Chris Roberts spent a few months testing out the CalDigit VR2. With its twin drives and RAID options for added security, how did it measure up?
Storage is not really one of those subjects that tends to excite most people, but it’s something we all really need to pay more attention to. All of us are generating so much media these days through the proliferation of HD cameras and other devices, that we need to make sure the material we are generating is stored effectively.
This is very much true of the type of footage I’m often involved in editing, where the material is shot and cut very quickly, often on location, but also needs to be stored for future projects. And, of course, the main consideration is - and has to be - backup.
When I’m training people in using video editing software, whether it’s Final Cut Pro X or Premiere Pro CC, I often have to remind people of the value of the material they have shot. Think of the cost and time required in getting a crew, location and talent together for a day’s filming.... Now imagine if you only have one copy of the media sitting on a single vulnerable drive. Yeah, I’m worried too!
Depending on the format being shot, or the media it is being shot on, you might already have a workflow in place to minimise this risk. For example, on a recent shoot and edit job I was using two FW 800 hard drives - one to store my FCP X Events and Projects and the second to store my Camera Archives - and at the end of the day I would take one of these away with me, just in case. I’ve also been involved with edits that require me to transfer the footage to my edit system then place the card in a unit which copies the contents of the cards for backup before formatting the cards ready to go back out to the camera operators for more filming. Using other hardware and or software, you might find this process to be straightforward, but in my experience it tends to be left to the editor to ensure everything is working efficiently and redundancy is provided for. Oh, and I also have to craft the edit too!
Enter the CalDigit VR2. According to the CalDigit website - www.caldigit.com/VR2 - the VR2 is the most complete two drive RAID system on the market today, offering unmatched performance, impressive connectivity and superior quality in a sleek and easily upgradeable enclosure that is both portable and functional. But what attracted my attention was the fact that it provides two hot-swappable drive modules that can easily be configured in a variety of RAID arrays.
The VR2 arrived in a well-packaged box and, at 3.6 inches high, 5.3 inches wide and 8.5 inches deep, it’s not too bulky to sit on top of your desk. It also has a handy LCD screen on the front along with other small status indicator lights and two smallish buttons for configuring your drives (more on that later). It also has the main power button on the front too, so no need for you to go raking around the back of the unit search for the on switch. As seems to have been the case for so long now, the power supply “brick” is quite bulky and is powered by an AC “kettle lead” power cord.
On the rear of the unit are the interface connections. The VR2 is equipped with two Firewire 800 ports, an eSATA, a FireWire 400 and a USB 3.0 port. Sadly it does not currently include a Thunderbolt port, much to my disappointment as Thunderbolt has become my connection of choice due to its speed.
Also included in the box are two small drive module keys for removing the drive modules themselves, (although I also found that an unfolded, sturdy paperclip did the job just as well) as well as an eSATA and FireWire 800 cable. Note that a USB 3.0 cable is not included, so if you’re planning on using USB 3.0 make sure you add the cost of a type A to B cable too (although this is small change compared to the current cost of a Thunderbolt cable).
Overall, the drive is housed in a well-built aluminium enclosure and at 6.6lbs it feels very solid and well-constructed, whilst still being portable enough to transport onto location. However, I wouldn’t want to have to carry one around with my MacBook Pro edit system for too long.
Turning the VR2 on, it powers up, mounts and is available to use very quickly. It is also remarkably quiet with only a gentle fan noise. The LCD display also flips through a series of status messages, including the unit serial number, firmware version as well as, amongst other things, overall system and individual disk temperatures. One thing that struck me about the LCD screen is that it’s very easy to read, even from a relative distance.
The VR2 comes with the ubiquitous software install DVD and electronic manual. Needless to say, I headed straight for the CalDigit website to download the latest software and manual; mainly because I’m working on a new iMac which doesn’t have a built-in DVD drive and it was quicker than using a remote disk, but also because I usually assume the software has been updated since the DVD was pressed, which was the case here.
One of the nice things about the VR2 is that it can be configured either from CalDigit’s RAID Tool software or on the unit itself using the LCD screen. According to CalDigit, RAID Tool is “a unique software that provides easy management, monitoring, diagnostic reports, email notification and firmware update capabilities. This provides users with interactive assurance.” I would love to say that the software provided me with some much needed interactive assurance, unfortunately I was not able to get the software working in any way.
I dutifully downloaded version 2.5 from the CalDigit website (which also requires a Java SE 6 runtime) and although the installation seemed fine, the software just wouldn’t work on my iMac. I received a series of error messages, from the software quitting unexpectedly to it reporting that no devices were detected (even though the VR2 was connected and mounted). On my 17” MacBook Pro I did manage to get the software to open and see the VR2 using an Expresscard/34 eSATA adapter (despite also trying USB 2.0 and FireWire 800), but to no avail; it just simply sat there with no effect.
CalDigit Support were responsive to my requests for help but, as I’m based in the UK and they are based in the US and I was going via my contact at CalDigit, it meant that I wouldn’t realistically get a proposed solution until the following morning. However I have still not been able to use the RAID Tool at all. This is not as disastrous as it may seem because the VR2 is also configurable using the LCD, though it does leave me scratching my head as to how I might update the firmware in the future....
RAID Tool aside though, I turned my attention to configuring the drives for video editing. The VR2 comes with two drive modules (up to a maximum of 8TB) which can be configured into a hardware RAID 0, RAID 1 or JBOD (Just a Bunch of Disks). For video editing, RAID 0 would give the best performance and largest capacity, with RAID 1 giving the most protection as it mirrors the data across both drives. (Note that USB 3.0 and eSATA does not support JBOD.) Configuring the RAID using the LCD is easy and straightforward using the buttons either side of the display to navigate the menu system which cycles between options automatically. The VR2 provides ample warning that any data will be erased (I counted at least three warnings each time) before automatically restarting and remounting allowing Disk Utility to reinitialize the new RAID.
No hard drive review would be complete without the all important speed tests and, using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test app, I ran several. Configuring the disks as RAID 0 and connecting the VR2 to my iMac using USB 3.0 gave the best results at just over 200 MB/s read and write. This means I’d easily be able to multi-stream ProRes footage with no problem. However, it’s still a little down on what I’ve been used to getting with Thunderbolt (which, depending on the unit can be up to 300 MB/s) with my iMac’s 3TB Fusion Drive gave me over 300 MB/s write speed and nearly 400 MB/s read speed.
Configuring the drives as RAID 1 and using USB 3.0 sees the speed tests drop to a more modest 140 MB/s write and 169 MB/s read, which would of course still be fast enough for the majority of work most people would undertake.
For the sake of comparison, FW 800 gave me 70 MB/s write and 85 MB/s read whilst eSATA (via the Expresscard adapter on my MacBook Pro) resulted in 126 MB/s write and 229 MB/s read, approaching the VR2’s maximum promised 250 MB/s.
Obviously for maximum performance and capacity, we’d generally want to configure the VR2 using RAID 0. But, coming back to my opening remarks, one of the things I was most interested in was the redundancy that the VR2 would add to my workflow as it features not only hot swappable disks, but also automatic disk failure protection and fast disk rebuilding.
The VR2 comes with two hot swappable drive modules which allow for easy replacement and expansion. Along with the VR2, I was provided with two additional drive modules which come in handy (and very fetching) orange storage boxes. Additional drive modules can be purchased separately and are fully compatible with the original CalDigit VR (with original VR modules also being compatible with the VR2). Hopefully this will also be the case with any future development in the VR product line.
Of course, in order to have the best protection for our valuable data, it would be best to configure the VR2 as RAID 1. This reduces the maximum capacity to just the capacity of the individual drives, but it does mean that my data is automatically replicated across both drives.
What happens if one of my drives fails? Well, simulating this by ejecting one of the modules results in the VR2 emitting a high-pitched beeping and the LCD warning that the RAID has become degraded. The drive is still mounted on my system though and I can continue to use it. Replacing the ejected drive with one of the additional modules results in the VR2 asking to add the new disk. If this is accepted, then the VR2 automatically beings the process of rebuilding the data across the new disk. This can be quite a lengthy process, but the LCD screen keeps you updated with a percentage of the process completed.
Of course, it doesn’t help if the worst happens and I lose both drives at the same time, but for working on location this means that I can have confidence that my data is in good hands. And with the drives easily removed from the VR2 and stored in their orange cases, it means I can safely transport and store the drives separately from each other at the end of the day’s edit.
CalDigit state that the VR2 has been optimized or professional audio and video and, from the time I’ve had to test it, I would agree. Whilst it doesn’t ultimately remove the need to have a systematic backup, knowing that I can easily configure the VR2 depending on my requirements and that I can work on location with a RAID 1 drive setup, takes some of the headache out of my workflows. Thankfully I haven’t had to test the rebuilding feature in anger, but knowing it’s there is reassuring. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t get the RAID Tool software to work as it promises additional features - not only the ability to update the VR2’s firmware, but also, for sensitive data, to provide password protection against unauthorized changes. I hope that CalDigit will fix these problems soon, but I’ve noticed that their Support website still lists the older version of the RAID Tool and (bizarrely) an old firmware version for the VR2 too. Also, whilst USB 3.0 is a step above the speed we were used to working at with FireWire 800 and comparable to eSATA connections, I think the majority of Mac-using video professionals would prefer (and indeed benefit from) Thunderbolt connectivity. Hopefully CalDigit will be looking to include this on future VR models, then it really will be a must-have addition to my editing setup.
About the Author
Chris Roberts is a freelance video producer, editor and trainer specialising in working with Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro CC. Apart from contributing to FCP.co, his greatest claim to fame is that he was at university with Matt Lucas.