A week with the Nubia Alpha 'wearable smartphone': one step forward, 60,000 back

Nubia Alpha
Image credit: TechRadar

Nubia has a proposition for you: drop your smartphone, and instead use the Nubia Alpha watch for all your communication, music, and photography. It's a bold idea, and one that we're interested to see how consumers take to.

The Alpha has a flexible screen which wraps around the wrist, so is technically one of the first products with such a display, and the screen can fold at different angles depending on how tightly you wear the device.

We've had our hands on this curious device (well, it's been on our wrists, which is close enough) for a week now – that's not enough time to write our full and final review, so here we're sharing our initial thoughts of the Nubia Alpha.

The Nubia Alpha as a smartphone

The Nubia Alpha is intended to replace your normal smartphone, and you can use it for calls and texts, but there's a huge issue standing in the way of Nubia's grand ambition: you need to connect the Alpha to a phone using Bluetooth to get it to work, so you can't actually ditch your normal handset.

See the whole text. Image credit: TechRadar

See the whole text. Image credit: TechRadar

This problem doesn't present itself in China, where Nubia sells an LTE version of the Alpha, but outside China only a Bluetooth model is available. This mitigates the whole appeal of the wearable 'smartphone', and it doesn't have features that other smartwatches don't. 

In fact, it's a little worse for quick communication than certain other wearables – you can only send and receive text messages and calls, whereas some smartwatches work with messaging apps like WhatsApp. This doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad device, but it certainly doesn't provide the communication possibilities that a non-wearable smartphone would.

Texting is pretty easy with the phone – a gentle notification alerted us when we received a message, and we could use an old-school number pad to text out our responses. Call quality was a little weak, mainly because the Nubia Alpha's speaker is a little on the quiet side, so when we tried to take a call in noisy areas we found ourselves having to speak into the device, then lift it to our ear to hear a response, which became frustrating.

A troubled fitness tracker

There are a few fitness tracker options available on the Nubia Alpha, including a heart rate monitor, walking and running step counter, and free workout guide. We haven't used these all yet – that's one of the reasons our full review isn't complete – but we have used the step counter and heart rate monitor enough to comment on them.

In general the step counter worked well, and it seemed quite accurate compared to the built-in step counter on the Huawei P30, which we paired the Alpha with – when we followed the same route for multiple days in a row, the Alpha gave a consistent and accurate step number, whereas the P30 often gave varying stats. 

However on one of the days we were using the Alpha, we got to work to find out we had nearly minus 60,000 steps, where we'd expected to see around 7,000 – we fell spectacularly short of our daily goal of 10,000 on that day. This was, of course, a bug, and we only saw it on one of our days of testing, but we'd want to see how frequent such glitches are over longer periods of use.

That doesn't look right. Image credit: TechRadar

That doesn't look right. Image credit: TechRadar

The heart rate monitor seemed quite accurate – we saw our beats increase in real time as we drank coffee or watched Game of Thrones, and sat at a baseline at other times. Step count, heart rate and calories burned are all visible on the Alpha's home screen, so we kept track of these features quite easily over the week.

Using the interface

There are good and bad parts of the Nubia Alpha's interface, but overall it made a good impression.

Let's start with the bad – the gesture controls, or as Nubia calls them, Air Controls. The phone features a sensor in the side that registers gestures, so you can swipe up and down to scroll through menus, and left and right to access different menus, but in practice our gestures only registered about half the time, so it was much more efficient just to touch the screen for all these needs.

Image credit: TechRadar

Image credit: TechRadar

The screen itself was great to use, as it was responsive to touch even if we were dragging things over the bends in the flexible screen.

The menu layout is intuitive too – you can swipe right to access calls, messages and the camera, right again for fitness settings, and right a third time for other functions like calendar and compass. The long screen means you can see all the menu icons at once, which is particularly useful on the home screen as options like changing brightness, airplane mode and sound on/off are easily accessible.

We quickly got used to where all the apps were hiding; however it's worth noting that not all the apps that were present on the Alpha when we got our hands on it briefly in February are present on the version we're using for our review.

Camera antics

Phones are all about cameras nowadays, but we were rather surprised to find that the Nubia Alpha has a 5MP snapper too.

Taken with the Nubia Alpha. Image credit: TechRadar

Taken with the Nubia Alpha. Image credit: TechRadar

Pictures taken with it weren't of the highest quality, but a bigger problem exists here – if the Alpha is on your wrist, you're going to have to strain your arm to take any kind of half-decent selfie – and selfies are the only kind of picture you're going to be able to take with the front-facing shooter.

Saying that, it was quite fun to take pictures with the four different filters, and we actually managed to capture acceptable landscape selfies when we took the Alpha off our wrist.

Pictures taken with the Alpha are sync'd with the app and sent to your phone, so it's easy to access the pictures you take with your wearable. For people who don't care about incredibly high-quality selfies, and just want to play about with a camera on the wrist, it's a fun little toy.

Saying that, it was quite fun to take pictures with the four different filters, and we actually managed to captu acceptable landscape selfies when we took the Alpha off our wrist.