(Pocket-lint) - The Nextbit Robin aims to resolve your storage woes with a clever software system that uses the cloud and will smartly archive and restore your content based on your usage and needs.
That's the pitch, but the Nextbit Robin is much more than a phone that's all about storage. Looking beyond the sales pitch, the Nextbit Robin is an aggressively-priced, close to pure Android handset that's designed to be a little bit different.
Born of experience - there are ex-Google and ex-HTC people behind this handset - does the Nextbit Robin stand any chance of upsetting the status quo? Is this the handset where your smart money should be spent?
Nextbit Robin review: Design
The Nextbit Robin will likely be instantly recognised by eschewing the identikit design that so often plagues devices. It isn't a black plastic, slightly curvy, or far too glossy, handset.
The Robin is perhaps a fusion of HTC design ethics and those of Sony. The design of the handset is closest to Sony's OmniBalance with a squared edges, only 7mm thick. It has square corners, a flat back and distinctly separate top and bottom sections above and below the display, with a 72 x 149mm footprint.
There's a toy-like charm to the design, here refreshingly presented in mint green and white (also available in a charcoal black), looking unlike any other phone on the market. It's a minimalist and precise design, with micro-drilled front facing speakers and some neat placement of LEDs.
The feeling of HTC design is perhaps less evident from HTC's phones, but more in its accessories. There's hints of the Boombass speaker or the HTC Battery Bar here (we also spotted the clock widget carrying HTC's signature 10:08 display time, very cheeky). We perhaps don't need to remind you that Scott Croyle, who designed the Robin, also designed phones like the HTC One M7 and One M8.
The notification LED doesn't sit on the front, it's on the bottom, alongside the USB Type-C port. When the phone is placed face-down on a table we like that notifier blinking from the bottom - although at night it is perhaps a little brighter than you might want, and there's no real way to escape it like you can with a front-facing notification light.
On the rear of the handset you have minimalist Nextbit branding. At the top is the cloud logo, with a run of four status LEDs that blink to let you know that Robin is syncing with the cloud. A visual reassurance of a process that's designed to be entirely automated.
To the sides, on the left are the volume controls, individually domed, but perhaps a little too close together to make them easy to find in a hurry. On the right-hand side is the fingerprint scanner embedded in the power button, in similar fashion to the Sony Xperia Z5.
The SIM tray also sits here, just below the power button and we feel it's too close for comfort. We wish it was somewhere else, other than right under the power button. You'll find yourself feeling that cut-out fairly regularly.
We like the design and how the Robin fuses together as a coherent device, but there is a but. We think the materials might be a little thin, especially the plastic back. Although it feels solid enough and there's no creaking or flexing, we can feel a ridge along the centre of the back cover, as well as a small lump under the Nextbit logo at the bottom.
This is likely to be some part of the structure under the skin and although it's a minor point, there's the potential that these raised areas will attract wear faster than the rest of the device. A year into ownership, that Nextbit branding might have worn off - physically speaking.
Nextbit Robin review: Display and hardware
The Nextbit Robin carries a 5.2-inch display with a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution, giving a pixel density of 423ppi. It's an IPS LCD display, offering good brightness and vibrancy, and is topped with Gorilla Glass 4 to keep it free from scratches.
There's a great even tone across the display, although it fades at more extreme viewing angles. You can, on occasion, make out the pixels, especially when scrolling something light, like text over a light background, but there's little to complain about. This isn't the highest resolution at this size, but it's a good display and fits the price point.
The Nextbit Robin is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 chipset with 3GB of RAM. Again that's a fairly aggressive hardware pairing for a device that's not priced at the top-end of the spectrum. The SD808 might be getting a little older - it was the choice for the LG G4 and Nexus 5X - but it is still a powerful hexa-core chipset.
That power translates into snappy performance. The Nextbit Robin doesn't bloat-out the software, so you have that lovely sharp feel that you get from a Nexus handset, where Android is unfettered - but more on software details later.
There are twin front-facing speakers on this handset, enjoying a prominent position. That's great for ad hoc video viewing, with nice stereo sound, although they lack the depth that you'll get from HTC's BoomSound speakers.
As we mentioned, there's a fingerprint scanner on the side of the Robin, ideally placed for your thumb to unlock the phone when you grip it. We found this to be responsive, unlocking the phone reliably and without issue during our time using it.
Nextbit Robin review: Battery life
We've mentioned that there's USB Type-C on this handset, so it's offering the very latest every-way-is-up connection, along with Quick Charge 2.0 skills, so you'll be able to rapidly charge the 2,680mAh battery.
That's not a huge capacity, though, and that plays out in the stamina. This isn't a hugely long lasting phone. On a busy day, we've found ourselves having to recharge after around 7-hours, so about half way through the day.
The fairly low battery capacity, paired with that large display and pretty powerful chipset means plenty of drain in use. If you're a power user, Android Marshmallow's Doze function won't really do anything for you, and there's no additional power-saving features on board apart from the standard Android battery saver.
The Nextbit Robin might look like the Sony Xperia Z5 and share the same slim body profile, but it doesn't come close in battery life performance and we can't help feeling that stamina has been sacrificed for looks. And we're not certain that was the right way to go. Still, that's often the story and it's little different from the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S6 in that sense.
The phone doesn't ship with a charger either - that'll cost you $15 as an optional extra when ordering, but you get a fast-charger for that price. You do get a USB Type-C cable with a standard USB on the other end, however, so you can connect to any existing USB charger you might have.
Nextbit Robin review: That whole smart storage thing
One thing you won't find on the Robin is a microSD card slot. For a phone that's looking to address storage woes, that might seem like an odd choice. Instead you have 32GB of internal storage (of which about 24GB is available to the user) and 100GB of cloud storage. The cloud storage is included in the price of the device, so it's effectively free and is being pushed as Nextbit's unique selling point, its raison d'être.
This cloud storage is in addition to, and entirely separate from, any cloud storage you have from Google Drive, as Nextbit's smart storage system works entirely separately to Google's own cloud solution.
It's also important to understand that this isn't an online drive where you can save files and transfer content around like Google Drive, Dropbox or Microsoft's OneDrive. Instead, this is cloud space that's entirely managed by the Nextbit software and used for archiving your content.
The idea is to present a situation where you technically don't run out of space on your device. Rather than having to move and delete content, Nextbit handles that for you. It syncs apps and app data to the cloud, as well as your photos.
So here's the play: your device is nearly full and normally you'd be worried about saving photos somewhere else, or uninstalling apps. Instead, as the Robin has this content archived already, more space is available to you as you need it. Basically, it can send apps you rarely use to the cloud and write over the space they take on the phone when it's needed.
The apps are archived and restored in a complete state, so unlike other backup solutions, if you call an app back to the phone, it downloads and is restored as you left it - with all your data, settings, history, login and so on. You will need a steady connection to download apps again, however, so if there's a transport app you'll be wanting when out and about, it's worth pinning, so it never leaves your phone.
For photos, the Nextbit Robin will backup to the cloud and then present thumbnails in the Gallery, rather than full resolution images that are larger than you'd need when viewing on the phone. You can download the full resolution images again if you want them, for example to zoom in and look at the details.
The Robin carries out this cloud sync when connected to Wi-Fi and plugged in, but when the phone detects that storage is getting low, it will grey-out icons of apps as that space is harvested for you to use. You're left with a "ghost" icon, so you know it still exists, even if it's residing in the cloud at that moment in time.
Restoration of an app is as easy as tapping it (assuming a connection). The icon returns to colour as the app restores, and you can then use it as normal. It's all very slick and easy and you'll find that apps you don't ever use end up greyed out most of the time.
Smart storage considerations
So is this a foolproof system? Well no, it isn't.
It's smart, it's neatly done and it happens in the background without you having to do anything. However, it currently doesn't support video, and with the phone offering 4K video capture, this is one big source of storage consumption. Nextbit says that video backup is coming, however, so hopefully that elephant will be moved out of the room soon enough.
However, there's a bigger elephant in this room, and that's microSD. With 100GB of online storage, this is essentially a 132GB device. Adding a 128GB (£40) storage card to a smartphone, perhaps using Android Marshmallow's new Flex Storage feature, you can have the same storage without dancing it back and forth to the cloud.
With Android offering a range of backup options - including Photos (which includes video already) and fully accessible online too through a browser - it's easy to see that Nextbit's solution, although smart, perhaps solves a problem that we don't currently have.
That decision is yours to make. If you regularly run out of space, then Nextbit's solution might help you out, but there's a bigger play here. In a 5G future, all devices might chop and change content with the cloud because it will offer a near lag-free experience. So Nextbit is either extremely forward-thinking, or solving a problem it created by not including a microSD card slot in the first place.
Nextbit has confirmed that you'll be able to retrieve your content via a web interface (still to be launched), should you choose to move to a different device in the future.
Nextbit Robin review: Sweet Marshmallow software
But as we said at the start of this review, there's more to Robin than the online storage play. This is a nice Android handset and it's relatively uncluttered. Fans might be enthused by the unlocked bootloader, and that Nextbit will keep the warranty in tact if you do want to tinker, although that's hardly a mainstream proposition, instead probably aimed at boosting Robin's potential for cult status.
Regular users will find a handset that hasn't been filled with bloat. In many ways it puts mainstream devices to shame. It's as close to raw Android as you're likely to find. There's the Nextbit launcher, which eradicates the apps tray and the ability to search apps, but will let you place icons wherever you like, so you can have a clear home page if you want.
The launcher creates a widget layer accessed through a pinch, which sort of negates the point of widgets, as you can pretty much just have those icons to hand, or in folders and open the app proper.
The other feature of the launcher is a permanent shortcut to a pop-up banner that lets you manage your apps, viewing those that are archived and letting you pin those apps you want to ensure you always have access to, perhaps Uber or your banking apps.
We've found some oddities in the launcher, like being unable to add a Chrome shortcut. When selecting "add to homescreen" the phone confirms it, but the icon never appears. We also found some installed apps didn't get shortcuts, but did on second install - again, something to watch out for.
Then there's the Gallery that's been altered to accommodate its cloud syncing position. The Gallery does little other than display your images. There's no image editor in Nextbit's software, so you'll have to look elsewhere for a solution. The camera has also been altered, but we'll talk about that later.
The other addition is altering the Storage section of the settings, to cater for the cloud system we've just talked about. You can get a snapshot of your storage position with a tap on the user icon in the notifications tray, with figures for local and cloud storage reported.
Of course if you don't like Nextbit's tweaks you can simply install Google Now Launcher and you're practically looking at a stock Android handset. Nextbit hasn't changed the calendar or browser, music player or anything else, it's just clean Android goodness. Well, almost.
We're all for that. As we said, that plays out in the Robin's slick and snappy performance, making it a great handset for day-to-day use. For Android users who want something different, this is perhaps an alternative to a Moto X model or Nexus 5X - although in the latter case, you'll obviously be facing to prospect of waiting until Nextbit pushes Android updates. For a company in its infancy, there's no telling how that will pan out.
Nextbit Robin review: Camera
The Robin has a completely revised camera app. This presents full auto or manual modes for the camera, alongside video capture. The layout of the app is simple enough, putting the immediate options on an expandable banner in the viewfinder, so things like flash control and HDR are only a tap away, which we really like.
Shifting camera modes from auto to video (for example) takes a little longer than we'd like though. It's a few presses before you're on the video section, so if you spot something you want to capture, there's a chance you'll miss it by the time video is rolling. It could do with being a little faster, and we suspect it will become so as Nextbit moves beyond the embryonic stage.
HDR mode appears to be effective at balancing out highs and lows to boost the dynamic range of a scene. It achieves this without looking too artificial, but it does slow down capture a fair amount. We miss the sort-of auto-HDR treatment that you'll get from the likes of Samsung, as it's a toggle on/off option as implemented here.
The Robin's autofocus is pretty fast, with convenient touch-focusing offered - capture is fast too, although slows as the light drops. A long press on the shutter button rewards you with burst capture.
Performance is pretty good overall, with good return in decent light from the 13-megapixel rear camera. Things soften and image noise mars shots in lower light, but this is little different to other smartphones. It's far from the worst performer and we suspect many will be happy with the results for average shooting in good conditions.
The manual mode doesn't add a huge amount though. You can control the ISO, important to avoid that grain in lower-light, and you can control the focus - with manual focus letting you lock it in one position. But we miss the ability to have any control over shutter speed: if you're going to the pains of setting up a manual shot, a defined long exposure could be the thing that actually makes the shot work.
When it comes to video, the Robin offers capture at 720p, 1080p and 2160p resolutions, so you'll be able to get that all-important 4K content. There's a 5-megapixel front-facing camera that we found to give nice natural selfies, and mercifully free from all the overwrought make-up smearing madness you'll find elsewhere.
The Nextbit Robin makes a strong case as a newcomer to the smartphone world. We like the refreshing design - although bear in mind those odd lumps and bumps we've found on our review sample - and we like the clutter-free software approach.
Nextbit's cloud storage solution works well, although for all the positives we do keep coming back to the fact that you could easily add more local storage for little cost with microSD, and discard that whole aspect to this phone.
The camera performance is pretty good too, there's plenty of power on offer, along with a decent display. We're a little less excited about the battery life, but then something has to give - and with this phone costing around £260 ($399; although you might need to consider taxes and shipping) it's a pretty competitive package.
The Nextbit Robin offers a good Android experience without breaking the bank. But as much as it is unique in its problem solving, it seems to have created a problem that didn't neccessarily need solving and carries with it problems you'll not find elsewhere.