Nubia built some intrigue surrounding its brand in the run up to MWC, with an invite labelled "Flex Your Life". Most - including ourselves - automatically assumed this was a foldable smartphone, but the product the company eventually announced was about as far from a folding phone as we could have expected.
The Nubia Alpha brings together an ethos of "what if a child designed a future product" along with a flexible screen, to product a device that looks as though it was dreamed up for a 1980's sci-fi. It's a "wearable phone", but is probably more accurately described as a smartwatch with a flexible display.
Big, bold and utterly bizarre
- Black and 18K gold-plated models
- Detachable metal link band
- Water resistant
- 4-inch flexible OLED screen
Nubia's Alpha looks different. Because it's designed as a wearable smartphone, it's got some unusual protrusions and its fair share of bulk. Front and centre is the long, narrow flexible OLED display that wraps itself around the front and part way down each side of the wrist band.
On either side of this flexible display, you'll see the shape vaguely resembles a regular watch case, except quite big. On the left hump, or bezel, there's a pill-shaped sensor designed to monitor air gestures (more on that later), while the right side has a built-in camera.
It does have two buttons on the right edge, that you press to activate features or just wake up the screen, but the primary input mode is using the touch sensitive screen that wraps around the watch. You can swipe up, down, left, right and even pinch to go back.
The weird part of this watch is that, despite its unconventional looks from the front, the metal link wristband and the underside of the case are actually very nice. There's a good solid feel to it, and the matte black finish looks great. Perhaps more importantly, the detachable links don't require any extra tools, they each have a built-in release toggle to separate them from the rest, allowing you to change the wristband size very easily.
What's more, the strap has a butterfly clasp, which means not only is it super simple to remove and fit from and to your wrist, it's also hidden, giving the metal link the appearance that it's all one single bracelet. Push the two buttons on either side, and it releases quickly.
As for the display, that's a long 4-inch OLED colour panel. It actually looks fairly decent when only displaying the colourful user interface icons, or the time. Where it struggles is showing photos or images, which is understandable given its long aspect ratio.
Technologically speaking, the screen itself sounds impressive. Nubia says its construction took considerable effort, to ensure that the screen was flexible but never becomes creased or wrinkled. Which is even more impressive given how many layers of polymer and various other filters there are: 11. Doing so required finding an adhesive that is both transparent and tacky enough to hold each of the 11 layers in perfect alignment regardless of how many times it's flexed.
Jack of all trades...
- Sleep/fitness tracking
- Built-in camera
- AIM (Air Interaction Mechanics)
With modern smartwatches, you'd be glad to find that it had a simple user interface, a heart rate sensor, and NFC for mobile payments. For Nubia though, that clearly wasn't enough for a "wearable phone".
It's got a 5-megapixel camera, for taking pictures. We didn't test it very much in our hands-on time, but that's mostly down to how awkward it is to get it pointing the right way. It's mostly fine for selfies, but don't expect to be comfortable trying to bend your elbow and angle your forearm in any attempt to frame photos properly. What's more, the long, thin display isn't a great viewfinder or the ideal platform to look at photos on once taken.
There is a heart-rate sensor on the underside for measuring vitals during exercise, and the custom software it runs has all the features you'd expect to find. There's fitness tracking, media playback, music, phone, messages, WeChat and a lot more.
One particularly unusual feature is called A.I.M (Air Interaction Mechanics) which, essentially, is air gestures. You don't have to touch the screen to scroll up and down or left and right. Instead, the idea is to be able to do a chop motion or wave your hand in the direction you want the interface to move.
Now, even if this was flawlessly executed it would be difficult to persuade people to do this over touching the screen, but in our short time with it, it was inconsistent. Sometimes it would work well, other times it wouldn't detect the gesture at all. Perhaps more vitally though, if you accidentally perform a gesture near the sensor on the side, it registers, even if you don't want it to.
The interface itself is relatively simple. Each feature is placed in a colour-coded list of apps that you scroll through. There's no grid or sea of bubbles, just a series of colourful lists to browse.
Three year-old tech inside?
- Snapdragon Wear 2100
- 1GB RAM + 8GB storage
- 500mAh battery
Despite having the looks of a futuristic product designed in the 80's, inside is the same technology that's powered smartwatches for the past three years. Given the unique feature set, and how much it can supposedly do, it's disappointing to see a chipset that's barely powerful enough to run regular smartwatch software.
Similarly, taking its claims of being a "wearable phone" into account, it seems strange to only have 8GB of storage inside. It's not a lot of space to store music, videos or photos and could become quite restricting.
As for battery life, that sounds like it's going to be about the same as any Wear OS or Apple smartwatch. That's to say, you're likely to get a day or two at most from the 500mAh cell inside.
It's hard to see the need for Nubia's Alpha in today's market, especially given its price. With a starting price of €449 (and that's just the Bluetooth only model with no Phone/4G functionality), it's a lot to ask for an ambitious, but flawed piece of technology.
Just on first impressions, it's probably safe to assume you'll be better off with an Apple Watch if you want a versatile, fully functioning watch and have the option for calls/messages etc.
While we really like the wrist-band built and the way it feels, the actually watch face is big, bulky and doesn't seem to fit a consumer need at all. With that said, we're excited that companies are being creative and thinking out of the box. This is definitely about trying to turn our old dreams of the future into reality, even if that reality is utterly bemusing.