Nubia Alpha Hands-on review

Nubia Alpha Hands-on Review: Only the most geeky need apply

Feature-packed but style-challenged, the Nubia Alpha isn’t a wearable for the masses
Feature-packed but style-challenged, the Nubia Alpha isn’t a wearable for the masses
Feature-packed but style-challenged, the Nubia Alpha isn’t a wearable for the masses

Highs

  • Unusual, sci-fi-type design
  • Long battery life claims

Lows

  • Gesture controls are unreliable
  • Old Snapdragon 2100 processor
  • Very large for small wrists

Nubia arrived at CES 2019 with the wonderfully crazy Nubia X dual-screen smartphone — that’s one screen on the front and another on the back — and now it’s at MWC 2019 with the world’s first wearable smartphone. It’s called the Nubia Alpha, and it’s a tech-roller coaster ride where you’re marveling at doing something really cool and different one minute, only to get queasy when you’re unexpectedly turned upside down the next.

Screen and technology

Let’s talk about what it actually is first. Nubia’s definition is mostly correct. It’s a smartwatch with smartphone capabilities, including everything from making and taking calls to taking pictures with a built-in camera. Instead of a circular screen, it has a 4-inch flexible OLED screen in a rectangular shape with a 960 x 192-pixel resolution. It curves down the side of the bracelet, providing a longer viewing area than a traditional smartwatch.

The bezel around the center of the screen gives it shape and definition and holds both a regular camera and a sensor to recognize gestures. But this is not a watch-shaped wearable — it’s way more space-age, but in a 1980s way. The stainless steel bracelet is easily resized using small clips, and the Alpha comes in silver, black, or a flashy 18K gold-plated version.

If you can’t tell from the pictures, the Alpha is big. Not big like a G Shock. Big like you’d expect a wearable smartphone to be. There’s no subtlety here. Everyone is going to notice the Alpha on your wrist.

There’s no subtlety here. Everyone is going to notice the Alpha on your wrist.

The technology inside is disappointing. The Nubia Alpha has the Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor, which is completely outdated, and a wearable processor we’d rather not use in 2019, now that the new Snapdragon 3100 is available. The watch has 1GB of RAM, 8GB of storage space, and a 500mAh battery that Nubia says is good for two days use, or a week on standby. Having experience with the Snapdragon 2100, this sounds overly optimistic, but we have not tested it to know for certain. The Alpha tracks your fitness and has a heart rate sensor on the back too.

Design

It’s at this point you may wonder if I’m mad, because I think the black model looks pretty good. The bracelet is very comfortable, didn’t pull on my wrist hairs, and once I’d adjusted for size, I doubt I’d feel the need to take it off. However, the style is so retro sci-fi, I could only wear it when I cosplay Corporal Hicks from Aliens. Nubia showed images of guys in suits — and yes, only guys — wearing the Alpha. But this won’t happen. It’s going to be the finishing touch on someone’s Comic-Con outfit. It’s unlikely to appeal to women, as the design is not just sci-fi, it’s also ridiculously masculine.

nubia alpha hands on 3

That’s the ups and downs of the design, so how about the screen? It’s attractive, bright, and colorful, just as you’d expect from an OLED panel, and shows the operating system’s icons and wallpaper very effectively. You can watch video, look at pictures, and do other smartphone-like things too, but you won’t want to because it’s tall, thin, and, by modern phone standards, quite small. For example, you can take photos with the camera, but the viewfinder is the size of a postage stamp and low resolution. Yes, the 5-megapixel camera will probably take passable pictures, but why would you want to look at them on this screen, or contort your body to take anything meaningful with it in the first place?

Controls and gestures

Then we come to the control system. You can interact with it using touch, swiping the screen left to right, and up and down. The icons range from large and clear to tiny and fiddly, with some screens showing lots of information and others being rather plain. A clicking sound accompanies you scrolling through the screens, adding to the odd retro vibe. A pinch will close apps. The watch did not have obvious access to Google Play, and it’s not clear if the watch runs Android.

Try as I might, on a wide variety of models, I could not get the gesture controls working consistently

Nubia wants you to use its gesture control system called AIM, or Air Interaction Mechanics. This involves swiping in the air over the watch to mimic touch controls. Your hand movements are recognized by the watch’s special sensor, and you can flick through the menus without touching the screen. At least, that’s the idea. Try as I might, on a wide variety of models, I could not get the gesture controls working consistently at all. Other people had slightly better success, but not for prolonged periods. Even the Nubia representatives had difficulty.

At first, I thought it must be me, and others offered advice on the “right” hand movement to make. Except that’s not right at all. I shouldn’t have to learn or make specific swiping movements to get the gesture control working. I should be able to wave my hand over the top in a normal fashion and have it work. Trying chopping motions, fast movements, slow movements, or altering the distance from the watch to get it working means one thing: The gesture controls aren’t very good. Picking up my fourth Nubia Alpha and still failing to get the gestures working made me want to make a very different sort of gesture at the Alpha.

Price and availability

How much will the Alpha cost? The cheapest Bluetooth-only Alpha costs 450 euros ($512 U.S.), the 4G eSIM model is 550 euros ($626), and the 18K gold eSIM version is 650 euros ($740). This puts it in the same range as the Apple Watch Series 4, which while it still splits opinion with its design, is certainly less visually challenging than the Nubia Alpha. Nubia says the Alpha will be available in the coming months in China and parts of Europe, and will hit North America before the end of 2019. The company is gradually making an entrance into the U.S., and it currently sells its Red Magic gaming phone online.

The Alpha is exactly what we want from Nubia. It’s weird, oddly compelling, technically quite impressive, features elements that don’t work as described and that need fixing before release, and isn’t like anything else on sale. None of this is a reason to rush out and buy it, but we’re glad it exists. What wearable should you buy? Still, even after all this time, nothing can compete with the Apple Watch, which in its most basic form is cheaper than the Nubia Alpha, but considerably less mad.

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