Making Android phones is hard. You have a whole world full of competitors, some with billions of dollars to throw around on software and hardware development, marketing, and exclusive partnerships or content deals. You have to do something to make your phone stand out, while at the same time satisfying the sky-high demands of a vocal community of enthusiasts who will roast you alive for the slightest perceived infraction.
And don’t even think about developing your own mobile OS, whether it’s based on Android or not. If Amazon, Microsoft, and BlackBerry can’t hack it in the phone market, what hope does your startup have?
Color me curious, then, to learn about what Nextbit plans to do to get its foot in the door. The company, which is led by veterans from HTC and Google, is nearly ready to launch its debut phone, Robin. Robin will go on sale in January, but Nexbit has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to gauge interest and scale its initial manufacturing run.
What is Robin?
Robin is an upper-mid-tier Android phone. It’s got the specs you’d expect from a phone that will sell for around $400 unlocked. There’s a Snapdragon 808 processor, 5.2-inch 1080p display, 32GB of storage, 3GB of RAM, and NFC. According to the list of supported bands, it should work well with all four U.S. carriers. In a nod to the tinkerers in the Android community, it ships with an unlocked bootloader, and Nextbit will support the phone even if you mess around with rooting and other enthusiast activities that typically void your warranty with other phones.
It has a 2680mAh battery, which is a bit on the low side, but with a 1080p display and Snapdragon 808, together with really lean software, the phone could still have decent battery life.
It’s got a USB-C connector like the OnePlus 2, but unlike that small-startup direct-market phone, this one supports quick charging and USB 3.0 speeds.
It’s got a couple of neat features, like stereo speakers with dual amplifiers and a fingerprint reader in the power button on the side, but there’s nothing on the spec sheet that would excite Android superfans. It’s all fine—it’s what you’d expect for the price—but the core specs are not what I would call ambitious.
But Robin isn’t just a phone. For starters, it doesn’t look like all the other Android phones, which either follow the curved-back approach of the original HTC One, or look exactly like the latest iPhone. Robin is, for lack of a better term, highly designer-y. It’s a simple rectangular slab without the rounded corners that have become de rigueur on smartphones. The ratios and symmetry and button placement…it all has a very carefully considered look. For better or worse, it looks and feels like a phone for which the designers didn’t have to compromise with the engineers or marketing department.
It comes in two colors: midnight and mint. Mint is…interesting. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that shade of blue on a personal electronic device before. I don’t think it will be all that popular, but it’s definitely not one of the same old colors we always see.
I’m not sure why Nextbit named its first phone after a bird. It is my sincere hope that its second phone is named Batman.
It’s all about the cloud
Robin, of course, comes with Nextbit’s own spin on the Android OS. It looks and acts like stock Android—which I prefer—except in one important way. Nextbit has built cloud storage into the core of the operating system.
As soon as you set up your phone, it starts backing up apps and data to the free 100GB of cloud storage Nextbit provides to each user. When you finally fill up the phone’s 32GB of storage, it automatically starts “offloading” (read: deleting) stuff that it has backed up to the cloud. It’s not nearly as scary as it sounds.
Nextbit’s OS uses an intelligent algorithm to offload items that you are not likely to use. If you haven’t fired up Clash of Clans in 6 months, for example, it might be the first to go when your phone storage fills up. The game’s APK is already backed up to the cloud (but none of your personal data for the app, like login info and settings). So the APK gets deleted, leaving behind a grey “ghost” icon. If you decide you want to play Clash of Clans again, you tap the icon and it re-downloads the app, filling in the color on the app icon. Fire it up and it’s as if you never deleted it—all your personal settings and login info are still on your device, as they don’t take up much room.
Photos and videos are automatically backed up, too. Because those contain personal information, they’re encrypted on the phone with a phone-side encryption key before being sent to Nextbit’s servers. Nextbit couldn’t look at your photos and videos if it wanted to (even if it gets a warrant for your data from the FBI). As you reach the limit of your local phone storage, high-res photos and videos are dropped in favor of screen-resolution images, with the full-size version safe in the cloud.
But what if you want the big image back? What if you want to email the full-res photo you took of your cat being just so cute? Well, the file picker will have indications of what is stored on the cloud, and you can choose to attach either the full-size image or the small screen-size image. The latter may be all you need for, say, an MMS message.
I’m told that if 100GB proves to be too be insufficient storage for many users, Nextbit will just bump up the limit. Nextbit doesn’t plan to make money selling online storage, but rather to use it as a differentiating factor to sell phones. And of course, there’s a little slide-out drawer on the home screen that lets you quickly see which apps are in the cloud, or to pin an app so that it never gets delet...er...”offloaded.”
And naturally, the software is smart enough not to eat through your limited mobile data or drain your battery. All that cloud uploading happens only when your phone is plugged in and on Wi-Fi by default (you can make it more aggressive if you wish).
The cloud is not enough
Of course, all the neat automatic cloud storage in the world isn’t going to make people want your phone if the camera stinks, or if it doesn’t perform well, or is buggy, or doesn’t get rapid OS updates.
Nextbit knows that Robin needs to meet certain “table stakes” when it comes to premium smartphones. The display needs to be really good, the battery life long, the sound quality excellent (with stereo speakers and two amplifiers, it’ll likely do well there). Perhaps most importantly, the camera has to be awesome. The latest from Samsung and LG have seriously raised the bar on camera quality, and “good enough” is not good enough anymore. Robin is launching in January, so it had damn well better be ready for a world in which the iPhone 6S is already in millions of pockets.
Robin uses a top-of-the-line 13-megapixel image sensor from Samsung with phase detect autofocus. It’s got the hardware, but Nextbit admits the software just isn’t ready yet. It takes months of hard work by hardcore imaging experts to tweak, tune, and iterate. The company is aware that the camera has to easily take awesome photos in a wide variety of conditions, all with lightning-fast performance. But it will be a few months before the camera quality is good enough to show off.
Frankly, it’s too early to judge most of the intangibles about Robin. The company only has early EVT (engineering verification test) samples from its manufacturing partner, Foxconn. They’re barely functional, not up to the final standards of fit and finish, and not really indicative of the finished product. The software was demonstrated to me on a Nexus 5, because the Robin phones don’t work reliably yet. That’s completely normal for a product that is four months from shipping, however.
I do know this: the first batch of phones will ship with Android 5.1.1, which will be out of date by January—Nexus phones will get Android 6.0 this fall. Nextbit says they’re already working on their 6.0 software and will update the first batch of phones very quickly after the January launch, while phones that ship after the first few production runs will have Marshmallow already on them.
Will customers bite?
The real question is: are Android fans going to want one? The cloud features of Robin are interesting, and they solve a real problem—I’ve heard plenty of friends and family members complain about their phones being out of space. But is it a saleable feature? Do people buy phones on “doesn’t run out of space?” I get the impression they do not, or else the world wouldn’t still gobble up 16GB iPhones for $700.
Certainly, building cloud features into the core of the operating system is an idea that has legs. There’s no end to the awesome stuff you can build on that concept. Imagine buying the next phone and having everything just as it was before—the same screen layout, same apps, all your login info and settings, everything. Imagine being able to log into your phone from a web browser anywhere in the world. These aren’t features Nextbit can offer now, but it’s the direction they want to head in.
At least for now, Robin will have to compete in the crowded “premium sub-$400” market for Android phones by leaning on standard features like battery life and camera quality as much as its newfangled cloud features.