Nubia Alpha Review: Hands-On With a Flexible Smartwatch

MWC 2019 has been dominated by flexible displays, but most of them have been found in foldable phone/tablet hybrids like the Samsung Galaxy Fold or the Huawei Mate X. Not so the Nubia Alpha – instead this is a phone/watch hybrid that wraps around your wrist.

We went hands-on with the Alpha at its official unveiling in Barcelona to find out if anyone is really going to want to replace their smartphone entirely with a flexible watch.

Price and availability

The Nubia Alpha launches in April with a Bluetooth-only version hitting stores in China, Europe, and North America for €449.

If you want an eSIM version that can take calls and access the internet without a phone, you might need to wait a little longer. That version is coming to China in April, but won’t reach Europe until Q3 2019, and comes to North America even later, in Q4.

The eSIM model will also cost you a little extra – it’s priced at €549 for the black model, and €649 for a ridiculous version plated in 18K gold, which is frankly as absurd as the rest of the device.

Feeling flexible

The Nubia Alpha is designed to be flexible in more ways than one. The obvious is that big (well, big for a watch) 4in flexible OLED display, which wraps all the way around the front of your wrist.

The flexible design means that no matter what size your wrist or how you wear the watch, the screen will bend round your arm to fit. Made out of 11 separate layers, it’s designed so that it won’t wrinkle or stretch as it bends – unlike a lot of those foldable phones making the headlines.

With a resolution of 960×192, at 244ppi, the screen is undeniably an odd one. Nubia is keen to point out that you can use it to look at photos or watch videos, but of course you’ll be stuck doing so at a very squished aspect ratio, and the whole user interface is similarly squeezed.

Still, the OLED panel seemed crisp and bright during my brief time with the Alpha, and I was genuinely impressed by the flexible elements – it doesn’t bend all the way straight or anything like that, just enough to fit your wrist comfortably, but the touch surface remains perfectly smooth, and doesn’t feel as cheap and plasticky as some other flexible panels.

The main body is made out of stainless steel, with a steel strap made out of detachable links to help you find your fit. The back of the main body is also rounded, to help fit your hand better. I couldn’t really judge how comfortable a fit it was, as the demo unit I saw was set for a wrist much larger than mine, but it seemed sturdy, and the clasp felt secure.

The Alpha should also be fairly durable, with an IP65 water and dust-resistance rating (which basically means it’s splashproof, but you shouldn’t swim or shower with it), and Nubia claims that it’s passed a whole bevy of different durability and drop tests.

Weird flex, but ok

All of this sounds great so far – and honestly the display itself is genuinely impressive, and arguably a better use of flexible screen tech than the foldable phones – but unfortunately the Nubia Alpha lets you down as soon as you try to use the damn thing.

First let’s tackle Nubia’s boldest claim: that not only is the Alpha intended to serve as a smartwatch, it’s intended to be a smartphone in its own right. That means that not only can it connect to the internet without a connected phone, it can also send and receive texts and phone calls without any phone at all.

The thing is, that’s exactly what the Apple Watch 4 does, and a few other eSIM smartwatches, and no-one is about to ditch their iPhone for an Apple Watch. Nubia seems to think that screen size is the only thing holding people back from replacing their phone with a watch, and that just isn’t the case.

For one, there’s processing power – the Nubia Alpha is running the Snapdragon Wear 2100 – a three-year-old Qualcomm smartwatch processor – with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage. Fine for a watch (though not exactly top-spec), but it can hardly compete with a Snapdragon 855 with 6GB RAM.

Battery life should be one to two days if Nubia is to be believed, but with a 500mAh battery powering that 4in OLED, we’re a little sceptical about that. There’s also all the usual smartwatch fitness tracking stuff – movement tracking, heart rate, and sleep monitoring.

You’re probably not about to retire your smartphone camera either. Sure, there’s a 5MP shooter here, but a camera on your wrist really leaves you stuck either taking the world’s least flattering selfies or awkwardly twisting your wrist back to take photos of anything else. You can record video too, but only up to about ten seconds at a time.

Then there’s apps. A watch can, inevitably, only run a fraction of the apps that a phone can, and Nubia has painted itself into a corner by using its own operating system – Alpha OS – meaning that third party app support is likely to be limited, if not non-existent. So yeah, you’ll be able to use this to make phone calls, but that’s probably the thing you use your phone to do the least, and the Alpha can’t replicate most of the rest of it.

The OS itself is an odd beast too. Nubia promises ‘hyper-dimensional interaction’ – whatever the hell it thinks that means – but the result is essentially an OS that’s made up of multiple long lists of icons that you can scroll through and flick between. The lists are roughly grouped – all the fitness tracking stuff is together – but you’ll still be stuck doing a lot of scrolling to find what you need.

Luckily, Nubia has tried to improve the scrolling experience through ‘air interaction mechanics’. Unluckily, it has failed. Similar to the recently announced LG G8 ThinQ, the Alpha will let you control the device without touching the screen at all, simply registering your finger movements in the air above it.

You move your finger up and down to scroll, or left and right to flick between menus, and if you’re lucky the watch will correctly recognise which way you’re trying to swipe and act accordingly. You can also pinch the air to go back, but in 20-30 attempts I never managed to make this work once.

Early verdict

It’s wild over-ambition that really lets the Nubia Alpha down. If the company had just rocked up to MWC with a flexible OLED smartwatch, we might have been impressed, but the Alpha tries – and fails – to be so much more.

It wants to replace your phone – it won’t. It wants to redefine smartwatch controls – it won’t. It even wants to give you ‘limitless hyper-dimensional interaction’ – actually, maybe it does do that last one, I honestly have no idea what it even means.

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