Nextbit Robin Review

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The Nextbit Robin exemplifies how to run and deliver a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign. What the folks at Nextbit have accomplished is actually really fucking impressive.

Rarely, if ever, do Kickstarter projects actually deliver a quality product within a reasonable timeframe when compared to their campaign promises. There are certainly notable exceptions, but in general, you’re quite fortunate if you managed to back a project that can deliver a campaign on time, with little to no delay. This is the inherent risk in backing Kickstarter projects. You’re kind of at the mercy of the developer, and there isn’t a whole hell of a lot you can do if things go south. My fellow ZNAPS backers know what I’m talking about. That project has gone from promising to straight up dumpster fire.

In what really seems like no time at all, the Nextbit Robin has officially arrived. In a crowded sea of minimalist wallets, cloud-connected belt buckles, shattered dreams and broken promises (aka Kickstarter) Nexbit has risen from small startup, to crowdfunded success story.

Considering all of the challenges and problems that could arise when building such a technically complex product, I was a bit nervous dropping $300 (special early bird Kickstarter price) $400 for everyone else, on a phone and a company I had never heard of. But occasionally, risks pay off.

In the case of the Nextbit Robin, those lucky first 1000 “early adopter” backers might have a real steal in their hands. Miracle Kickstarter campaign aside, I’m guessing you’ve come here to find out if the Nextbit Robin a good phone. That’s always a much more complicated question than it seems. So without further ado, let’s dig in.

Spec Rundown

ComponentSpec
COLORMidnight/Mint/Electric
DIMENSIONS & WEIGHT5.87" x 2.83" x 0.28" (149 x 72 x 7 mm) 5.29 oz (150 g)
OPERATING SYSTEMAndroid 6.0 Marshmallow
CPUQualcomm Snapdragon 808 MSM8992
GPUAdreno 418
RAM3GB DDR
STORAGE32GB + 100GB Free Cloud Storage
BATTERY2680 mAh + Quick Charging
CONNECTIVITY HSPA+: 850/900/1800/1900/2100 LTE (cat 4) bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/17/20/28
PORTSUSB Type-C, 3.5 mm headset jack Power Button/Fingerprint Sensor, Volume Buttons, On-screen buttons SIM: Nano SIM
DISPLAYSize: 5.2 inch 1080p FHD (1920x1080) 424 ppi Type: IPS LCD Gorilla Glass 4
CAMERASRear: 13MP phase detection autofocus with flash Front 5.0 Megapixel
AUDIOSpeakers: Front-facing Stereo speakers with Smartboost Microphones: Dual-microphone with noise cancellation

SIZE, BUILD QUALITY, & DESIGN 

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Size

Though not technically a “small phone”, the Robin is relatively tiny compared to some of the 5.5″-6.0″ beasts of the past few years. The first thing you’ll notice when you pick up a Robin is its light weight and thinness. Size comparison wise, the Robin is just slightly taller and wider, and lighter and thinner than the new Galaxy S7. It’s svelte attributes can probably be attributed to its mostly plastic construction.

The smaller form factor of the Robin makes the Nexus 6P feel like a fucking behemoth. The Robin is quite easy to use with just one hand, especially if you are accustomed to using larger phones.

Build Quality & Design

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Aside from the Robin’s first of it’s kind cloud storage/backup features, the most interesting thing about the Robin as a whole, is its design. I’ve heard a gamut of opinions regarding the Robin’s industrial design and color options. They range from “it looks like a toy” and “it’s fugly”, to “this is the coolest thing I have ever seen” and “it’s the most refreshing design I’ve seen in years”.

Design is, and will always be, subjective. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. But despite your opinions, you cannot deny that the industrial design of the Robin is unique. The Robin has strayed away from many of the popular building techniques/materials of the past few years and gone their own route. There is no metal to be found in the exterior construction of the device. It’s plastic all the way through. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Metal doesn’t make a phone, or its design better. It didn’t make the OnePlus 2 a great phone, it simply made it into a more rigid phone with metallic construction.

The Robin is very well built. The build quality is on par with the big boys, and the best part is that it looks as good as it feels. Personally, I really like the look and feel of the Robin. In an ecosystem chock full copycats (ahem…HTC) and similar design styles, it’s very refreshing to see someone breaking the mold and taking a risk. The Robin had to differentiate themselves, otherwise, they would be just another cell phone manufacturer trying to make their mark in an insanely difficult and brand-centric market. They needed to make a splash. What better way to do so than designing a product that stands out from the crowd, at least at first glance.

The front of the device features two unique circular speaker grilles and a front facing camera. The 5.2″ screen is housed in an attractive black slab of Gorilla Glass 4. The display is surrounded by a thin black bezel. The black bezel slightly detracts from the overall look, but it isn’t distracting. It would have been awesome to see no black bezel and a larger edge-to-edge screen, but maybe next time.

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Flipping the phone around to the backside, you’ll notice very simple yet attractive camera and flash setup, as well as the Nextbit cloud branding.

Though very hard to see when inactive, there are a series of four LED’s on the back of the phone. These LED’s are only active when the phone is initiating its cloud backup service. So it’s actually going to be kind of rare to see these in use. These rear cloud notification LED’s are cool, but as they currently stand, they seem a bit unnecessary, it would be nice if you could do something else with them, like use them for different kinds of notifications.

While we’re on the subject of notifications, I think I should point out a weakness of the Robin. One of it’s big ol glaring weaknesses is it’s notification system, or lack thereof. Other than possibly vibrating, there is really no way of knowing what type of notification you have. The notification LED is on the bottom of the device, near the USB type-C port. It works, but unless your phone is laying flat on a table, with the bottom facing you, you aren’t going to be able to see the notification LED. So if you use a stand for your phone, and you cannot see the bottom, you’re mostly SOL. To fix the issue, Nextbit could build an “Active Display” type notification system, and push it through an update, but as it stands now, notifications are an issue.

The top of the phone features a standard 3.5 mm headset jack.

The left side of the Robin features two separate volume up and down buttons. Despite being attractive and blending in nicely with the look of the phone, I find these buttons can be a bit difficult to find when you’re blindly looking for either the volume up or down.

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On the right side lives the power/fingerprint sensor button combo. I love the idea of the fingerprint sensor being on the side, but I think the implementation on the Robin could have been better.

Now that I’ve used the Nexus 6P, I don’t like how I have to push the button before it can read my print. Maybe that’s not fair, but if it were possible the following issues wouldn’t matter nearly as much.

I strongly dislike the fact that the button is indented into the phone. It makes sense on phones like the GS6/7 and iPhone where the surface area of the sensor is much larger. This makes the button easy to press, easy to find, and easy to scan. I just don’t understand why the button is indented like that. Perhaps it’s a technical limitation, or maybe Nextbit just felt like indenting the button was the right choice. If the button was just ever so slightly raised from the device (like the volume buttons), it would be a shit ton easier to press, easier to find, and more pleasurable to use. More on the actual sensor and how well it works later in the review.

SOFTWARE AND PERFORMANCE

Software

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The Robin home screen, notice the lack of an app drawer.

The Robin sports its own custom version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow. I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near “stock Android” but it’s not such a huge departure that it requires any kind of learning curve. But there are a bunch of customizations here and there.

The home screen is where the biggest departure from stock Android lies. The “iPhone esque” home section of the UI is basically your new app drawer. All of your apps will be listed here. The typical app drawer can be accessed, but it’s slightly hidden in the everpresent blue menu button on the bottom right of the home screen. This is also where you can access any archived apps that may have been backed up and temporarily removed.

You cannot remove apps from your home screen, but you can rearrange. All arrangements must be done manually. There isn’t a way to automatically arrange apps into alphabetical order or anything like that. They are arranged the way they are downloaded. This really sucks if you are restoring your Robin from a previous phone. If you have a lot of apps, it’s going to take awhile to get everything organized. Most of the time I found myself just using the standard app drawer to find the app I was looking for.

You cannot use widgets on the home section either. Widgets now live by themselves in a separate screen only accessed by pinch gesture on the home screen. I could see this being a big turn off for some people that must use widgets on their home screen, such as a calendar or clock widget.

In general, the UI is easy on the eyes and functions well, but there are a few quirks that you’re gonna have to learn to live with. But, if you don’t like it, you can always use the Google Now launcher or use a custom launcher like Nova.

Cloud Backup

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The Robins cloud backup options

The Nextbit Robin’s most unique feature and claim to fame may also be the hardest to test. To save valuable local storage space on your phone, the Robin backs up photos (sorry video), and applications automatically to the cloud, and temporarily removes the app from your device. Just tap the grayed out app to restore (assuming you have a data signal). Backup works in any way you want, over cellular, only via WiFi, only via WiFi while charging, etc. So there is no need to worry about data usage, or power consumption. Cloud backup is optional and can either be turned off or simply disregarded. You are not forced to use it.

Cloud backup is difficult to test because I can’t see a way to force backup an app. You can pin an app so it is never backed up and removed. But I don’t see an option to do the opposite. I’ve heard many reports that the technology works quite well, and is mostly seamless. Apps are backed up and restored as if nothing had ever happened, everything is just as you left it.

If you are a storage hog, cloud backup could be very beneficial for you. But if you are a typical, everyday, non-power user, you might find that 32GB might be enough by itself.

Performance

The Robin is powered by a Snapdragon 808 processor and 3GB RAM. Though technically “old” by technology standards, the 808 performs admirably given most situations. Navigating the UI is mostly snappy and web pages load quickly and browse smoothly. But it’s not all is puppy dogs and rainbows.

The Robin does exhibit some lag here and there. It’s difficult to point fingers at the hardware or the software, but my money is on software. Camera performance (opening and closing) could use some improvement. More on that in the camera section. Other performance issues are present in the UI.

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For example, when opening the vertical app drawer (the “All apps” button above) I experienced a delay of up to 3-4 seconds before the drawer opens. It doesn’t stutter, it just hangs there like you haven’t clicked anything, waits 3-4 seconds, then opens. Very frustrating if you use the drawer often. But like I said before, most of these issues can probably be solved via software update.

Back to the fingerprint sensor for a second. Despite my quips above, most of the time, the fingerprint sensor works like a charm. It’s generally fast and accurate. But I’ve had a few issues with the sensor not recognizing my thumbprint, regardless of how my print is positioned. If it fails to recognize your print after six attempts, you will need to unlock via alternative security method. This issue seems like another software bug so hopefully it gets patched sometime in the near future.

DISPLAY

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The FHD 1920 x 1080 screen of the Robin is just about par for the course. The IPS panel is bright, has great viewing angles, and fares quite well in outdoor usage. Colors look good but aren’t quite as vibrant as some of the top notch AMOLED screens on the market. The same can be said for blacks, nowhere near AMOLED, but good enough given the display type. The display is not extraordinary, but it is almost exactly what you would expect from an IPS panel.

The one concern I have with the display is ghosting. When scrolling up and down pages, or going left and right on the home screen, there is a slight ghosting effect present. It’s almost like a blur effect when something is moving. I find the ghosting effect is most apparent with scrolling text.

CAMERA

The camera on the Nextbit Robin is about what you would expect from a midrange device. It’s nothing spectacular or earth shattering, but it can shoot some pretty decent photos and videos.

Photo

The 13MP camera performs admirably given adequate lighting conditions. But, as is the case with most smartphone camera’s, if you decrease the light, you can count on a decrease photo quality. The stock camera app features a full on manual mode, which is great, as well as burst fire, similar to the Nexus phones. I was able to pick up a decent amount of detail in some of the photos I took, using all stock settings.

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The Robin’s camera interface

The biggest issue I have with the camera is the performance. It’s slow to launch and slow to take a photo. Big no-no’s, considering how impulsive photo taking can be, sometimes that extra second or two is the difference between getting a good shot and missing it all together. I can only assume that the camera will continue to be worked on and updated as the Robin matures, so I expect it to get faster after a few updates, but as it stands right now, it’s a little too slow to be reliable.

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Nextbit Robin Photo Samples

Video

Video also lies in the passable, but unexceptional category. The camera lacks OIS, but is capable of taking 4K video. Short video sample below.

SOUND & CALL QUALITY

I really expected the sound and call quality to be a bit better considering the dual speaker setup.

Call quality is acceptable using the phone’s earpiece. When using the speakerphone, the volume was quieter than I would have liked and slight distortions were present when the phone was at full volume.

The same distortions can be found when playing back media at full volume. The volume was relatively loud, but since some distortion can occur at full volume, you may have to settle with a lower volume setting.

I was unable to get HD calling to work on T-Mobile which is slightly disappointing. HD calling isn’t something you would miss if you had never used it, but since I have, receiving “normal” calls that should be HD feels like a step backward.

BATTERY LIFE & CHARGING

Battery

The Robin’s battery capacity is nothing to brag about. Compared to the competition, it falls a bit short in total capacity. Coming in at a minuscule 2680 mAh, the Robin provides a great lesson in spec vs real world performance.

A small battery doesn’t always equate to poor battery life. In the case of the Robin, it’s actually the opposite. I have found the battery life to be quite stellar. It has easily gotten me through every day of testing, with moderate usage, and without needing to plug in. You’ll still need to charge every night, but it should get most of you through your day.

I’m not a big mobile gamer, so I can’t report on gaming battery life, but while running standard apps, making tons of calls, texting, and plenty of web browsing the Nextbit Robin does an admirable job managing its battery life.

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The Robin’s battery results aren’t too bad.

Charging

Oddly enough, the Robin is the first smartphone I can ever remember to NOT ship with a charger. Nextbit says that it’s an environmentally responsible decision to not include a charger with the phone, but I think we all know that not including the charger decreases costs and creates extra profits from separate purchases. Most of you probably have a spare charger lying around anyway, but if you don’t, you’re going to need one.

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You can purchase an official Nextbit quick charger directly from their store, but at $400, I feel like it should have been included with the phone. Relying on second-hand, or potentially cheap aftermarket phone chargers isn’t always a good thing. Using an official charger allows you the piece of mind that you are A. charging your phone safely and B. charging at maximum efficiency (as fast as possible).

The Robin also supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0. Charging the Robin is reasonably fast, it doesn’t quite compare to the likes of the Moto X Pure edition and other ultra-fast charging devices. But, considering the fact that you may not even be using the official charger from Nextbit, charging rates are going to vary depending upon the type of charger and cable being used.

CONCLUSION

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A valiant first effort.

I have followed the Nextbit saga since the very first announcement and rumors started floating around. What they accomplished with their Kickstarter campaign and delivery is nothing short of amazing. In all honesty, the Robin probably functions better than it should, given the enormous mountain they had to scale just to get here.

But in the end, they delivered a phone into a market saturated with high-quality sub $400 devices, so they must be judged in the same manner as anyone else. You don’t get leniency for being the new guy. It may be unfair to put Nextbit up against the LG’s, Moto’s, and Samsungs of the world, but they are Nextbit’s main competition. If you show up to play, you gotta play against your competition.

We can’t always make purchases with our hearts. Sometimes our stupid gray matter gets in the way. Everyone loves and underdog, and I will continue to support Nextbit as long as they survive. The Robin is a fantastic first effort, and a truly hope they do well enough with the Robin to make a sequel.

That being said, and given all of the extreme competition, should you purchase the $400 Nextbit Robin? It’s not an easy decision, but yes and no. It’s up to you.

Buy the Robin if you, like to tinker, are a gadget nerd, love the unique design, want to stand out from the crowd, or you just want to support an up and coming American startup. The bootloader comes unlocked by default, so it might just be the ultimate hacker phone. The Nextbit development community is still in its infancy, but it’s only a matter of time before some amazing community development comes to the Robin.

Don’t buy the Robin if you want a low maintenance device that just works. You are essentially buying a work in progress, if this isn’t for you, you should probably pass on the Robin.

I know that my review of the Robin has had it’s fair share of negative’s, but almost every issue I have had with the Robin (maybe not the power button) can probably be addressed in some way via software fixes, improvements, and custom developments. I look forward to watching the Robin mature.

I love what Nextbit is doing, and how they have handled their entire campaign. They have nailed communication, and they have produced a solid (but flawed) device. I am definitely looking forward to its successor.

  • Richard Heasman

    Really great review man. Could you answer me a really (probably very obvious, stupid question) – I have an Iphone 6 (hate it) – im just going to buy a Robin purely because of all the reasons you say to buy it, but im on an EE (UK) Sim – can i just wack this into the Robin and proceed? I guess that’s what unlocked means, right? Thanks!

    • ETR

      Thanks for the kind words. It requires a nano SIM. If your carrier is GSM and the Robin supports its bands and frequencys, you should be good to go. Once you put your SIM into the Robin it should just work!

      • Richard Heasman

        Thanks brother. One last thing – One Plus Two, or the Robin? ;)

        • ETR

          Tough call. The Robin has a better fingerprint scanner and NFC. But the OP2 is cheaper, easy to buy, more mature software, and has a big dev community behind it. About equal everywhere else, they both have several pros and cons. But the Robin is probably the more interesting device.

          • Richard Heasman

            Cracking, thank you for the help, appreciate it. Last question: how does the Robin feel? The OP2 strikes me as feeling quite premium, but the Robin could be quite plastic?

          • ETR

            The OP2 feels great in the hand. It’s solid, heavier, and more industrial feeling. The Robin feels a bit more streamline and smooth, and lighter. The build quality are strengths of both devices.

  • Sathish Balaji

    Launch in india as soon as possible and please do improve the camera in taking snaps and battery charge make it stand by and launch in india with 4G Frequency band so that people will love to move to robin damn sure…