Nubia Alpha wearable smartphone has the right idea, but is totally wrong – CNET

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The first thing you notice about the Nubia Alpha is its long narrow curved screen that wraps around your wrist when you wear it. I had several curious strangers ask me about it, some who thought it was a house arrest bracelet and others who said it looked like a watch Batman would wear. The Nubia Alpha has a ridiculous facade and that is honestly part of its appeal.

But the bigger existential question is what is the Nubia Alpha? You wear it on your wrist like a watch, but it has a bigger display than most smartwatches and can make phone calls — kind of. But whether the Nubia Alpha is a watch or a smartphone really depends on your definition of what a phone is.

In China, the Nubia Alpha can make calls via an eSIM, but so can some Apple Watch models and I definitely don’t think of those as phones. Nubia models in the US piggyback to your phone via Bluetooth.

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Nubia calls it a “wearable smartphone”. After spending a few weeks with it, I can definitely say it is not a phone — at least in they way we’re used to phones. There’s no Instagram, Google Maps, Uber or Lyft. There’s not even an internet browser.

It would be easy to dismiss the Nubia Alpha as an ambitious, but useless gadget. But I actually like some of the approaches to its design and features, even if Nubia misses on the overall execution. The Nubia Alpha represents a new form-factor for wearables that could redefine what we expect from phones and watches. But Nubia needs to fix a bunch of things to get there.

If the software is improved and changes are made to the ergonomics of the display and camera, the Nubia Alpha would be worth every penny of its $449 price. But until then, that price gets you a watch that’s mostly a conversation starter.

Flexible 4-inch display on your wrist

A 4-inch bendable OLED display is the defining feature here. It’s mounted on a steel watch band that fit snug and secure on my wrist. Imagine lining up three Apple Watch screens end-to-end in a row — yeah that’s a lot of display. It’s fantastic having so much screen real estate, especially handy for reading a long string of text messages which literally wrap around my wrist. It’s a shame Nubia couldn’t figure out a way to let you view email messages on that screen. It’s just crying to be used that way.

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The Nubia Alpha embraces something phone makers learned several years ago: people like bigger screens.

Angela Lang/CNET

One problem is that there’s always a quarter of the display that you can’t see without impossibly twisting your wrist. If Nubia moved the display so more of it was inside your wrist, instead of on the outside, you’d be able to get the maximum use out of it. It would be asymmetrical but far more ergonomic.

It’s worth noting, that I haven’t had a single durability issue with the Nubia Alpha’s flexible display. When Samsung sent out review samples of its Galaxy Fold phone, many reviewers had trouble with the folding display.

Not a slap bracelet

I should dispel one myth about the Nubia. This isn’t a slap bracelet. The Nubia sports a metal link bracelet with a double clasp which is one of the most impressive aspects about the watch. You can easily add or remove links to resize the watch to your wrist.

The Nubia Alpha is unapologetically chunky and hefty. It felt solid and secure wearing it daily unlike the silicone band of my Apple Watch.

Inside the Nubia Alpha’s girth is a battery that lasted me 48 hours and 44 minutes on a single charge.

The Nubia Alpha is rated IP65 for dust and water resistance. It survived water splashes, dustings of blue matcha powder and an exploding can of beer during an 8 hour barista shift I worked at a cafe.

iPhone 4 camera specs, iPhone 3GS photo quality

There’s a 5-megapixel camera that sits on top of your wrist. But because of the angle I got the worst selfies. If I want great views up my nose, the Nubia Alpha is the way to go. Sometimes I could stretch my arm and twist my wrist to get my entire head in the frame, but this small act of contortion rarely yielded a good shot. Image quality is pretty bad by today’s standards. The quality of the photos is like iPhone 3GS good.

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No one looks good from this angle.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Oh, you can record video, but just 10 seconds long. But I have no idea why you wouldn’t use a phone where you’ll get better image quality and the ability to record videos that are longer than 10 second clips. Where’s that Tik Tok integration when you need it?

Like the display, if Nubia moved the camera to the inside of the wrist, it would actually yield decent selfies and videos. I realize moving both the display and camera would mean the need for a left-handed and right-handed version, but that would make it far more useful.

Also, I wish I could use one of the two physical buttons on the watch to trigger the camera shutter. It’s odd taking a photo with the onscreen shutter button because my finger sometimes blocks the camera while pressing it.

Software is a series of unfortunate events

It’s interesting that Nubia decided to tackle the software on the Alpha. I really like the company’s Red Magic Mars gaming phone which runs a close to stock version of Android 9 Pie. But Nubia basically started from scratch here.

The software on the Nubia Alpha is clunky and confounding to use. Trying to get a song onto it is insanely unintuitive. There are a lot of tiny apps from weather and fitness to one called Hi Marquee which lets you type words or phrase and have it scroll across the Nubia Alpha’s display.

“…me the world is gonna roll me,I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.” The Hi Marquee app lets you display words and phrases but limits you to 20 characters: bad news for Smash Mouth fans.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Navigating the apps is easy enough with finger scrolls and swipes just like you’d use on a phone. But there is also a sensor that can detect hand motions kind of like those on the LG G8. It’s called Alpha Gestures. I can move my hand above the phone in a wiping motion either up-and-down or side-to-side to navigate app screens. It’s a neat idea, but in use it worked intermittently. Even if it was perfect, I’m not sure how often I’d use Alpha Gestures. It seems easier to just use the screen.

There are some bugs and inconsistencies with the software. Since notifications on the watch mirror what I get on my phone, a new email alert shows up twice: Once from Gmail and once as an Android notification.

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There are numerous little apps that are easy to navigate on the Nubia’s long screen.

Angela Lang/CNET

System dialog boxes don’t read “OK” and “cancel”. For example, when the weather app couldn’t connect to the phone or via WiFi, a dialog box popped up that read, “Unable to get the location and weather information, please check the network.” To dismiss it I have to press a button labeled “I know”. This is infuriating because obviously I didn’t know — that’s why I tried opening the weather app in the first place. Had I known about the connection issue, I wouldn’t have tried to check the weather.

If someone on an iPhone messages me using iMessage, I get notified that it’s a “multimedia message and needs to be read on my phone.” You can reply to text messages using a ridiculously small telephone keypad direct from the early 2000’s, but sadly there’s no predictive text.

The Nubia Alpha has a bunch of fitness features including the ability to track steps, measure heart rate, record workouts and even sleep tracking. But sometimes the numbers seemed off. For example, it said I took 32,000 steps when I had been seated for most of the day. My colleague at CNET en Español who’s testing another Nubia Alpha somehow recorded -17,000 steps. Did he walk backwards?

At the end of the day I can see so much potential for a large screen wearable like this especially if it could actually be a standalone phone. But at this time, the Nubia Alpha just isn’t there yet.

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