Hands On With the Nextbit Robin Phone

1 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Hands On With the Nextbit Robin Phone.

The market for sub-$400 Android phones has become quite saturated, but the team at Nextbit, which includes execs from Google and HTC, believes it has something that will set it apart from the pack. A little over a year ago, we broke the news that Nextbit, a company founded by early Android veterans, had raised $18 million dollars for… something.San Francisco startup Nextbit is the latest to throw a new device into the mix with Robin, a reasonably priced Android phone with flagship-worthy specs.Nextbit spent two years assembling a heavy-hitting team of mobile veterans and all summer teasing the Internet with promises of a smartphone revolution. It comes with 32GB of internal storage, but has 100GB of cloud storage in which to store your content – be it apps, videos, photos and so on – when you start to run out of onboard memory.

The handset, which made its debut on Kickstarter Tuesday, offers an approach to storage that its creators say could help fix device storage problems for good. Nextbit’s software, which runs on top of Android, is designed to learn your habits and automatically offload photos and apps that haven’t been used in a long time to the cloud to free up storage as necessary. So why would Nextbit, an app-making startup, want to try and enter the fray? “Right now, most every smartphone looks and works pretty much the same and we see that as an opportunity,” Tom Moss, Nextbit’s CEO, told me in an interview. “The iPhone owns the high end. After weeks of teasing out little details on Twitter, Nextbit has finally spilled the beans on what they’ve been working: Robin, a “cloud-first” Android smartphone.

It’s a deliberately spartan approach, argues Croyle, but that’s just the starting point. “You take what is an otherwise austere form, and you add these little approachable details.” A closer look at the phone reveals a pervasive circular motif, which can be seen in everything from the indented speaker grilles to the cameras, to the volume buttons, and all the way to the icons on the screen. Those not so quick on the draw can still get a discounted price of $349, but if you wait for general retail — expected sometime in early 2016 — you’ll have to shell out the full $399.

I got some time with the executive team and prototype phones last month, and I’m convinced they’re real, which is more than I can say for some phone start-ups. I stopped by the company’s San Francisco office one day last month, about a week after the team got its first working Robin prototype, known as an engineering validation test or EVT. The only reason the power button isn’t round as well is because it has an integrated fingerprint sensor — though it does have a friendly color accent.

So you can have everything you want (in the cloud), and just what you need (on your phone).” The firm is promising to ship the device with Android 6.0 Marshmallow onboard, assuming it’s available at the time of release, currently pegged for Q1 2016. Scott Croyle, chief product and design officer, holds it in one hand, rubbing its seams with the other. “EVTs, they’re ugly,” he says. “The gaps aren’t right, the buttons aren’t flush, the paint job is crappy, it’s not the right color. Taking tips from the likes of Motorola and Wileyfox, Nextbit is also promising zero bloatware. “Because we’re going direct to you, Robin has zero bloatware. Instead, we think there’s a new high-end for Android around the $400 price point that can be just as compelling for consumers, if the ideas behind the software and hardware are right.” Nextbit’s debut device, the Robin, is only just reaching prototype stage, though from what I’ve seen, it promises to be a phone unlike any other you can currently buy.

Unlike the OnePlus 2, though, Robin is equipped with a fingerprint sensor, NFC (so it will be Android Pay-ready) and supports quick charging via its USB Type C connector. Nextbit’s team includes former Google and Cyanogen executives, HTC’s former design director, and a well-respected guy who has been a journalist and a PR person. From a software perspective it’s just barely running.” He turns to Josh Morenstein of Branch Creative, the design firm hired to help create Robin. “This looks like shit!

It’ll start culling the local, high-res copies of your older media while leaving the lower, screen-res thumbnail in place for quick access; meanwhile, apps you use less frequently will be backed up and removed, its icon replaced with a grayed-out “shadow” icon. You and I know we would never ship this, but you know, it’s a good first start.” It’s proof, Croyle believes, that this crazy gambit is going to work.

How much of a difference all of this makes to the eventual user experience is debatable, but it’s certainly nice to know that every element of the design has been carefully thought out. Rather than trying to hide speakers behind small slats, the Robin has a circle of drilled dots, which made me think of speakers designed by Dieter Rams. Next time you want to access that photo or app, just tap it — it’ll get pulled down from the cloud, restored right back to the state it was last in. The founding idea of Nextbit, which everyone there explains in almost exactly the same way, is that we’re overdue for a smartphone software redesign. “When iOS started development and Android started development,” CEO Tom Moss says, “that was 10 years ago.” He’d know: He was on the Android 1.0 team at Google.

It’s a nifty solution to a problem that every smartphone owner is painfully aware of: as our phone’s cameras get better and better, our pictures and video get bigger and bigger. So was Mike Chan, Nextbit’s CTO. “Networks were much slower,” Moss says, “Wi-Fi was much less ubiquitous, and AWS hadn’t democratized cloud to the extent that it has, right? The device also comes with an unlocked bootloader and open source drivers, and Nextbit promises that, even if you load CyanogenMod onto the smartphone and brick it, for example, it’s still under warranty. So because of that, a lot of choices were made that result in user pain points today, which could actually be alleviated by leveraging the cloud in the way we’re doing.” By connecting your phone to the Internet—not just through apps and notifications, but at every corner of the operating system—Nextbit believes it can make your smartphone more powerful than its spec sheet. Croyle points out that there’s “no rocket science to it, but it’s not a linear set of decisions.” Every time you make a choice about one component, you have to consider how that interacts with your earlier choices and how it will affect your other options.

The Robin’s metal backplate, for example, acts as an electrostatic discharge shield for the side-mounted fingerprint sensor, but it also has an invisible cutout to accommodate the phone’s NFC radio. It has a Snapdragon 808 processor, 3GB RAM and a 2,680mAh battery, alongside 5MP and 13MP cameras, a built-in fingerprint sensor, and a 5.2in Full HD display. Its fingerprint sensor is built into the sleep button, on the side of the phone, as opposed to the larger circular buttons found on Apple and Samsung’s fingerprint sensors. Notably, Android now integrates Google Photos at a very deep level… and its biggest features are unlimited photo storage (for photos up to 16MP) and automatic backup with removal of local photos when space gets tight.

A great example of the complex interplay of component choices is the camera. “When you do a phone, you’d be surprised by how few choices you have as an OEM,” says Croyle. “Essentially, you only have two vendors that you’re choosing from: Sony and Samsung.” With Sony facing supply shortages, the Nextbit team opted for Samsung, but then their choice was further constrained by the fact that certain chipsets only support certain camera modules. So, having already settled on the Snapdragon 808 as the Robin’s processor, Nextbit had to work with Qualcomm to ensure proper support for the phase-detection autofocus in its camera. The Robin’s 5.2-inch 1080p display looks great, though it isn’t as pixel packed as the Samsung and Motorola flagships which offer four times the resolution. I’m looking around for ways to spend more on the camera, and I can’t spend any more!” Although every decision in the makeup of a phone is, at least to some extent, dependent on every other, there is a rough order to which part is picked when. For now, it means when you buy a phone from Nextbit—which you can do starting today, through Kickstarter, even though they won’t ship until early next year—you’re getting a lot more storage than your hard drive.

You’re getting a phone that’s constantly backing up and synchronizing your stuff, and can intelligently delete things you don’t want to make more room for things you do. Predictably, the goal was the unattainable ideal of “something that would fit in our pocket, but give us the biggest screen possible.” They ultimately picked 5.2 inches as the best tradeoff between those conflicting aims, having produced a number of mockups to test their ideas. When the 32GB of local storage on the phone is used up, it will free up space by moving unused apps and files over to the 100GB cloud allotment tied to the handset.

But the phone isn’t permanently removing apps and photos; low=res versions of images remain cached on the device, while apps that have been offloaded maintain what Nextbit calls “shadow icons.” Those apps still appear in your app tray, but the colors of the app icon will be grayed out to indicate the change. Instead, they had some physical device models not running the specialized software, and a Nexus running the Robin software, so I couldn’t test how it all comes together. Croyle and Chan didn’t waste much time settling on a 1080p resolution for the Robin, so the next objective was to find a processor that would power everything you’d want to do on that display in the most efficient way possible. In a brief demo given by Nextbit Chief Technology Officer Mike Chan ahead of the Robin’s Kickstarter campaign launch, I got a chance to check out the data management system in action.

Backups, for example, only happen while connected to power and Wi-Fi; other high bandwidth tasks, like downloading a high-res image, can only be completed over a data connection with approval. Even in a preproduction state, the software worked flawlessly when tasked with clearing space on a phone by deleting apps and media, starting with the oldest and least used items. And when you want any of it, you’ll get it back just it was before.” Moss argues that his team has put together the right mix of tweaks to the Android operating system and unique hardware to build a smartphone that will be coveted by consumers. This was partly down to Nextbit’s nature as a tiny startup: the company wanted to be sure there would be plentiful supply and no nasty surprises along the development path.

It’s only when you go to your home screen and see the grayed-out icons for your apps that you realize the phone has been moving files around in the background. This decision was informed by the power consumption of the processor, the overall industrial design requirements, and the original choice of screen size. Not unlike China’s OnePlus, Nextbit is aiming to bring relatively high end specs to a device that’ll run somewhere between $300-400 (depending on when/how you purchase it.) Even beyond software/hardware, though, the competition already has a lead in a way thats historically tough to replicate: its community. He was making metal phones before metal phones were cool, and is as responsible for the current smartphone aesthetic—chamfered edges, brushed metal, plastic strips for antennas—as anyone. It could have been the case, had Nextbit prioritized battery life, that we’d now be looking at a Robin with either a 6-inch display or a thicker chassis, but neither pleased the company’s designers.

The team from Nextbit also said that this tech could be used for other purposes, such as optimizing your photos for you or maintaining the out-of-the-box speed you get on a new phone, but reps refrained from making any concrete promises. OnePlus, for example, has excelled at capturing a loyal base of fans that act as its evangelists, and it’s something they’ve been working on for years.

Robin is the first Android phone that can push lesser-used apps off into the cloud, keeping their data, logins, and statuses intact, and re-fetch them when needed. They tell me they’re going to be as transparent as possible about the process of building a phone, with a series of behind the scenes videos on what went into making it. Robin is hitting Kickstarter this morning with a campaign goal of $500,000. $299 gets you a phone if you’re one of the first 1000 — after that, it climbs to $349. The final piece in the company’s design puzzle will be heeding feedback from Kickstarter backers and users and looking to integrate it into future designs.

Google Ventures and Accel Partners are investing in the company, and Foxconn, which assembles iPhones for Apple and Xboxes for Microsoft, is Nextbit’s manufacturing partner. Still, the company will make sure not to break compatibility with the main branch of Android. “We’ve done some enhancements to Android, but they’re actually pretty lightweight,” said CTO Mike Chan, another ex-Googler. “We want to enhance it, not change or derail it.” Robin will not be sold by any U.S. carrier, and the unlocked phone space in the U.S. is getting pretty crowded.

This brings to the surface what is perhaps the least appreciated aspect of phone design: its outcome depends as much on the designer’s circumstances as it does on his or her creativity. Unlike the Moto X Style, though, the Robin will initially be restricted to T-Mobile’s and AT&T’s networks only, further limiting its potential user base.

Moss said Nextbit is just hitting the beginning of an accelerating curve. “We do believe that the direct-to-consumer market is growing, and will actually accelerate its growth pretty dramatically over the next couple of years,” he said. In that time, Moss says, Verizon will permit LTE-only devices, making more unlocked phones available on its network; technologies like software SIMs will make it easier to change carriers; and device financing and subscription models will move beyond carriers to manufacturers, letting makers like Nextbit advertise the same “zero down, $20/month” deals you currently see from carriers. “We’re not here to fight over a small pie. This trend of direct-to-consumer sales, selling high-end devices—to people instead of carriers—for a price that makes everyone happy, is taking over the industry. Nextbit’s particularly interested in OnePlus; from its invite-management system to how it cultivates fans, it has become the leading example of how to do a hardware startup well. Soon, people will start caring about the real price of their phones, and they may balk at paying $700 for an Android flagship when there are so many attractive, lower-priced alternatives.

Morenstein shows me sketches of crazy phones with crazy backs, phones with weird materials, phones with weird shapes, phones with weird materials weird shapes. Or that the two sensors on the front—the proximity sensor and camera lens—aren’t hidden or flanking the speaker, but are two identical circles on the left. But I like the idea of demystifying that.” Croyle and Morenstein together are prone to flights of designer-isms, talking about “honest” designs and the character of the device. Robin was supposed to be shipping by now, but Nextbit is working with Foxconn to make the device, and the process has taken longer than anyone expected. Only then can he finally stop testing everything on his Nexus 5. “You’re going to notice something’s a little different on this screen,” Chan says, gesturing toward that Nexus 5.

At first glance, the phone looks like any other—there’s a seafoam green aesthetic to the wallpaper, and Nextbit has redesigned some of the icons, but it’s just an Android phone. Unlike most devices, which are developed to a certain level of done-ness and then shipped so the company can make some money and move on to the next one, Nextbit’s set up a system that could make all of its phones better over time, and it already is pondering what comes next. Without the clout or marketing budget of some of its competitors, or the first-mover advantage of OnePlus or Xiaomi, you might wonder if a few beautifully machined speaker holes and some extra space for photos will be enough to stand out. “You on any piece of glass,” he says. The stuff we think you need for that particular form factor, at that particular time.” It’s a big vision, and Chan—the guy responsible for building this stuff—says it’s a ways away.

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