Nubia Alpha review: a taste of the future
Nubia had teased this device during the last IFA, but it took advantage of the Mobile World Congress to make it official. The Nubia Alpha is the new flagship of the Chinese manufacturer. Two months after its announcement, we were finally able to do a full review of the device. Equipped with a flexible screen, this wearable is halfway between a smartwatch and a foldable smartphone. So, what is this curious device all about?
- Flexible screen
- Comfortable armband
- Limited notifications
- Gesture navigation in the air
Nubia Alpha release date and price
Yes, the Nubia Alpha is not ordinary by any means, and it has the merit of bringing some originality to the tech market. While the device offers a flexible display, its price is fortunately much more affordable than that of the latest Galaxy Fold and Mate X.
The smartphone watch hybrid is expected to arrive in Europe and North America in the second quarter of this year at a global price of 449 euros (around $510) for its black Bluetooth variant. A version with an eSIM at 549 euros will arrive the following quarter in other countries (awaiting agreements with operators). Finally, Nubia will also offer an 18K Gold eSIM version for 649 euros.
Compared to other smartwatches, the Nubia Alpha is more expensive, but this is the price you must pay to get a flexible 4-inch screen on your wrist. Notably, the device is compatible with not only Android smartphones but also iPhones.
Smartwatch or smartphone?
Is it a smartwatch? Is it a smartphone? A smart bracelet? These are the questions that come to mind when you first discover the Nubia Alpha. Even after several weeks in its company, I don't have a concrete answer to them. The Nubia Alpha is a hybrid device which can be used as a smartwatch, but also has smartphone features. Trying to do too much may actually be what keeps it from doing everything well, but I will come back to that later.
This watch, which has all the features and functionality of a smartphone, wraps around your wrist thanks to a flexible 4-inch OLED display, regardless of the size of your wrist. If your wrist is small (like mine), it is unfortunately not possible to see the entire screen without moving your wrist around.
Of course, while the technological performance is to be welcomed, the fact remains that the device remains quite impressive when worn and the aesthetic result is strange. In my case, with a particularly thin wrist, the final result leaves something to be desired and one can sometimes think that it is more of an electronic surveillance bracelet than a watch. On the other hand, the weight is bearable.
It's a funny thing, considering the overall shape and the flexible screen, many people ask me what device I'm wearing. The Nubia Alpha makes people curious, though that may just be because it's still so new. After all, until a few years ago, people were laughing at the Galaxy Note when it was launched, and it has to be said that large screens have finally triumphed and are now enjoying great popularity. This may be the case for smartwatches, although I remain a little skeptical for the moment. As much as the folding smartphone excites my imagination, this concept leaves me more doubtful.
Nevertheless, Nubia also had the good idea to make the metal bracelet adjustable, so it is very comfortable to wear. It is indeed enough to manually unclip one of the elements of the bracelet to adjust the length. However, it takes a little practice to do this, as it is not as simple as you might think.
On a daily basis, despite its weight and size, the Nubia Alpha is a wearable that is comfortable enough that you forget it's on your wrist. Its stainless steel design also suggests a certain solidity.
A flexible screen that doesn't break
Of course, the screen is the most interesting element of this device. By offering a flexible 4-inch screen, Nubia was able to offer a relatively larger screen on its smartwatch while maintaining an acceptable overall size on the wrist. The OLED display has a resolution of 960 x 192 pixels . This ensures good readability, even for multimedia use. The brightness is excellent and the colors are bright.
Unlike the Galaxy Fold, there are no reliability issues here. No substances, liquids or cracks appeared during my testing, and the screen protector it comes with can be removed without any problems. It is not a layer of the screen like Samsung's.
The reactivity of the touchscreen is also excellent and Nubia offers fun ways to navigate and scroll through the menus. Like the LG G8 ThinQ, it is possible to navigate with gestures without touching the device. This allows you to swipe to the side, or up and down. All this was made possible thanks to the OS developed by the Chinese manufacturer especially for this device.
Unfortunately, even if on paper the idea seems attractive, in practice it is a little less so. The gestures appear to be of little use, especially since it is easier to interact directly by using your fingers on the screen or using the buttons (the upper button allows you to put the watch in standby or return to the home screen, the lower button allows you to go back).
What's the point?
An inefficient smartwatch and an average fitness tracker
Like any watch, the Nubia Alpha allows you to check the time, or you can use it to make phone calls and send SMS messages. To work with your smartphone, you need to download the Nubia Wear application from the Play Store, and in theory, the Nubia Alpha can be used in place of your smartphone via Bluetooth connection, but it is not very fast. Connection losses are frequent and synchronization must then be reactivated, either via the app or via the smartwatch directly.
Interestingly, the Nubia Alpha also has a camera with a 5MP sensor. As expected, the quality of the shots or videos (up to 10 seconds) is quite average but it is not necessarily due to this feature that people will fall for this product. The 5MP camera on the watch also allows you to make video calls, but I remain convinced that it is more comfortable to use your smartphone than to hold your wrist in front of you during a conversation.
Most notifications are also disabled by default and you should remember to activate them manually via the app. Unfortunately, the possible interactions with the notifications you receive are extremely limited. You can only answer SMS and calls, other messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Messenger or Telegram do not allow any other functionality than reading and closing. It's a very frustrating experience because the Nubia Alpha offers a less successful experience than a classic smartwatch. The support of Alpha OS for third-party applications must therefore be quickly improved if the brand wants to convince users, especially since the fitness tracker qualities of the Nubia Alpha also leave something to be desired.
Certainly, there are many fitness features (the watch is waterproof, IP65) to monitor your activities (steps, calories, stairs, heart rate, sleep monitoring) but the displayed monitoring sometimes appears overestimated or random. I regret that the Nubia Alpha is not more consistent, especially in terms of steps and results. I also think it is not the best tool to track sleep because of its bulk.
A user-friendly interface
Under the hood, the Nubia Alpha does not shine with its technical specs, the most important thing being the flexible screen of course. It includes a Snapdragon wear 2100 processor, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal memory.
To make up for this, the Nubia Alpha offers a very practical navigation experience with simple color coding to help you find your way around. With a simple swipe from the side, you can access the different menus: green for the basic functions (calls, SMS, galleries, camera...), orange for fitness activities, purple for various features (music, weather, alarm...) and blue for the different settings. The main screen gives you a summary of all the information and Nubia lets you adjust the location you want to see first by scrolling vertically through the content.
The experience is fluid, but I sometimes encountered some unexpected lags or bugs. Nothing showstopping, but considering the price of the device, a little more power would not have been too much to ask.
Good battery life
The device has a 500 mAh battery capacity, and Nubia promises 1 to 2 days of life if used regularly or one week if on standby. The promise holds up well, with an average of two days of battery life for my level of daily use. This is a nice surprise since one would assume the Alpha's OLED display would be more energy consuming.
To recharge the device, you must use the small plastic microUSB charging dock that clips to the Nubia Alpha. Allow a good hour and a half for a full charge.
Nubia Alpha technical specifications
The Nubia Alpha is a bit of a UFO in the smartwatch and smartphone market. Admittedly, the device attracts curiosity, but its usefulness remains highly debatable. The flexible screen may garner respect for its technical achievements, but it seems to me quite difficult to recommend its purchase to the general public at the moment.
However, despite all its shortcomings (few features, limited notifications, size, price...), I remain intrigued by this device which brings a little originality to the market that was missing until now. Like the first folding smartphones, the Nubia Alpha is simply a little taste of what the future holds for us in the years to come.
This article was updated on May 16, 2019 with our final review, but the comments below may reflect an earlier version.