The unlocked midrange flagship space in the U.S. is getting a bit crowded with vendors like OnePlus, ZTE, Alcatel and now even Motorola all vying for your dollars. Now, upstart Nextbit is the latest to throw its hat into the ring. Don't worry if you've never heard of them -- they have a better pedigree than most, made up of former Android engineers combined with the design chops of former HTC head of design Scott Croyle.
Its first phone is called the "Robin," and with it, Nextbit is also taking a novel approach to storage, utilizing the cloud to offer almost limitless device storage. It launched the Snapdragon 808-powered phone on Kickstarter today for $300 for the first 1,000 early bird backers, which sold out quickly, and $350 thereafter (and then $400 after the Kickstarter ends).
Before Nextbit decided to make a phone, it licensed its cloud technology to be included with Android phones sold by Japan's NTT Docomo and were also working with Cyanogen to add its tech to its OS. For whatever reason, though, this approach wasn't getting what Nextbit thinks is a revolutionary approach to mobile device storage into enough people's hands. So it decided to go it alone, and take its technology back in-house and only offer it on its own device to help bring its vision to the masses.
What the Robin does differently is link together the phone's 32 GB of internal storage with an additional 100 GB of cloud storage. This, of course, means there is no need for a microSD slot (cue the angry comments). This is nothing new, you might say. Everyone has Dropbox/Google Drive/One Drive on their phones, but where the Robin differs is that it doesn't just back up your photos and documents into the cloud, but entire components of the phone's software.
It intelligently figures out which applications and data you haven't used for a while and sends them up into the cloud. What are left on your phone are ghost icons of the archived app or data, and one touch brings it back down from the cloud. Also, it backs the apps up in the state they were last at, so when you go back to an app after pulling it back into your phone, it starts off just where you last left it.
For those concerned that this unattended shuffling of your data from phone to cloud is going to chew through your data plan, it defaults to doing this on Wi-Fi only. Though for those with giant data buckets, this can be turned off. Helpful LEDs under the logo on the back of the phone let you know when the Robin is connecting to the cloud. Because it's constantly backing up your device, it can even archive unused information if storage space is needed when you're offline, knowing that if the data is needed again, it's only a trip to the cloud away.
What Nextbit hopes is that by leveraging the cloud, it can make a phone that gets better over time, but intelligently reconfigures itself to fit your current usage. It also means that, eventually, the phone in your pocket will be just one of many panes of glass that gives you access to all of your apps and data that now reside permanently in the cloud.
Along with its cloud-first technology, the other stand-out aspect of the Robin is its design. Seeing as its design came from the mind behind many of HTC's iconic handsets like the HTC One M7 and M8, the design of the Robin is quintessentially HTC-like. Or should we really say One & Co-like, as that's the design firm Scott Croyle was working at when HTC acquired it to bolster its design department.
The Robin is made from metal and plastic with a Gorilla Glass 4 display, and it has a unique squared-off design and choice of colors (mint and midnight) that helps it stand out from the sea of similar phones.
You can also see a lot of attention to detail, at least in the 3D renders we've been presented so far, from the perforations of the speaker grills on the front to the placement of the camera lens and sensors. Despite this apparent level of craftsmanship that should elevate it above other $400 phones, we are a little concerned by its ergonomics. We're not sure how comfortable its squared-off design will be to hold for extended periods.
|Display||5.2-inch IPS LCD @ 1920 x 1080 (423 PPI), Gorilla Glass 4|
|SoC||Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 (MSM8992)|
|CPU Core||ARM Cortex-A57 (2x @ 1.82 GHz) + ARM Cortex-A53 (4x @ 1.44 GHz) [big.LITTLE]|
|GPU Core||Qualcomm Adreno 418 @ 600 MHz|
|Memory||3 GB LPDDR3|
|Storage||32 GB onboard / 100 GB online|
|Battery||2,680 mAh, non-removable|
|Front Camera||5 MP|
|Rear Camera||13 MP, f/2.2, PDAF, dual tone LED flash|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, NFC, 4G LTE, USB 3.0 Type-C|
|Special Features||Dual front-facing stereo speakers, fingerprint scanner,|
Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0
|Size||149 x 72 x 7 mm|
While the integration with the cloud is the Robin's headlining feature, the rest of the phone is nothing to sneeze at, either. As you can see from the specs above, although the Robin isn't a powerhouse device (to be expected from its price point), it is still a very handsomely equipped phone.
At least for now. There is the question of whether a Snapdragon 808 phone will be relevant four months down the road (when the first Kickstarter backers are due to get their units). However, if you look at the mobile SoC roadmap for the next six months, Nextbit doesn't really have any other choice, because the 808's replacement won't be out for some time. Although its specs do seem a little modest in other areas too, remember this is a $400 device, so there must be some compromises made.
We are pleased to see that equipping it with a decent set of front-facing speakers was important to Nextbit – this is a feature that oh so many smartphone vendors neglect. We also look forward to seeing how well the side-mounted power button/fingerprint scanner combo works, and it's nice to see that the Robin uses a USB Type-C connector for charging, and has Quick Charge support.
There are still quite a few questions remaining about the Robin's specs, and it may be simply because at this early stage perhaps they haven't locked down everything yet. For example, the information about the camera is quite vague, and we have no idea who is making its sensor. Of course, Nextbit could also be leaving some specs deliberately vague so it has the flexibility to perhaps upgrade some with Kickstarter stretch goals.
Other than the cloud integration, the Robin basically runs stock Android, lightly skinned with Nexbit's teal and gray RobinOS theme. The Robin is also more than just SIM unlocked -- it's also bootloader unlocked so you can install custom ROMs, and Nextbit promised that it will be "bloat free." It also said it will always be running the latest version of Android, so expect it to ship with Android Marshmallow unless there is some unforeseen delay in its release.
Although going the Kickstarter route is certainly less of a risk for Nextbit, there have been a few high-profile cellphone crowdfunding failures of late (the YotaPhone 2 on Indiegogo) which may scare off some potential backers. Despite the company's founder's backgrounds, with the Robin not in production yet, and the reliance on third parties (even if it is Foxconn), backing a Kickstarter is always a gamble.
The other problem is that by announcing this early in the development cycle to get funds from backers means that we won't be seeing the Robin is people's hands anytime soon. As we mentioned, the estimated delivery for early backers is January 2016, and that is if there aren't any of the characteristic Kickstarter delays. Regular backers won't see theirs until a month later at least, and those who miss the Kickstarter will have to wait even longer. Then, as we also mentioned above, who knows how well the Robin's specs will hold up in four to six month's time.
Despite all that, it doesn't seem that these concerns have deterred too many people, because presently, Nextbit has already blown past its initial $500K campaign goal. With 29 more days to go, Nextbit is surely going to raise a pretty big chunk of change.
Update, 9/02/15, 12:25am PT: Now that the initial goal has been reached, Nextbit has updated the Kickstarter with the first stretch goal. If it hits $1 million, "everyone gets a quick charger with their order.” Considering that quick charging is an advertised core feature of the Robin, it’s a little odd that a stretch goal is needed to provide such an essential accessory.
Alex Davies is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware and Tom's IT Pro, covering Smartphones, Tablets, and Virtual Reality. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow Tom's Hardware on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.