As nice as the new Samsung Galaxy S7 series and the LG G5 are, it’s hard to get too excited about business as usual. The smartphone market has become iterative, which is fine. Different phones running the same hardware (or close to it) is a product of a narrowing component market. The odd thing about how Android smartphones have converged is how the same narrowing has happened with design. Don’t get us wrong, we’re not clamoring for oval phones — the rectangle is fine, but now we’re starting to see everything made of aluminum and coming in the same grey, gold, platinum, white, and black shades. We can’t even have rose gold anymore, because that’s so 2015.
It’s gotten to the point where just making a phone look different could be a somewhat successful strategy for a smaller player. We might just have a smaller player like that in Nextbit. The first units of their debut smartphone, Robin, were just sent out to those who preordered during the Kickstarter campaign. Robin has the most fun we’ve seen with color since that run of brightly-colored Lumias, with the light mint shade in particular giving us a kind of ’50s vibe. But, looks can’t be everything — and while Robin seems to be a decent phone on paper, there are some signs that it might suffer from the first generation blues.
Robin looks like a mid-tier smartphone, leaning toward premium. It’s a 5.2″ phone with a 1080p IPS display running Nextbit OS, a modified version of Android. It’s running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 SoC, which is the biggest difference between it and other premium smartphones of 2016. But, it’s probably the best place to save some production cash — CPUs are rarely pushed to the brink, and the 808 was a good choice instead of the 810, which had overheating problems (premium 2016 smartphones are mostly using the new 820). Besides that, everything looks pretty good — 3 GB of RAM, 32 GB of internal storage, a 13 MP rear camera with phase-detection auto-focus and dual-LED flash, a 5 MP front camera, and dual speakers with dual amplifiers. The battery is not bad at 2,680 mAh, and it won’t be taxed quite as much as those on premium phones.
Connectivity features include Wi-Fi 802.11 ac, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, LTE, and NFC. Robin uses the USB Type-C connector for charging, and also includes a fingerprint scanner. The fingerprint scanner is a little unique in that it’s found on the on/off button on the side of the phone, instead of on the home button or the back. It still feels natural to use, mostly because the phone is small enough to still be comfortable to use with one hand.
So, it’s just a smartphone that looks a little different, right? Not exactly — the big selling point on Robin is its cloud connectivity, but to us, this also seems like the worst part about the phone. 32 GB isn’t that much storage these days, and there’s no microSD card slot on the phone. Instead, Nextbit is giving everyone who buys their phone 100 GB of free cloud storage managed by them. But, this won’t simply be for file storage. Robin can scan your phone to identify infrequently used apps, then push them out to the cloud along with any pictures or videos you don’t need immediately. That way, the 32 GB stays reserved for the apps and files you use most often.
It’s kind of a weird feature. If you should ever find yourself in need of an app that’s been pushed to the cloud, you’ll effectively have to re-download it (but from Nextbit’s servers instead of Google Play). That takes time and data. Not good if you need to use that app immediately, and definitely not good if you’re not in range of a Wi-Fi connection — that app download will count against your data cap on your wireless plan.
It seems like Nextbit wants to push the message that cloud storage means that your apps and files are backed up on their servers, so if your phone gets damaged and you need a new one, you won’t lose everything. But, there are tons of backup utilities and cloud storage services that already do this. The downside of having apps and files temporarily offloaded doesn’t seem worth it in that light. It’s hard to see why it wouldn’t be better to just have a microSD card slot for extra storage that will keep those apps and files available locally, especially now that more and more microSD cards are being made water-resistant themselves.
But, we’re not writing off Robin just yet. Since preorders have shipped, Robin has been sold out. While Nextbit has limited the initial shipping run to a few thousand units, it’s still a good sign that there are this many enthusiasts willing to try it out. It’s also good to know that the company is being spearheaded by a couple guys who know a thing or two about smartphones and Android — co-founders Tom Moss and Mike Chan are both former Google employees. That means more than just expertise — it no doubt helped them get financial backing from Google Ventures to get Robin off the ground.
We see Robin as a phone intentionally made ahead of its time. With 5G networks on the horizon, connectivity is poised to become much more ubiquitous and reliable, making permanent cloud storage far more feasible. We’ll probably see some changes in how customers are charged for data, too, as demand is set to skyrocket in the years to come. In that not-so-far-off always connected world, Robin makes a little more sense. So, why not get the kinks worked out early to get ready for that day?
If you’re interested in trying this little experiment out, Robin costs $400 unlocked. We’re not sure when Nextbit will start up another production run, but given that the first one has sold out, we think it won’t be too long.