Nextbit Robin review: A break from the black slab with a unique cloud storage solution

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Late last year I backed the Nextbit Robin Kickstarter project and posted my first impressions of the unique electric color model 10 days ago. While most of Nextbit’s focus is on the cloud-first approach to storage, I found the cool color and retro design to be more interesting than the storage.

The Nextbit Robin includes 32GB of internal storage, about 25GB is available to the user, and 100GB of cloud storage. I usually install about 20-30 apps, maybe up to 50 if I’m testing out things, and am not a heavy gamer so after 10 days I have only used about 1GB of cloud storage. So far, I’m not seeing the utility of the cloud. Keep in mind that the storage advantage is something that will become more apparent after extended usage so I’ll revisit it later.

As an early backer I was able to purchase the Nextbit Robin for $299 and at that price it’s an excellent mid-range Android smartphone. The current retail price is $399, which pits it against the Nexus 5X and Moto X. It’s not another black slab, but to be honest you can buy a mint Nexus 5X or a Moto X in a multitude of colors and materials. The Nextbit Robin stands out from the crowd and if you are OK with that, then you may want to consider the Robin.

Specifications

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 six-core
  • Display: 5.2 inch 1080p (1920×1080 pixels resolution) IPS LCD with Gorilla Glass 4
  • Operating system: Android 6 Marshmallow with Nextbit OS
  • RAM: 3GB
  • Storage: 32GB internal with 100GB cloud account
  • Cameras: 13 megapixel rear and 5 megapixel front-facing
  • Speakers: Dual front-facing stereo speakers
  • Other: Quick Charge 2.0, USB Type-C, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, 802.11 a/b//g/n/ac WiFi, side fingerprint scanner, NFC, GPS
  • Battery: 2,680 mAh non-removable
  • Dimensions: 149 x 72 x 7 mm and 150 grams

Hardware

The first thing that you will notice with the Nextbit Robin is it’s interesting use of color and consistent design elements. As an early Kickstarter backer I was able to choose a unique color that was voted upon by backers. I voted for a color called Fresh, harkens to the days of an HTC case I once owned, but the winning color was Electric. This is the model I selected and it looks fantastic. Electric uses the Midnight color for the sides and center of the back while a darker mint/teal color is used for each end. The teal color is also used for the power button/fingerprint scanner.

I receive comments and questions every single time I pull the Electric Nextbit Robin out to use it. While this is great for a smartphone enthusiast like myself, it also stands out in the office and makes a bit of a statement when you use it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just be aware that you may get some looks and questions when you are using something beyond a simple, boring black slab.

The Nextbit Robin is constructed of high quality plastic material with a matte finish. It feels like the material Nokia and HTC used on older phones and I love it. While the phone has a retro square look to it, all of the corners and edges are beveled so there’s not a sharp edge anywhere on the device. It’s long and a bit more narrow than other phones so that helps it feel good in the hand too.

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You can tell that Nextbit spent some time with the design as there’s a consistency to the design. The speaker grilles, sensors area, front facing camera, volume buttons, camera flash, and rear camera are all round in shape. Everything is also lined up so the speakers are the same on the top and bottom, the volume buttons line up with the power/fingerprint scanner, and even the small Nexbit cloud LEDs on the back line up with the volume buttons. It’s neat and tidy with a cool look and feel.

The front facing speaker grilles are concave. Given that HTC gave up on its front-facing BoomSound speakers, it’s rare to find new phones with front-facing speakers. The Nextbit Robin speakers don’t seem to have quite the depth of sound as the HTC One M8 did, but they are better than the bottom and rear-facing speakers on all other phones.

Like the non-US Sony Xperia Z5, Nextbit integrated the fingerprint scanner right into the side power button. This is absolutely brilliant and the best placement of a fingerprint scanner that I have yet to see. My finger naturally goes right to the side power button and after a single press the scanner unlocks the phone instantly. Rear scanners aren’t bad, but like the side scanner they do require that you pick up the phone. The front-facing scanner used on the iPhone and Samsung devices is good for unlocking when your phone is on a desk, but requires a bit of finger movement prior to holding the phone in its final position in your hand.

USB Type-C is used to charge the phone with Quick Charge 2.0 support. I saw battery life similar to the Google Nexus 5X, meaning I was able to get through a full day with fairly typical usage. I didn’t take a ton of photos with the phone or download massive files either.

The camera UI is basic, similar to the Google camera application. There is an oblong element, similar to the power button, that appears with a plus, grid, and three lines. Tap the plus sign to access toggles for HDR, grid, timer, and flash modes. Tap the grid to switch between auto, manual, and video. Manual gives you access to controlling focus, white balance, exposure compensation, and ISO settings. You cannot save images in RAW like some other flagship smartphones. Tapping the three lines give you access to the settings for location, still image resolution, and video resolution. 4K video is supported too. There are no advanced options, such as filters, slow-motion, or time-lapse.

The camera looks to take decent photos, but the response to pressing the capture button is slow compared to the latest Android smartphones. You do have to wait a second after pressing the button to hear the capture sound, but hopefully this can be sped up with a software update. Make sure to check out my Flickr photo album that has full quality images from the Nextbit Robin, Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, Samsung Galaxy Note 5, LG G5, and Apple iPhone 6s Plus.

Software

The Nextbit Robin officially runs the Nextbit OS, which is essentially a pure Google experience similar to a Nexus device. There are a few custom elements, but Nextbit also ships the phone with an unlocked bootloader so you can install whatever version of Android you like, such as Cyanogen OS. It runs Marshmallow and my phone currently has the January 2016 security patch.

The primary focus is on the cloud, which is the primary reason to use the Nextbit OS. You have the option to backup apps, data, and media to the Nextbit storage. Nextbit supports Android’s built-in encryption option for storage, uses Google authentication (including the two-factor option), and supports secure transmission and encryption of your data on its server. Since I’ve only been using it for a couple of weeks, I haven’t yet pushed the storage limits yet with only 1GB currently backed up on the Nextbit server.

That’s the one thing that is interesting and may be a bit disconcerting about the cloud solution. Users have little control or much understanding about what is backed up so using the Nextbit Robin takes a bit of faith and trust in Nextbit. I’m OK with this for typical data, but you always have to wonder about a new company with a new phone and whether or not your data will be accessible in a year. I like the idea behind the Nextbit solution here, but it will take some time to understand and embrace this approach to storage and data management.

I’ve always backed up my photos and videos to OneDrive and Google so the media backup is nothing new for me. There doesn’t appear to be any way to access your Nextbit storage except with a Robin so this will take a bit of usage to fully understand and appreciate.

You can control when data is backed up with toggles for WiFi, only when charging, and what to backup. You just do not have fine control over what gets backed up and you cannot force backup anything. If the OS works as intended, you shouldn’t need this control either.

Like the Apple iPhone, new LG G5, and many Chinese Android smartphones, there is no app drawer available on the Nextbit Robin. You can always download and install a third party launcher if you want one, but by default all the apps you install will appear on a home screen panel. I’m OK with this and am growing to accept this approach to application management. It keeps me from creating folders on the home screen and in the app launcher so I have not installed any additional launcher.

A rather strange UI element appears when you try to add a widget to your home screen. Tapping and holding on a panel brings up options for wallpaper and settings, but not for widgets. You need to pinch your fingers together or press and hold on the task manager to view widgets on a layer over the home screen panels with the home screen panels appearing as a blur. You can then tap and hold on this widget layer to add or remove widgets. It’s a unique approach to widgets, but I haven’t yet decided if it’s better or worse than the default Android approach.

A few custom Nextbit apps are present, including a handy scientific calculator, clock, phone dialer, contacts, text messaging, image gallery, camera, and downloads folder. The only other place you see Nextbit customizations is in the settings area. These settings include smart storage and Nextbit account management. The rest is all just pure Android with the option to turn on the System UI Tuner also supported.

The default lock screen shows the time, date, and local weather in a central box with notification below it (these are controlled by your security settings). Quick shortcuts to the camera, emergency call, and Google Voice are positioned along the bottom and can be activated by swiping them up.

Pricing and competition

The Nextbit Robin is available now, shipping in 2 weeks, in Mint or Midnight colors for $399. It works on GSM carriers, including T-Mobile, AT&T, Cricket, Straight Talk, Ting, and others. It is unlocked so it will also work in international markets with support for 850/900/1700/1800/1900/2100 HSPA bands and LTE Bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/17/20/28.

The Nexus 5X is available with 32GB of internal storage for $399 while the Moto X Pure Edition starts at $449.99 for 32GB. Thus, the Nextbit Robin is priced to compete with these mid-range Android smartphones and the unique design, colors, and storage solution make it a device to consider.

Daily usage experiences and conclusion

I chose to back the Nextbit Robin project because previous HTC employees were part of the team, the approach to cloud storage is interesting and I wanted to test it out, and the device looked different than typical smartphones. Not all Kickstarter projects result in timely delivery of an actual product so it is very impressive that Nextbit was able to deliver such a compelling phone on time. Unfortunately, CDMA customers won’t be able to purchase a Robin so the device is limited to GSM customers.

The hardware looks great, feels fabulous in the hand, is responsive and stable, has a fast and convenient fingerprint scanner, and lasts most of a day. The camera is a bit slow and doesn’t take the best photos, but is good enough for sharing online. The speakers sound good and work well for sharing YouTube and other videos together.

Since I am testing out so many phones at the moment, I popped in my Project Fi SIM card and it works just fine on the T-Mobile network. Unique carrier features, such as WiFi Calling and video calling is not supported on unlocked devices like the Robin. You also avoid any carrier bloatware or control of your device so that’s a benefit too.

If you are interested in a phone that looks different and has a unique take on storage, then you may want to consider the Nextbit Robin. I look forward to continued updates and further testing of the cloud storage integration.

Make sure to check out the CNET review where the Nextbit Robin earned a 7/10 rating.

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