On Cloud Phones: A Nice Concept, but Rather Unnecessary Right Now

On Cloud Phones: A Nice Concept, but Rather Unnecessary Right Now

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The cloud might be turning into an integral part of many users’ lives, but smartphones are not quite ready to fully rely on internet-dependent solutions for key storage and computing applications just yet.

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The Nextbit Robin’s unconventional look is remarkably original, and also fully consistent with its theme.

This initial statement sounds blunt, but at the moment, the applications for integrated cloud storage and computing solutions are very limited. While it is true that plenty of what we use Google Services for relies not on our phone’s processor and storage but on the response from some far-away server, much of the bread and butter of Android today is still local. Apart from computing, there are hints of a transition towards web (and hybrid) apps and an even stronger push towards automatic cloud backups. It is this last point that we see most defined, as services with cloud storage are everywhere. And this is also where we meet the cloud phone, subject of this article, and one defined differently than ‘phones that can backup’.

We are now seeing the reviews of the first cloud-backup-oriented phone, the Nextbit Robin — a new concept for smartphones, but one that is not as useful as it sounds on its face. It’s nice to have, but it’d be nicer to have on another, more appropriate and perhaps future phone.

The Nextbit Robin, however, is a bad first example of what the technology can be useful for, and in many ways it shows many of the inherent issues with the cloud phone concept as it’s currently understood and demonstrated. Please let me elaborate below:

What would automatic file backups be useful for?

In order to solve a problem, we first must identify what the problem is, and what are its primary causes — in this case, what takes up the most storage on today’s smartphones. Applications are seldom huge, excluding the occasional outlier. More professional or bloated apps can exceed the hundred megabyte mark, but more often than not, it is mobile games that reach 500MB and beyond. Some of the particularly heavy games can take up to 2GB in total — and this is, I think, where the huge storage hoggers typically come from in the application-side of things.

The average consumer will most likely face the storage plight through an excess of media or applications

Then we have the other obvious problem, and that is media. Both pictures and video can take up huge chunks of storage, the first usually through sheer volume, and the second through large file sizes — especially in the age of 4K video.

So it is movies and images, or personal videos and photos, that also end up eating away at our storage. If there is one instance where I have personally seen “out of storage” boxes, it’s when using the camera app for an extended period of time. There are, of course, other kind of big files that can take plenty of room in our phones. If you use your smartphone as a portable drive, for example, you are likely to have a bunch of files that do not necessarily fall in the categories above, such as projects, resources, etc.

But the average consumer will most likely face the storage plight through an excess of media or applications (and especially games). So how does the new cloud-phone, the Robin, tackle the issue? First of all, it can backup up to 100GB, but only in applications and pictures — not video. This is also where the Robin falls short in the overall sum, because the phone is not designed around making its primary feature worthwhile.

The Robin and its Camera

The Nextbit Robin features a 13MP camera with a Samsung ISOCELL sensor, and from what we’ve seen in reviews, it is far from the greatest shooter. Reviewers noted that the camera is slow to launch, slow to focus, and that the resulting pictures are not very great anyway — some even called it “a major weakpoint”. Having a primary feature of the phone centered, in great part, around backing up pictures makes less sense if the pictures taken are not very good in the first place.

Backing up pictures as a selling point makes less sense if the pictures are not very good in the first place

What makes this particular point less compelling is that you don’t need a Robin to back-up pictures — there have been plenty of services that did this before (way before) the Robin, and Google Photos (pre-installed in many phones) can back-up pictures as well (with very intelligent categorization, at that).

The fact that the phone doesn’t back up video only takes points from it, too; but there are some good things about the Robin’s system: the fact that the device keeps previews and only downloads the high-resolution picture when it’s needed is certainly an interesting solution to maximize available space at any given moment. But this also means that, if you don’t turn off such functionality, your full pictures are inaccessible without an internet connection. Sure, this is better than not having them all if you would otherwise back up the pictures and delete them from your phone. But the act of deleting them in the second scenario is conscious and deliberate, whereas the Robin doesn’t know by default if you are planning to show a particular set of photos to someone later that week.

The Robin and Applications/Gaming

In my opinion, the Robin’s system falls short when it comes to its application backup ability too, in part due to the hardware. The device is running a Snapdragon 808, a chipset that’ll turn a year old soon, and it was not the most powerful chip of 2015 either — even with the throttling of the Snapdragon 810, I personally prefer that SoC after having experienced the 808 in the Nexus 5X. Reviews have also mentioned that the Robin gets hot, an issue all-too-common with 2015 Qualcomm chipsets, and one of the things I hated the most about my Nexus 5X. Because the chip was released close to a year ago, and not as a true flagship chipset nor the most powerful, and because it also shows signs of uncomfortable heat, I don’t think the Robin is as future proof as it could be — certainly not when we are one day away from the launch of Snapdragon 820 devices. Why does this matter?

As we said above, games take a large chunk of storage. Given that backing-up games is thus one of the better uses for its automatic cloud storage, it is sad to know that this phone is not extremely capable at games due to its chipset and the constraints it brings. It’s also worth noting that plenty of games backup your savefile (or account information) nowadays by themselves, either through Google Play Games or a service of their own, meaning you could also just delete the game and download it when you want to play it again. As far as regular applications go, some reviewers noted that the phone backed up key applications without their knowledge or consent, such as the pebble companion app. You can pin applications so that it doesn’t upload what you don’t want it to, but this means additional nannying for a system that aims to be all about convenience… and a kind of nannying that severely take away from your experience if an unlucky coincidence arises.

Cloud Storage and Traditional Storage

The Robin comes with 32GB of base storage, of which around 25GB are available for the user to play around with. While this is the standard for flagship phones today, it’s worth noting that the Robin doesn’t offer a microSD slot, thereby omitting the possibility of storage expansion. This is actually one of the reasons why its main feature is so compelling — in contrast with devices that offer 64GB or 128GB variants, or devices with microSD support, the Robin is more dependent on cloud-based solutions to the problem. If the Robin allowed for microSD expansion, and thus more storage, there’d be less of a need for a cloud-based solution.

We’ve had discussions and debates on XDA regarding whether cloud-reliant services and solutions are better than traditional computing and storage, and we understandably arrived at the conclusion that there are advantages and disadvantages to each. But storage of various files, especially pictures, can already be easily automated through a myriad of services, including Google’s. Google’s sync infrastructure evolved into a Marshmallow feature that, as arstechnica said, few people talk about — app backups through the targeting of API level 23. This allows the app’s data to be backed up and restored upon installation from the Play Store. The Robin offers a similar, automated solution with much wider support of applications, and also convenience, as it does it in the background for you. But the functionality itself is not wholly exclusive to the Robin.

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Here’s a picture of a penny, with a 200GB microSD card for scale.

And then there is the fact that Nextbit offers 100GB of cloud storage for apps and pictures. This isn’t a bad offer, but let’s consider the following: Google Photos already offers unlimited storage for pictures, albeit not at their original quality, and you can use plenty of other services for backing up photos as well. But what’s more, Marshmallow now also allows the microSD card to be more useful, as they can now be “adopted” as internal storage. This doesn’t solve the fact that using a microSD is typically not as optimal as using true internal storage, particularly because not all microSDs are created equal. But this does mean that you can add even 200GB of storage to your phone with microSD support, and now that particular kind of storage is more useful than ever before, and you also have full control over what happens within that expanded memory.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, let’s not forget that a cloud-reliant service is thus reliant on your internet connection. And this means your experience is affected by your internet speed, connection to the network, and also the amount of data you have each month. For road warriors with unlimited data, this isn’t much of a problem, but not everyone has full access to the internet anywhere and at any time, and that access is also expensive or slow depending on where you live. This dependence already writes out a huge number of markets, as  cloud phones are very inefficient in places where wi-fi or data plans are slow or inconsistent (I would know, I come from Latin America… thanks Claro!).

Convenience vs. Control

The point of this article is not to discredit the Robin — I am sure that Nextbit put plenty of effort into making its system work, and as reviews point out, it does work. The takeaway from the arguments presented above is not one against the Robin in particular (and not out of cynicism), but against the notion that the storage problem on Android has gotten so bad that we simply must jump on solutions like the Robin’s. Additionally, I wanted to showcase how the Robin in particular is a nice example of what the concept could look like, but not a phone fully centered and designed around maximizing the usefulness of its selling point, due to both hardware and software. This doesn’t mean the Robin is a bad phone — far from it, it brings plenty of virtues to the table that are worth commending, such as a truly original design, and an amazing warranty that fits enthusiasts and ROM junkies like a glove, as it’s valid even if you brick the phone while experimenting.

What I’ve argued here is primarily a case against the notion that we need a phone (or many) specifically aimed at targeting the storage woes of Android. Truth be told, Android phones should have more storage by now, and I hope we move past the 32GB standard this year. Luckily, phones haven’t fully abandoned microSD support, and the Galaxy S7 is set to bring back the feature after its abandonment brought Samsung a condemnation from power users. And with Marshmallow adding more functionality to microSD cards, those lucky phones that choose to support it will empower customers with even more flexibility.

So, to sum up: the concept of a cloud phone, and specifically one as demonstrated by the Robin, is not something everyone needs, and it seeks to correct a problem few people encounter on a regular basis. The potential nuances that the system detailed above brings can arguably outweigh the cons of unexpectedly running out of storage in a pinch. One already has access to plenty of cloud services to back-up photos; Marshmallow also allows for app data backup so that you musn’t start over; many services and games already store your settings and crucial app data with your account, which can often be tied to Google for a seamless login; power-users can access app-backup services like Titanium Backup, too, with plenty of control and potential for automation, albeit not as conveniently; microSDs are not dead, and are now more useful (and larger!) than before.

The Robin itself does also pack an older SoC which was never superbly good to begin with, and the camera experience is lacking, making the picture-backup portion of the phone less appealing than that of a phone with a great camera that can also be set to back-up pictures. None of this is a condemnation of the Robin, or of cloud phones. But I think these are compelling arguments that show that, as of yet, cloud phones (as a concept) haven’t proven their usefulness over conventional phones that can also be set to be heavily cloud-reliant.

Check Out XDA’s Nextbit Robin Forum >>