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Nubia Alpha hands-on review

FOLDABLE PHONES AND 5G sucked up almost off the attention at this year’s MWC, but then attendees stumbled across the Nubia Alpha, one of the oddest gadgets we’ve ever seen.

You almost certainly won’t have heard of Nubia, but it’s not some Kickstarter company looking for your help to get a product off the ground.

Rather, it’s an offshoot of Chinese telecoms tech firm ZTE, which it has a good bit of cash as the firm focuses on “high-end innovative smartphones to adventurous users who want to pursue new experiences and an enhanced quality of life”.

But the Nubia Alpha isn’t a smartphone, well not as we know it. Rather it’s a smartwatch that thinks it’s a smartphone. And we managed to get our hands on one, as well as one on our wrist, at MWC.

Curves over folds
We don’t really know where to start with the Nubia Alpha, but let’s have a stab at the screen. The Alpha sports a 4in flexible rectangular OLED display that essentially wraps around the wrist.

It’s certainly larger and more eye-catching than some of the circular or square displays on other smartwatches and is an interesting use of flexible screens outside of foldable phones like the Huawei Mate X.

But things go south when it comes to the display’s resolution which measures in at a 960×192 and is a long way from being the sharpest OLED panel around.

That could be down to the custom OS the Alpha is running, which doesn’t serve up the nicest of icons and still needs a good bit of work. Colours are decent though and the display is pretty bright.

If it was just a curved display in a slim frame, we’d be a bit impressed with the Alpha. But instead, Nubia has popped it into a chunky frame that looks like it’s blending sci-fi art deco aesthetics with gadget design from Bond’s Q branch… if Q borrowed from the Homer Simpson school of car design.

We’ve seen a few takes on the Alpha’s looks, with one even describing it as beautiful. But we’ve laid off the happy juice and at best we’d describe the Alpha as boundary-pushing. Terms like bizarre, crazy, wild, wonky, and flawed, have been used in the same breath of the Alpha, and we’d not dispute their use.

To be honest, we’d genuinely wonder what the heck the designers were smoking, snorting, absorbing, or all three.

The ‘phone-watch’ is chunky and has quite a lot of heft to it, though it won’t break your wrist. And the watch’s thick bracelet strap and solid clasp mechanism holds it in place on our, we guess, medium-sized, wrists.

Rather than a slick digital crown you’d find on the Apple Watch or the rotary dial on Samsung’s Gear watches, there are two crown-like buttons on the right-hand side of the watch to help with navigating the watch’s software.

Then you’ve got a 5MP camera on the right and some form of sensor on the left-hand side of the screen.

The former doesn’t take great pics, though we suspect it’s more for video calls than sharp selfies. The latter seems to be designed for detecting gesture controls, but that didn’t seem to be working for us on Nubia’s stand; again, that could be down to it being early days for the Alpha.

In its black finish, the sensors and other bits of the Alpha’s aesthetics aren’t as in your face as the 18K gold-plated version. Don’t let the karats fool you, though, as the gold finish doesn’t scream classy wealth, rather it looks like a prop we’d expect to see in a Fifth Element cosplay.

Try as we might, we honestly can’t think of who’d wear such a smartwatch, even if one wanted a watch that aims to carry out phone duties as well.

Wrist-y business
It’s a bit of a head scratcher as to where the Alpha’s smartwatch chops end and its phone capabilities start.

It comes with smartwatch-style features such as fitness trackers and ‘wellness’ data collection, as well as a rear sensor for picking up the wearer’s heart rate.

But the software doesn’t seem to have a wealth of apps or obvious access to an app store, so it doesn’t strike us as the most fully-fledged smartwatch.

On the phone side, the Alpha allows for voice and video calls, but we couldn’t put it to the test. Yet, with all the Bluetooth headphones around, we can’t imagine many people will be comfortable gabbling into their wrists like a spy from a kids cartoon, when instead one can seamlessly walk around looking like they’re talking to the voices in their head.

There’s a messages app which is hardly novel for a smartwatch. But rather than require pairing with a smartphone, the Alpha can pick up texts and calls through its 4G eSIM.

Having a SIM on the inside is the trick to severing a smartwatch’s tie to a smartphone. But the rest of the Alpha’s innards are pretty disappointing.

Despite its size, the Alpha fits in 1GB of RAM and 8GB of ROM-based storage. That gives it a very smartwatch rather than smartphone spec.

And that’s made even clearer with the use of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 2100, a positively ancient SoC that has been superseded by the Wear 3100; why Nubia hasn’t used that chip is beyond us.

In practice, we found we could flit through the handful of apps and features on the watch fairly smoothly, with scrolling up and down on the display delivering a satisfying clicking noise.

But we imagine if there are plenty of apps running in the background things could get sluggish as the Snapdragon Wear 2100 runs out of puff.

There are some positives to the Alpha’s innards, notably the 500mAh battery that promises up to two days of usage and supports fast charging when the electrical juice runs low.

Consider the price of the Nubia, which when released in April will cost €549 for the black model and €649 for the gold version, and you’re not exactly getting bank for your buck when it comes to spec. There’s a Bluetooth-only model priced at €449, but that kinda defeats the idea of having a stand-alone phone-watch.

One to watch; more a wrist-take
If you’re a regular INQUIRER reader, you’ll have already figured out that we weren’t likely to be particularity kind about the Nubia Alpha; we’re more fans of refined design and high-end power.

The Alpha doesn’t offer much that tickles our fancy and we don’t see this selling to people other than the types who like to drive gold Lamborghinis as a lethargic pace in Kensington or coat their Bentleys in chintzy crystals.

But we do like the idea of a wrist-mounted curved OLED display. If Nubia could reduce the size and refine the design of the Alpha into a gadget that’s mostly a display, then there’s certainly potential here.

Until then, the Nubia Alpha is but a fun MWC oddity for us to have gawped at as we took respite from the glitzy stands of the big brands. µ

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