Meet the Nextbit Robin. It's a new phone from a company founded by people who already knew how to make phones and the software that runs on them. And it does things a bit differently than everything else out there.
Nextbit promises (not literally) that you'll never run out of space on your phone, and to keep that promise they have a pretty unique online storage method. Apps you rarely use are offloaded to the cloud, and when you do want to use them, a tap restores everything just as if it were never gone.
Let's take a look at the Robin, and see how things work — and how well they work.
- Excellent performance with dated hardware
- Ships with Marshmallow
- The price
- Everything is unlocked
- Limited availability
- Only available in 32GB storage option
- Using online storage won't work for everyone
- Verizon and Sprint version are delayed
Fly Robin Fly
Nextbit Robin Video review
Nextbit Robin Design
Nextbit has built a plastic phone that's nice to hold. In a time when premium seems to be all about metal and glass or rubber and leather, the Robin looks good, feels good and is built extremely well using plastic. Really, the reason is the kind of plastic being used. The finish is soft and smooth, but not slick. The Nexus 5 (and 5X) or a Nokia product are the first things I think of when I decide how I feel about the plastic.
The Robin is very angular, which is also a stark contrast to the bevels and rounded edges we find on most "premium" phones. Some won't like the corners. Some will. But most people will agree that the Robin has a beautiful design throughout.
The round things — buttons, sensors and the speaker grills — do just enough to break up all the flat edges, and the contrast works. The Nextbit Robin is the 180-degree polar opposite of the Galaxy S6 edge when it comes to design, but it's equally beautiful.
Everything is symmetrical. The front mounted sensor is in a hole the same exact size as the camera, and lined up perfectly. The same goes for the rear camera and LED flash. The volume buttons align with the top and bottom of the power button even though they aren't on the same side of the phone.
I don't usually gush about hardware design, but I will give credit when it's due. And it's certainly due here.
Mid range specs and high end performance
Nextbit Robin Hardware
The Robin takes limited hardware and squeezes top shelf performance out of it. When it comes to web browsing, installing apps or playing games, the Robin simply outclasses other phones using the same internals. Things are elegant and flowing, and it's clear plenty of time went into tweaking everything in the software for the best possible user experience.
|Display||5.2-inch 1080x1920 IPS LCD|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 hexa-core processor|
|Storage||32GB on device, 100GB cloud|
|Rear Camera||13MP phase detection autofocus, dual-tone flash|
LTE (cat 4) bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/17/20/28
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi 80.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, USB 3.0 Type-C|
|Fingerprint scanner||Side-mounted power button|
|Speakers||Dual front-facing speakers with dual amplifiers|
We tested the Nextbit Robin on both AT&T and T-Mobile, both in areas with good coverage and bad coverage. There were no notable performance issues to be found — it worked really well where it should work really well, and network performance was poor where I expected it to be poor. The CDMA versions for Sprint and Verizon are delayed, so we could only test on AT&T and T-Mobile.
Nextbit was able to get things running better than the competition using the same hardware.
While using T-Mobile, it was obvious that at least some of the "enhanced" calling features worked, as calls sounded above average on both ends while talking to myself or my wife on another T-Mobile phone. Wi-Fi calling was not available, and there are no settings to enable anything on the device itself.
As mentioned above, I am really pleased with the performance of the Robin. The Snapdragon 808 is not the fastest chip on the planet, and that shows, but Nextbit was able to get things running better than the competition using the same hardware. Even when things did get bogged down (like when installing 56 apps from Google Play all at once) the phone didn't get hot or freeze. Things were just slower, but the stop-and-start issues we see from some other Snapdragon 808 phones isn't there. And while not a gaming powerhouse, the Robin does well enough to not be frustrating.
The 1080p LCD is a quality IPS panel, with good viewing angles and well-calibrated color. While an LCD will never have that same blue pop as any OLED display will, a Dynamic screen mode setting does provide a bit of oversaturation for those who want it. The 1080p resolution wasn't an issue on the 5.2-inch display, until I used the Robin with Google Cardboard. If VR is going to be something you really want to explore with your next phone, you might be disappointed and want look at something with a higher resolution.
The Robin gets a passing grade on battery life, with the footnote that we didn't get to give things the usual testing
GPS worked as expected, finding plenty of satellites and location/navigation services had no issues. The same goes for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth — nothing stood out, everything performed as expected. NFC performed flawlessly, both reading tags and while using Android Beam. Android Pay was not functional on our review units, but Nextbit says that's not an issue with retail models and is just a licensing thing.
I'm still not sure about the battery life. We only had the Robin for a week, and so far it seems adequate, but I would have liked to do more testing. Most days I had juice left when I went to bed, and when worked really hard the Nextbit quick charger bundled with the review unit — retail models don't come with one, unfortunately — topped things up quickly. Of course, my Qi chargers did nothing as there is no wireless charging on the Robin. The Robin gets a passing grade on battery life, with the footnote that we didn't get to give things the usual testing.
The front facing speakers are both beautifully designed and highly functional. There is a nice mix between sheer volume and clarity, and while other phones can be louder, the Robin sounds good even at full volume. Music quality with headphones was average. Audiophiles should still look towards the LG V10 or the ALCATEL Idol 3 if they need excellent audio, but the Robin sounds plenty good enough for most people who just want to stream music. It's clear that some thought and engineering was at play here, and audio wasn't just an afterthought.
The Robin has a very unique feature that helps make sure you never run out of room. It's called Smart Storage, and it's basically 100GB of secure cloud storage where your phone can offload apps that you don't use very often. When you do need to use one of the offloaded apps, you tap the icon and it reinstalls. Everything is right where you left off the last time you used it.
Smart Storage is an important part of the Robin and how you'll use it. We've written an in-depth primer on what it is and how it works, and you really should have a look at it.
The Robin is a solid performer across all fronts. Everything worked as advertised, in a way that won't cause any frustration to the user. The way Nextbit was able to outclass other devices using the same hardware was a pleasant surprise. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Robin to anyone interested based on the way it acts as a "normal" Android phone.
Nextbit Robin Camera
The Robin's camera can best be described as adequate. On a sliding scale that really only I can understand (yet I'm going to share anyway) I'd place the quality somewhere between the 2015 Moto G and the Galaxy S5. A more sane point of reference is that it's about as good as what we saw on the Nexus 6. In other words, it's not the best by a long shot, but it will serve most people. The two issues I have with the camera are low-light performance (of course) and noisy images.
You're dealing with a 13MP rear camera that uses phase detection autofocus. That means you have multiple places that detect what the camera is pointing at from slightly different angles, and when every detected image is exactly the same, you're in focus. It also means that using tap to focus is very important — the algorithm needs to know where you want things to focus. It's pretty complicated, but much better than contrast autofocus. And the Robin does focus pretty quickly, so things appear to be working as expected.
There is no optical image stabilization on the Robin's camera; the PDAF system they use works well enough, but there will be times when having OIS would make for a better picture. Science. The dual-tone flash is OK, though using the flash still creates harsh images like it does on every other phone's camera.
The hardware is capable. It's certainly not the best around, but it should be able to take good pictures in most situations.
The camera app is done really well. The controls stay out of your way when you're using them, and nothing is buried under layers of menus. It's a casual experience, done in a way that's pleasing to the eye and easy to use. It's minimal, so prosumers will want to use an app like ProShot for more options, but everything most users will want in a smartphone camera is present and works. There's a full manual mode that offers control over focus, white balance, ISO and exposure compensation, but there is no control over the shutter time or any RAW capabilities. The Camera2 API is fully supported, so there are plenty of apps that can deliver things like manual shutter or RAW image shooting if you find you need more advanced features.
There's also a slight bit of shutter delay when using HDR mode, much like we've seen on other phones in the past. You'll need to remember to hold still an extra second when using HDR. Hopefully, some fine tuning can be done to the processing software the remove some of the noise we see in the pictures and sharpen everything up a notch or two. If you only take pictures for Facebook or Instagram, it's fine. If you need a little more, maybe the Robin isn't for you.
The same, but different
Nextbit Robin Software
There are going to be a lot of people who hate the software on the Nextbit Robin. The typical homescreen and app drawer setup we see on just about every other Android phone is nowhere to be seen, and instead everything lives on the homescreens. I'm not a fan, but I can't deny it's done very well even if it's done in a way I don't care for.
You can create folders, and you have an unlimited number of screens to use to hold your apps, but everything is still very busy once you install all the things you want and need. Every home screen sports a floating action button that gives quick access to lists of your archived apps, your pinned apps and all your apps in alphabetical order and that helps a little, but things will take a bit of getting used to if you come from a more traditional Android experience.
Everything feels very Material Design. There is plenty of white space, the color palette is bright but not outlandish and everything is in a very thin font. Applications that use Material Design guidelines for their launcher icon look slightly out of place as the system applications are missing the very subtle drop shadow effect, but if you're fan of the flat Material look, you'll like how everything blends together. The software design rivals the hardware design, even if it's not quite your cup of tea.
If you just can't deal with Nextbit's launcher design, you can easily install another launcher and you'll be pleased with the results.
While the launcher is very different from what you would expect from Android, the settings, dialogs, quick settings and system tray are done "Nexus" style. The Robin uses its own color palette, but Marshmallow shows itself everywhere except the launcher.
Our unit is running Android 6.0 with a January 2016 security patch level. Nextbit has promised excellent support for software updates for a full two years, and they say security patches are a priority. Nextbit CTO and Co-founder Mike Chan formerly worked for Google as a lead engineer for power management, but also worked on the performance and security team. We expect his influence will show when it comes to keeping things secure. The data that gets offloaded while using Smart Storage is transmitted and stored using encryption and two-factor authentication with Google. I take security very seriously, and I like what I'm seeing and hearing from Nextbit.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the software on the Robin is that it ships with no bloatware. A handful of system apps and utilities are present, as well as the required applications for Google Play certification, and nothing else.
We will see plenty of other phones from Mobile World Congress and IFA in 2016, but very few of them will be this clean when it comes to the software. You might want to disable Hangouts, or Google Photos or Google+ but you won't need to read a forum thread that explains all the things you need to disable to make your phone run well.
I would buy this phone
Nextbit Robin Wrapping it up
There are few things not to like about the Robin. Some will take issue with not being able to change the battery, or use an SD card or just want more than 32GB of storage even with Nextbit's Smart Storage cloud system. And those people know what they want, and will know the Robin isn't for them.
Smart storage isn't going to work for everyone. Network issues may mean you can't restore an app when you need it, and that's something you can't just ignore. If you'll have your phone full of software, and still need things that have been archived from time to time, think about it. Maybe 32GB on the device and 100GB in the cloud isn't enough.
I take security very seriously, and I like what I'm seeing and hearing from Nextbit
For my needs, 32GB is enough even without cloudifying apps. And I know my routine, and could pin apps I'll need when I'm away so that I wouldn't have to wait for a download. But you aren't me, and you need to think about how you'll use your phone, and if you'll need more than 32GB of storage you need to decide is Smart Storage will work for you.
At $399, I would spend my own money on the Robin if I were a regular user looking for a good phone. I would tell my wife, or my neighbor or anyone that I think the Robin is an excellent value that performs well above its price tag. The design is gorgeous, it's built solidly and the company behind it all impresses me. The camera leaves a lot to be desired, but I feel most people would find it adequate and those looking for online bragging rights can buy something else.
I went into this review thinking I would be talking about an average phone with a cloud gimmick, but I ended up using a really good phone that can also do some cloud archival magic if you need it. I'm impressed.
Where to buy the Nextbit Robin
The Robin is available right now direct from Nextbit. As of this writing, the Robin checks in at $400 for either color —Mint or Grey. Nextbit has also mentioned that the Lunar New Year holiday has caused a slight delay in production, so supplies of the initial run are very limited. Get in quick if you want to get in at all!
Nextbit also has a handful of nice accessories available, like three different kinds of cases in assorted colors, Quick chargers and USB 3.0 Type-C cables. These came bundled in the review package, and they are really nice stuff.
For folks who backed the Robin on Kickstarter, your stuff should be in your mailbox or on your doorstep shortly. We've still no final date for the Verizon or Sprint version, but we expect those soon, too.