Nextbit Robin review
This cloud-first phone is only second-best
It’s not easy for a tiny company to make an impact in the phone world. Gigantic multinationals struggle, but Nextbit has managed to pique public interest with a premise that can be summed-up in just a few words:
The Robin is a ‘cloud-first’ phone.
This catchy angle saw it earn over $1.3 million in Kickstarter funding. That’s not enough on its own to create and market a high-end phone, of course, but it gave start-up Nextbit an important marketing and awareness boost.
It begs lots of questions, though. Nexbit’s cloud-first software design not only has to be useful and secure, it also has to be better than the cloud services your get as standard with similarly-priced phones such as the Google Nexus 5X.
The aim of the Nextbit Robin is to use cloud storage to make it seem as though the phone’s own storage never runs out. In reality it has 32GB built-in, and that is non-expandable.
Its cloud-based magic trick is a near-constant process. Whenever new photos are taken or new apps installed, they are silently uploaded to Nextbit’s servers. Each buyer is granted 100GB of space on these servers which, combined the 32GB of built-in storage, is enough to roughly provide the capacity of a 128GB phone.
In order to have as little impact on day-to-day use as possible, this cloud sync process only happens when the Robin is plugged-in and connected to a Wi-Fi network. This can be changed, but is the safest policy when it will otherwise impact battery life and eat up a mobile data allowance.
The only sign that it’s working is a four-LED light on the back of the Nextbit Robin that illuminates when it’s transferring data to and form the servers.
Only apps and photos are backed up. The photos side of Nextbit’s service might not seem very special as Google Photos already offers automatic cloud backups of your photos.
It is the automatic removal of infrequently used data that is most unusual and sets the Robin apart. As the Robin begins to fill up, apps and photos that have not been used in a while are removed from the phone. This is without any prompt: the use of the phone is taken as consent, which seems fair given as it is the whole point of the thing.
Icons for unused, cloud-parked apps become greyed-out. Tap them to re-download their data from Nextbit’s cloud.
It’s a neat conceit, but there are issues. If you suddenly need an app that has been parked, by default it will only start refreshing when the Robin is charging and connected to Wi-Fi. This can be changed, but the prospect of downloading large apps over mobile data in an emergency is not a pleasant one. As the user data stays on the phone itself, it’s only the basic install data that is retrieved. The process is similar to re-downloading the app from Google Play.
If you’re away from WiFi and only have a patchy 4G signal, then the Nextbit Robin’s convenience of cloud-based self-regulating storage is in danger of becoming a major inconvenience. After three weeks using the phone, we are left with more of these negative memories than positive ones about the Robin’s cloud-based smart storage.
Its whole mission statement is weakened by the fact that you can buy a similar mid-range phone and a 128GB microSD card for the same price or less.
Pleasingly, the entire phone is encrypted out of the box by default using Google’s full-disk encryption - a standard Android 6.0 Marshmallow feature. The Robin also encrypts data before it leaves the phone for the cloud over HTTPS. The company is not responsible for the end-to-end security of your data, though, as Amazon Web Services is used as the basis for its cloud. This is no surprise given Nextbit is a small, young company.
Nextbit likes to stress the freedom the Robin gives you. As the bootloader is unlocked, you can use custom ROMs, such as CyanogenMod, without invalidating the warranty. However, using such software will also deprive you of Nextbit’s cloud-based app and photo storage management.
The Nextbit Robin’s unique casing is just a big a part of its identity as its cloud services. It is made of high-grade plastic and has a slim boxy shape. The colour scheme immediately stands out - fetching two-tone white and mint green is complimented by front-facing speakers with indented grilles while the volume buttons have a cute spherical shape. It's also available in a more subdued dark blue colour scheme too.
Its frame is rather large for a 5.2in screen phone, though. The space needed for the stereo front-facing speakers can be blamed for this. It’s almost the same size as the 5.5-inch Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge in terms of raw dimensions, and the boxy edges make it seem even larger. The speakers do sound good, though, and are much louder than the Robin’s mid-range competitors.
The phone also has a fingerprint scanner, very similar to those on the Sony Xperia Z-series phones. It’s not involved with any of the Robin’s cloud features and sits on the side of the phone, also acting as a power button. It’s convenient and worked quickly and reliably.
Android and performance
While the Nextbit Robin uses Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, it feels unoptimised to the point where it starts affecting performance and responsiveness.
Certain parts of the interface, such as opening the apps drawer, feel juddery or often pause mid-motion. This is likely to be improved in successive updates, but does not inspire confidence.
We’re certain this sluggishness is due to the software rather than the underlying components as the Nextbit Robin uses the same sound internals used in last year’s LG G4. It has a Snapdragon 808, an upper-mid range processor with six cores, and 3GB RAM. Benchmarks are typical of this spec: not a match for the latest 2016 flagship phones, but it still easily has enough power to run the latest apps.
The most grating performance issue of the Robin right now is seen in Nextbit’s camera app. There’s fairly bad shutter lag, and a further delay after the image has been captured. It gets worse when shooting HDR photos.
This is, again, likely to improve in the coming weeks and months with software updates. But it currently ruins the camera experience and should really have been as close to problem-free as possible out of the box.
The Nextbit Robin’s camera will only hit a mid-range standard when it is perfected anyway. It has a 13-megapixel ISOCELL sensor, the Samsung 3M2, with an f/2.2 lens. It doesn’t have optical image stabilisation which is present in some other similarly sized phones.
In daylight its shots are fairly strong, but in lower light the detail level declines and it is not particularly adept at making dark scenes look bright and clear. It performs at a similar level to the 2015 Motorola Moto G and OnePlus X. For the money it’s passable, but little more.
The Robin’s battery life is not very strong either. With moderate everyday use it’ll generally last about 18 hours. The battery lasted eight hours 40 minutes when playing looped video. This is not a great result, with rivals offering several hours more. Once again, we suspect better software optimization could lead to better results. The Robin lasted eight hours 25 minutes in our Wi-Fi browsing test. With most phones, this score is often much lower than the video score as the browsing test is more taxing.
The Nextbit Robin uses USB-C for charging rather than the older microUSB, so it won’t be compatible with any extra cables you may have bought for previous phones. USB-C does enable fast charging, although you’ll need to buy a compatible charger as one isn’t included by default.
The Nextbit Robin is a promising phone undone by two factors – one outside of its control and one that most certainly is within its control. The first is that the current patchiness, congestion and unreliability of 4G coverage means that its cloud-based storage system doesn’t work anywhere as smoothly as it should. It turns the prime selling point and convenience of this phone into a potentially frustrating aggravation. It would be a different matter if you’re constantly, or almost constantly, within range of fast and reliable WiFi but few of us are.
The second is the lack of polish evident from the responsiveness and performance problems to the merely okay battery life. Given that Nextbit’s staff apparently includes former HTC and Google engineers, this is disappointing. Software updates should fix at least some of these problems though and we’d expect any successor phones to be far more refined out of the box.
Despite its problems and quirks, we still think Nextbit’s cloud storage system is a sign of the future. No matter how much storage your phone has built-in, you will inevitably fill it to stretching point and current mobile cloud storage options, from iCloud to Google Photos and Dropbox, still require too much manual intervention and management on your part. We’d be very surprised indeed if Apple, Google and Microsoft don’t take inspiration from Nextbit’s pioneering work.
A smartphone with a proper cloud backup system is intriguing, but in real use it is problematic while buggy software spoils its general performance.
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