How Nextbit’s Robin Smartphone Uses the Cloud to Eliminate Storage Space Anxiety

A couple of smartphone industry veterans believe the cloud is the solution to the problem of running out of onboard storage space.

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Feb 18 2016, 2:00pm

Image: Evan Rodgers/Motherboard

A single Google search illustrates just how much of a hassle limited storage space is for many smartphone owners.

Image: Nicholas Deleon/Motherboard

That single string, "how to survive with a 16gb iphone," returns article after article offering advice on how to make the most of the paltry storage space offered by the least expensive iPhone in Apple's lineup (the 16GB model starts at $649 unlocked), including deleting old photos when you're done with them and using streaming music services instead of syncing your entire iTunes library.

But what if you never had to worry about that nonsense in the first place?

Following a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $1.3 million in October 2015, Nextbit is now poised to release Robin, an Android smartphone that implements cloud storage, called Smart Storage, that is unlike anything I've ever seen before.

At setup users sign up for a Nextbit account, which then allocates 100GB of Amazon cloud storage to the phone. The underlying idea is simple yet powerful: As it becomes stuffed with photos, apps, and games, Robin automatically archives your least frequently accessed data, helping free up space on the device itself while ensuring that this data is still just a few taps away from being re-downloaded from the cloud.

For example: Say you go on vacation this summer to Yellowstone National Park and take plenty of photos with Robin—photos you want in your permanent collection but don't need on your phone at all times. This is where Smart Storage comes into play: It notices that you aren't looking at these photos on your phone, so it automatically backs them up to the cloud. Thumbnail images of the photos remain in the phone's gallery, but the full resolution files are deleted from local storage (Robin ships with 32GB of onboard storage).

Image: Evan Rodgers/Motherboard

To Nextbit Chief Design and Product Officer Scott Croyle (above), Robin's ability to constantly prune itself of unused photos, apps, and games can help prevent an untimely "phone storage almost full" error message from ruining the opportunity to take a great photo.

"When that happens—like, what happens? You've lost the moment, and there's no getting it back," Croyle said in an in-person interview last Friday. "If someone was blowing out their birthday candles, forget it, that's gone."

"The reality is," he continued, "you already have access to the cloud on your current phone, but it's through a series of apps like iCloud or Google Drive. And so even though you have this access, it's not doing you any good when you need it most. But we think that by integrating the cloud directly into the operating system we can actually transform that experience."

Does the Nextbit Robin actually deliver on that promise?

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By default, Robin is set to backup data only when connected to a power source and connected to Wi-Fi—that's to prevent backups from killing your battery or blowing through your data plan. Nextbit supplied Motherboard with a Robin review unit that was pretty close to capacity in order to quickly test Smart Storage.

Image: Evan Rodgers/Motherboard

On my first night (Friday) with Robin it began to archive unused apps and games like IMDB and Angry Birds, freeing up precious storage space on the device just in time for an outing I had planned for the next day. In our meeting on Thursday, Croyle explained to me exactly what considerations Robin makes before deciding to archive data.

"We use a simple queue," Croyle said. "When you install an app it goes to the bottom of the queue. When you take a photo it goes to the bottom of the queue. When you actually go look at a photo it will come out of the queue and go to the bottom of the queue. So what happens over time is that the things you're least likely to use end up at the top of the queue."

Which is to say, they're marked for archival to the cloud.

Last Saturday I took the Robin to Meet the Breeds, an event here in New York City where attendees had the opportunity to check out all the different dog breeds that are recognized by the American Kennel Club. It's just as amazing as it sounds, and it gave me a chance to see the real-world effects of Smart Storage. Since the feature had already freed up about a gigabyte the previous evening, I was able to take photos without fearing that I'd "lose the moment," as Croyle had put it, owing to an overstuffed phone.

Image: Nicholas Deleon/Motherboard

The trip to Meet the Breeds did highlight one current limitation of Smart Storage, however: It doesn't yet support videos. Currently, the feature only automatically archives photos and apps, which is a problem given how large video files can be. Croyle told me that Nextbit plans for Smart Storage to support videos, but it would have been nice to have that at launch. Since the Robin is being marketed as the phone that never runs out of space, not having Smart Storage support for videos from the word go seems like a miss.

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Nextbit may be a startup, but it's got some serious smartphone experience in its executive ranks. Croyle, who heads design at the company, previously served as the design chief at HTC, whose One (M7) smartphone, released in 2013 under Croyle's watch, was one of the last smartphones I've seen that really excited both critics and smartphone enthusiasts. And Tom Moss and Mike Chan both served as early executives at Google's Android unit, helping convince wireless carriers in the earliest days of the smartphone revolution—you know, all of eight or nine years ago—to allow devices running the operating system onto their networks.

For Croyle, working at Nextbit gives him the freedom to design the smartphone that he wants to design, not the smartphone that his bosses or the wireless carriers want.

Image: Evan Rodgers/Motherboard

"For me, the design process for the Robin [compared to his time at HTC] was a lot more personal," he said. "I just went to Tom and Mike and told them 'This is the phone we're going to do.' What came out of that was something that looks bold and feels premium."

He added: "I feel like we're writing our own playbook."