Nextbit Robin XDA Review: The Cloud Phone That’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Have we found a new Nexus?
Software – Smart Storage
Let’s cut to the chase and discuss the feature that best distinguishes the Nextbit Robin from its competition, shall we? The Nexus 5X does not have expandable storage while the Moto X Pure allows you to use a micro-SD card up to 128GBs. How does the Robin’s additional 100GBs of cloud storage stack up? What does it offer you, and how does it compare to having an SD card? I examined the feature in detail to give you guys some insight into what you should expect from the cloud integration feature on the Nextbit Robin.
First off, when you set up the phone you’re given the option to turn on Nextbit’s smart storage feature. By no means are you required to do so, but you are given 100GBs of free storage to work with so why wouldn’t you? You are able to store apps, app data, and pictures in the cloud but unfortunately you cannot upload videos at this time.
Let’s first talk about picture backups and how they work. First, you are only able to backup photos (and only photos) that are stored in the camera roll found in /DCIM. You can try putting other files into /DCIM and force a backup, but nothing will happen. The smart storage app scans the DCIM folder for new photos whenever your phone is charging and uploads, but does not remove, any photos you have on your device. Smart storage will only delete photos whenever you are running out of storage space but you cannot manually clear up storage space by deleting individual photos as the gallery app only allows you to delete the image off of both your phone and cloud storage.
The stock gallery app integrates with the smart storage app to read and restore archived images
If your photo gets automatically removed to clear up space, then you can open up the stock gallery app and then tap on the photo you want to restore. By the way, you have no way of immediately knowing which photos are archived and which aren’t. Archived photos, however, only show a thumbnail and if you attempt to zoom in on the photo by double-tapping or pinching then the gallery app will immediately call the smart storage app to restore the full image. The image will then refresh and you will see the full resolution image rather than the blurry, zoomed-in thumbnail you tried to view. Smart storage integration is limited to only the stock gallery app, as the archived image thumbnails do not show up in any third party gallery app, meaning you cannot trigger an image restoration. I forced my phone to run a backup and was told that 4 images had been archived. Lo and behold when I checked the /data folder for the smart storage app I noticed 4 new files in the thumbnail cache folder that I assume correspond to the 4 images I just backed up. The stock gallery app likely integrates with the smart storage app in such a way that only it can read and restore archived images.
How does this compare to, say, Google Photos? In my opinion, not very well. Google Photos can upload videos and even detect folders other than /DCIM to upload images from. The integration with the stock gallery app would be nice if the stock gallery itself was something to gloat about. Unfortunately, the stock app is pretty limited in its feature set so if you’re looking to view your large collection of photos you might have to look for another app (which also means you lose the smart storage photo integration). Fortunately, though, you absolutely do not have to use smart storage with photos if you don’t want to (and you can disable uploading photos in the smart storage settings) and instead use Google Photos or another image backup service if you so desire. But that’s enough about photos, how about apps?
Apps such as games are obviously much larger than your photos, and so potentially the most useful part of smart storage is the ability to backup/restore apps. If you are running out of storage space, smart storage will automatically attempt to free up space by archiving apps based on how frequently they’re used. I encountered this when trying to download update files for several games, which at first threw up the “not enough external storage” error but allowed me to download the additional game files after the Robin freed up space.
Make sure to “pin” SuperSU, you don’t want it inadvertently archived!
This can be quite useful for users who have tons of apps and don’t want to bother sifting through their phone to find out what they should clean up in order to make room for new apps. If you absolutely do not want Nextbit to archive an app (say, your messaging apps) then you can “pin” an app so that smart storage will ignore it when trying to free up room. Be sure to remember to pin any important apps of yours, otherwise, you might find yourself restoring the SuperSU app like I had to after inadvertently archiving it! In addition, you can also restore any archived app from your cloud storage by simply tapping on an archived app in the ‘Archived apps’ list within the smart storage settings which will then trigger a download and automatically install the app in the background. You can track the progress of the app restoration by either watching the download progress bar within the smart storage app, by pulling down the status bar and watching the progress bar there, or by checking the cloud storage indicator light on the back of the phone.
“Smart storage doesn’t seem quite smart enough to factor in app size in its judgement”
I am not quite so sure that smart storage is actually smart enough to uninstall apps based on a combination of size and how often it has been used.
After I factory reset the phone, the first thing I did was installed SuperSU, Solid Explorer as my file manager, and Chainfire‘s PerfMon to test the performance. Then, I loaded up the phone with several large games and downloaded large, official Windows 10 ISOs to max out the storage. Without launching ANY of these apps, I then opened up the smart storage settings and triggered an archive, which then proceeded to archive SuperSU, Solid Explorer, PerfMon as well as several, but not all, of the games. The archiving basically went in order of installation date here and did not take into account the fact that the first three apps were absolutely tiny compared to the several GB games I had just downloaded.
One thing I will give Nextbit credit for here is their clever way of integrating archived apps into your user interface. If you elect to uninstall an app from within the launcher, you are told that doing so will remove it from both your storage as well as from the cloud. However, if you uninstall the app from the regular settings menu, you will only uninstall the app from your storage. If an app of yours has been archived, Nextbit does not simply hide the app out of view for you to find in cloud storage settings, but instead cleverly creates an activity with the app’s icon that calls the smart storage app to restore that app.
I’ve mentioned several times how I manually triggered smart storage to perform an archive, but if you’ve seen other reviews you will notice that many have complained of not being able to perform one. This is because Nextbit has hidden a debug mode within its smart storage settings app, which can be enabled by tapping 7 times on the version number (users who turn on developer settings to get to USB debugging should recognize this step). With debug options enabled, you can make smart storage free up space, upload queued files, show the smart storage in the launcher, or send the files DB to Nextbit for debugging. Interestingly enough, selecting this latter option results in a permissions denied failure because G-mail cannot access the database file. Thanks to root access, I scoured the /data folder for Nextbit’s smart storage to find it.
Here resides the FilesDB file. You can only access it via root access, but there’s really nothing you can do with it. I’m interested in seeing if you can use this to restore your apps on another device with a different Google account, but I haven’t been able to test that. With a file manager I was able to see how the actual restoration process works. When you click to restore an app, it downloads both the APK in its entirety as well as the contents of the associated /data folder in chunks. My thoughts on this are that Nextbit could possibly implement pausing downloads because the files in /data are restored in these chunks, but I could be off on that. Of course, canceling the download results in both the APK and the /data files being deleted off of the temporary download location.
The system’s shortcomings prevented me from dropping my tried-and-true backup ways
Restoring apps such as Reddit is Fun worked just fine, with all of my settings and accounts left in tact. For whatever reason, however, certain apps such as Google Voice required me to sign back into my account again. This is unlike root apps such as Titanium Backup which fully restored Google Voice in its entirety. Overall, I think the addition of smart storage has the potential to be a really great feature, but currently it’s not there yet. I came in expecting basically an automated, smart, cloud-based Titanium Backup with Google Photos tacked on but instead found out that there there shortcomings in some areas that prevent me from dropping what I’m used to and really getting on board with the service.
But I’ve focused enough on smart storage in a vacuum and have not discussed the elephant in the room yet – what about micro-SD cards? It’s true that with Android 6.0 Marshmallow comes the Adoptable Storage which significantly improves the functionality of SD cards in Android. If we can install apps and move photos to the SD card, why bother with the cloud? One disadvantage of SD card installation is that not every app is suitable for installation on SD cards, and developers must specify that their app be allowed to install on the SD card.
If you’re using an older app that does not feature this ability, then you can’t move it to your SD card on 6.0. What happens if your phone is stolen or lost or the micro SD card fails? In that case, all of the apps and app data stored on the SD card would also be lost, whereas with the cloud you can simply restore the data later. In these cases, it may be better to rely on cloud storage over expandable physical storage. But of course with cloud storage, you have to rely on restoring apps using a data connection which means there’s going to be a wait time, so if this caveat is a turn off then you may swear off the Nextbit Robin. It should be noted that Nextbit has promised to make improvements to smart storage, though. For starters, Nextbit is planning on introducing the ability to manually offload content to the cloud and also has plans on creating a user interface so we can manage files on our own.
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