It gives me the simplicity and benefits of iOS, while still allowing me to do real work outside of the house or from the couch.

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My New Email Routine With SaneBox

I’ve written before about cutting back on notifications. Today I want to talk a bit about how I’m using a paid service called SaneBox to reduce unwanted email notifications even further.

I initially found out about SaneBox six months ago from David Sparks. His enthusiastic recommendation was enough to get me to give the service a close look, but I was still hesitant to sign up. I take the security of my email very seriously, and I wasn’t to keen on handing over access to my email to a third party.

But, as the months went by, I kept hearing more and more wonderful things about the service from more and more people I trusted. And my own email situation was causing me grief. Every morning I’d wake up to fifty or so emails I’d have to wade through. Very little were ever of any consequence. Even fewer actually warranted a reply. I kept wishing I could setup a filter just for the emails that actually mattered and leave all the rest to be ignored or skimmed over on the weekend.

And that’s exactly the promise of SaneBox. They analyze all of your past email history, and from that they determine which emails are important and which can wait till later.

So, skeptical and a little wary, I gave them a shot.

I couldn’t be more impressed.

After scanning my eleven years of email history, my SaneBox was setup and ready to go. The whole process took less than an hour. Immediately, emails began arriving and were filtered out into a folder called “SaneLater”, which I was told to read through only when I had spare time. SaneBox promised anything important would remain in my inbox – and then show up as a notification in my email client.

It’s hard to describe just how magical this service is. Of the fifty or so emails I used to wake up to every morning, only two or three actually make it to my inbox. The rest are silently stashed away in another folder that I check every other day or so.

I can report that there have been surprisingly few false positives. And if one does slip through, I can just move that email back to my inbox and SaneBox will learn how to classify similar emails in the future.

They also offer an amazing bonus feature called SaneBlackHole. This is a special folder in your email account they create for you. Any email you move into this folder will tell SaneBox to immediately delete all future emails from that sender. It’s like an instant unsubscribe that actually works.

SaneBox has other crazy helpful features, too. You can snooze emails for later date. And they can also monitor your spam folder and report back any emails that might have accidentally been marked as spam by your email provider.

I swear SaneBox is not paying me to write any of this. The service is just that good. If you do feel like giving them a try, you can use my affiliate link to sign up. Use that link and we’ll both get $5 off.

It’s also worth pointing out that SaneBox runs entirely server-side. There’s no software or special email client you have to use. All you need is an email account that supports IMAP.

36 Hours With Amazon Echo

For whatever reason, Amazon deemed me worthy of receiving an Echo last week. After laying down my $99 and a quick, overnight shipment, it was on my doorstep Friday afternoon. And now, after giving it a whirl for thirty-six hours, I thought I’d write up my initial observations.

First of all, it’s bigger than I expected. When I first got it, I initially didn’t like the form factor, thinking I’d instead prefer something shorter and wider more like a speaker. But now that I’ve positioned it in a few different places in my kitchen, the skinnier, taller design makes sense. In a space constrained layout, Echo takes up very little surface area on my kitchen counter.

Setup was extremely simple. Just plug the Echo into power and then “download” the Amazon Echo app. I put “download” in quotes because that’s the phrasing Amazon uses in the setup material. But the app isn’t actually a native app from the App Store. It’s a mobile web app they encourage you to add to your home screen.

The mobile app walks you through connecting your Echo to wifi and your Amazon account in just a few minutes. After watching a three minute intro video, the device was ready for my first command. But more on that in a minute.

First I want to say that their mobile web app, while not bad, is one of those mobile apps that makes native app developers groan. Rather than being a responsive design that would work on any screen size, it’s specifically built for mobile. That includes a hamburger menu for accessing a side drawer of settings. It tries so hard to look like a native app, I just wish they had taken the time to build one if that’s what they’re aiming for. But, I do get why they went web app. It’s the fastest way to get one codebase on every platform. Maybe once Echo is more than a beta project, they’ll build a proper native controller.

While I would obviously prefer a native app, suffering through their web app isn’t a huge deal. The only real issue is since it runs in Mobile Safari, you’re required to be logged into your Amazon account. Not a big deal for me, but it is for my wife who is normally signed into her Amazon account, and therefore can’t access the Echo app. The solution? She simply just doesn’t use the app. A shame.

My first command was, predictably, “Alexa, what’s the weather tomorrow?” Echo thought for a second, it’s ring of lights glowing, and then promptly answered with a full forecast for the next day.

My wife and I have probably issued fifty or so commands over the last day and a half, and the response times after each question are completely on par with what I expect from Siri or Google Now.

The “always on” nature feels like a game changer – the natural progression of all these competing information services. Already, after just a day of use, it felt natural and seamless in a way that Siri never has. Without really thinking, I automatically said “Alexa, set a timer for 3 minutes” when making my morning coffee.

My wife laughed at the original Echo introduction video earlier this month. She was completely skeptical after such a bad experience with Siri the last few years. But, again, the seamlessness of it won her over. She’s issued more commands than I have.

How about voice recognition? Echo is able to hear and understand me speaking at a completely normal volume from an adjacent room and around a corner. A slightly louder, projecting voice was sufficient 40 feet away through an open doorway. The device is able to hear the wake-word “Alexa” very easily, even while the device itself is playing music. It pauses the music once it hears its name and waits for the rest of your command.

One difference between Echo and Siri is Apple’s assistant is much more conversational. There are times when Echo will answer a purposely non-answerable question with a fun reply, but not as often or with near as much breadth as Siri. Part of that, of course, is that Apple has had a few years and vastly more user interaction to tune Siri’s personality. It also might simply be due to Amazon purposefully not making Echo as human as Siri pretends to be.

When playing music at low volumes, Echo isn’t nearly as crisp and audible as my kitchen Sonos speaker. It sounds fine, but not great, at louder volumes. But with a sleeping baby in our house, low volumes are a must, and Echo just sounds muddled when listening to what I know are good audio recordings.

As luck would have it, earlier this year I uploaded all of my iTunes library into Amazon Music so it would be streamable on my Sonos. (Sonos famously doesn’t play nice with the Apple ecosystem.) Having 80 gigs of mp3s living in the cloud and available on Echo with a simple voice command is awesome.

I’m an Amazon Prime member, so, in theory, I have access to their “million song” library, but I haven’t tapped into that yet since my personal collection is so readily available. I have no idea how Amazon’s streaming library compares with Rdio or Spotify.

All of this music integration really just makes me yearn for a voice-controlled Sonos. With their speakers already situated throughout my house, it seems so natural for them to pivot into a full-on tech company capable of responding to my voice. Or at least partner with Google (Now) or Microsoft (Cortana) to make their tech available to an army of passionate Sonos users.

They other pipe dream Echo opens up is the possibility of an open API and/or official way to shuttle my reminder and shopping list data out of Amazon’s ecosystem and into whatever apps I happen to use for that type of data. It would also be amazing if one day Amazon enables developers via AWS to tap into their speech recognition and processing platform. Imagine if Amazon allowed you to stream voice audio to AWS, and they’d do the speech recognition and then further break down the input into verbs, actions, and nouns that could trigger webhooks within your infrastructure.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

For $199 is Echo worth the price? Maybe. If you already have a Sonos in the room, possibly not. But for the Prime member price of $99, it was a no-brainer impulse buy that I’m very much enjoying.

My Favorite Coffee Cup

I feel slightly ridiculous even writing this post, but I always appreciate it when other folks review and suggest products that have made their lives a little better. So, here goes.

The Tervis 12oz Tumbler is the best coffee cup I’ve ever owned.

You would think it wouldn’t matter what sort of coffee cup you use, but after picking one up on a lark from a kitchen store and then ordering four more on Amazon, I can tell you that it absolutely does matter what you’re drinking from.

But, first, what’s wrong with a regular old coffee mug?

As it turns out, a lot of things. For starters, have you ever actually held a coffee cup after filling it with coffee? It’s almost guaranteed to burn your hand. That’s why they all have handles. But the handles are never ergonomic. At best, you can wrap two or three fingers around the handle and then you have to do that awkward balancing act where you counterbalance the weight of the coffee mug by placing your thumb on top of the handle. Making matters worse, after making coffee with my AeroPress, my hands are always wet from rinsing it out. That makes holding onto the mug a slippery proposition. And, if you lose your grip and drop the mug, it’s going to shatter.

Do any of those problems really matter on their own? No, probably not. But together they add up to me always being frustrated with my usual coffee cup.

After complaining about the problem one morning, my wife finally said “Why don’t you just get an insulated mug?” It seems like an obvious solution, but every insulated cup I’ve found was always too large – sixteen or twenty ounces. I wanted something the size of a standard coffee cup.

I finally found what I was looking for with a 12oz tumbler from Tervis. And why is it the best coffee cup I’ve ever owned?

It’s insulated. I heat the water for my coffee to boiling using a BonaVita electric kettle (another fantastic product). By the time the coffee is in my cup, it’s not quite boiling any longer, but it’s still scalding. The outside of the Tervis cup stays completely cool. I never worry about burning my hand. Also, even with wet hands, the mug is very easy to grip. There’s no silly handle. It’s just a nice, round shape that fits naturally in your hand. It’s also an appropriate size for coffee – twelve ounces. That means I can fill up with my usual ten and not worry about the coffee level being close to the lip and spilling over.

The material of the mug is extremely sturdy plastic. I’ve dropped it a couple times (once on purpose!) and it’s never shattered or chipped. Other insulated mugs I’ve tried came apart after going through the dishwasher a few times. The Tervis mug has seen four months of cleaning and has held up like a champ.

If you make your coffee with an AeroPress, you’ll be happy to know the press fits nicely on the top of the mug. Not too small, not too big. And as a bonus, the mug is clear so you can see your coffee being filtered as you press down. It’s a neat effect the first time you see it. You also always know how much coffee you’ve got left in your cup, which would have saved me a few times when I quickly picked up other coffee cups not realizing there was still liquid inside.

The only real downside is the price. I’ve never found them cheaper than $10 a mug. I think they’re completely worth it, but your mileage may vary.

So, there. Nearly six-hundred words about something as ridiculous as a coffee cup. But it really has made my morning coffee routine much better.

Bellroy Note Sleeve Wallet Review

For six years I carried a bright green, nylon, kid’s wallet I bought from Target. I enjoyed the simplicity and “funness” of it. But last year I finally decided to grow up and buy a real, adult wallet. I hate fat, George Costanza wallets and, as a rule, only carry the absolute bare minimum of cards. So when I started shopping around my top priority was finding something equally as slim as the old kid’s wallet I had been carrying.

After reading lots of reviews I settled on a blue, leather Note Sleeve from Bellroy. It’s been a year since I started carrying it and I couldn’t be happier.

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The wallet has two slots on the inside right side for your most frequently accessed cards. Each slot can hold two cards comfortably. Beneath that area, is storage for two or three less frequently used cards. There’s a small, leather pull-strap that allows you to slide the cards out for easy access. On the left is a single slot where I keep my driver’s license. Every wallet I’ve previously carried kept your license behind a plastic window so you could just show people your age. But, in practice, every restaurant or store I visited always insisted I take the card out and hand it to them. Prying it out from behind the plastic window was always a pain. I have no trouble accessing it with this wallet. I can pull it out and slide it back in without trouble.

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Like most wallets, the Note Sleeve has a full-length pocket for cash. This model is barely wide enough to fit unfolded American currency, so I normally just fold my bills in half. I really like the pattern inside the pocket. Of course, no one ever sees that except for me, but I like it anyway.

Inside the cash sleeve is a secret, hidden pocket. I use this slot for my auto and health insurance cards. I rarely ever use them, but always need them with me, so this extra, hidden pocket is great for that purpose.

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When folded in half, the wallet lays quite flat. I’ve compared it to a few of my friends’ wallets and the Note Sleeve is always the slimmest.

As I said above, I couldn’t be happier with my choice. It’s slim, very well constructed, and looks nice. I finally feel like a real adult.

Printing and Mailing Photos to Your Grandparents

We have a three month old kid. That means we take a lot of photos. I’ve done the math, and in the last three months we’ve taken 1,202 photos of him. As I’ll write about in my upcoming book on Dropbox photography, all of those photos are stored and sorted in a shared Dropbox folder that both my wife and I have access to. For other family members and friends, we share the best of those photos via a shared iOS Photostream. I’m really a big fan of this feature. With just a few taps I can share as many photos as I want and have them near-instantly delivered to the twelve people who subscribe to our photostream. Everyone in our family and circle of friends has an iOS device, so no one’s left out. I never have to fumble with emailing attachments, or posting links to Flickr. All the photos are available in the native iOS Photos app. Best of all, I can post comments with the photos I add, other people can like and add their own comments, and they can even share their own photos, too. It all works splendidly.

The only downside is for our grandparents. They don’t have iDevices. Sure, our parents are always showing photos to them on their phones and iPads, but our grandparents miss out on the personal connection they’d get from having their own collection of photos. To try and fix this, I’ve started physically printing and mailing batches of photos to them every ten days or so. They love getting photos they can touch and display in the mail. It really is like their own real-world photostream.

The problem is this is manually intensive. Printing batches of photos, keeping up with ink and photo paper, finding sturdy enough envelopes to handle twenty photos at a time, and then dealing with postage slows the whole process down. So I’ve been experimenting with three online photo delivery services to handle all of this for me.

Over the last few months I’ve tested Shutterfly, iPhoto, and PicPlum. Ideally, I’m looking for a service that I can quickly upload the latest photos – from both mine and my wife’s iPhone and from our good camera – and have them sent to multiple addresses without having to re-type the address each time. The photos need to be delivered fairly quickly and, most importantly, arrive in good condition.

I’ve given each of the above services multiple tries, and they all have their good and bad points. For those of you who like to skip ahead, the winner was Shutterfly, followed by PicPlum, and then iPhoto.

iPhoto

I really wanted to like iPhoto, as it’s Apple’s recommended service. But there are a few negatives that keep me from going this route. First of all, the iPhoto iPhone app is nearly impossible to figure out. I’m an app developer by trade, so I like to think I can understand most apps without much instruction, but the iPhoto UI baffles me. Selecting multiple photos and preparing an order for delivery was a beast of a process. Add to that extraordinarily long ship times and they were a clear no go. The actual photos were of middle of the road quality and arrived in a plain white cardboard envelope that seemed to protect them well enough.

PicPlum

PicPlum is an interesting service. Unlike iPhoto and Shutterfly, which are really designed for printing and delivering photos to yourself, PicPlum bills itself as a service designed for printing and mailing photos for other people. Everything is done through their lovely web interface. You can drag and drop your photos directly into the web browser. Then it’s just a matter of choosing the recipients from your previously saved addresses.

PicPlum loses points for not having an iOS app. Typically, I want to only send my best photos to be printed. All of the best ones are already handily organized and available in our shared photostream. If they had an iOS app, I could choose them directly from that album. But, as they only support desktop uploading, I have to find and gather them from the various photo albums in my Dropbox. This isn’t a huge deal-breaker, but it is slightly less convenient.

The biggest downside to PicPlum, and ultimately the reason I no longer use them, is the photos arrive in a flimsy paper envelope. The kind of thing you’d mail a birthday card in. I used PicPlum to send twenty photos three times. Twice, the envelope arrived torn with the photos sticking out. In one case, the adhesive sealing the envelope was barely affixed and everything was in danger of spilling out. And while I didn’t encounter this problem in my testing, with such a flimsy delivery method, there’s absolutely no protection against water damage.

I’m actually quite sad that I can’t use PicPlum. They make it easy to send to multiple recipients and their photos were by far the highest quality of the three services.

Shutterfly

As I said above, Shutterfly is who I decided to go with. Their iOS app is a little long in the tooth, but it’s serviceable and easy enough to use. I’m able to choose photos from my Photostream and upload them quickly. I can pick from a list of previously saved addresses. The price is the cheapest of the three services, and the photo quality is good. Unlike PicPlum, Shutterfly’s prints arrive in a sturdy cardboard envelope inside an even larger cardboard sleeve. I’ve mailed six batches of photos so far and none have arrived damaged. The double envelopes even protected the photos against our rain soaked mailbox.

The only problem I’ve encountered with Shutterfly is their shipping time. Using their default shipping option, which is about three dollars, the photos arrive anywhere from five to twelve days later. For three bucks, I’m not sure what I expect, but two weeks is way too long to wait for a delivery. So I usually just pony up the extra cash and pay for the $10 two-day delivery method instead. It’s faster, and comes with a tracking number, too.

Overall, our grandparents have been thrilled with the service. They absolutely love getting their bi-weekly photo surprise in the mail. The physicality of holding real photos in your hands makes them feel connected to our son in a way that FaceTime and flipping through photos on an iPad just can’t. I highly recommend keeping your non-technical friends and family in the loop this way.

My Favorite Chair

I’m a bit of a snob. I don’t just like nice things, I like the best things. That’s not to say I spend extravagantly or throw my money around, it’s just that when presented with buying a good product or saving my money a little longer and buying a better constructed, great product, I’ll usually pick the great product. It’s why I bought an iPad rather than a Kindle Fire, it’s why I shop at Seven rather than Gap, and it’s why I use proper noise-canceling headphones rather than Apple earbuds. My point is that I generally take my time to suss out and spend my money on quality products that last.

So, four years ago, when it came time to buy a new office chair, I knew I had to do my research. I spend eight to sixteen hours a day in front of my Mac and my body starts to ache near the end no matter how many breaks I take. Over the years I’ve used everything from an art stool, to a $150 Office Depot chair, to whatever IKEA happened to be selling that month. I even picked up a $600 task chair from Relax The Back. They were all crap. The back support was non-existent. The seat cushion grew flat over time. And, in almost every case, the chair would wobble and lose height throughout the day. I knew there had to be something better available.

Honestly, I’m writing this review four years too late. Back in the Summer of 2010, while I was working full-time from home, I really did my research. I read countless reviews, inspected warranties, participated in online groups, and bought and returned a few models. The one chair that kept getting the highest marks, and, coincidentally, the only one I could never find in a store to try sitting in, was Herman Miller’s Embody series.

They don’t come cheap, running anywhere from $1,100 to $1,600 depending on the model, but after much back and forth, I finally placed an order for one sight-unseen.

I couldn’t be happier.

It has by far the best back support of any chair I’ve used. The back of the chair extends up to shoulder height and is modeled after the human spine. You can lean back into it and the material will move and bend with you as your turn or arch your back. The arms are made of squishy plastic that support your elbows without digging in. The seat cushion and the back are made of a mesh material that breathes and stays cool even after hours of use. And, best of all, the base is extremely sturdy. It doesn’t wobble. And it doesn’t lose height after extended use.

My only complaint is that it’s very noisy. Nearly every movement of your body causes some piece of the chair to groan. I’ve never for a moment thought the chair was falling apart or anything – nothing feels cheaply made – it’s just a side effect of how the base and back are constructed. They simply make noise as you move. It’s annoying at first, but not a deal breaker.

The chair also comes with a twelve year warranty. In the past I’ve had to replace cheap office store chairs every eighteen months or so. At $200 a pop, the Embody’s $1,100 up front price tag isn’t too far out of line if it lasts the full 10+ years.

Anyway, I’ve been using the chair in my home office for going on four years now and love it. So much so, that I bought a second one I bring with me any time I get an office job.

Money well spent.

Journaling

I’m a little obsessive about data collection and retention. I’ve written a number of times about all the different backup systems I have in place to protect my data. And over the last few years the amount of data I’m collecting about myself (and family) has continued to grow. We’re taking exponentially more photos, posting many more status updates, and collecting real-time data about our sleep patterns, fitness activity, and location.

From the day I was born until around the time I entered high school, my mom kept a standard, wall calendar for myself and my sister. Every night (or nearly every night) after we went to bed, she’d pull out that year’s calendar and jot down a quick note on today’s date about what we had done that day. Since we’ve grown up, she’s passed on those calendars to us. For just about any day in my childhood, I can go up to my attic, find the right year, and tell you what my day was like. That’s an amazing ability. An amazing gift really. And earlier this year I realized that most basic human element of why was missing from all the data I’ve been collecting about myself. For nearly any day, I can look back and tell you where I was, what photos I took, and, potentially, what clever Twitter comment I made. But beyond that, I couldn’t tell you how I felt or why I did something. The human element was missing from all those updates.

So earlier this year I decided to change that and add yet another new metric into my increasingly always-on life: journaling.

Back in February, after hearing tons of glowing reviews, I bought a copy of Day One for my Mac and iPhone. I had never written in a journal or diary before, but I was intrigued by the possibility of having a written record to reference and look back on. So on February 11 I wrote my first journal entry. It wasn’t much. Just a quick paragraph summarizing the day – what time I woke up, what I had for lunch, where we went for dinner, and even the mundane details of what we bought at Target that evening. But the next day I wrote in it again. And again. Until it became a habit. I’d jot down a quick note throughout the day whenever it occurred to me to do so. But usually I spent five minutes before bed going over the day. No matter how boring or uneventful things may have seemed, I always made a point to write at least a few sentences. And now, nine months later, I just completed my three-hundredth entry. Two-hundred and fifty-three days in a row. Going all the way back to February, I can lookup and tell you exactly what I did that day, what I was feeling, and often times show you a photo to go along with it. It’s fundamentally changed the way I look back at past events. I’ve always had a good memory – but now I have a great memory. And with our first kid due soon, the idea of having a concrete record of him growing up is priceless. It’s my Mom’s calendars brought into a new century.

And none of this would be possible without a great app that makes journaling easy, is available everywhere, and stores my data in an open format that I’m confident is future proof and exportable to another system if the need ever arises. Day One fills that need perfectly.

A final, quick note. Early on in my journaling experiment I told a friend what I was doing. They asked why not just use Foursquare to keep a running tab of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I’ve never been big on the idea of Foursquare. Simply checking-in at places doesn’t appeal to me. Partly because I want that data to be private, and also because a check-in by itself never seemed valuable to me. I suppose it’s nice to know where I was, but without the added context of why I was there and what I thought about the experience, it just seemed lacking. Journaling lets me document my life in my own words rather than a list of cold I-was-here-at-this-time data points. And, very important to me, my data is under my control in an open format and available to store, reference, and mash-up however I see fit.

Two Weeks With Drobo

So it’s been two weeks since my Drobo arrived from Amazon. I’m sure they’re selling like hotcakes, but I don’t personally know anyone else with one — I figured I might as well gather my thoughts and post a review. Hopefully this will give a good overview if you’re not already familiar with the device. If you are, I’ll be including a couple features that surprised me — so keep reading.

What’s a Drobo?

In a nutshell, Drobo is an external device that takes four hard drives and makes them appear as a combined, larger one to your Mac or PC. A better way to describe Drobo might simply be magic. Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction states “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That very much applies here because, as far as I’m concerned, what Drobo does is magical. Take four hard drives of any size, from any manufacturer, slide them into the Drobo and not only do you get a larger pool of storage, but all of the data is redundantly backed up.

Think about that.

Without any technical know-how, special tools, or backup schedules, all of your data is safely stored away without any intervention on your part. If one of the drives fails, you just pull it out and put a new one in it’s place — all while Drobo is up and running.

I could go on and on about how cool all this is, but I think it’s best if you just take ten minutes and watch the Drobo introductory video yourself. My jaw was on the floor the first time I watched it. It’s totally worth your time if you haven’t seen it.

The Drobo Mindset

I’m pretty fanatical about backing up my data. My backup process is always evolving, but lately it has been a combination of multiple, external hard drives, Time Machine, .Mac, and Amazon S3. Even with all that, it’s still a struggle. Hard drives fill up, and large files (over 1GB) are problematic to store in multiple locations. It’s easy to get neurotic about keeping your data safe. But after using the Drobo for a few days, after getting into the Drobo mindset, a sense of calm came over me. I know it sounds crazy to wax philosophical about a glorified hard drive, but it’s true. I realized that I could stop worrying about the two biggest problems I faced backing up my data:

  • Storage capacity — if get low on space, I just replace the smallest drive in Drobo with a new, larger one. I can never run out of room.
  • Data redundancy — as long as two drives inside Drobo don’t fail at the same time (a slim possibility) and barring acts of god or theft, any data I store is safe.

My Setup

My wife and I have four computers in our house: two Mac laptops, an iMac, and a Mac Mini. Everything is wireless except for the Mini which is connected to our living room TV and hardwired into an Airport Extreme. The Drobo is connected to the Mini and shared throughout the network via AFP. (I’ve found the Airport Extreme’s USB sharing feature to be flaky at best with any hard drive — so I never attempted to connect Drobo to it.)

The two laptops and my wife’s iMac do regular Time Machine backups wirelessly to Drobo. (My laptop does an additional, full SuperDuper! clone to a drive at work every afternoon.) Also stored on the Drobo is a mirrored copy of my iTunes library (so Front Row on the Mini can access my music), disk images of important (read: large) software like Office, Creative Suite, and even my OS X install DVD. Plus a couple hundred gigs of photos, home videos, and movies and TV shows we’ve bought and ripped from DVD. All in all, Drobo is holding nearly a terabyte of data.

This data used to be spread across two external drives attached to the Mini and the Mini itself. Not only was none of it backed up, but it was confusing trying to remember which drive held which data. Now everything is organized and available in one location. If we want to watch a movie or TV show, there’s only one place to look.

How Does Drobo Perform in the Real World?

All the convenience Drobo affords wouldn’t be worth anything if it didn’t perform well. Fortunately, it’s very good. Not perfect — but definitely up to snuff.

I say it’s not perfect because in an ideal world Drobo would connect via Firewire 800 rather than the comparatively slow USB 2.0 standard. So you’ll definitely notice a speed hit if you’re a Mac user with an ultrafast Firewire drive. Typically, though, USB 2.0 is the norm. And, for the type of usage I throw at Drobo, it’s more than acceptable in most situations. Most of my access is over the network where I’m limited by the 300Mbps bandwidth of my wireless N router versus the 320Mbps (480Mbps theoretical) speed of USB 2.0.

But what about when Drobo is connected directly to a computer instead of over the network? When I first got it, I initially had to transfer over all the data on my existing drives. From an Iomega Firewire drive plugged into my MacBook Pro, I was able to copy files to Drobo at about 1GB per minute. Considering I had over 500GB to transfer, that sucked. Fortunately, that’s really just a one-time penalty. I usually don’t move more than a few gigs at any one time, so waiting a minute or two (especially over the network) isn’t a deal breaker for me.

The bottom line is that I would never use Drobo for intensive operations like a Photoshop swap disk, but for most normal situations it’s great.

What about noise? Is Drobo loud? With four hard drives spinning inside, it’s definitely not going to be silent. I can hear its fans and the “click” of the hard drives in a quiet room. But with any sort of background noise like music or a TV, I never notice that it’s there. The volume is comparable to the noise a Wii makes when its disc is spinning up to full speed.

Little Known Drobo Facts

The faceplate that you remove to access the drives is magnetic. It pulls off and snaps into place with a satisfying thwpp. Also, the inside of the faceplate has a quick reference chart of what Drobo’s various status lights mean.

Drobo has an internal, rechargeable battery that provides enough time during a power loss to finish the data it was writing and leave itself in a “safe state” as the manual puts it.

When running, the drives are hot to the touch. Not the Drobo — I mean if you remove the faceplate and touch the four drives inside. The Drobo itself stays cool. Even the air the fans blow out the back is relatively cool.

There is a small reset button on the back you can press with a paperclip to reset the data on the Drobo. I don’t know exactly what this does technically speaking. I imagine it just marks all the data as “erased” — I can’t imagine it actually zeroes out all the bits.

It’s bigger than I expected. In hindsight, I should have anticipated the size considering it has to be big enough to hold four hard drives plus room for a fan and circuitry. Still, it’s definitely not pint sized.

Drobo comes with software you can install on your Mac or PC to get detailed status info, but it’s not necessary to actually use the device. For example: each drive has a status light which shows the current health of the drive. There’s a line of ten blue LEDs which give you a percentage of the total capacity used. More clever even, what happens if you’re running dangerously low on space but the Drobo is out of sight so you can’t see the capacity gauge? Drobo artificially slows down write operations to alert you of the problem.

For technical reasons, Drobo always reports that its total capacity is 2TB, however the reported amount of disk usage is correct. If you use large enough drives to push the total capacity over 2TB, Drobo makes the extra space appear to be on a separate volume. The manual says this is necessary because of a limitation in the USB 2.0 protocol.

The Final Verdict

Is the Drobo awesome? Most definitely. If you’re looking to buy one and you liked this review, consider buying it via this Amazon link. Doing so will earn me a few referral dollars from Amazon :-)