There’s been a lot of talk in the last year about the different form factors of devices (laptops, tablets, and smartphones) gradually converging over time. We’ve seen Google and Apple attempt to make the tablet a viable laptop replacement with the iPad Pro and Pixel Slate, and now Samsung and Huawei are merging the smartphone and tablet with their foldable smartphones, the Galaxy Fold and Mate X, respectively.
Less common is the idea of using flexible displays to bring together the form factors of the smartwatch and the smartphone. But that’s exactly what Nubia has done with the Nubia Alpha, a smartwatch with a lot of the functionality of a regular smartphone. We saw it shown off in a non-touchable capacity at IFA last year, and now at MWC 2019 we’ve finally had a chance to strap it on our wrists and take it for a proper test drive.
At the core of Nubia’s ambitious attempt to redefine the smartwatch is its flexible OLED display. Although the display measures just 4 inches corner to corner, it appears a lot bigger because of its ultra-wide aspect ratio. The display has a resolution of 960 x 192, which by our calculations results in an aspect ratio of 5:1, or 45:9 if you want to compare it to traditional displays.
According to Nubia, the display can withstand being bent 100,000 times, which should allow you to wrap it around your wrist without worrying about damaging it.
The Nubia Alpha’s display is really wide, but the bend of the smartwatch’s screen means you rarely get to see it all at once. Instead, Nubia’s custom Android-based OS lets you scroll the watch’s essential information so it’s readable from any angle. You can drag the clock down on to the right hand side of your wrist if you’re left handed, for example, or scroll it up so you can see more menu items at the bottom of the screen.
Otherwise, the watch’s operating system is navigated using a series of simplified icon menus, where all the options are tiled in a row from top to bottom. You swipe left and right to move between lists of apps grouped by functionality, tap to select the app you want to use, and pinch to go back. There are also a couple of physical buttons on the side of the device. One kicks you back out to the home menu, and the other seems to be designated for voice control, although this wasn’t functional in the units we tried out.
One of the more interesting features of the smartwatch is gesture control, which allows you to wave your finger over the device to get it to scroll up and down, or left and right. We had to physically go into a settings menu to activate the functionality — which was clearly labeled as being an “alpha” feature — on our demo unit. To be fair to the device, we were in a dark room filled with occasional bright spotlights, but the functionality was buggy, and clearly wasn’t ready for public use.
So what can the wearable smartphone do? Lots of things, as it turns out. There’s all the standard smartwatch functionality such as fitness tracking, mobile payments (though only the Chinese QR code payment service AliPay was mentioned), and voice calls either through its built-in speaker or a connected Bluetooth headset.
But where it stands out is the functionality that’s less traditionally seen on a smartwatch. There’s a 5-megapixel camera which lets you take selfies pretty effortlessly, or normal photographs using a little more limb contortion. There’s also an option to watch movies, although you’ll have to stand with your arm lifted up at a right angle to see them straight. Even then, you’ll get a lot of either cropping or black space because of the screen’s ultra-wide aspect ratio.
Text messaging is also a possibility, either through SMS or WeChat, a Chinese messaging service. Eventually (we presume), most people will dictate their messages using voice control because the alternative, a T9 alphanumeric dialer, was very difficult to use.
There’s a decent amount of smartphone functionality here, but offering anything more advanced might be a little bit of a struggle considering the Nubia Alpha is running on a Snapdragon Wear 2100, a wearable chip that was first released back in 2016. Elsewhere, the specs are a little more modern, with 1GB of RAM (equivalent to the Apple Watch Series 4) and 8GB of onboard storage (half the 16GB of Apple’s latest model). All of this is powered by a 500mAh battery, which Nubia claims should last between one and two days with regular usage.
Nubia plans to release a couple of different models of the Nubia Alpha. As well as two different color schemes, black and gold, there will be two different types of connectivity available. The cheaper model will offer Bluetooth connectivity so that you can pair it with a phone, while the pricier model gets you eSIM compatibility, so the Alpha can truly be the standalone wearable smartphone Nubia so wants it to be.
The Nubia Alpha is an ambitious attempt to make smartwatches more capable by entrusting them with more smartphone capabilities. However, while the flexible OLED display makes this a possibility, the reality of having such a narrow screen attached to your wrist means that it’s not quite capable of pulling off much of this functionality. Messaging just feels easier on a phone, and it’s nice taking a picture with a device that’s not strapped to your wrist.
The first version of Nubia’s wearable smartphone will be its black Bluetooth variant, which will be available in Europe and North America starting in April with an average global price of €449 (around $510). If you want an eSIM for data connectivity, then you’ll have to wait a little longer and pay a little more. The eSIM version will start at €549 (around $624), and will be available in Europe and North America in the third quarter of this year. If you want it in gold, then the watch will set you back €649, roughly equivalent to $737.