Nextbit Robin: free from clutter, but not free from flaws (list of preinstalled apps at the end)

Nextbit-Robin-feature-image

Nextbit Robin Factory Unlocked Phone – Midnight ★★★★☆


Update: On 1/27/17, Nextbit was acquired by Razer (the gaming hardware/software company). As of now, they are saying that the Robin will have one more year of software updates, and a 6-month hardware warranty. The Robin has been taken off sale in official channels (if you are buying this on Amazon, it’s likely through a seller that has some in stock still), and the manufacturing of new models has ceased. As of this update (02/02/17), I have yet to see what the official word is on Razer continuing the 100GB of cloud storage. Seems like an unusual acquisition, but hopefully Razer’s reputation will mean good things for the Nextbit line of phones (and won’t mean poor things for current owners of the Robin).

Update: On 1/09/18, Nextbit announced their cloud storage sync server will be shut down on January 15th (01/15/18). App restore will be gone. You can download your stored cloud pictures at https://cloud.nextbit.com until the shut down date. Still no news on Razer taking over the cloud storage in the future.


Nextbit-Robin-nano-SIM
Uses nano SIM

Note, even though this phone is unlocked, it won’t work on Verizon Wireless or Sprint. There was a CDMA version in the works, but it was canceled before launch. It does, however, work for LTE and HSPA bands such as T-Mobile and AT&T. Also, this uses the smaller Nano SIM like the iPhone rather than the slightly larger Micro SIM that is found in many android phones. For instance, I have both the Note 4 and LG G4, which use the micro SIM so I had to get a nano from my cellular provider. T-Mobile charges $20 for a new SIM, but they gave it to me free because I’ve been a customer for 9-years. Since there are times that I switch between phones, I also ordered a SIM adapter kit for a few bucks. The nice thing about owning the smaller nano SIM is that you can easily increase its size with an adapter to work on macro phones. That way I can still use the Note 4 and G4 when I want to.

SETUP

The phone came at about 50% battery life, so I charged it before using. Setting up the Robin was pretty simple and easy. If you already own an android phone, you can copy over your Google Accounts, apps and data. You just need to have NFC turned on in your other device (for me, it was my Note 4). Then hold the phones back to back. While this seemed to work, for whatever reason, the Robin was extremely slow at downloading and installing my apps. (Rather than transferring them from the old phone to the new, it simply accesses the download location on the Google Play Store.) After waiting several hours, I decided to do a factory reset on the Robin and just installed everything fresh. This worked more smoothly and wasn’t bogged down when downloading.

Nextbit-Robin-back-of-phone
Back view of Nextbit Robin

DATA

Nextbit-Robin-APN-TMobile
Info needed for MMS to work

It picked up my T-Mobile data pretty well; was able to access email, the app store and browse the internet. But I was getting errors when people sent me MMS messages, which is basically texts that contain images, video, or audio. To fix this, I had to go to Settings > More > Cellular network and then click on “Access Point Names.” From there, I selected the T-Mobile US 260 entry, which was defaulted to on, then added T-mobile’s massively long URL ( http://mms.msg.eng.t-mobile.com/mms/wapenc ), and then added “mms” to the list under  “APN type.” (eg. It now shows, “default,supl,mms”). After rebooting, I was able to see media in texts. I don’t exactly know why this was necessary as there is an APN record called “T-Mobile MMS” on the list already, but it wasn’t working.

The good news is they didn’t leave out the tethering and portable hotspot feature. I use this when I’m out and about and want to either give data to my iPad Air or the phone I’m letting my daughter use that doesn’t have an active SIM. While there isn’t a shortcut for the Home screen to turn the hotspot off or on, you can toggle it from the menu that appears when you drag down twice from the top of the screen.

BUILD

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Phone in packaging with directions and USB-C cable

As far as the Robin’s marketing goes, the cursing in the product video seemed a bit childish to me, but I get they are trying to be trendy and hip and aim for a more modern crowd. Keeping that in mind, I found it ironic that their original white/teal design looked a bit childish; more like a toy. Thankfully they offer a midnight version, which [IMHO] appeals to a more mature taste. I was worried that the boxy design wouldn’t sit comfortably in my hand, but because I have large hands that didn’t prove to be an issue for me. Granted — since the Robin is so thin and not very wide — I found it a bit awkward to hold in two hands when typing on. It will take some practice to get used to, but I can see a case helping here by adding bulk. What I did find slightly uncomfortable about this design was the pointed corners when in my front pocket — not that it poked me, but I definitely felt a difference. I also find that the polycarbonate material makes the phone somewhat slippery. Since there’s no texture on the plastic surface to add friction, I worry it will slip out of my grip and go crashing to the ground. I did notice that the more dry my hands were, the more slippery the phone was. Ironically, moisture seemed to add to the friction and increase grip. A good case can solve this problem altogether.

STORAGE

Even though the product video shows a phone falling in a toilet, the Robin does not provide water resistance; in fact water or liquid damage is not covered under warranty. Nextbit is simply showing that their storage will back up the phone’s data should it get wet and destroyed. While there is no microSD expansion slot, the Robin tries to make up for this by adding cloud storage. Of course cloud storage requires either a mobile data plan or a connected WiFi to work. Most users have data nowadays, but not everyone (myself included) pays for an unlimited plan. As a T-Mobile user I technically have unlimited data, but in all honesty it’s near worthless once the high-speed cap is reached. I tried downloading the Yahoo Sports app while past my limit and it gave me a 60-minute download time. Have unlimited high-speed data? That’s great, but consider you may enter a dead zone that cuts you off.

Nextbit-Robin-SIM-slot
Nextbit Robin nano SIM slot and tray, comes with key to open SIM bay but does not have a microSD expansion slot

Not only that, but WHAT you can backup is limited. Unlike a micro SD card where you can drop any files you like, the cloud will only store app data and photos; videos and music and other files are not supported. This means those types of files will eat at your 32GB internal storage (which is really 24.5GB after accounting for the preinstalled apps and OS). Want to take a lot of HD videos? This might not be the best phone for you. That said I back up my photos and videos using Google Photos, and as long as you don’t care about Google shrinking the size down a bit, you can store an unlimited amount for free.

By default, the phone will only backup to the cloud when it is on WiFi and plugged in. You can also set it to do so over data and remove the charging restriction. Similarly, you can tell it to only back up photos or to only back up application data (both are on by default). Things that get offloaded to the cloud will be grayed out when they’re offline. Thankfully, the cloud attempts to only back up less used apps and data, so chances are this won’t be a huge issue. You can also pin an app to the phone that you want to have access to at all times, that way it won’t get nabbed up by the cloud.

I think the cloud storage is a good idea, but I don’t see it as a true replacement to a good old micro SD card. Especially if for some reason the company goes under and they cancel their service. If Nextbit did it perfectly, they’d have offered both as an option.

HARDWARE

Nextbit-Robin-Note-4-LG-G4-Side-by-side
The Note 4 (left), Nextbit Robin (middle), and LG G4 (right) share some similarities

While the Robin’s rivals are arguably the OnePlus 2 and Moto X Play, one could compare some of its base hardware to the older flagships like the Samsung Note 4 and LG G4. For instance, all three have 3GB of RAM and 32GB of built-in storage. The Robin doesn’t quite hold up to the 16MP cameras of the Note 4 and G4, but it isn’t too far behind at 13MP. The front camera is 5MP, which is lower than the G4’s 8MP, but larger than the Note 4’s 3.7MP. Interestingly, the Robin shares the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 hexa-core processor as the G4, but is slightly faster at 2 GHz vs. 1.8 GHz. The Robin matches the Note 4’s Gorilla Glass 4 while the G4 only uses Gorilla Glass 3. What I find the least competing is the 1080 x 1920 pixels with 424 ppi, which is smaller than both the Note 4 and G4’s 1440 x 2560 pixels with 500+ ppi. It also falls short with a smaller 2680 mAh battery: the Note 4 has a 3220 mAh and G4 a 3000 mAh. If you are playing Pokemon Go as much as my daughter, this will suck up real fast, so I recommend a portable battery charger depending on how long you are away from a standard power source.

Nextbit-Robin-stacked-view
Nextbit stacked on top of Samsung Note 4 (middle) and LG G4 (bottom)

One other thing that sets the Robin apart from the Note 4 and G4 is the absence of a removable battery. Personally, I prefer a removable battery for a last-resort-hard-boot, to swap with a fully charged battery, or to replace down the road if the battery starts getting old and weak. Granted, with the short shelf life of most cellphones, this is becoming less of an issue.

Fingerprint Scanner

Nextbit-Robin-side-view
Side view of Nextbit Robin, displaying power button that also acts as a fingerprint scanner

Like the Note 4, the Robin has a fingerprint scanner to unlock the phone. It looks and works differently, however. With the Note 4 you have to slide your thumb across it, while the Robin is a simple press. Because the Robin’s fingerprint scanner is on the upper right side, it’s much easier to access. The Note 4 can get awkward at times with the button at the bottom, and is somewhat difficult to do one handed. The Robin got this right, and it works effectively. I stored both pointer fingers and my right thumb, that way I can easily unlock the device regardless of what hand I’m holding it in or if it’s sitting in my car mount.

Camera

When the phone is in standby mode, you can quickly activate the camera by double pressing the power button, and if you double press it again it will take a photo. Granted, the double press causes the camera to jiggle and thus more often than not a blurry picture results, but you can also tap the screen to take the photo to avoid the extra movement. There is a bit of a delay when snapping a shot at times, and it can take several seconds for the camera to fully load; which may be too late if you are trying to capture a moving object.

Charging

Nextbit-Robin-Plugged-In
Comes with charging cable, but does NOT comes with a wall charger

Oddly, while there is a charging indicator light, it only shows one color — white — and the light stays the same regardless of whether the phone is charged or being charged. Basically, this means you can’t tell when it’s finished without pressing the power button and seeing the status on the screen. When the phone is turned off and plugged in, the white light pulsates every three seconds. When the phone is turned on and plugged in, the white light stays lit. Whether your battery is at 20% or 100% the light color and pattern stays the same. It would have been nice for it to at least blink or something when finished so I can tell from a distance. Also, this is the first phone I’ve had that didn’t come with a wall charger, which seems kinda cheap on their part. You’ll either need to use an existing one you own, purchase one separately, or plug the cable into a USB port on your computer. The good thing is that the Robin does support Quick Charge 2.0, but as mentioned, you’ll need to purchase a quick charger separately.

Nextbit-Robin-Charging-Cable-USB-C
USB Type C plug replaces Micro-USB

While it’s nice in one sense that the Robin uses a USB Type C plug — a newer technology even faster than USB 3.0  — I’d say 95% of my devices use Micro-USB. That means my existing cables won’t work. As far as chargers go, the only charger I have an issue with is the one that has a built-in Micro-USB connector. Thankfully, my other chargers use the standard USB plug (aka USB-A), so, while the Robin uses USB Type C for the phone, the other end of the provided cable can still plug into a standard USB-A port. Since Apple adopted the USB Type C technology, hopefully this format will be around for a while and I won’t have to update all my cables yet again in the foreseeable future.

Speakers

There is no physical home button — that round circle on the bottom is a second speaker. While the dual speakers provide more sound, they can sound a bit flat. Not only that, but if the volume is turned up there are times when it crackles. It’s especially noticeable with voices, such as when listening to the robotic voice on Google Maps. If it didn’t sound fine when playing music, I’d almost swear the speaker had blown.

WiFi and Headphone Jack

Nextbit-Robin-Headphone-jack
Headphone jack fits snug and secure

One Amazon reviewer mentioned WiFi issues when streaming Netflix videos. I tested watching Netflix and had no issues at all. Sure, initially it might take the video a minute or so to fully load to remove the grain, but once it’s loaded it became smooth for me. As far as volume level goes (using the 3.5mm headphone jack) it was just as loud as my Note 4; if not a tad louder. I tested this using my Bose SoundSport headset and listened to the same song, switching back and forth between the two phones at full volume. Both were so loud it was easily beyond safe hearing levels. As note, the song I listened to was streaming through Amazon MP3 and I didn’t have any choppiness either. I wonder if the user had a defective phone, or if there were issues with their WiFi router. As for myself, I’m using the D-Link DIR-880L through a SurfBoard SB6121 modem connected through a 50Mbps TimeWarner plan. While I did have issues downloading apps when trying to copy my data through my old phone, I’ve not had any issues with a fresh configure. A 61MB app took about 20-seconds to download.

SOFTWARE

Nextbit-Robin-drag-down-menu
View settings icon by dragging down twice

Initially, I was surprised that “settings” wasn’t available when I did a drag down from the top of the screen, but I found the trick to this. Drag down, and then drag down AGAIN. The second drag down will reveal the settings icon at the upper right along with a more detailed battery indicator (shows the % remaining in number form).

Like the Huawei OS, there is no app drawer. Meaning, you don’t get a menu button that shows all the apps on your phone. Instead, they are placed on your home screens. This is more similar to iOS than typical Android, but like iOS you can simply categorize apps into folders to keep things cleaned up and more organized. Instead of showing a folder icon, it shows three icons from the group stacked together. (eg. You can name folders such as Games, Production, Reading, Music, Media, etc. – if you don’t name the folders, it will just show the icons.) Additionally, an A-Z listing of the apps is accessible at the bottom-right corner of the screen, so you can easily find them without having to ransack numerous folders.

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App notification number on Note 4, but none on the Nextbit Robin

For whatever reason the app icons don’t show alert numbers on them when you have something pending. For example, I have Word With Friends installed. When it’s my turn to make a move, on my Note 4 and iPad it shows a number indicating how many turns I have. On the Robin, it doesn’t show anything. I personally miss this feature as it let me know which apps I need to take action on. Granted, there’s still an alert sent in the notifications bar, but those are easily dismissed without actually completing the action.

Nextbit-Robin-all-apps-menu
App menu

While the dock at the bottom only lets you store four apps, in a sense you gain a spot that isn’t forcibly being used by an app drawer. I’d have liked to be able to add a fifth app icon there, but interestingly, you can add folders to the dock. Meaning, you can add more apps by overlaying them on top of one another. For instance, I place Hangouts on top of Messaging, and the Handouts icon peaked out behind the messaging one. When you click it, they open up like a folder and from there you can click on which app you want to open. I also like that you can uninstall apps on the home screen (like the LG G4) rather than having to navigate to the Settings and Apps menu (like the Note 4). All you need to do is long press an icon, and then drag it to the upper left where it says, “Uninstall.”

That said, I’m not fond of how the Robin handles widgets. Before, you could mix app icons, folders and widgets on your home screen. Now, you can only put app icons and folders there. Widgets require two fingers to pinch before a window opens to display them.  This would be fine if I wanted lots of space for widgets and if I wanted them separate, but I don’t. I liked having my weather displayed at the top of my home screen for a quick glance at the temperature, and I liked having commonly used app icons below it. I can’t do that with the Robin; I have to pinch to see the weather information — but that’s not the only widget I use, I also have music, audio book, and quick volume button widgets (eg. Home, Work, Sleep, etc.) that I want quick access to. Being forced to pinch to see them is a pain to do one handed; try holding the phone in one hand while pinching with two fingers. It’s doable, but awkward and increases steps to get to a place that came up instantly before. This is especially a pain when my phone is sitting on a mount in my car. Try pinching while driving after already having to unlock the phone. No more quick and instance access to widgets.

While speaking of widgets, the only one that appears on the home screen is the Google Search bar. I don’t want it. When I search Google, I open Chrome. What’s more annoying is it appears on every single home screen panel. When long pressing the Google Search bar it doesn’t give me an option to remove it like I get with app icons. After doing some research, I found the only way to torch the bugger is to disable “Google App” from the apps menu. Although, all that accomplishes is to get rid of the Google Search bar; it didn’t let me put anything in its place so all I had was an unusable whitespace at the top of every home screen window.

Nextbit-Robin-Charging
Plugged in to charge, but how well does it work plugged into a computer?

Another issue I had was connecting the device to my computer to transfer files. On my Windows 10 box, I plugged in the Robin and Windows found drivers for it, but when I put the phone in either MTP (file transfers) or PTP (photo transfers) it would only open a blank folder. By blank I mean Windows recognized the device — showing the internal storage drive — but it wouldn’t let me access the folders on it. Also, when trying to add a file or folder, I just got errors saying, “The device has either stopped responding or has been disconnected” or “Cannot copy [file name]. The file may not exist or cannot be transferred.” I searched Google and did everything recommended in multiple forums, but still no good. I even went to far as to delete the drivers stored for the Robin for each USB port in the registry, then downloaded and installed the Robin_USB_Driver_v1.0.1 listed on their forum. After rebooting both Robin and PC several times, trying different USB ports, reinstalling drivers, etc., I got frustrated and gave up. On my Windows 7 box, I plugged in the Robin only for Windows not to recognize it. That said, when I installed the drivers mentioned above, it worked. For whatever reason I’m not able to get the Robin USB MTP or PTP to work on my Windows 10 box, but I was on Windows 7 using their custom drivers that I installed manually. It’s important to note too that the Robin defaults to “charging” every time you plug it into the PC, so you’ll have to pull down your notifications tray on the Robin, select “USB for”, and choose MTP for each use.

Preinstalled Apps

Nextbit-Robin-inside-box
Box and packaging the Nextbit Robin comes in, but what about the default apps?

Now, with all that bad stuff out of the way, here’s the real gem with the Robin. Compared to flagship creators like Samsung, the Robin is free from a lot of junk. Every Samsung I’ve ever owned was riddled with grayware and bloatware — and more than half of it was irremovable or un-freezable, not without rooting. Even my LG G4 came with junk apps, though not many as my Note 4. Not only are these unwanted apps annoying, but they take up storage space and eat up physical memory, which causes the phone to slow down. While strongly driven by Google apps, the Robin has few apps overall, and the ones it does are mostly useful. No crazy ad riddled games or pointless antivirus leaches eating up memory. This is especially important since this phone doesn’t have an app drawer, which means junk would be even more in your face. The one thing I will say that does surprise me is that you cannot uninstall any of the preinstalled apps. That said, a good number of them can be disabled. Another item to note is that the Robin doesn’t come with a file browser, but you can easily nab a free one such as ES File Explorer or ASTRO File Manager on the Google Play Store.

Below is a list of apps on the phone along with the control you have over them. (Note: there are more apps under the system, but most of them are for functionality such as the fingerprints service.)

Apps on the Home Screens

  • Google Play Store
  • MSL Google Apps in one folder
  • Android Pay
  • Clock
  • Contacts
  • Downloads
  • Gallery
  • Settings
  • Calculator

Apps on the Dock

  • Phone
  • Messaging
  • Google Chrome
  • Camera

Apps that CAN be Disabled

  • Android Live Wallpapers
  • Android Pay
  • Calculator
  • Google Calendar
  • Camera
  • Google Chrome
  • Contacts
  • Device Policy (comes disabled, can enable)
  • Downloads
  • Google Drive
  • Gallery
  • Gmail
  • Google App
  • Google Keyboard
  • Google Play Games
  • Google Play Movies & TV
  • Google Play Music
  • Google Text-to-speech
  • Google Play Store
  • Google Zhuyin Input
  • Google+
  • Hangouts
  • Google Maps
  • MusicFX
  • Phone
  • Google Photos
  • Settings
  • SIM Toolkit
  • Smart storage
  • YouTube

Apps that CANNOT be Disabled

  • BarCodeProject
  • Clock
  • Google TalkBack
  • Google Play Services
  • Messaging
  • Nextbit Launcher
  • Nextbit Wallpapers
  • Settings
  • SIM Toolkit
  • Smart storage
  • Voice Search (cannot disable, in fact, I don’t see it under the app list in settings)

Overall, for the value, I think you are getting a nice device. It has a distinctive design, unique cloud storage backup, solid fingerprint scanner, and isn’t littered with junk. That said, I would have liked a larger and removable battery, a microSD expansion slot, widget support on my home screen and an included Quick Charge wall plug. I’m also longing for better cases; hopefully makers like Otterbox and Spigen will get into the game at some point.

→ Click to view Nextbit Robin on Amazon

Nextbit-Robin-box
Nextbit Robin box
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Protective packaging on the Nextbit Robin phone

 

 

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