7 Days Later: Hands-On with the Nextbit Robin Update + Update on Development
Enhancements across the board
Last month, we reviewed the Nextbit Robin, a beautifully designed smartphone that focuses on cloud storage as its forte. At the time, we noted that the device was suffering from below-average battery life as well as slow camera performance, but that overall the device was still a solid buy (in my opinion, a better buy than the Nexus 5X).
However, Nextbit has followed through on their promises to release an update fixing these issues so I’ve taken the update for a spin this past week. I’ve rerun benchmarks, put the device through some real-world use, and have also delved into the budding custom development scene to update you on the state of the Nextbit Robin.
Nextbit claims that this update enhances the performance on the device, so I immediately re-tested the device using the same benchmarks that I had used to originally test the Robin’s performance. Re-running AnTuTu resulted in some higher scores, while re-running PCMark resulted in some lower scores. Thus, although there was some fluctuation with the benchmarks (I ran each benchmark several times over to ensure that each test wasn’t a fluke), overall not much change can be directly noticed through any of these scores. I should note that the Mobile XPRT score seems a lot lower than before, but only because this benchmark actually received an update to its testing in the time I last used it. We point out benchmark score differences because tweaks have altered the processor’s scaling behavior to adjust battery life, which we’ll cover below.
Similarly to the Nexus 5X’s March update that improved general UI performance, so too did this recent update fix some of the lag that I experienced on the Robin. Truth be told, I didn’t see much in the way of UI jank in the first place, but that’s maybe because I’m pretty patient when it comes to apps loading and switching. Overall, most of the improvements seem to be on the real-world UX instead of numbers, and that’s a good thing.
On the other hand, I noticed some pretty decent battery life improvements with this recent update. Nextbit apparently “tweaked” the processor scaling settings to enhance battery life, and it seems to have worked. On average, I saw about an hour improvement in battery tests that stressed the CPU and the GPU. In other words, you should expect to squeeze out an extra hours worth of screen on time no matter the activity. Amazingly this didn’t come at the cost of sacrificing UI performance, which is usually the trade-off that needs to be made to achieve these kinds of improvements.
Slow camera performance was one of the major issues that hindered many people’s decisions in buying the Robin. While overall a great phone, the oftentimes frustratingly slow camera performance (especially with HDR) could cause you to lose a precious moment while the phone is attempting to process a captured photo. But thanks to the April update, the camera performance has been improved somewhat. Here are some screen recordings of the Nextbit Robin taking and processing photos (both with and without HDR). While not as quick as certain phones like the Nexus 6P, it’s certainly a massive improvement over how slow it used to be on the device.
According to Nextbit, they’ve enhanced the audio output on the Robin by partnering with Arkamys to tune their audio driver. While I haven’t had the chance to test out the new custom AIAIAI TMA-2 headphones that Nextbit has released, in my (admittedly unscientific) subjective experience the audio output does indeed sound more clear even at higher volume outputs. Previously I was using a custom IRS with Viper4Android‘s Convolver option in order to achieve better audio clarity, but these new stock enhancements improve the baseline audio output considerably. It’s definitely not something that will satisfy a true audiophile, but for the casual music listener it’s a welcome improvement.
Tucked away in the update are some additional enhancements to smart storage that we haven’t seen before. First up, there’s a really neat new debug option within the smart storage app. You now have the ability to enable a notification indicating the current backup progress. This allows you to actually track what kind of files are being backed up, when they’re being backed up, why it may or may not currently be backing up, and even how many files are queued for backup. I don’t know why this feature is hidden in the debug menu because it’s certainly a useful feature for anyone to have enabled, in my opinion.
Finally, you can actually send the filesDB file now over e-mail to Nextbit or anyone else. In my review I had mentioned how Gmail lacked the proper permission to access this file, but that seems to have been fixed now. I tried replacing my device’s filesDB with a database from another member on our team, but unfortunately nothing at all interesting happened. All it did was re-upload files that I had previously backed up, probably because the database only actually tells Nextbit’s smart storage feature what files have/haven’t been archived yet.
Rarely does an update come without its fair share of bugs. Nextbit’s April update is no exception, though I have to admit these bugs are pretty minor. First up, as any good XDA user would do, I immediately rooted the device after I installed the OTA. I did this by flashing SuperSU via TWRP, which places the su binary in the proper place as well as automatically installing SuperSU.apk as a user app in /data/app. Nothing unusual there, right? Well, for some reason smart storage sort of treated SuperSU as an archived app. I say “sort of” because even though the icon appears grayed out both in the launcher and in the “all apps” filter, clicking on the app actually opens the app and doesn’t trigger the smart storage restore activity. Furthermore, SuperSU doesn’t show up as an archived app under the “archived apps” filter so it’s clearly not actually being recognized as an archived app. I am not entirely sure why or how this bug came about, though.
Finally, there’s a minor bug that I noticed when I plugged in my phone to the computer to transfer the custom ROM files I wanted to flash onto the device (see below). It seems that smart storage doesn’t treat USB charging as a criterion to actually trigger a backup. As you can see in the screenshot (bottom right), the device is plugged into a USB port and is set to charging mode, but smart storage states that the device is not charging. I’m aware that applications can differentiate between what kind of power source the device is connected to (as Android reports it) and it’s likely that Nextbit only set it to backup when plugged into AC power, but it’s certainly confusing to see smart storage tell you that it won’t sync because you aren’t charging when you actually are charging the device.
Custom Development Update
In my review of the Nextbit Robin, I praised the company’s openness to development. I stated that there was great potential for the Robin to become a custom development powerhouse like what happened with the OnePlus One. In the few weeks since the review, a few developers have released their work onto our forums (with more to come). I took the first of these ROMs, AICP, for a spin. I also flashed a custom kernel by the same developer to see what kind of performance enhancements I would get.
First of all, I noticed some pretty incredible improvements to the smoothness to the UI. This was likely due to the custom kernel ramping up the processor more aggressively (and would likely result in lower screen-on time), but the performance really surprised me. Nevertheless, the rest of the custom ROM is pretty standard (in a good way). You get a metric ton of customization options (including Cyanogenmod’s Theme Engine), but the tradeoff is that you lose the ability to use smart storage. If that concerns you, then you can stick to stock + rooted to use Xposed modules.
AICP isn’t the only ROM available, though. Cyanogenmod is now available for the device and it is built and maintained by Cyanogen himself. If nightly ROMs are your cup of tea, you can use CM instead. Do note that there is more development going on for the Nextbit, as Nextbit has been encouraging and even reached out to developers to expand the options. The Nextbit is a phone that has a good base with good options to make the best out of it, even if you opt out of the stock ROM and its cloud features.
You don’t really expect updates to make things worse, but a lot of OTA upgrades often don’t really improve much on the device. Most of the time you just end up with bug fixes and security patches, which are certainly welcome but not something that most users will notice. Thankfully, the Robin’s April update is an exception to this rule. The promised battery, performance, audio, and camera enhancements are fairly substantial. While Nextbit still has some work to do on smart storage, namely making it more accessible to manual control, the issues that plagued the device upon release are mostly gone.
In my initial review, I stated that if I were to choose between the Nextbit Robin and the Nexus 5X, I would buy the Robin. I still think that is true, provided that both devices are sold at the same price point (which they currently are). The Nexus 5X has had many sales these past few months, making it a bit more difficult to justify buying the Robin over the Nexus 5X or another device. However, to celebrate the Robin making its way to Amazon, Nextbit is offering the device at $299 until May 10th. At $399, I would have picked up this device over the Nexus 5X. At $299? That’s a no brainer.