Nextbit Robin review: a smarter alternative to the smartphone
Back in December I was faced with a situation familiar to anyone who’s ever bought a gadget as a gift: I needed to replace my parents’ iPhones. Not because there was anything wrong with them, and certainly not because my parents have a need for the latest or greatest in mobile technology; rather, I needed to replace their devices because, after two years, their paltry 16GB apiece of storage had run out.
You don’t need to be an iOS user to know the pain of running out of smartphone capacity. With more and more Android manufacturers omitting the once-standard MicroSD card, choosing the right storage option at checkout has become increasingly critical – and when picking the next-up storage tier means an extra $50 or $100, it can be tempting to save some green by skimping on the gigs. As my Christmas experience demonstrates, though, that’s seldom a good plan.
This is precisely the problem that Nextbit aims to solve with the Robin, a crowdfunded smartphone that promises to make “running out of space” a thing of the past by leveraging (what else) the power of the cloud. But where other phones make you set up individual accounts for your various online backups, Robin does it automatically right out of the box in the simplest, purest implementation I’ve ever seen. It’s more than a neat trick; it’s a fundamental rethinking of how smartphone storage should work, and it comes in a package guaranteed to turn heads. Is that enough to make the Nextbit Robin your next smartphone? Hit the jump to find out!
Nextbit Robin Review Video
Specs & Hardware
Scott Croyle, Nextbit’s Chief Product and Design Officer, told us in a CES 2016 interview that the Robin’s aesthetic is rooted in a kind of absolute honesty. “Almost everything out there feels like some derivative of an HTC or an iPhone,” he said, “so we wanted to strike a different chord … with a different value set. What if we’re very straightforward and honest about what a smartphone is? It’s a box with a rectangular screen.”
From that perspective, the Nextbit Robin is about as honest as smartphone design gets. The casing is a study in right angles and rectangular shapes, a cool white pillar capped off with mint-colored bands at top and bottom (a more subdued black version is also available). Breaking up the right angles are circular accents meant to give the Robin a friendly, “almost naive” sensibility: the primary camera and accompanying flash; the selfie shooter and neighboring proximity sensor; the tiny domed volume buttons. The Robin’s fingerprint sensor is embedded within the power/standby key on the right edge ala Sony’s recent Xperias. A white notification light sits on the phone’s bottom edge alongside the Type-C USB port, while a separate set of four LEDs –also white– anchor the silkscreened cloud logo on the phone’s backside. That backside is made from a soft glass-filled polycarbonate that’s very smooth to the touch, counterbalanced by a rigid pane of Gorilla Glass 4 to protect the screen up front.
Bold as it is, the Robin won’t be for everyone. Its pronounced corners are tougher on tender palms than the gentle curves of most other phones, while the tall casing makes one-handed use tricky at times. The fingerprint scanner is narrow due to the phone’s 7mm thickness, making it less accurate than the larger sensors on devices like the Nexus 6P and Huawei Mate 8. Those who like edge-to-edge screens will be disappointed here too: the Robin’s 5.2-inch 1080p display is contained within a black frame bracketed by the outer siderails, making for a picture-in-picture kind of double bezel. And the IPS LCD itself is nothing special, with somewhat low color saturation and poor off-axis visibility.
The downsides of the design aren’t enough to take away from its refreshing novelty, though. The Nextbit Robin is a sidekick guaranteed to turn heads no matter where you are. If you’re looking for a mobile that makes you stand out, or you just want something to break up the monotony of aluminum slabs cycling through your pockets, look no further.
Nextbit’s eye for design extends to its Android 6.0-based UI, a gentle assortment of rounded shapes and subtle sound effects that remind you that you’re using something entirely new. How you feel about it it will depend on what platform you’re accustomed to using: those who prefer stock Android will have some adjusting to do, while iPhone veterans will probably feel more at home.
That’s thanks mainly to the Robin’s launcher, which has eliminated Android’s typical app drawer in the name of simplicity. As with iOS, apps appear directly on the home screen as they’re installed, lining up in chronological order on sequential panels that extend off to the right. While you can put your apps in folders and arrange them in any order you like, you can’t put widgets alongside them as on other Android phones. Instead, Nextbit has created a dedicated layer for widgets, accessed by a pinch gesture or a long-press of the multitasking key. This is probably our least-favorite aspect of the Robin’s software because it eliminates one of Android’s key benefits: the flexibility to build your homescreen the way you want, to augment those static app icons with glanceable information. True, your widgets are only a keystroke away on the Robin, but that single added step makes them less convenient if you’re a fan of information at a glance.
The software design does serve the Robin’s overarching purpose, though, in that it makes it very easy to see which apps are installed on the phone and which are hanging out in the cloud. Managing the Robin’s 25GB of user-accessible storage is simplicity itself … because you don’t need to manage it. You just use the phone, and when it senses it’s low on space, it manages itself.
We wanted to get a sense of what using a nearly-full Robin would be like so we went on a downloading spree, grabbing about 80 apps from the Play Store and filling in the gaps with Spotify playlists, episodes of our favorite TV shows and stock footage from our Google Drive account. We also maxed out the camera’s resolution to make sure we had a sizable gallery of high-res photos. When the Robin sensed it was running low on local storage –at around the 1.5GB mark– it triggered the automatic magic, offloading apps and photos to the 100GB AWS reservoir that Nextbit set up for us when we first turned on the phone, starting with the apps and photos we’d accessed least often. The Robin then performed this archive operation periodically moving forward, each time displaying a notification to tell us how many apps or photos it had archived and how much space it had freed up.
Despite the archiving, we could still view all of our photos in the gallery at screen resolution; if we zoomed in on an archived photo, the phone automatically fetched the high-quality image from the server for us. (Right now, only apps and photos are included in the archive queue; Nextbit has plans to enable video uploads sometime in the second quarter of the year.)
While the cloud activity is meant to be automatic and transparent, there is a modicum of manual control available to users. By default, the Robin will only archive apps when it’s plugged in and connected to WiFi, but you can override this in the settings menu to allow syncing over cellular if you’ve got one of those fancy unlimited data plans. You can also prevent important apps from being archived: swiping down on any title on the launcher will “pin” the app to the phone, ensuring it stays in local storage no matter what. Fetching an archived app back from the cloud is as easy as tapping on its black-and-white placeholder: the cloud-activity LEDs on the back flicker to life and a progress bar appears under the app icon to let you know how long it’ll be until the app is restored. And when the app shows back up, it (usually) brings your contextual data with it: when restoring Instagram, for example, the phone will remember your login info and drop you right back where you were, no re-authentication required.
As with most new smartphones, there are some wrinkles to be ironed out. One day, our review device decided to archive our Pebble Time app to save storage, which we only noticed once our watch stopped giving us notifications (we pinned the app upon restoring it). User data won’t always be restored when an archived app is brought back from the cloud; we’ve had to re-log in to Pandora, Pebble and Twitter a few times. Sometimes apps will unaccountably jump to a different page on the launcher when they’re archived. Calling up the alphabetical list of apps almost always entails a wait of several seconds as the phone re-indexes its catalog. And for some reason, the Uber app won’t run on our device; it crashes on startup every time, even after a reinstall.
Fortunately for those who like to tinker their way around such bugs, the Robin comes packing possibly the most forgiving warranty in existence. It ships with an unlocked bootloader and open-source drivers, along with Nextbit’s blessing to load any custom ROM you want. The warranty still applies even if you brick it. And if you decide to take a middle road and run the phone on, say, the Google Now launcher, all the cloud features will still function.
If there’s a major weak point to be found in the Robin’s user experience, it’s the camera. This isn’t a complaint about the hardware: Nextbit went with a 13MP Samsung sensor for the primary shooter, and it performs pretty well across a range of conditions in still mode. Photos taken over a Valentine’s Day dinner came out better than we expected given the restaurant’s mood lighting, and pictures taken in brighter settings are crisp and clean enough in fullscreen to pass the social-upload test. That is to say, the Robin will do fine for updating your Facebook friends and Twitter followers about what your dessert looks like.
The problem is in the software. Nextbit warned us that the viewfinder version we’re using is prone to shutter lag in HDR mode, but we found the viewfinder lags no matter which settings we use. The Robin’s camera is sluggish in every possible sense: it’s slow to open, slow to focus, and slow to capture. This makes photographing even stationary subjects difficult, and moving subjects (cats, boats, humans) very frustrating. The camera has a tendency to over-expose in daylight conditions, making for “hot spots” on brighter areas of a photo. On top of this, there’s a bug that prevents video stabilization from working properly in the software we tested, and the selfie camera’s output is so grainy in low light that it almost looks like an intentional effect.
Nextbit seems confident it can deliver an update to fix some of these issues in the weeks following launch; currently, we’re hearing no later than April for the first full OS update, with a probable camera-specific OTA much sooner. Time permitting, we’ll follow up with a more detailed look at the Robin’s imaging capabilities once that update has been applied. Still, with phones hitting customers’ doorsteps as this review goes to press, we have to review the camera performance as it stands today – and as it stands today, the Robin’s camera is not very fun to use.
Elsewhere, the Nextbit Robin gets a lot right. We’ve spent the past seven days using the phone between Greater Boston, New York City and rural Long Island, with a T-Mobile SIM installed in its unlocked card slot. Reception over both WiFi and 3G/4G cellular connections has been on par with neighboring devices on the same network (iPhone 6S, Moto X 2014/2015), and voice calls on our end have been clear and crisp – though on one occasion, callers were able to hear the sound of auto traffic from our side while we walked down a busy city sidewalk.
The Robin packs a Snapdragon 808 SoC backed up by 3GB of RAM, enough to run graphics-heavy games like Asphalt 8 with minimal frame drops and more than enough for the everyday demands of email, SMS and binge-watching old TV shows on Netflix. The twin front-facing speakers make the latter particularly enjoyable; they don’t pack the sheer amplitude of the Moto X‘s drivers and they’re not quite as dynamic as the HTC One‘s BoomSound setup, but they’re better than the vast majority of side- and rear-firing smartphone speakers out there.
While the Robin is capable of quick charging (about 45% in 30 minutes) via a special branded adapter, you won’t find that charger included in the package. Nextbit assumes that after so many years of smartphones being commonplace you’ll probably have a wall charger of your own, so it only includes a Type-C charging cable in the box, with a standard USB 2.0 connector on one end. If you want the 1.5A wall wart, you can snap one up from Nextbit for $10. That might be a worthwhile investment if you’re planning on anything close to heavy use, because at only 2680 mAh the Robin’s battery is by no means a road warrior. On our best day, we managed about 3.5 hours of screen-on time over 12 hours of light-to-moderate use. (Importantly, that was with app archiving over cellular turned on; if you stick to the out-of-box settings that require the phone to be on WiFi and plugged in before it archives apps, you’ll probably fare somewhat better than we did.)
+ Lives up to its promise of carefree storage management
+ Bold, unique industrial design
+ Solid value
+ Front-firing speakers
– Camera software needs work
– Endurance only average
– Display is nothing to write home about
Pricing and Availability
At press time, the Nextbit Robin is already shipping to backers who preordered on Kickstarter. Additional stock will open up for ordering at 10am Pacific Time on February 18th, with “between 3000 and 6000” GSM devices available for purchase at nextbit.com. That covers US buyers intending to use the device on T-Mobile, AT&T or other GSM networks; for Verizon and Sprint customers, the CDMA variant of the Robin is currently scheduled to ship in April.
Regardless of network, the Nextbit Robin retails for $399 unlocked.
When I first went hands-on with the Nextbit Robin, I worried that it was a one-trick pony, a phone that relied too heavily on a lone killer feature to stand out. After a week of living with the Robin, I still think that’s true – but it turns out I severely underestimated just how “killer” that feature is.
The idea of practically unlimited storage has universal appeal. For casual users, it removes the burden of having to manually juggle backup accounts like iCloud, Google Drive or Dropbox, and it’s a more elegant solution than buying and installing a MicroSD card. For hardcore Android enthusiasts, 100GB of free, automatic online storage is still nothing to sneeze at – and the warranty that withstands bricking is the cherry on top.
At $399, the Robin has stiff competition from devices like the Moto X Pure Edition and OnePlus 2, and Nextbit has yet to prove that it can deliver timely fixes for the camera or prompt Android updates going forward. But for early adopters looking for a smartphone that does something compelling with an innovative idea, this is it. With the Robin, Nextbit has a refreshing alternative to the modern smartphone that also solves one of the biggest frustrations facing smartphone users today. More like this, please.