Nextbit’s Robin Is An Android Smartphone That Taps The Cloud For Bonus Smarts

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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. Something secret.

Today, they’re finally pulling back the curtain.

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.

So what does “cloud-first” mean? At least initially (the company suggests that the cloud integration will only get deeper in time), it means smart, automated offloading of your photos, videos, and apps to free up the local storage space on your device.

Robin has 32GB of storage built in. As you fill this, it’ll automatically back up your photos and apps to a private 100GB box on their cloud server.

Trying to record a video, but your local storage is nearly full? 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. 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.

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. Losing that once-in-a-lifetime photo to an “out of storage” error is awful.

But, at least on the photo front, it’s also a problem that Google itself is cranking away at solving — and one where they’ve already made pretty huge strides. 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.

Taking that same approach with apps, though, is clever. Apps are getting bigger and bigger each day, as their developers embrace more frameworks and are required to support a wider array of devices with varying resolutions. No one wants to manage their apps manually. Nextbit promises to automatically offload the apps you haven’t used in a while, and to do so in a way that should be mostly seamless; once the app is pulled back down from the cloud, it’ll still be logged in and ready to go (though the company assures me that the app’s login credentials never leave your device.)

Nextbit’s phone is running a deeply modified version of Android, which makes sense given its co-founder’s pedigrees: CEO Tom Moss previously lead bizdev on Android, and is a board member at Cyanogen. CTO Mike Chan, meanwhile, was a software engineer on Android from its first release up until Honeycomb.

But Nextbit’s play isn’t purely about the software — they’re also building a device of their own. And they’ve got someone pretty damned impressive leading that charge: Scott Croyle, the former head of HTC’s hardware design team. He’s the guy behind the HTC One M7 and M8, a design which is still oh-so-visible in the HTC’s current flagship device, the M9.

Here’s their first phone, Robin:

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On paper, at least, it’s a beast of a device.

While the device is still a work in progress, I played with a looks-like (read: non-functional) prototype. It feels quite nice in the hand, with seemingly sturdy construction even in this early stage. My favorite touch is a small, but nifty one: there’s a fingerprint reader built into the power button on the side, as opposed to the face/back, allowing for it to read your pointer/thumb print (for quick unlocking, for example) while holding the phone as you normally would otherwise.

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. 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.

With that in mind, Nextbit will try to hook fans early. 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. Meanwhile, they’ll cater to those people who obsess most over their phones by opening it up to modders from day one: it’s sim unlocked, the bootloader is unlocked (read: you can flash Cyanogen or any other version of Android onto it), the drivers are open source — and even if you manage to brick the device while tinkering, they’ll honor the warranty.

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. After the Kickstarter campaign, they expect the phone to retail at around $399. Nextbit tells me the first batch of handsets should ship out in January of 2016.

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