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Nubia Alpha hands-on review: A flexible smartphone for your wrist

Combining the features of a phone with a smartwatch, the Nubia Alpha is one of a kind

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Foldable phones and 5G might be the talking points at this year’s MWC technology show, but Nubia is bringing us something slightly different. Instead of a phone you put in your pocket, the Nubia Alpha is a phone you wear around your wrist.

Although it might look like a regular smartwatch at first glance, the Alpha is a little more interesting than your average Wear OS timepiece. Dubbed the “world’s first commercially available wearable phone” the Nubia Alpha combines flexible OLED screen technology with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and eSIM connectivity to deliver a smartphone-esque experience right on your wrist.

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Nubia Alpha review: Specifications, price and release date

  • 4in, 192 x 960 wrap-around “panoramic” OLED screen
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor
  • 1GB RAM
  • 8GB storage
  • Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and eSIM connectivity
  • 5-megapixel camera
  • 500mAh battery for 1 to 2 days “regular use”
  • Custom Android installation
  • Price: €549 (Bluetooth only); €649 gold-plated version
  • Release date: April 2019

Nubia Alpha review: Key features and first impressions

The core of what makes the Alpha so different and interesting is its wrap-around OLED display. Instead of making up merely the watch face, Nubia has taken advantage of OLED’s flexibility to wrap the display almost half the way around your wrist.

For a watch, the display is absolutely huge. It measures 4in from corner to corner with a 192 x 960 resolution. The results is what looks, initially, like a rather unwieldy wearable. It probably won’t faze fans of Casio G-Shock type watches but for everyone else, particularly those with skinny wrists, the Nubia Alpha might come as something of a shock.

That’s mainly due to the sheer width of the thing: it’s around an inch wide, not just at the watch face but pretty much all the way around your wrist. The main face is made even wider by the presence of a 5-megapixel camera and infrared motion sensor flanking the screen. Surprisingly, though, I found it quite comfortable on my wrist when I tried it on, once I'd removed a few links to get it to fit snugly on my wrist.

Build quality is pretty decent, too. The standard Nubia Alpha comes in black (€549, UK price TBC) – there’s also an 18-karat gold-plated model (€649) – and both versions come with a segmented steel wristband that looks and feels slick. This is a wearable that makes a big statement.

So what does that big screen do? The central segment shows the time and your usual smartwatch stats: steps taken, calories burned and so on, while the sections that wrap around the side of your wrist host a series of shortcuts and settings buttons that might normally be accessed by swiping down or up on a more traditional smartwatch interface.

The size of the screen also allows for more comfortable reading of messages and other information, although the bend of the screen does mean that you can’t always see it all at once.

Navigation on Nubia’s custom Android-based OS is mainly via touch with all the usual taps and swipes plus the addition of pinching to go back. A pair of physical buttons sit on the right edge of the watch face: pressing one takes you back to the watch’s main home page, the other turns the watch on and off.

Alternatively, you can use gestures to perform certain navigational actions (swiping and scrolling for instance). Just wave your hand up or down, left and right in front of the sensor and the watch will perform those actions as if you’d touched the screen. This worked inconsistently on the sample I tried – left and right waves worked more reliably than up and down gestures. But this doesn’t feel like a feature you’d want to use all that often. Fortunately, gesture mode can be disabled too.

The potential issue here is that Nubia’s custom Android OS doesn’t yet have any form of app ecosystem to support it with third-party software. So while Wear OS has a huge selection of apps available to install, from fitness apps such as Strava to sleep-tracking apps and Spotify, the list of apps available to the Nubia Alpha is currently stuck at what comes preinstalled. There’s a reasonable selection to choose from but they’re, understandably, focused on the core features.

Still, the Nubia Alpha is at least pretty well stocked when it comes to those core features. You can make calls on it via a Bluetooth headset and send SMS messages. It has a full suite of fitness tracking modes, and it includes a heart rate monitor and GPS, too. Nubia has left no stone unturned.

And it works fluidly, with scrolling and swiping actions resulting in smooth, instantaneous reactions on the screen. That’s surprising given that the Nubia Alpha is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 – a chip we’ve seen struggle to deliver a responsive experience on Wear OS devices in the past.

Nubia Alpha review: Early verdict

I started off being pretty sceptical about the Nubia Alpha. It’s big, bulky and heavy, and the custom Android OS won’t run third-party apps anytime soon. And it’s expensive: €549 for the black, Bluetooth only non-eSIM version (which isn’t arriving in Europe until later this year) is a lot to ask for a such an unusual wearable running an unproven OS.  

But that wrap-around screen really is something different. In an industry where innovation in wearables seems to be stagnating, that’s good to see. Nubia has been bold and gone out on a limb.

The Alpha really is a striking thing and the fact that it’s actually going to be available is a surprising bonus, since products like these have a nasty habit of appearing at tech shows and then never seeing the light of day.