Phone fans owe a lot to Scott Croyle. In his time as HTC’s design chief, Croyle presided over the creation of the critically acclaimed One series of Android smartphones as well as earlier standout devices like the Windows Phone 8X. He helped evolve smartphone design beyond mere utilitarianism, and for that he deserves our appreciation. Croyle departed HTC in April of last year to join a small startup named Nextbit, whose initial focus was on making software rather than hardware. But it wasn't long before Croyle was back to making cool new things for our pockets, and today he returns with his small group of like-minded, experienced phone makers to introduce the Nextbit Robin. It’s what Croyle and company are calling a “cloud-first, design-first smartphone.”
The Nextbit team dropped by the Verge offices ahead of today’s Kickstarter launch to show us the guts of the Robin smartphone and to discuss how all those high-tech pieces fit together. In essence, it was a guided tour through the process of designing a smartphone from scratch, with our guide being Scott Croyle himself.
"It’s a uniquely personal design process," says Croyle, speaking about how he's been liberated from having to appease the demands of mobile carriers. "That was my main customer where I was before: the carrier, not the end consumer." At Nextbit, which will be selling directly to consumers, he’s free to experiment more and to prioritize the things that people truly want: aesthetic and tactile appeal, but also originality and freshness in design. "Since everybody has moved to some variation of metal and black, to me it’s gotten really boring," he says, while acknowledging that "It’s actually hard to do a poorly manufactured phone these days." So the design impetus with the Robin was to avoid the conventional or boring: "I wanted to kind of zig and maybe zag."
At first sight, the Robin looks almost too simple. The front of the phone is quite literally a rectangle, and that blocky shape doesn’t immediately convey any sense of warmth or humanity. It’s a deliberately spartan approach, argues Croyle, but that’s just the starting point. "You take what is an otherwise austere form, and you add these little approachable details." A closer look at the phone reveals a pervasive circular motif, which can be seen in everything from the indented speaker grilles to the cameras, to the volume buttons, and all the way to the icons on the screen. The only reason the power button isn’t round as well is because it has an integrated fingerprint sensor — though it does have a friendly color accent.
Symmetry is another major, albeit subtle, theme of the Robin’s design. The bezels above and below the screen are identical, and the cameras’ positions on either side of the handset echo each other. How much of a difference all of this makes to the eventual user experience is debatable, but it’s certainly nice to know that every element of the design has been carefully thought out. The same is true, perhaps even more so, when deciding on the things that go inside the smartphone.
An austere rectangle filled with friendly circles
The internal architecture of the Robin has been a shared responsibility between Croyle, who is officially Nextbit’s product and design chief, and his comrade-in-arms, Mike Chan, the company’s lead engineer. Croyle points out that there’s "no rocket science to it, but it’s not a linear set of decisions." Every time you make a choice about one component, you have to consider how that interacts with your earlier choices and how it will affect your other options. The Robin's metal backplate, for example, acts as an electrostatic discharge shield for the side-mounted fingerprint sensor, but it also has an invisible cutout to accommodate the phone's NFC radio.
A great example of the complex interplay of component choices is the camera. "When you do a phone, you’d be surprised by how few choices you have as an OEM," says Croyle. "Essentially, you only have two vendors that you’re choosing from: Sony and Samsung." With Sony facing supply shortages, the Nextbit team opted for Samsung, but then their choice was further constrained by the fact that certain chipsets only support certain camera modules. So, having already settled on the Snapdragon 808 as the Robin’s processor, Nextbit had to work with Qualcomm to ensure proper support for the phase-detection autofocus in its camera. The company is also outsourcing camera driver development to a partner, and Croyle says it is "investing as heavily as we can in it. I’m looking around for ways to spend more on the camera, and I can’t spend any more!"
Although every decision in the makeup of a phone is, at least to some extent, dependent on every other, there is a rough order to which part is picked when. For Nextbit, step one was the screen size. Predictably, the goal was the unattainable ideal of "something that would fit in our pocket, but give us the biggest screen possible." They ultimately picked 5.2 inches as the best tradeoff between those conflicting aims, having produced a number of mockups to test their ideas.
After the screen came the choice of chipset. Croyle and Chan didn’t waste much time settling on a 1080p resolution for the Robin, so the next objective was to find a processor that would power everything you’d want to do on that display in the most efficient way possible. Contrary to the typical push for the latest and greatest chip, Chan prioritized the maturity of the chipset and its drivers. This was partly down to Nextbit’s nature as a tiny startup: the company wanted to be sure there would be plentiful supply and no nasty surprises along the development path. Hence the choice of the Snapdragon 808 processor, "a derivative of the 810, but without the thermal issues we were seeing." That gives Nextbit an established platform to work on and, according to Chan, allows the company to "push some of the power optimizations a little bit more aggressively with it."
That brings us to step three: choosing the size of the battery. This decision was informed by the power consumption of the processor, the overall industrial design requirements, and the original choice of screen size. It could have been the case, had Nextbit prioritized battery life, that we’d now be looking at a Robin with either a 6-inch display or a thicker chassis, but neither pleased the company’s designers. They decided that they wanted a 7mm-thick phone with a 5.2-inch screen and the best battery they could combine that with measured in at 2680 mAh. So that’s what they did. The promise is still that it will get users through a full day, but this is one of those areas where the design tradeoffs are most apparent.
"This is not the phone for everybody," notes Croyle. "It will be for the people who have a similar set of values to us. You can’t please everybody with everything." And the process of balancing all the parts against one another, and making clearly defined choices about what matters more is the essence of "how product development happens."
Because of its small size, Nextbit can afford to be more flexible than its mightier competitors. The final piece in the company’s design puzzle will be heeding feedback from Kickstarter backers and users and looking to integrate it into future designs. Selling just one phone will be an advantage, and "the biggest cost savings that we get is going direct to consumer," says Croyle. This brings to the surface what is perhaps the least appreciated aspect of phone design: its outcome depends as much on the designer’s circumstances as it does on his or her creativity. Everyone can spec out and design a phone — there’s no rocket science to it, as Croyle says — but it takes a complex set of tradeoffs and balances to design one that will both make money and prove successful with its users. Whether the Nextbit Robin is such a phone remains to be seen. But at least we now know what it’s made of.