Outside of the Asia-Pacific region and emerging markets, the global smartphone business is dominated by just two just companies. Apple and Samsung. Galaxy phones and iPhones as far as the eye can see. At this point it seems like no company will ever be able to make a meaningful dent in this duopoly. That’s obviously not the case and what goes up must come down, but for the time being it’s Samsung and Apple’s market and the rest are left fighting over scraps.
Of course, there’s still plenty of money to be made from those scraps. And with top global contenders like HTC, Sony and LG struggling to differentiate themselves in any sort of meaningful way, a new breed of startups has emerged in an effort to fill some sizable gaps. Companies like Xiaomi and OnePlus have shown that it’s possible to make waves as a young player in the market, and now a new face will seek out similar success.
Meet the Nextbit Robin.
Nextbit was founded by several of industry veterans who are on a mission. They’re not trying to be Apple and they’re not trying to beat Samsung. Instead, Nextbit is trying to build a smartphone business based on addressing specific pain points shared by a growing number of consumers.
Forums, technology blogs and social media provide all the market research a company needs to learn what shortcomings annoy smartphone users the most.
The company’s first order of business is unquestionably one of the biggest smartphone pain points out there: storage. Forget the countless surveys, just think about how many “survival guides” you’ve seen for owners of 16GB iPhones. Try to recall how many people lose their cool every time a new Android phone is unveiled without a microSD card slot. There is little question that people often run out of space on their handsets, and many have simply come to accept it as part of the smartphone experience.
But Nextbit doesn’t want you to feel defeated by flash memory, so its debut smartphone is built around a unique fix that addresses limited smartphone storage. And most interestingly, the company’s solution is based on software rather than hardware.
Nextbit’s first phone is powered by the Android 6.0 Marshmallow platform, but this particular version of Android is unlike anything you’ve used before.
The Robin’s user interface is instantly recognizable as Android and it includes all of the great features Google baked into its mobile operating system. But from the moment you first power up the Robin it’s apparent that the company has put a good amount of work into customizing Android.
Visually, the Robin looks a bit different from your average Android phone, though it’s difficult to say what an “average” Android phone looks like since most companies add their own custom graphics and features. Nextbit’s version of Marshmallow is perhaps more reminiscent of stock Android than some custom builds, but it feels much airier than Google’s untouched user interface.
That airiness is no mistake, mind you, since the Robin’s key point of software differentiation revolves around the cloud.
Nextbit’s first smartphone has plenty to offer smartphone users at a very reasonable price, but the phone’s main selling point is the unique manner in which Nextbit has implemented its cloud storage solution. While the phone ships with 32GB of onboard storage and no microSD card support, it actually has 132GB of usable storage in all.
That’s right, the Robin is a 132GB smartphone that costs $250 less than a 16GB iPhone 6s.
The Robin’s novel storage solution marries physical flash memory with an intelligent cloud storage solution that gives users 100GB of additional off-device storage. Mind you, we’re not talking about a typical cloud storage solution like OneDrive or Dropbox here. Nextbit has created a dynamic solution that has a few key elements.
First, Nextbit’s solution backs up all of your data to the cloud. It’s not about contacts and emails, since that data is already stored in the cloud. Instead, it’s all about apps and their associated data. This is key to the way Nextbit uses the cloud, and it leads us to the fun part.
When your iPhone or a standard Android phone nears capacity and you try to add new files, download new music or capture new videos, you’re met by an aggravating error message that leaves you with only two options: Delete something from your phone to clear out some space or forget about recording that new video.
With the Robin, things work a bit differently.
Nextbit’s custom Android build pays attention to which apps and files you access often and which ones are used less frequently. When the internal storage on your phone nears its limit, Nextbit’s “Smart Storage” solution deletes certain apps and their data on the fly to make room for more content. That way the phone never runs out of space — or at least, not unless you also fill the 100GB of cloud storage you’re allotted. And even then, the company plans to make additional space available to those who need it.
Since the Robin pays attention to your usage, it knows which apps you access often and which ones have been sitting untouched for months. And it’s those old apps you can’t quite seem to bring yourself to delete that are cleared off of the device first, while apps you use all the time will not be removed from your phone. Just to be safe, there is a way to pin apps in order to ensure that the Robin never deletes them from your handset.
But what happens when you want to use an old app that the Robin has previously deleted to clear room for new data? Cleared apps are still shown on the device with grayed out icons and tapping one will cause the phone to restore it along with all of the data associated with the app. The process takes just a few seconds on any decent data connection, and once an app is restored you’ll find it in exactly the same state it was in before it was cleared.
The same process applies to photos. If are a bunch of images you shot 12 months ago and haven’t looked at since, the Robin knows there’s a good chance that space can be put to better use. So, in the event that you approach the storage limit on your phone, the Robin will delete those old photos so there’s plenty of room for new content. If you decide you want to look at them on your phone a few months later, the restoration process works just as it does with apps.
A solution like Nextbit’s can potentially involve moving a whole lot of data between your smartphone and the cloud, and the last thing you want to do is see your data gobbled up each month as a result. Moving that much data requires a fair amount of battery power as well.
In an effort to play nice with battery life and data caps, the Robin does as much as it can while connected to a charger on a Wi-Fi network. Since the phone’s battery can easily carry you through a full day of typical usage, this basically means the bulk of the backups are performed each night while you’re at home asleep.
If you also leave your phone plugged in at work, your data will potentially be backed up twice as frequently — but it’s important to change the way you think about data and backups when you use the Robin. You don’t have to worry about whether or not the Robin backed up your most recent WhatsApp chats from that morning because it knows you use WhatsApp all the time so it will never clear WhatsApp from your device to make room.
As a nice little added design touch, the Robin has four LED lights on the back that breathe as the phone backs up data to the cloud. There’s also an on-screen progress bar that resides on the notification shade.
Alongside Smart Storage functionality, there are also a few interface changes Nextbit has made. For one, there is a small ellipsis icon present on all home screens in the bottom-right corner. Tapping it opens a menu that gives the user quick access to a list of archived apps that were installed but now live only in the cloud, a list of pinned apps that will never be cleared from the Robin, and a list of all apps.
Of note, the Robin’s home screens are set up a bit differently than most Android phones. Like Apple’s iPhone, the Robin spreads all of its app icons across the phone’s various home screen instead of using an app drawer and letting the user pick and choose which icons to place on the home screens, as most Android phones do.
This may be of interest to users for two reasons: first, it might make that shortcut to the list of all apps more useful. But second and more importantly, the Robin does not display Google’s standard Android widgets on its home screens. Instead, you’ll need to use a pinch gesture to show the widgets screen, which could be a big annoyance. Of course, this is hardly a deal-breaker since standard launcher apps like Apex, Nova and even the Google Now launcher will work on the Robin just as they do on any other Android phone.
Nextbit has also added a Smart Storage section to the Android Settings app that lets users dive a bit deeper into how the phone’s local storage and cloud storage are being used.
So how does it all work in practice? Quite well, in fact.
Testing the Robin’s Smart Storage feature was a little complex since you need to fill the phone with data before it will have any reason to begin archiving and reviving things. Nextbit sent out full review units so that reviewers were able to play with Smart Storage right from the start, but a shipping delay meant that I didn’t really have time to test with dummy data and apps.
I reset the Robin and started fresh but after I set up the phone with my standard apps, I downloaded about 20 huge games from the Google Play Store to ensure that the phone’s 32GB of storage was at capacity. Right off the bat after my first automatic backup, I could see that the Robin was working behind the scenes to learn which apps I use and which ones could be safely archived.
Once the Play Store downloads took my phone close to capacity, Smart Storage began to work its magic. Apps I had installed but hadn’t yet touched were the first to go while apps I use often such as Twitter, a news reader called Press, Dropbox and 1Password remained untouched. And each time the phone archived something to clear out some space, a message in the notification shade would tell me something like “4 apps have been archived. You now have an additional 1.39GB of free space.”
I filled the Robin to the brim and not once during my testing did I ever encounter an iPhone-esque error message telling me that I couldn’t capture a new video or snap a new photo. Then, when I decided I wanted to use an app that had been archived, a tap on the grayed out icon would trigger a download and restore the app to the exact state it was in before it was cleared from the phone.
While the Robin’s software features will undoubtedly garner the most attention, the handset’s design and hardware features also stray from convention.
Nextbit’s lead designer is Scott Croyle, who is perhaps best known for having designed the One M7 and One M8 during his time at HTC. Those two models can still be counted among the sleekest and most elegant Android phones that have been built to date, so I had high hopes when I first learned that Croyle had joined Nextbit.
Croyle definitely didn’t disappoint, but he did surprise me.
HTC’s One M7 and One M8 were characterized by bold lines and smooth, ergonomic slopes. They were made of premium aluminum with unique finishes. They were gorgeous smartphones. In fact, HTC liked the M8 design so much that it barely bothered to change anything on the One M9.
In many ways, the Nextbit Robin is the complete opposite of HTC’s One series, proving that Croyle certainly isn’t a one-trick pony.
The Robin’s housing is made entirely of plastic aside from the glass display. And where the One M7 and M8 had a strong masculine look to them, the Robin’s design is far more playful. The phone’s rectangular shape is more similar to a Sony smartphone than an HTC model. Finally, Croyle traded the industrial look of aluminum in for fun dual-tone designs in colors with names like “mint” and “midnight.”
The phone’s display is a 5.2-inch IPS LCD panel with 1080p resolution and a pane of Gorilla Glass 4 protecting it. Colors are a bit more muted than they are on higher-end phones like the Galaxy S6, but it’s still a high-quality viewing experience. And the 13-megapixel rear camera can be likened to the display — it doesn’t come close to the big guns like Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy flagships, but it does a good job. It might even do a better job than you’d expect from a $400 phone.
Powering the Robin experience is a hexa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor supported by 3GB of RAM. The phone is as spry as any I’ve used during normal operation and it handled heavier loads well. I did have some issues with lag in the camera app, but Nextbit says they’re aware of a specific issue and are working to fix it.
Other notable items from the phone’s specs include dual front-facing speakers that provide solid stereo sound, a fingerprint scanner built into the slim side-mounted power button that works far better than I imagined it would, a decent 5-megapixel front-facing camera, quick charging support, a USB-C port and a 2,680 mAh battery that carried me through a full day with room to spare.
Nextbit has done something quite impressive with the Robin that much bigger companies with much more resources have for the most part been unable to achieve in recent years. It took one of the two biggest smartphone pain points — storage space and battery life — and found a unique and elegant way to address it. And although Smart Storage is much of the story with the Robin, it’s certainly not the entire story. This is, first and foremost, a terrific Android phone with an original look and a comprehensive set of features.
At just under $400, the Robin is truly a tremendous value.
That said, it’s a good thing that the Robin has more going for it than just Smart Storage. While there’s no question that it’s an intelligent solution to a big consumer pain point, many users have argued and will continue to argue that it isn’t much better than good old microSD card support.
Well, they’re right and they’re wrong.
Memory cards continue to pack in more storage and average prices continue to fall, but there is still a limit to the amount of storage that a microSD card can hold. And what happens once it’s full? Do you keep some apps, photos and videos on one card and other apps, videos and photos on another?
The Robin’s Smart Storage solution is seamless. And while Nextbit doesn’t plan to actively sell more cloud storage on top of the 100GB each Robin includes, the company’s executives did tell me that options will be made available to power users who need more space.
Also keep in mind that this is a first-generation solution baked into a first-generation smartphone. 4G LTE is getting faster. Data is getting cheaper. Lightning-fast 5G networks could launch in the United States as soon as later this year. As data speeds get faster, data caps grow higher and cloud storage gets cheaper, solutions like Smart Storage will only get better.
Nextbit is off to a good start with the Robin. It’s a unique smartphone that offers a fresh take on storage, a nice custom build of the Android 6.0 Marshmallow platform, and an original design. It certainly won’t be for everyone and you won’t find it fighting for shelf space at your local carrier store with Galaxy phones and iPhones anytime soon, but it’s a breath of fresh air in a somewhat stagnant market and I have little doubt that it will quickly build a loyal fan base.
The Nextbit Robin launches today, February 18th, for $399 on Nextbit’s website.