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New Robin smartphone has its storage in the clouds (hands-on)

An online locker for your photos and apps may be this Kickstarter phone's most distinguishing quality.

Now playing: Watch this: Nextbit's Robin phone stores your stuff uniquely
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Kickstarter phone company Nextbit is trying something different with its Robin, a spare, square-sided Android handset set to ship in January 2016.

Instead of trying to cram the phone with as much internal storage as it can (like Asus' new phone with its humongous 256GB of storage), the Robin will store all your overflow photos and even apps on its online servers. This cloud-first approach gives you 100GB of total storage when you factor in the 32GB you get on the phone -- so that's 68GB for your online locker right now, with the option to get more if Nextbit expands your allotment (or, as I suspect will eventually happen, when you pay for more).

Other phone makers have offered third-party cloud storage services like Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox and Google Photos. What's different here is the company's cohesive, built-in method that won't require you to sign up for services on your own while wondering if you'll have to delete old files to make room for the new.

If successful, Nextbit's sky's-the-limit approach to solving the storage problem could make its phones cheaper and easier to produce, where other phone makers might have to produce and sell variations with larger storage options in order to meet customer demand. If unlimited content is always handy, Nextbit won't have to worry about criticism that the Robin doesn't have an expandable microSD card slot, or enough onboard storage.

I got a chance to check out a preproduction version of the Robin, and can share my thoughts so far. Since both hardware and software are still essentially in prototype phase, you and I will both have to cut the company some slack, and save judgement for the final product.

Cloud storage: How it works

The idea is that when you run out of local space -- or when you haven't looked at a photo, video or app for a long time -- Robin automatically removes the asset from the phone and saves it to the cloud to free up space. Don't worry, its creators say. You'll hardly know this has happened, and you'll be able to retrieve your content very quickly when you need it.

The Nextbit Robin's LED dots light up when you're connected to the cloud. Josh Miller/CNET

Say Robin uploads a photo album from two years ago. When you look on your phone, you'll still see the thumbnail in a lighter gray (I'd call this "ghosting"). Just tap it and wait a few moments for the photos, or app, or whatever, to download again and let you open it up.

In theory this seems like it should work, especially if you're willing to trade, say, 10 seconds here or there to redownload your stuff (it's all preproduction now, so I can't say how long it would take when all's said and done, but it would largely depend on the size of the file you're trying to download and how fast your network connection is.)

Robin will use Wi-Fi by default, but you can override this in Settings to work over your carrier network if you've got data to burn.

Being in a dead zone -- like perhaps during international or airplane travel -- could throw a wrench in the plan if you're desperately trying to access an app when you're offline for hours or days. It's a fringe case, sure, but one that could still cause inconvenience.

Design and build: It's all circular

As much as Nextbit likes to say its Robin looks unique, it's still very much a flat, rectangular smartphone. The white-and-aqua color (not quite robin's egg blue, sorry) does stand out, with colorful, ever-so-slightly rubberized trim along the top and bottom edges and blue accent buttons. The "midnight" color, however, pretty much disappears into itself like a lot of other dark phones, save for the bright blue power/lock button.

The Robin comes in mint and midnight shades. Josh Miller/CNET

If there's one design detail that's all the Robin's own, it's the circular motif drawn on the buttons and mounts from the volume controls and home button (don't press, hold) to the more oval power/lock button and camera flash window.

Like the Sony Xperia Z5 family , the Robin integrates its fingerprint reader into the power/lock button on the side, rather than in the home button beneath the screen.

Flip the Robin over and you'll see an insignia of a cloud, which is hemmed in below by a short strip of tiny LED lights. These light up when the phone is either uploading or downloading. An LED light on the phone's bottom edge alerts you to messages. Oftentimes you see this indicator light on the phone face, but Nextbit says they put it here so you can see the glow if the phone's face up or face down.

When it's all said and done, the phone does look nice, even in preproduction form, and the circular motif adds some subtle touches. It's a good design concept.

Software: Android and a little more

Running on Android -- the latest 6.0 Marshmallow version, the team hopes -- the Robin has a mild custom software riding on top of Google's operating system for phones. I saw the software demoed on a Nexus 6 phone; Nextbit has yet to show the hardware and software working in a single package, but as I said before, it's early days.

The TED app is downloading after being stored offline. Josh Miller/CNET

The Robin's app layout has a clean, minimalistic look, and the company says that it's placed icons where your fingers can best reach them.

A navigation bar helps reorder your apps and see which ones have been offloaded to the cloud. You can swipe down on the top of an app to pin it, which means it'll never go offline, or once again to unpin.

Hardware features

Here are Nextbit's hardware plans are for the Robin phone:

  • 5.2-inch display with 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution
  • 13-megapixel camera, 5-megapixel front-facing camera
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor
  • 32GB onboard storage, 100GB online storage
  • 3GB RAM
  • 2,680mAh battery with quick-charge capabilities
  • Bluetooth 4.0 LE
  • Wi-Fi A/B/G/N/AC
  • GSM 850/900/1800/1900
  • WCDMA 850/900/1800/1900/2100
  • LTE Bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/17/20/28
  • NFC

Since I just saw an early version, I didn't have the opportunity to test functionality, like the camera.

Outlook and price

This being a Kickstarter campaign, the Robin sells for introductory prices, but the one that applies to the most people is the $350 price tag, which works out to about £230 or AU$500. Like a lot of other "affordable premium" handsets we're seeing these days, like the OnePlus 2 , Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 and Motorola Moto X Pure/Play Edition , Nextbit's strategy is to undercut traditional premium players like Apple and Samsung, whose wares sell for easily double the price.

Crowdfunded devices still carry some risk, and Robin could wind up going up in smoke -- though its chances for success are good. Right now, Nextbit has the funding, a reputable manufacturer (Foxconn, the same guys who make the iPhone for Apple), and some good credentials in the form of former Google and HTC executives, including HTC's former lead designer.

The question here is one of traction. If companies like Nextbit and Ubik can succeed, we're bound to start seeing many more startups challenging the conventions of pricier stalwarts.

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