Review: Nextbit Robin

Review: Nextbit Robin

Introduction and design

Update: The Nextbit Robin is a smartphone that promises something different from the standard smartphone offering. Just looking at it is enough to tell you that.

While our reviewer wasn’t exactly sold on its marquee feature, the dynamic onboard-to-cloud storage solution, you can’t argue that Nextbit’s debut isn’t an all-around attractive package.

The specs are solid, its feature set and build quality are each up their with the best Android phones available today. And now, it’s more affordable than ever.

Nextbit Robin

Down from the already-decent asking price of $399 (around £270, AU$560) for a totally unlocked device, you can now nab the Robin for $299 (about £226 and AU$400).

And, before you ask, the Robin has been confirmed to support Android N when it releases in just a few months. According to a forum post by an Nextbit employee, the incoming update will hone in on improving battery life, which was another key area that we felt the Robin didn’t nail completely.

While it’s unfortunate that a CDMA version of the phone was cancelled around the time of the phone’s launch, the Robin is shaping up to be one of the most alluring (and more affordable) Android N-compatible phones out there.

We’re standing by for the N update and will update this review with all of the fresh details when it arrives in the autumn.

Original review follows below.

There are thousands of smartphone models out there, and for the most part they all look much the same, and operate in much the same way.

The Nextbit Robin is different – it looks different, and with cloud storage baked into its very OS it works differently too.

Even the way in which the phone came into being is different, with the fledgling company taking to Kickstarter to fund it. And seemingly there’s a market for ‘different’, as Nextbit raised $1.36 million, despite only asking for $500,000.

Nextbit Robin review

Nextbit claims the Robin never runs out of space, and that’s its real hook. The phone backs up not just photos but even apps to the cloud, and it does so seamlessly whenever you’re short on space.

The phone debuted at an asking price of $399 (around £270, AU$560) but it has since been reduced to $299 (about £226 and AU$400).

That mid-range price puts the Robin up against the likes of the OnePlus 2 and Moto X Play. It has a solid assortment of specs for the money too, including a 5.2-inch 1080p screen, a Snapdragon 808 processor, 3GB of RAM and a 13MP camera.

Nextbit Robin

So on paper, it’s more than just a one-trick pony. It’s a strong sales pitch, and for a no-name brand coming into such a crowded market that’s vital.

Design

There’s some serious talent behind the design of the Nextbit Robin: it was dreamt up by the man who created the HTC One M7 and HTC One M8. To my mind those are two of the most beautiful phones ever made – so when I first laid eyes on the Robin I have to admit to being a bit disappointed.

There’s none of the premium metal or comfortable curves found on HTC’s masterpieces; instead the Nextbit Robin is a slab of polycarbonate – or rather several slabs joined together.

My review unit came in a mint colour, although that only applies to the buttons and panels of plastic above and below the 5.2-inch screen, while the bulk of the back and sides are white.

Nextbit Robin review

The colourful, plastic design leaves the Nextbit Robin looking almost like a toy, and the boxy style means it doesn’t sit all that comfortably in the hand – but at least it’s a lot more grippable than it looks, as the plastic isn’t at all slippery.

And, for better or worse, the Robin does look different. You wouldn’t mistake this for any other phone, and I like that about it.

Little details add to this distinctive look, such as the circular dual front-facing speakers and the four little lights on the back that spring into action when the Robin is uploading things to the cloud.

Nextbit Robin

The buttons look different too, although not necessarily for the better. On the right edge you’ll find the power button, which also has a fingerprint scanner baked in.

The scanner is ideally positioned, and as fast and accurate as you’d hope, but the button itself is slightly indented, making it harder to find by touch than if it jutted out.

Nextbit Robin

It’s a similar story with the volume buttons on the left edge. The small, circular design is unusual, but again this makes them hard to hunt down.

The rest of the Robin looks fairly standard. There’s a sizeable 5MP camera on the front, a 13MP snapper on the back, a headphone port on the top edge and a USB-C port on the bottom, flanked by a notification light.

Nextbit Robin

Ultimately, I’m not totally sold on the design of the Nextbit Robin. Even within this sort of price range I’d take the looks of the OnePlus 2 over it any day (especially once you’ve added a custom back to that phone).

But I like how bold the design of the Robin is; it feels gutsy, and I’d choose it over most plastic phones.

It’s not a handset that will necessarily impress people, but it will intrigue them. Expect to get a lot of questions and comments on it.

Key features

As I’ve mentioned, the Nextbit Robin is all about the cloud. It comes with 100GB of free cloud storage – but this isn’t just any old cloud storage, as the team has built it into the phone itself.

What this means is that when you’re running low on the 32GB of built-in storage the Robin will automatically and intelligently offload things to the cloud the next time it’s plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi.

And I’m not just talking photos here – unlike most cloud storage it will also save apps and their data to the cloud.

It’s easy to keep track of what’s online and what’s local too. Apps, for example, will stay on your home screens, but will be greyed out when they’re online.

Or, for an overview of all your online apps there’s a button on the bottom left of each screen, which can show you all your archived apps. A simple tap on any of them will download them and their data back to the phone.

A breakdown of how much content you’ve got in the cloud can also be found in the ‘smart storage’ section of the settings screen, along with all your local storage.

Nextbit Robin review

It’s all surprisingly seamless and smart, with the phone offloading little-used apps to the cloud while keeping favourites on the phone. Any apps that you want to ensure won’t be sent to the cloud can be ‘pinned’ to the phone.

It feels like the future, but it’s not perfect. For one thing, Nextbit claims that the Robin ‘makes running out of space history’, yet that’s not entirely true. 100GB is certainly a lot, especially when paired with 32GB of local storage; it’s far more than most users are likely to need in fact, but it’s also far from unlimited.

Some phones, such as the iPhone 6S, already come with 128GB of storage built in – albeit at a much higher price – while many others have microSD card slots, potentially extending their capacity well beyond what the Robin offers.

Purchasing a large microSD card is an extra expense, but it’s still an option.

Still, cloud storage has its advantages. If you break or lose your phone you don’t lose your data, as you likely would with local storage, and it’s securely encrypted on Nextbit’s servers, so it should be safe.

But there’s a flipside. Sure, you won’t lose your data if you lose your phone, but you also won’t have as immediate or easy access to your data as you would if it was locally stored.

Anything that’s in the cloud but not on the handset needs to be downloaded before you can access it, and if you’re somewhere with no internet, or don’t want to use up your data allowance that can be a problem, especially with larger apps.

Nextbit Robin review

There’s also the issue of what could happen to your data if Nextbit goes out of business. Hopefully the company will succeed, but this isn’t Dropbox or OneDrive we’re talking about – it’s a small startup which is seemingly banking on the success of this one phone.

You’re also a bit limited in terms of what you can back up, as the service only supports photos and apps. If you’ve got music, videos or other files on your device you’re out of luck, and there are plenty of simple ways to keep photos backed up in the cloud without Nextbit getting involved. So really, it’s only good for apps.

It is genuinely good for apps though – saving their data and leaving a greyed-out icon in their place is much more desirable than having to delete them completely and dig them out of Google Play again when you want them.

For that reason the Robin’s cloud storage feature is unique and genuinely useful, and I’d love to see more phones start offering this.

But it’s not unlimited, and it’s not really preferable to local storage. As an option it’s great, but I’d also like to have the option to keep everything stored locally, so a microSD card slot would have helped.

Still, even if you stick with the Robin’s built-in storage, 32GB isn’t a bad amount for the money. If you look at the cloud storage as a handy extra rather than the main selling point of the Nextbit Robin it makes a lot of sense – it’s just that in many ways it is the main selling point.

Specs and performance

At the heart of the Nextbit Robin are a Snapdragon 808 processor and 3GB of RAM. Those are the same specs as the LG G4, which is pretty impressive given that the Robin is positioned more as a mid-ranger than a flagship.

It’s pretty impressive in practice too: the Robin can take a little thinking time when jumping between apps, but otherwise this is a nippy phone, and smoother in use than the similarly priced Moto X Play.

Nextbit Robin review

That’s not really a surprise, though, given the Nextbit Robin’s higher specs. In fact, the Robin averaged a Geekbench 3 single-core score of 1154 and multi-core score of 3334, both of which dwarf the X Play’s 715/2716 results.

However, while the Robin is a smooth operator you can still get more performance for your money. The OnePlus 2, which again is priced similarly, has a powerful Snapdragon 810 chip and a mammoth 4GB of RAM, which together deliver an average multi-core score of 4795.

Nextbit Robin review

The Nextbit Robin is neither the best nor the worst performer at this sort of price, then, but it’s generally speedy and even handles games well. It had no problem with Real Racing 3 for example, other than lengthy load times between events.

The display and speakers make it a strong option for games and other media too. The display is a bit reflective, and loses a lot of brightness if you view it at odd angles, but head-on it looks great, while the dual front-facing speakers deliver loud audio, although music can sound a bit flat through them.

Interface

Not content to let Android Marshmallow do its thing, Nextbit has tweaked the interface in some quite drastic ways.

The main difference between this and just about every Android handset not made by Huawei is that there’s no app drawer. Instead, all of your apps sit on your home screens, which means things can get very messy very quickly.

Nextbit Robin review

Nextbit has at least made it easy to find things by adding a floating bubble to the bottom-right corner of each screen, which when tapped can give you an A-Z listing of all your apps.

You can also get a quick overview of any pinned or archived apps from here, so your favourites or those which have been sent to the cloud are never far from sight.

But, personally, the lack of an app drawer really frustrates me. I don’t want all my apps on my home screens, but with the Robin – unless I fiddle about with a third-party launcher – I don’t have any choice.

Nextbit Robin review

The Robin also handles widgets in an interesting way. Rather than have them sit on your home screens you essentially have a second set of screens just for widgets which you can get to by pinching a home screen.

This makes widgets easier to find, as they’re all in one place, and it means you don’t have to choose between a widget or another few app icons on your main screen; but it also means they’re not as glance-friendly.

Battery life and camera

There’s a USB Type-C port on the Nextbit Robin, which means all your old charging cables will be incompatible with it. But the cable that comes in the box (and any other USB-C leads you buy) will be a bit of an upgrade, not least because you can plug them in either way up.

The Robin also supports Quick Charge 2.0 – and while you’ll have to buy a quick charger separately you might want to consider doing so, as the 2,680mAh juice pack in this thing isn’t the longest lasting battery I’ve come across.

I put the Robin through techradar’s standard battery test, playing a 90-minute video at full screen brightness with Wi-Fi turned on, and by the end of it the battery had dropped from 100% to 71%.

That 29% drop is a little worse than the 27% drop recorded for the OnePlus 2 in the same test, and a lot worse than the 15% drop of the Moto X Play.

Nextbit Robin review

You typically shouldn’t need the screen on full brightness, which helps a bit, but the Nextbit Robin still doesn’t last all that long, no matter how you use it.

Playing Real Racing 3 for 20 minutes on mid brightness dropped the juice by 14% for example, so if you use your phone as your main source of entertainment when out and about the Robin probably isn’t for you.

If you’re not big on media and gaming you should be alright though. Using the Nextbit Robin for a mix of apps, internet, social media, calls and texting, its battery would generally last me a day – although it was always running perilously low on power by around 11pm, so I wouldn’t trust it to survive a late night.

You do get Android Marshmallow’s basic battery saver option to help eke out a little more life if needed; but this comes at the cost of performance and functionality, as it limits location services and background data, so it’s not an ideal solution.

The upcoming Android N update promises to address some of these issues. We’ll be sure to test it out once it arrives.

Camera

It doesn’t feel like Nextbit has made the camera much of a focus for the Robin, although that’s not to say the camera is bad; it’s just a bit basic.

Firing up the snapper can take a few seconds. It’s not massively slow, but it’s noticeably slower than most camera apps – and some photo-perfect moments don’t wait around for your phone to get its act together.

The shutter doesn’t feel that fast either. Hold it down and you can fire off a burst of shots, but it takes over a second to start snapping.

Nextbit Robin review

There are also no specific shooting modes to choose from, other than auto, manual or HDR. Auto should cover most bases though, and if you head into manual mode you can tweak the likes of white balance and ISO to your liking.

You can also turn on grid lines to aid composition, and a timer, and set the photo and video quality – photos max out at 13MP on the back camera and 5MP on the front camera, while videos can be shot at up to 4K with the rear snapper and 1080p with the front-facing one.

The camera interface is nicely laid out, with just a few icons on the screen initially, keeping things clutter-free so you can focus on your photos.

Nextbit Robin review

If you need more options you can tap the plus symbol to bring up the grid, timer and flash controls, another icon to switch between auto, manual and video and a third icon to access other settings.

The important thing, though, is the quality of the photos, and the Robin does an acceptable job here. In ideal conditions photos are captured nicely, with fairly accurate colours and a reasonable amount of detail in both the foreground and background.

Of course conditions are rarely ideal and, particularly when the light wasn’t great, the Robin could struggle to bring out fine details, especially in busy shots, and colours sometimes seemed a bit off.

Nextbit Robin

The camera also didn’t always seem sure where to focus when left to its own devices, although fortunately you can always tap to focus.

Image quality is average overall, comparable with the similarly specced OnePlus 2 but weaker than the 21MP Moto X Play, and well below what you’d get from, say, the Samsung Galaxy S6 or LG G4 – although in the case of those last two phones you’ll be paying a lot more for the extra quality.

Camera samples

Nextbit Robin review

Click here for the full-resolution image.

Nextbit Robin review

Click here for the full-resolution image.

Nextbit Robin review

Click here for the full-resolution image.

Nextbit Robin review

Click here for the full-resolution image.

Verdict

I can’t help feeling drawn to the Nextbit Robin simply because of how different it is to most other phones. Its colourful, distinctive design helps it stand out immediately, and the way cloud storage is handled means the differences are more than just skin deep.

At $399 (around £270, AU$560) it’s also attractively priced, and it has the specs to rival most other phones in that bracket. But the battery is a worry, and not all of the Robin’s innovation has paid off – so should you really pick it over rivals like the OnePlus 2 and Moto X Play?

We liked

The Nextbit Robin’s design is likely to divide opinion, and in many ways I’m not its biggest fan – it’s a bit too plasticky. But I really respect the fact that Nextbit has done something different here; this is a phone that doesn’t look like anything else out there.

It also has a handy fingerprint scanner. More and more phones are rocking these now but they’re still far from being a core feature, especially on mid-range handsets, and the one on the Nextbit Robin works well, almost always unlocking the device at the first attempt.

The Robin is good value too, and has a fairly sharp screen and decent specs.

We disliked

I don’t dislike the Robin’s use of cloud storage as such, but it’s positioned as the main selling point of the phone, and it’s far too problematic for me to recommend the Robin on the strength of it. Overall it would have been better with just a microSD slot.

The battery life is disappointing too; both in our video test and in general use the Nextbit Robin puts in a substandard performance.

I’m also not a fan of some of Nextbit’s interface tweaks. The lack of an app drawer in particular is an annoyance; I got used to it, but I never liked it.

Final verdict

I really want to love the Nextbit Robin. Nextbit’s desire to be different appeals to me, but that desire has driven it to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist – or at least one that could have been solved just as well with a microSD card.

I don’t really see the cloud storage as a negative, but it’s not a compelling reason to buy the Robin either. If you really want lots of storage you’re still better off with a phone that has a microSD card slot, as it gives you more immediate and omnipresent access to your content.

But for what it costs I can’t be that down on the Robin for not having a microSD card slot, especially when it has a respectable 32GB built in alongside that 100GB of cloud storage.

The Nextbit Robin doesn’t live up to its billing, but assuming you like the design the only significant problem is the battery life. Otherwise the Nextbit Robin is a fairly powerful, great value phone, with a nifty fingerprint scanner. It’s brave and it’s different, and while it doesn’t totally succeed, it gets more right than it gets wrong.

First reviewed: February 2016

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