When I first saw the nubia Alpha at this year's Mobile World Congress, I was immediately drawn to it. The huge display made so much sense to me, and it was one of my favorite visions for what could be done with flexible displays. So, naturally, when nubia gave me the chance to review it, I was stoked, and the company had a lot to live up to.
nubia touts the Alpha as a wearable phone, which is in no small part thanks to its big display. But the version that's available worldwide doesn't have cellular connectivity, so that vision is immediately thrown out of the window. So, for the past two weeks, I've used it as a smartwatch, and the first I've ever used. It's actually the first wristwatch of any kind that I've used in a long time, so this review may come from a somewhat unusual perspective.
|Chipset||Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100|
|Display||4.01 inches, 192x960, AMOLED|
|Body||51.33mm x 47.1mm x 13.8mm|
|Camera||5MP, 82º field of view|
|Water resistance||Yes (IPX5)|
|Material||Stainless steel (Black)|
The design of the nubia Alpha is mostly marked by its tall 4.01-inch display, which comes in a whopping 1:5 aspect ratio. Not only does it face you, but it also wraps around the sides of your wrist. This is one of the few devices you can buy that has a screen that can actually be bent, and it seems to handle that just fine. There's no significant color distortion as far as I can tell, and despite the seemingly low pixel density, it actually looks great. It's an AMOLED, so you know you get true blacks and very vibrant colors, which I love.
Looking closer at the display, it seems to have a protective film on top, which I didn't try to remove because it reminds me of the problems that come about with review units of the Samsung Galaxy Fold. It seems that this thin film might actually be necessary to help with the integrity of flexible displays, though I'm not sure why that is, or why it can't be merged into the panel itself.
On the left side of the display, there's an infrared sensor, which is used for air gestures to control the watch without touching the screen. These work alright, but they're not perfect, and they're especially ineffective under sunlight, which messes with the sensor. I think the feature is cool as a gimmick, but its usefulness is questionable, and I think it could have been removed to make the watch a little lighter and smaller. Also on the same side is a side-firing speaker, which is loud and clear enough for my expectations from a watch.
On the opposite side of the IR sensor is a 5MP camera, which can be used to take photos and record short videos in a pinch. I'll talk more about that later. There are also two buttons, one that serves as the home and power button, and another one to go back to the previous screen, though this can also be done using a pinch gesture.
The rest of the watch is made of stainless steel, which is coated in a black paint job. The watch feels pretty significant on your wrist, especially in terms of weight. For someone who doesn't usually wear a watch at all, it takes some getting used to. Also, the all-metal wrist band makes me feel very uncomfortable when it's rubbing against the metal body of my laptop, so I almost always end up taking it off when I'm writing.
I wish nubia had found a way to use a leather band while retaining the flexible display, because of the weight as well as that problem with my laptop. Another problem I had was setting it up to fit my wrist, which I felt was just a little too hard to do. It was manageable, though, and you only have to do it once, so I'm not too upset about the metal build.
This is, in my opinion, nubia's greatest shortfall with the Alpha. The watch runs nubia Wear OS, which, for one thing, sounds too similar to Google's platform for wearables, and for another, lacks any kind of support from third-parties. There are some things I like about it, to be clear. The home screen features your clock, with a variety of watch faces to choose from, and below that, you'll have your currently running background apps, such as when you're tracking a workout or listening to music. Further below you have your six most recent apps.
Above the watch face, you have quick actions to turn Wi-Fi or Bluetooth on and off, toggle between ringer modes, adjust the screen brightness, and so on. When you have notifications, you'll see them here, too, but that's also when problems start to arise with the Alpha. Notifications almost always show up twice on the watch, sometimes in two different variants, though nubia has told me this will be fixed in an upcoming update. You also can't interact with notifications from your watch, unless they're SMS notifications. Dismissing notifications on either of your devices also doesn't affect the other end, so you'll always have duplicate notifications.
In general, there's a lot I like about the UI, and I feel like it uses the big screen well. All of the menus are colorful and look great on the AMOLED display, and they're laid out vertically across the big screen, so you usually know where to go pretty easily. Almost all of the apps give you some freedom thanks to that tall screen. When an app only uses a portion of it, you can move the app along the height of the screen to look at it from whichever angle you prefer.
But just as there is good, there is a lot of bad. nubia decided to build its own platform for the Alpha, and that makes some sense since no other wearable OS is known for its support for this kind of display. However, it results in an absolute lack of apps from other companies, and there's just not much that you can do with it that would make it a "wearable phone" or even a good smartwatch. The unit I tested at MWC had a WeChat app, and while I don't use the service, I was excited to try it just to see what it would be like to make video calls on the watch. Unfortunately, it looks like the international version doesn't include that app. I can't imagine nubia will be able to attract western developers to make dedicated apps for the Alpha, either.
The watch also has fitness tracking capabilities, but even there, it's very limited. It has a heart rate monitor, and it offers four exercise tracking modes (even though its store page mentions five): indoor running, outdoor running, outdoor walking, and free workout. While tracking your workout, the watch will constantly track your heart rate, and it can also use GPS to draw the trace your outdoor runs and walks. There are, however, many limitations here.
The GPS tracking produces a nice graph of the path you took, and it seems accurate enough, but it doesn't overlay it on top of a map. It ends up being just a drawing. The watch also doesn't save your health data over time, even if you use the nubia Wear app. I'm assuming this is a bug, because the app has arrows that indicate you should be able to go back to previous days, but it's still insane to me. And, for whatever reason, I've been in more than one situation where the watch thinks I've taken thousands of "negative" steps in one workout, and I'll have something like -50,000 recorded. I reached out to nubia and this will apparently be fixed in an update later this month.
When that doesn't happen, the tracking works well enough, though the step count and distance measured are significantly lower than the numbers I get on Google Fit using my phone. Additionally, the limited number of workout modes means this isn't a great choice if fitness tracking is your focus.
I do want to mention the Marquee feature because I think it's kind of cool, even if it's not useful in any way. Basically, you can write a short message on the nubia Wear app on your phone, and it'll be available to display on your watch, turning your wrist into a kind of billboard. It looks pretty nice, but the only reason I see for turning it on is bragging rights for having an expensive smartwatch. Also, even this has caused me problems - when I reached my target number of steps for the day with this enabled, I got a notification that froze the entire system, and I was forced to reboot.
The presence of a camera is another standout feature of the nubia Alpha when you compare it to other smartwatches. You'd probably expect such a small device to pack a pretty poor camera, and you wouldn't be wrong to think so. At 5MP, the camera on the Alpha isn't breaking any records, but I do have to say I was pleasantly surprised.
While the resolution and detail are very much lacking, pictures from the Alpha do have some nice colors, which I liked more than I expected. I was also surprised to find that the camera app goes as far as offering built-in filters, which makes it seem like nubia wants this watch to be used by the general public, even though it fails in so many other aspects. The camera app can also record videos up to 10 seconds in length, and the filters work in video mode, too.
It also pulls off what I still think is one of the coolest tricks of this watch. Just like other apps, you can drag the interface along the height of the screen, but in this case, that means you can take pictures at a variety of different angles while still looking at the viewfinder without any significant discomfort. If you drag the app all the way to the bottom of the screen, you can make the camera face forward, and the image will flip vertically so the photo comes out looking the way it should instead of upside down. In the samples below, there are a couple of sets where I test the included filters.
Unfortunately, while the watch connects to your phone via Bluetooth, transferring images requires Wi-Fi, so if you try to take photos or videos in a pinch, you can't share them until you're connected. Many times, I ended up just using my phone, even though I'd rather not, just because I could share those pictures in the moment. I also had a big problem when I was finishing up this review - I wanted to transfer some more photos from the Alpha to my phone, and the connection kept failing, even though other features were working fine. It worked eventually, but I couldn't figure out why.
Battery life and performance
Nubia made the unfortunate decision to use the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 instead of the newer Wear 3100, which would have provided improved battery consumption. There's a relatively big 500mAh battery in the Alpha, so it still manages to make it through most days, but it's nearly impossible for it to last two days if you use any of its features throughout the day.
Of course, without much in the way of apps, there's not a lot that can drain the battery, but the workout tracking can take a toll, since it turns on the heart rate monitor at all times and uses GPS to draw the path you take. Using the Marquee feature also affects battery life significantly, despite the fact that only a few pixels have to be backlit in an AMOLED display.
As for performance, there's not much that can be said, considering how little you can do with the Alpha. In my time with it, I haven't experienced any visible slowdowns or very long waiting times, and everything seems to flow mostly fine. There have been times where I can't get the watch to turn on the display when I lift it, but that could have more to do with its recognition of my arm gestures.
I really wanted to love the nubia Alpha, and in many ways, I do. The look and feel of the watch, despite being a little bulky, are still great, and I absolutely love the tall display. The software on its own is also pretty decent, and I like its overall design and the attention to some of the little details, such as moving the interface up and down along the screen, the filters in the camera app, and some other things.
But it's that kind of attention that makes it especially frustrating that nubia failed to nail down many of the basics of the functionality of a smartwatch. The duplicate notifications, the buggy and limited fitness tracking, and the lack of any kind of software ecosystem for developers make it very hard to recommend the Alpha to just about anyone, especially at the very high asking price of $450.
At the end of the day, the nubia Alpha makes me feel like the future will be full of devices with flexible displays - just not this particular device. It makes me hopeful that someone -maybe even Nubia itself - can pick up this concept and deliver on it with a user experience that's actually good and more capable. As it stands, I can only recommend the Alpha to deep-pocketed enthusiasts who want to own what I believe is one of the coolest concepts in modern tech. If you're one of those people, you can buy it from nubia's online store.
Editor's note: After this review was published, a nubia representative has stated that an forthcoming update will fix the issues with duplicate notifications. Another update will also bring the ability to see your health activity for the past seven days.