How little can you spend on a phone in 2017 and still have a good experience? Companies like Lenovo-owned Motorola and BLU are pushing the envelope when it comes to the budget segment in the US. But, even a dated flagship can outcompete almost everything in the current entry-level market, and right now you can pick up one of 2016's most overlooked examples, the Nextbit Robin, for around $130 from Amazon. We think that deserves a second look.
We already reviewed the Robin once back when it came out, but with how fast the price has fallen recently, it's not the same phone it was. The perspective on a piece of hardware drastically changes with the cost, and we felt that, at this new low price, it really deserved a re-examination. Since we already reviewed it, don't expect things to be too in-depth, but I will cover details when needed.
32 GB internal / 100 GB online
5.2” IPS LCD 1080p, Gorilla Glass 4
13MP Samsung ISOCELL f2.2 aperture rear with phase detection autofocus, 5MP front
5.9" tall (149 mm) x 2.8" wide (72 mm) x 0.28" deep (7 mm)
This phone looks like the future.
Easily unlocked bootloader, excellent ROM support.
Stereo front-facing speakers are always a welcome thing.
Decent photos with enough light, camera lag was fixed.
Android 7.1 Nougat with mostly aesthetic-only changes. Updates promised to 2018.
Automatically uninstall unused apps, and pull them back down quickly. I didn't think I'd like or use the feature, but it works and may be convenient.
Charges fast over USB-C, and lasts longer than I expected.
The Not So Good
The 808 exemplifies Qualcomm's 64-bit dark ages. Runs hot and throttles hard.
It might look good, but it's a delicate phone. I'd be hesitant to even keep it in my back pocket.
There might be two of them, but they aren't great. 80% of the range is almost too quiet to be heard, and past that it is distorted.
Low-light performance is poor, over-aggressive sharpening muddies details.
It often doesn't work. Honestly, I wouldn't even consider it as having one.
Hardware warranties all expire at the end of this month.
What has changed?
When the Robin was launched, it had some notable failings. The product design was polarizing and physically weak, the cloud-related functionality was mostly overhyped, and the overall technical specifications of the device were just OK. The camera was slow to launch and capture images, and speed suffered greatly from the Qualcomm 64-bit dark ages. The Snapdragon 808 wasn't a great performer, even if it escaped the insane thermal throttling of its bigger brother, the Snapdragon 810.
Some of these problems were later fixed, like the slow camera, but by far the most significant failing was the price. At $400 the phone was almost identical to the Nexus 5X ($379 for 16GB at launch, lower later) which had one of the best cameras of any phone at the time. As a contemporary comparison, the IMX378 in the recent Pixel phones is quite similar to the IMX377 in the Nexus 5X/6P, but much improved. The Nexus 5X also fell very quickly in price, plummeting down to $300 by January 2016. In that market, at $400, the Robin just couldn't compete.
Fast-forward — past Razer purchasing Nextbit — into today's market. The Nexus 5X isn't available anymore, but the Robin can be bought new for $130 at Amazon, at the time of writing. It is no longer competing in the $300-400 price-point, it's moved down into the decidedly entry-level $100-150 segment. This is a market that is dominated by phones like the 4th gen Moto G, a smattering of Blu phones, the new Moto E4, and a cornucopia of older mid-range devices. And in this space the Robin's specifications don't just become competitive, they dominate.
With industrial design from Scott Croyle (of HTC fame), this phone was aesthetically ahead of its time. The two-tone super-thin 7mm matte-finished polycarbonate plastic slab fits better into the landscape of 2017 than it did when the Kickstarter for the phone launched in 2015. As someone who really enjoyed the design of phones like the Nokia N9, with its colorful machined polycarbonate body, the Nextbit Robin is right up my alley. Every time I pull this phone out in public, someone comments on it.
And it's not just the overall square shape, bright colors, or materials that make the design attractive. The best things about it might be the small touches and tweaks made to an otherwise featureless brick. The contrast between the similarly-sized round cutouts for the cameras, flash, and light sensor really stand out on the rectangular body, complimenting the shape with a stark contrast. The display is also perfectly centered, both horizontally and vertically. Even the round unlabeled volume buttons bulge out like bubbles. It's a very fun look.
The glossy plastic combination power button and fingerprint sensor is just barely sunken into the body, and that can make it a bit difficult to press. Add to that the fact that it almost never works right, and it's probably the single most frustrating thing about the Nextbit Robin in daily use. When even inexpensive phones like the Moto E can bundle a decent fingerprint sensor, it's unfortunate that the one in this phone is so bad. Being slightly recessed, it also gets gunked up around the edges pretty quickly.
With all its flaws, I'd honestly just recommend turning the fingerprint security feature off. A PIN, pattern, or password might be more tedious, but they are way more reliable.
The Nexus 5X still makes a great comparison when discussing the screen on the Nextbit Robin. Both phones have 5.2" 1080p IPS displays, but that is about where the similarities end. The two screens were not created equal.
The display in the Nexus 5X was very well calibrated to the sRGB space, which is the best you can really do on Android right now. Unfortunately expanded gamuts color spaces like the DCI-P3 offered on the OnePlus 5 don't really work as intended, since it just maps that wider gamut over the top of the default sRGB, resulting in oversaturation. Android itself doesn't have any system-level color management yet, and in the meantime targeting an sRGB color space is the best manufacturers can do for calibration.
So while the colors on Google's phone were very accurate, the Robin tends to be pretty over-saturated. Some people like that artificial "pop" of saturated colors, but keep in mind that what you see in media and photos on the screen will not reflect reality. If you are looking for an accurate display, the Robin won't oblige.
Screen on at max brightness and outdoors, both in shade (left) and direct sunlight (right)
The screen on the Robin is also dimmer than the 5X, which means it won't be as easy to use outside. In indirect outdoor light the screen was quite discernible and easy to use, but in direct bright sunlight it's only barely visible. The alignment of the polarizing filter on the screen will also start to be a problem at horizontal orientations. So if you use polarized glasses outdoors, keep in mind that you'll have to take them off or tilt your head to see the screen when taking photos in landscape.
There is also one small bit of exceptional weirdness worth noting with the screen. I can't tell if it's a result of the digitizer or FRC dithering, but there is a visible set of fine horizontal lines on the display. If you are nitpicky about that sort of thing, it might really bother you. I usually am upset by irregularities like that, but in this case, I've been able to tolerate it.
Overall, though it isn't well calibrated or exceptionally bright, the Nextbit Robin has a good display. And, getting 1080p for $130 isn't a bad deal when most phones in that price range settle for 720p. Even with its flaws, I'd be hard-pressed to find a better screen on such a cheap phone.
Performance and battery
As I've said at a couple of points so far, the Snapdragon 808 isn't a great example of performance. It’s not that fast. Compared to its successor, the Snapdragon 820, it performs quite poorly. Given the year between the 808 and the 820, that is to be expected, but even then, the 808 could be decent if it didn't run as hot as it does. Even the Snapdragon 801 and 805 devices I have can handily trounce it in terms of sustained performance.
When playing games like Pokemon GO in the summer city heat, I'd often be concerned about how ridiculously hot the phone was getting, all while performance would fall through the floor. So if you want to play a lot of demanding games, this phone might not be for you.
Storage speeds are middling, and while Wi-Fi performance was acceptable, the average LTE speeds pulled by the modem were surprisingly slow. In spots where my OnePlus 3 might pull 80-100Mbps down, my Robin was lucky to see 40, or about half the speed. The Cat.9 X10 modem in the 808 should be able to hit up to 300Mbps. Neither has MIMO support, so I'm not sure what the difference might be caused by.
Battery life varied. The 808 runs hot and sucks power, so compared to phones with a 400 or 600 series Snapdragon, it won't last as long. Even so, I was surprised at how long the phone went on a charge. In mixed use on both Wi-Fi and LTE, with a few moments spent playing games like Pokemon GO, I was usually able to get a minimum of 3 hours screen on time over the course of a day. With fewer games and more Wi-Fi coverage, I could stretch that to almost 5.
I think that most people will probably be able to make it a day with this phone, but it's going to depend heavily on how you use it. If you play a lot of games or do anything that might be CPU-intensive, it probably won't last very long. But, for the "average" user, I wouldn't expect any problems.
The Robin's camera is just OK, but when you compare it to others near $130, it's great. It has a 13MP Samsung ISOCELL sensor, f2.2 aperture, and no OIS. In adequate lighting, it does a decent job, but it can kill details a bit. You can also pull some depth of field on close-up shots. With direct or diffused daylight you should be able to take good pictures, but the quality falls off quickly as the available light decreases. And even in good lighting, expect some loss of detail.
On a close crop, you can see just how much detail you are losing. Whatever software that is at work edge sharpening is very over-aggressive. Combined with a long-exposure in mediocre lighting conditions, and things get even worse. Photos look more like an oil painting or Photoshop filter than an image taken by a camera. When cropping images past 100%, expect to see a lot of muddiness. If your use case mostly involves full frame images with filters for things like Instagram, you'll probably never even notice that anything is wrong, outside of low-light.
A tree at twilight, with flash on (left) and off (right)
The tiny sensor size and small aperture mean it really just can't pick up light, even with a long exposure. Add in the lack of optical image stabilization, and what images you can capture in dim lighting are inevitably a bit blurry, as you can see with the tree image above, as well as the ivy-covered house, subway train car, and archway. There's a ton of noise when using the flash, too.
So, don't expect the camera to compete with recent (or even older) flagships. But if you compare this performance to most phones in the entry-level price point, it does well.
The Robin launched with 6.0 Marshmallow. It was updated to 7.0 Nougat this March, and further bumped to 7.1.1 this June. Although Nextbit announced earlier this year that it was ending warranty support for the phone at the end of July, it was promised updates into 2018. While I doubt that means it will receive official images for Android O, at least users running stock won't have to worry about security updates for a while yet.
The stock launcher is pretty mediocre, and I immediately replaced it. I assume that Nextbit wanted to make things behave a bit more like iOS, because it forcibly adds all your apps to your homescreen. Mixing apps with widgets in the stock launcher also isn't possible. And, since the cloud functionality for uploading and downloading apps again works fine from other launchers, it doesn't seem to me that there is much of a reason to use it.
The Smart Storage "cloud" functionality is going to be polarizing, I think, but I liked it. Working here at Android Police, I tend to install a lot of apps that I'll never use again. Having older unused apps be removed as required to free up storage is the sort of thing I'd do myself manually, if I remembered to or ran out of space. And, being able to pull them back down with just a single tap was even cooler. With 32GB of storage, that isn't something most people are likely to run into (unless they take a lot of photos or videos), but it's still a potentially time and space-saving feature.
I know in our previous review that we complained that Smart Storage was too aggressive in uninstalling apps that were frequently (or even currently) being used. Something must have changed between then and now, because so far that particular problem hasn't cropped up for me. The behavior has been, if anything, a bit conservative.
The navigation keys might stand out as one of the biggest changes, but I like them. While the new icons might not be intuitive, I think the truncated circles are a lot more visually pleasing compared to the default icons.
The lockscreen time layout has been tweaked a bit. The time is set in a rectangle, with the hour above the minute in a vertical arrangement, accompanied by the current weather at the bottom. The lockscreen also has the same blurred transparency that the Nextbit Robin uses everywhere in the OS, like when pulling down notifications.
All the colors have also been tweaked to compliment the robin's egg blue hardware of the phone. Having your settings app and quick settings match your hardware in color is pretty unique. I don't believe that the darker color combo does the same thing, though.
Apart from these visual changes, all the basic features from stock Android that you would expect to find are here. You get the Google Assistant, the same Recents menu, the same Settings menu, the same status bar, everything you would expect to see on a Nexus. And if the visual changes don't appeal to you, there is some recourse.
The Nextbit Robin is a great phone for ROMing. If you know your way around ADB and fastboot, you'll never need to worry about software updates with this device. That's because, with one small exception, unlocking the bootloader on the Nextbit Robin is as easy as a Nexus.
There are a few strange things to keep in mind as you tweak things. Fastboot sometimes doesn't want to work without a specific set of drivers for the Robin, and you have to specify a custom vendor ID when sending commands like unlocking the bootloader. That's easy enough, it's just an extra flag and a bit of text to add to each command. But, remember that if you run into trouble.
Official TWRP images are also available so you can root the stock ROM, or even flash other ROMs. And there are a lot of them to choose from. All the standards you'd expect like LineageOS, OmniROM, and Resurrection Remix are there. AOSPA even has plans to release their latest N builds to the platform. So if you want a more purely stock look, you can toss on a ROM like LineageOS and just refrain from tweaking too many things.
You may have noted that there were many negative things I had to say about this phone, but that doesn't mean that I didn't like it. Quite the contrary, I think it is fantastic. I love the design and software, battery life is decent, and for the price, I don't think any other phones really compete. But, it has serious drawbacks.
The camera isn't perfect, performance isn't the fastest, and the display isn't the brightest. And if this phone was a $400, or even $300, I don't think I could recommend it. Because everything about it is a compromise. It isn't an amazing phone, it's just a pretty good phone. But, pretty good for $130 is fantastic in itself.
You get half the experience of a modern flagship. It’s got 3GB of RAM, not 6. It has two big cores on the SoC, not four. It’s got a 5.2” 1080p 400nit IPS display with oversaturated colors, not a 5.5”+ 1440k+ 1000nit calibrated AMOLED. Touch latency isn't crazy low, battery life is middling, the front speakers have two notches out of 20 that result in acceptable volume, and the phone isn't built like a tank. At the $400 launch price it wasn't worth it, and compared to contemporary midrange-to-flagships in that price range, it’s terrible.
But, it's 2017, this phone isn't $400, and you can buy one new right now for just $130 at Amazon. Compare it to the Moto E4, which is also $130. It's true, you get half the experience of a $400+ phone. But for $130, half the experience at a third of the price is a fantastic value.