Hands-On, MWC 2019, Smartwatch, Wearable

Nubia Alpha Hands-On: Not Quite the Smartphone on Your Wrist

When I first heard of the Nubia Alpha, I thought it was a really cool idea. It touts itself as a smartphone in a wearable form factor, and while it’s not the first product to advertise itself as such, I was really quite intrigued with the Alpha’s flexible display too.

Here at MWC 2019, I managed to get some quality time with the Alpha. But while I think its flexible screen is technologically impressive, the product itself ultimately felt like a novelty. It will not replace your smartphone, and chances are, it will not be a very good wearable either – let’s get to why.

Right off the bat, the Nubia Alpha’s flexible, 4-inch OLED display stands out. With a resolution of 960 x 192, it looks sharp enough, and it has very vibrant colours – hallmark of an OLED panel. Of course, you also get excellent black levels with this display technology.

And then we have the flexibility of the Alpha’s display. Because it is such a long screen, it will wrap around your wrist when you put on the wearable. I have to be honest, it feels pretty cool to have a display wrap your wrist like this, and even though it’s not entirely practical – you won’t be able to see the whole display, especially at the top section – it certainly feels futuristic.

There is also this other neat feature aptly called “Alpha Gesture” on this wearable. Basically, there’s a sensor on the left of the Alpha that lets you navigate the interface by simply waving your finger over it. For the most part, it works surprisingly well, but it’s a lot easier to just swipe on the screen itself.

In terms of design, the Alpha is quite a large wearable – space had to be made for the 4-inch display. Folks with smaller wrists may want to pay extra attention: not only is this device pretty wide, it has quite a thick chassis too. If you’re not a fan of large wearables, you will not like the Alpha’s chunky design or hefty nature. Yes, the stainless steel strap makes it a heavy wearable.

So what makes the Alpha a “smartphone?” Well, that would be its eSIM support. It runs on Nubia’s very own AlphaOS, and you can do all sorts of…”smartphone” stuff with the Alpha. You can make calls with it, send text messages, and you can even take selfies with the device’s 5MP camera – that’s right, this wearable has a camera built-in.

How practical are all of these? Well, not very. While you can definitely make a call with the Alpha without too much difficulty – you can either use a Bluetooth headset or the built-in speaker – sending a text message on it isn’t exactly a walk in the park. You only have so much space to work with, and you would have to type out your messages with a T9 keyboard.

While it sounds cool in practice, snapping selfies with the Alpha is the furthest thing from an enjoyable experience. I did just that with the demo unit I had, and it’s really difficult to get a flattering angle with a camera that’s attached to your wrist. Unless you plan to take the Alpha off of your wrist every time you want to take a selfie, you’re better off taking out your phone to do just that.

To top it all off, it’s very hard to say if the Alpha will receive good app support. Because it’s running on a custom operating system instead of something like Google’s own Wear OS, many popular – and some would say indispensable – apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook will not work with this wearable out of the box.

This is a huge limitation, and taking into consideration the niche nature of the Alpha, I imagine not many app developers would be too keen to support it.

When it comes to hardware, the Alpha isn’t particularly impressive either. For starters, it’s running on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor, which was released way back in 2016 – that’s over three years ago. Other specifications of the Alpha include 1GB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage, a heart rate sensor, and a 500mAh battery. According to Nubia, this allows the Alpha to last anywhere between one to two days on a single charge.

As much as the Nubia Alpha wants to be a “smartphone,” it is more accurate to refer to it as a smartwatch with cellular functionality. This comes down to its inherent form factor, operating system, and limited processing power – it’s just not on the same playing field as a conventional smartphone.

There are two versions of the Alpha: one with only Bluetooth support for pairing with a smartphone, and the aforementioned eSIM model. The former will be available from April onwards in Europe for 449 euro (about RM2,080), while the eSIM variant will only start shipping sometime in Q3 2019 for 549 euro (approximately RM2,545).

Do note that this is only for the black model; if you want the gold colourway with eSIM support, that will set you back a whopping 649 euro, or around RM3,000.

Would you pay that much for a smartphone, let alone a wearable? As much as I commend Nubia’s creativity with the Alpha (especially the unique flexible display), I find it really hard to justify its steep asking price. It’s a novelty – a very expensive one, at that.