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Android Headliner: Can the Robin’s Cloud-Focused Software Keep Up?

January 12, 2016 - Written By Tom Dawson

Towards the end of last year, an upstart firm was making headlines in the mobile space for their fresh approach to the Android smartphone. Nextbit, a company put together of people previously from Google, HTC and elsewhere is looking to rethink the way we approach and use “the Cloud” where the smartphone is concerned. For the past five years or so our smartphones have gotten ever-more useful and now offer a dizzying array of features, but there are two big bottlenecks holding the whole experience back; storage and battery life. Nextbit make no claims to fix the latter with the Robin, but they’re all over the former, and when the Robin ships to Kickstarter backers next month, users will hopefully reap the benefits of what Nextbit has been working on.

The concept for the Robin seems convoluted and complicated, but is ultimately easily-explained. The Robin will ship with 32GB of onboard storage and then 100GB of online storage. When the 32GB inside of your Robin gets close to being full, the phone will automatically archive things you haven’t used in a while and send it off to the cloud, ready to pull down again when you want it. Certain apps and content can be pinned to your device in order to keep it on your device permanently, but the idea is that the software will be so smart that you won’t have to pin items you use regularly at all. We suppose that while our smartphones are named as such, the Robin is trying to be a truly intelligent device.

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Speaking of software, this is where Nextbit could face their biggest problems. Having nailed down the hardware some time ago, the software is all that’s left, and it appears that the company is facing a few problems there already, having missed their January shipping date for backers already. Considering that Mike Chan, who worked on Android up until Android 3.0 Honeycomb is a Co-Founder of Nextbit software shouldn’t be a problem for the Cloud-centric upstart. However, in the world of Android, the more it’s messed with, the more difficult it can become to update and ultimately keep plugging along, so the question remains whether or not the Robin’s software, which is pretty much the whole point, stand the test of time and keep up with the rest of the market?

We got to spend some time with the Nextbit Robin during CES 2016 and we were pretty impressed with the current state of the software, which was Android Marshmallow 6.0.1 at the time. Nextbit originally promised that they were going to bring the Robin to market with the latest version of Android that was available, and they’ve done just that. The big question here however, is how long will their custom version of Android stay up-to-date and whether or not there will be big road blocks when the next version of Android hits sometime later this year.

Updating Android has obviously gotten a whole lot better over the past three or four years, as Google slowed their releases down, releasing one version a year since Android 4.4 KitKat launched in 2013. Key components that keep an Android device “current” like Google Play Services have made a big impact as well, allowing devices that are running a version or two back to stay up-to-date with apps and content from around the web. The Robin, unlike devices with different themes such as Samsung’s Galaxy S6 Edge and LG’s V10, faces a larger struggle however, which could lead to more complications than first expected.

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The whole concept of the Robin requires some pretty deep changes to be made to Android, most prominently how the device handles storage. With 100GB of online storage, the Robin is flexible in what apps and content it keeps on your device, offloading rarely-played games and barely-used apps in favor of giving you a little more room for something new and more useful. This is a new concept compared to how other Android devices manage storage, in fact the majority of Android devices out there – Google’s own Nexus line included – handle storage just as poorly as a Windows 95 computer would way back in the day. If you’re running on near-empty, your Nexus 6P will simply tell you as much, asking the user to get cracking on deleting or offloading content and apps elsewhere to free up some space. It’s this fundamentally different way of handling a core operating system feature that has me wondering whether or not the Robin is reaching a little too high when it comes to software features.

Should I be worried though? Nextbit might be the “new thing” right now, but the company was founded way back in 2012. More to the point, one of Japan’s biggest networks, NTT DoCoMo, decided to use Nextbit’s Cloud backup option to keep their customers’ data safe and sound. This is a network that has some 60 Million subscribers, so for them to choose Nextbit’s technology has to say a lot about the company’s ability to deliver where their online services are concerned.

With Mike Chan on staff, the team has someone that knows the foundation that modern versions of Android are built upon, and despite changing the way the device handles storage and a few icon changes, there doesn’t seem to be much that the team has “messed around with”. Of course, even if the software that ships with the Robin isn’t to your liking, the team has options available to you outside of their not-so-walled-garden.

As per their original Kickstarter campaign, the Robin will ship with an unlocked bootloader and “open source drivers” which will allow users to come up with simple root access hacks and in the future slap on any version of Android they like. Out of the gate, there won’t be much for people to do with it, but over time we’re sure more ROMs, Kernels and tweaks will become available. In this respect, the Robin is more Nexus than well, a Nexus, as the bootloader is already unlocked and begging to be tweaked around with. This approach has garnered OnePlus a hardcore following of fans around the world, so there’s no reason it can’t work for Nextbit, either.

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The hardware side of things was always going to be good, thanks to Nextbit having some of the talent responsible for the HTC One M7 and M8, arguably the two best phones HTC has ever shipped. With a distinctly digital, yet friendly appeal to them, the Nextbit Robin pair of phones look pretty sharp, and they’re certainly not your standard pair of handsets, either.

All the pieces of the puzzle seem to be in place for a pretty great end product, and where updates are concerned, Nextbit themselves said to us that the Robin will be supported for 24 months’ worth of updates, and the model we saw at CES 2016 was already running security updates dated January 1st. Keen to point out that they don’t have to deal with the carriers where updates are concerned, the Robin should receive updates pretty quickly. We have about a month until the device starts to make its way to the first wave of backers on Kickstarter, and for the first time since OnePlus burst onto the scene, we have a different type of smartphone company to watch develop throughout 2016.