At the beginning of the year, we saw an unexpected new competitor in the smartphone market. Nextbit was created by ex-Google employees Tom Moss and Mike Chan, who got funding from Google Ventures and a successful Kickstarter campaign for their debut smartphone, Robin. Despite all that Google expertise, this isn’t a phone that hews closely to stock Android — the Robin looks and feels like an experimental device, which is a practical necessity for a smartphone upstart that can’t compete on price the same way OnePlus and ZTE can.
Nextbit’s differentiating feature is their cloud storage system. Each Robin gets 100 GB of cloud storage from Nextbit, which can be used as extra storage to supplement the device’s 32 GB of internal storage. If you allow it, the phone will use that cloud storage to back up apps and files that aren’t used often, keeping that 32 GB free for the apps and files you use on a daily basis. The system works, but it doesn’t seem like a feature that will move the needle for most smartphone users. Ultimately, the Nextbit Robin is a flawed but inexpensive phone, although we appreciate that Nextbit has actually had fun with color options, something we haven’t seen since the Lumia heyday.
The Nextbit Robin is a 5.2″ phone that bucks the recent trend of curves in smartphone design. The back and front are flat and the corners are squared, and with the unusual color options of midnight, mint, and ember red, it won’t be mistaken for any other 2016 smartphone. That’s pretty cool if you think of smartphones as fashion accessories, which is possible — if you’re not overly concerned with top of the line specs or camera quality, you can buy almost any phone and get good enough performance for basic tasks. It’s pretty stylish, even besides the colors — the back is clean, with just the rear camera and dual LED flash (tastefully made to be the same size), the cloud logo, and the Nextbit brand name. There are also some LED indicator lights that go off when the phone’s cloud storage feature is active. On the right side, there’s a thin oval power button that doubles as the fingerprint sensor, which we normally see on the front or back of phones.
One of the biggest downsides to the Robin is its plastic build. While most phones use metal or glass now, plastic isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Plastic is less prone to collecting fingerprints, and depending on how it’s used, it’s not necessarily more vulnerable to damage than other materials. I’m not sure I’d say this about Robin, though. The top and bottom of the phone feel sturdy, but the plastic covering most of the back feels very thin. I didn’t try dropping it, but my gut tells me that a case would be necessary if you were going to buy one of these. I’d also recommend not carrying it in a pocket, because it feels like it could bend. On the bright side, the plastic frame can be gripped far more securely than metal or glass phones, so there’s less risk of drops in the first place.
You also don’t get the usual benefits associated with plastic phones. It’s still built like a modern smartphone, so the back isn’t removable. That means the battery isn’t replaceable and there’s no microSD card slot — the latter omission likely because Nextbit is trying to promote reliance on cloud storage. Having a replaceable battery isn’t as important now because smartphone batteries have become much more long-lasting, but it’s still a nice feature to have for when those batteries degrade over time. But, virtually every smartphone maker save LG is moving away from replaceable batteries, and it’s not a trend that’s likely to be reversed.
The display at least is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4, but I think you’d run the risk of serious internal damage if this phone were dropped on its back. As I’ll discuss more later, the phone also gets very hot at times, which makes me even more concerned about the thin plastic build. The phone is comfortably thin at 7 mm as a result of this design, but I think too much was sacrificed for thinness.