"Nothing excited me in mobile in the past few years," Tom Moss says, leaning back in an office chair. Far as he's concerned, smartphone makers -- especially those working with Android — have spent way too much time crafting hardware and not nearly enough effort on innovating software. That's why, when the bug to build something new bit again, Moss gathered an Android dream team to build a "cloud-first" smartphone called Robin.
Robin -- which just launched on Kickstarter for $299 and up -- is a charmingly boxy phone with a 5.2-inch 1080p screen, a USB-C port, and one of Qualcomm's hexa-core Snapdragon 808 chipsets with 3GB of RAM. That's the very same slab of silicon you'll find in LG's G4, and if the rumors hold up, Robin should give LG's forthcoming Nexus plenty of competition in the performance department too. Not shabby at all, but the Nextbit team couldn't be prouder of how its software differs from regular ol' Android. Swiping through an early build of the Robin's software feels like stock Lollipop with a twist you might miss. The thing is, Robin only has 32GB of storage built right into it, but it's linked very tightly to 100GB of cloud storage. Enter the secret sauce: Robin's software will figure out what apps and data have gone untouched lately and shuffle them up into ethereal storage space. You shouldn't have to delete things when your phone runs out of space, team Nextbit says, because your phone should have already done it.
When Robin deletes an app you haven't been using, a ghost of it remains on your homescreen — one tap pulls the app's data back down into the phone, preference data still intact. (A quartet of LEDs will blink on Robin's back when it's archiving things.) You won't want Robin to even consider deleting an app you use often, so you can pin it on the homescreen to keep it. More importantly, they really mean it when they say 100GB of "free storage". Moss is adamant that the company won't charge its customers extra money for extra storage space; if enough users get too close to the 100GB cap, Nextbit would rather raise that ceiling for everyone. This isn't a controversial idea, but Robin treats the cloud as a crucial part of the system, not just an afterthought.
None of this means Nextbit skimped on the hardware side though, especially since former HTC design lead Scott Croyle helped bring it to life. It's a slim slab done up in one of two (for now) color options, lending each phone a teensy bit of character. Niceties like NFC, front-facing speakers and a tiny fingerprint scanner on the side round out the package, along with a 13-megapixel camera that Nextbit seems especially proud of. Oh, and the bootloader is unlocked for some custom development action, just to prove Nextbit knows what the nerds like. I spent only a few moments playing with an engineering prototype, but the package felt tight and well-constructed. Nextbit just might have a winner on its hands.
Then again, it's hard not to see pitfalls lining Nextbit's roads. Cheap competitors like OnePlus have developed rabid, vocal fanbases. Big names like Motorola have ventured into the same waters with highly polished devices. Nextbit is betting that smarter software will make our smartphones more than the sum of their parts, but the very real -- and scary -- truth is it just might fail. Every time we publish a phone review, our comment sections are lit up with people livid over the loss of microSD slots -- can't see them embracing something like this. Fortunately, Nextbit has plenty of time to work on wowing the rest of us: those first Kickstarted units won't hit until later in the year.