It’s rare, in the current state of stagnation regarding mobile technology, for a company to present a new, fresh idea. It’s even rarer that a company can take it’s fresh idea and create something tangible before being swallowed by a Silicon Valley giant, or running out of cash. Nextbit, a young mobile company founded in 2012 by a collection of minds from Google, Android, HTC and more, has taken the challenge head on.
It’s first device, Robin, is more than an Android smartphone with respectable specs and an eye-catching design. The heart of the machine, and Nextbit as a company, is it’s connection to the cloud. The phone’s ability to smartly and intuitively clear up storage, a software feature the company calls “Smart Storage,” is its big concept and it claims to be the one, true smartphone that will never run out of storage. In order for, not only, Robin to succeed but Nextbit as a company, Smart Storage has to be more than a neat idea. It has to work fluidly and without hassle, otherwise anyone fretting over maxing out their phone’s onboard storage will just pick up a device with a microSD card slot. Beyond that, the fact remains that a nifty software feature is nothing if the rest of the phone is a crapshoot.
Thus, Robin is a fascinating device for a multitude of reasons. Not only does it deliver something different to the increasingly monotonous smartphone industry, but it comes as the first venture from a company only four years old. This angular, pastel-colored slab of plastic could start a revolution, or it could fade into obscurity.
There is no denying the Robin offers a design and aesthetic unlike anything in the current smartphone landscape. Full of sharp edges and bright colors, the device is immediately striking, but also polarizing. Some, like myself, think the look is bold and brilliant, but many to whom I showed the device during my time testing it were off put by the angular frame and cartoonish color. One even labeled it the Hello Kitty phone.
Our review unit came in the mint colorway which, were I to purchase a Robin myself, I would not choose. The midnight option is the far more attractive offering, though I do wish Nextbit had given more variety in terms of color than just these two. But, given the company’s youth, it makes sense to be conservative in that regard. The mint color is certainly not awful, and does draw a considerable amount of attention and admiration, but it’s brighter tones make the phone feel toy-like at times, rather than futuristic machinery.
The device is made entirely of plastic, save for the screen which is coated in Gorilla Glass 4. Obviously, it does not feel as nice in the hand as an aluminum phone like the Nexus 6P or a glass phone like the Galaxy S7, but it doesn’t feel cheap either. Our thoughts regarding plastic phones have been warped over years of OEMs putting forth aluminum phones and labeling them “premium,” leaving any device made with an inferior material forced to shrug off the “cheap” moniker. Robin is not a cheap-feeling phone. It is supremely well built, thin, light and overall a tight package of impressively constructed. In the hand, it feels nice and is pleasant to hold for extended use, though, as with any plastic phone, after long hours of use, Robin can begin to feel slimy and benefits greatly from the occasional wipe down.
Plastic phones also come with a few noteworthy positives. One is durability. Unlike metal or glass phones I’ve used, I never once worried about Robin taking a spill, which it did several times during my testing and handled each trip with grace. A case is still a necessity if you want to keep the white back on the mint version spotless or want to add some extra flair, but otherwise you can rock the Robin naked without second thought. Dropping the device is also less of a fear given its lack of slickness. Unlike nearly every flagship phone from Apple, Samsung, Google and others, Nextbit’s device isn’t slippery at all. You can hold it with confidence.
Despite being tremendously built, there are a few hardware quirks on the Robin that frustrate. The first is the combination fingerprint scanner/power button. When the scanner works, it’s quick enough to please, but it misreads my print so often that it borders on being a nuisance. Coupling up the power button and scanner may seem like an obvious choice, but I prefer them separate. Sometimes I want to quickly unlock my device, and fingerprint scanners are perfect for doing so, but other occasions I want to merely glance at my notifications, or the time, on my lock screen. On phones with distinct fingerprint scanners and power buttons, the process is simple, but on the combination button the Robin sports, I would often unlock my phone when I didn’t want to, or the scanner would fail to read my print when I needed it to. If Nextbit were to separate the two (and change the shape of the scanner) for its next device, it would greatly improve functionality and usability.
My second complaint lies with the phone’s volume buttons. They’re small, circular and cute (they look just like candy buttons), matching the overall whimsical style of Robin, but they can be difficult to press and, thanks to their location on the left of the device, hard to reach. Finally, the decision to place the notification light on the bottom chin, next the the USB-C charging port, is the most bizarre and frustrating design choice on the Robin.
While I’m not a power user in regard to the notification light, I do still like to use the tool to quickly see if I have a notification without turning on my device. Locating the light on the bottom makes it impossible to see unless it’s laying down. On a desk, it’s okay, though the placement does still make it tough to see out of the corner of your eye and therefore fails to do it’s primary job: grab your attention. When in your hand, the light is entirely useless, almost never visible. In fact, the light is so incognito that I failed to even realize the device had a notification during my first week using it. In the end, it’s a nitpick easy to write-off given the lack of real importance of the notification light, but the three issues together signal the fact that Robin is still very much a first generation device from a young company. In later versions, many of these issues will undoubtedly be ironed out.
Beyond those grievances, though, there is little to knock regarding the Robin’s hardware. The front-facing speakers are loud and offer one of the best multimedia experiences on a smartphone. The 5.2-inch 1080P screen won’t blow you away like some of the better QHD panels on the market, but it compares favorably with recent 1080P panels I’ve tested, like the OnePlus X and HTC One A9. Whether gaming, reading, surfing or what have you, Robin’s screen performs well enough. Only when you compare it to some of the better displays on the market (which really is unfair given Robin’s $399 price point) does the screen falter noticeably.
Where the Robin does show its youth, and its $399 price point, is the camera. When light is subsequent, as with many smartphone cameras these days, Robin’s 13MP shooter is able to produce solid images with a good amount of detail and fairly accurate color reproduction, until you take a closer look. Upon further inspection, images offer inconsistent results with some photos looking crisp after scrutinizing and others soft in nearly every part of the frame. For the most part, though, you can trust the Robin to capture a reasonable photo provided there is enough light, you just wouldn’t want to share it anywhere beyond the usual social media channels.
When the light begins to wane, so does camera performance. It simply cannot compete when the lights get low, offering muddy shots that fall apart completely when viewed at anything bigger than an Instagram post. The lack of Optical Image Stabilization doesn’t help here, though the phone does offer a decent dual-tone flash if you’re in a pinch and absolutely need to get a shot in poor lighting conditions.
The app itself is quite simple and easy to use, but also cripplingly slow. Robin is long to focus and far too long to actually snap a photo. There is a noticeable delay from the time you press the shutter button to when a photo is actually taken. Luckily, the Robin team is hard at work to improve this issue. It has said an update coming sometime in April will make the camera app twice as fast, which will certainly help with the daily use. There is a manual mode, which allows for the user to make up for some of the camera’s auto mode shortcomings, allowing you to adjust white balance, shutter speed, focus and ISO. It’s not as full featured as other manual modes, take the G5 for example, but it does help.
Robin is capable of shooting in 4K but, as with still photography, the results are less than ideal. The camera struggles particularly with variable light conditions, failing to figure out the right exposure if you move from bright light to shadows and back. In a perfect situation, the camera wouldn’t need to compensate for constantly changing light, but it’s something a smartphone should do given the scenarios it’s likely to be used in. Focusing was also an issue when shooting video on the Robin. When the subject stayed on a consistent plane, there wasn’t an issue, but as soon as they moved forward or backward, the camera had trouble regaining focus quickly. As with photos, when conditions are ideal, Robin was able to capture solid quality video, but conditions are rarely ideal when smartphones are concerned.
As eye-catching as Robin is, the heart of the phone lies in its software. The elevator pitch for Nextbit’s device is that it will never run out of storage. It’s able to accomplish this through a software feature the company calls Smart Storage.
Here’s how it works:
I am wholly impressed with how well implemented Smart Storage is given it’s the first generation of the idea. But, despite the fact that it does work well, it doesn’t offer more convenience over a microSD card. In fact, there are a slew of much better phones with microSD slots Robin simply can’t compete with. In order for Nextbit to convince people its cloud connected service is a better option than a microSD card, Smart Storage needs to be larger (right now the combination of onboard and cloud storage is 130GB, which can easily be achieved with most smartphones and a microSD) and it needs to get faster. I don’t mind waiting 30 seconds to a minute for an app to restore on the Robin, but on the S7 I don’t have to wait at all.
The rest of Nextbit OS performs well. It’s a quick and fluid experience, much like stock Android with a facelift. I don’t care much for the design embellishments, but they fit the device’s look and feel. I’ve shown before to be a proud supporter of the app drawer, and its absence here is disheartening. Particularly given the fact that the purple button that houses your archived apps and pinned apps also features a spot for “all apps.” It is an app drawer without the full functionality of an app drawer, which is absolutely mind boggling.
Powering the Robin is a Snapdragon 808 and a healthy 3GB of RAM. The phone handles most everyday tasks without a hitch, stumbling only over the heaviest games in my library. In day-to-day use, there is no noticeable downgrade over a device with an 810 (like the 6P), though there is a significant gap when compared to phones with Qualcomm’s shiny, new 820.
Battery life is not exactly outstanding, but throughout my time with Robin I was able to get a full workday from the device’s 2680 mAh battery without pause. On heavier use days, the phone was likely to die early in the evening, but in general it had enough juice to suit my use. For power users, it will be a sticking point, as it would for any phone with sub-3000 mAh. Standby time, thanks in part to well-optimized software built on Android 6.0 with its Doze feature is excellent. This meant that Robin would kick on for several days if usage was light. In a refrain that I and many other tech reviewers echo often, I would gladly sacrifice some of Robin’s thinness for a more capable battery. Hopefully, given Nextbit’s clear focus on doing things differently from other OEMs, Robin’s successors will come with more ample battery packs.
The Nextbit Robin is a phone with a big idea, and in the current smartphone market, that’s something to be lauded. In 2016, most smartphones are boring. That’s why LG’s swing at modularity was a profound moment at MWC, and it’s why Nextbit is such an intriguing company and Robin is such an intriguing phone. Right now, Smart Storage is a nifty, well-implemented idea but it doesn’t offer much more than a microSD card slot. That certainly doesn’t mean Nextbit should give up. It damn well shouldn’t, and I hope enough people buy this phone and the phones that come after to keep the company moving and improving.
The idea of a phone that never runs out of storage is still a good one, and it’s still much bigger than what the Robin has put forth. Imagine the device in your pocket being capable of holding all your personal, digital life. Every photo, word document, video. All just seconds from your fingertips. The Robin is just the first step to that possible future, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.