Robin, the first smartphone from startup Nextbit, is a fine phone and a good-looking handset.
But just making a (generally) nice phone wasn’t the aim of Robin’s creators, who previously worked on Android at Google and design and user experience at HTC. They think storage is becoming a big problem for smartphone users, so Robin, which goes on sale Thursday for $399, contains 32 gigabytes of built-in storage and 100 gigabytes of extra cloud-based storage. That’s all put to use with Nextbit-built software that sits atop the Marshmallow version of Android, paying attention to how often you do things like open certain apps and view photos; then it does its best to archive the things you use least on a faraway server in order to free up space on the handset itself.
I didn’t realize this was an issue, seeing as data storage has gotten increasingly cheap and it’s already easy to store plenty of things—photos, music, and such—remotely and access them via smartphone apps. Still, I was game to try it out.
Robin is speedy on and off the Web, and has a sharp, responsive touch screen. It’s got a handful of technological bells and whistles that you’d expect on a higher-end phone: a power button that’s also a fingerprint sensor, a 13-megapixel rear camera and a five-megapixel front-facing one, and the ability to work with Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology for faster-than-usual battery charging. Nextbit’s on-screen design decisions make Robin easy to navigate, and the phone feels good in your hand. Its speakers—denoted by a circular depression on the top and bottom of the phone’s face—sound awful, even at half volume.
In service of its never-run-out-of-space mission, Robin puts a lot of emphasis on how frequently and delightfully it’s backing everything up. This is most obviously observed on the back of the phone, where there’s a fluffy-looking cloud icon and a tiny row of LEDs that glow whenever Robin backs up data from the phone.
But wait, there’s more! Apps that have been archived—that is, removed from the phone and stored remotely on Nextbit’s servers—still show up as icons on the handset, though they appear gray (tap one to get it back, and it downloads fairly quickly). An icon on the home screen lets you pull up a list of all of those archived apps, and the apps that you’ve “pinned” to the phone so that they can never be spirited away to archive land.
Need even more reassurance about what Robin is doing? The handset also sends you notifications to let you know how helpful it’s being (“7 apps and 1128 photos have been archived. You now have an additional 3.03 GB of free space,” read one).
All this information was helpful, but, honestly, it was too much. It seemed to be putting outsize emphasis on a process I’d want to simply blend into the background. Ideally, I wouldn’t even know (or care) what apps or photos were actually stored on the phone or on a faraway server; the phone would just quickly fetch whatever I wanted to access as fast as possible without making a big deal about what it was doing.
That’s not to say I don’t value control over how my data is backed up, though, and I appreciate how Robin lets you choose when to back up data, such as just when the phone is charging or on a Wi-Fi network, and you can decide whether or not to back up applications and photos.
Robin has clearly struck a chord with some consumers. It was a hit on crowdfunding site Kickstarter last year, where it raised nearly $1.4 million, which is far more than the $500,000 Nextbit hoped to bring in.
Investors are interested in it, too. In 2014, Accel Partners and Google Ventures pumped $18 million into the company.
And yes, it’s a pretty, capable unlocked phone at a decent price. But I’m not sure it’s really solving a huge problem, and that makes Robin a confusing potential purchase. If you’re really concerned about running out of space on your phone, it may make sense. Otherwise, the case for buying Robin over another Android smartphone is less clear.