Hands on: Nubia Alpha review

Is the wearable phone bearable on the wrist?

What is a hands on review?
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Early Verdict

The Nubia Alpha is a little too big and burdensome, both to hold and use, to be immediately appealing - but it sure is a handsome handset.

For

  • Good looking
  • Novelty item

Against

  • Slow to use
  • Big and bulky

MWC 2019 in Barcelona, Spain is the proving grounds for new ideas and innovations in mobile technology, and so it makes sense for Chinese firm Nubia to launch its curious Nubia Alpha device here.

The Nubia Alpha is both a smartphone and wearable rolled into one - rolled literally, as its flexible screen wraps around the wrist like a fitness tracker, yet has all the functions and capabilities of your everyday smartphone.

We got hands on with the curiosity to find out what it was like.

Nubia Alpha price and release date

You have a choice between two different versions of the Nubia Alpha - a Bluetooth connected device, or an eSIM model. The Bluetooth model will launch in Q2 2019 for €449 (about $510, £390, AU$710) in China, Europe and North America.

For an eSIM device you'll have to wait longer - it'll be out in April in China, Q3 2019 in Europe, and Q4 in North America. For a black colored Alpha you'll pay €549 (roughly $620, £475, AU$870), but for a gold version you're out €649 (about $740, £560, AU$1,030).

Nubia Alpha design and display

Novelty in design is the Nubia Alpha's main selling point, and it is an extraordinarily curious device. Its 4-inch flexible display wraps around your wrist, sending notifications spinning over your arm and letting you scroll through messages. 

The 960 x 192 OLED screen is serviceable - it's nothing groundbreaking - and good enough for the tasks a wearable needs to perform. Pictures stored on the device looked surprisingly great, although they clearly weren't taken by the limited camera on the device - more on that later.

The rest of the device is made of stainless steel, with 18K gold plating on one version. It's certainly a good looking device, although it has a lot more in common aesthetically with large status watches rather than fitness bands. 

While it wasn't uncomfortable to hold, it certainly was a little ungainly, and we couldn't imagine using something like it for exercise. The large strap and bulky body would surely be a hindrance for fitness, and a nuisance when asleep.

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Nubia Alpha specs and operating system

The Nubia Alpha isn't exactly a high-end smartphone - with only 1GB RAM and 8GB internal memory, it'd pale in comparison to any low-end device. But you're not going to be playing taxing games or watching Netflix on it, so the low specs don't mean much. Nubia developed its own operating system for the device, to try and blend smartphone and wearable OS in their own way.

However the device is just as unwieldy to use as it is to hold, with slow responses to commands and a surprisingly limited amount of features given how competent some wearables can be.

One of the unique features of the Nubia OS is air controls, through which you can navigate menus using gestures. However we had trouble getting this to work, as it only registered gestures about half the time, and even then it's barely a time saving measure as you could easily perform the same action while touching the screen and have reliable results.

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Nubia Alpha camera and battery

One questionable aspect of the device is its battery, which at 500mAh is on the small side. Nubia suggests this'll last for 1-2 days of activity which, if true, is about on par for wearables these days. 

When we do our full review, we'll put the device through its paces to find out just how powerful the battery is.

Something you wouldn't expect in a wearable is a camera, but the Alpha has a 5MP snapper which you can use while on the move. 

It's a front-facing camera, and has a rather limited field of view, which made its usefulness seem rather limited. Hopefully when more apps are developed for the technology, there will be reasons to use this camera.

Image credit: TechRadar

Image credit: TechRadar

Early verdict

One of the biggest questions surrounding the Nubia Alpha is "who is it for?". It's not a capable enough smartphone to be competitve in the phone market, but has too many features (and is a bit too big) to be worthwhile as a fitness tracker. Instead, it's more of a novelty device.

Currently it seems more like a status symbol than a genuinely useful watch, as it definitely looks great, but the actual functionality just isn't there with the slow operations and limited apps.

Perhaps when the Nubia Alpha hits the market there will be a larger collection of apps and features, and the operating system will be in a better state - look for our full review closer to release to find out.

MWC (Mobile World Congress) is the world's largest showcase for the mobile industry, stuffed full of the newest phones, tablets, wearables and more. TechRadar is reporting live from Barcelona all week to bring you the very latest from the show floor. Head to our dedicated MWC 2019 hub to see all the new releases, along with TechRadar's world-class analysis and buying advice about your next phone.  

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.