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Wearable Tech

Nubia Alpha: A smartphone with the right idea but the wrong execution

It's a phone for your wrist, with a giant screen and a lot of problems.

Angela Lang/CNET

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

But the larger existential question at hand is, What is the Nubia Alpha? You wear it on your wrist like a watch, but it's anything but a normal watch. The watch is decked out with a bigger display than most smartwatches and can make phone calls -- kind of. Whether I consider the Nubia Alpha 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 don't know about you, but I definitely don't think of those Apple Watches as phones. Nubia models in the US piggyback to your phone via Bluetooth.

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 After spending a few weeks with what Nubia calls a "wearable smartphone," I can say with certainty that it's not a phone -- at least not in the way we're used to phones. There's no Instagram, Google Maps, Uber or Lyft, not even an internet browser.

Though it'd be easy to dismiss the Nubia Alpha as an ambitious, useless gadget. I actually like some of the approaches to its design and features, even if Nubia misses on the overall execution. The Nubia Alpha actually represents a new form-factor for wearables that could redefine what we expect from phones and watches, with a bunch of fixes to get there.

With a software improvement and changes made to the ergonomics of the display and camera, the Nubia Alpha would be worth every penny of its $449 price. But until then, the most you'll get is a watch that's mostly a conversation starter.

Flexible 4-inch display on your wrist

The defining feature of the Nubia Alpha is the 4-inch bendable OLED display. It's mounted on a steel watch band that fits snug and secure on the wrist. Imagine lining up three Apple Watch screens end-to-end in a row -- yeah that's a lot of display. Having so much screen real estate is especially handy for reading a long string of text messages, which quite 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 looming problem is that there's always a quarter of the display that you can't see without twisting your wrist in the Olympic style form. If Nubia moved the display so that more of it was inside your wrist, you'd be able to get the maximum use out of it, think 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. One of the most impressive aspects of the Nubia is a metal link bracelet with a double clasp. You can easily add or remove links to resize the watch to your wrist.

The Nubia Alpha is unapologetically chunky and hefty. Unlike the silicone band of my Apple Watch, it felt solid and secure as I wore it daily.

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. 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. So, If you want great views up the nose, the Nubia Alpha is the way to go.

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No one looks good from this angle.

Patrick Holland/CNET

You can record video, but just 10 seconds long. I have no idea, however, why you wouldn't use a phone, where you'll get better image quality and the ability to record longer videos. Where's that TikTok 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 on-screen 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 closer to a 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 counterintuitive. There are a lot of tiny apps, from weather to fitness to one called "Hi Marquee," which lets you type words or phrases and have them 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's 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're 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 Wi-Fi, 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 a notification 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 2000s, 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 track sleep. But sometimes the numbers seemed off. For example, it said I took 32,000 steps when I'd 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 backward?

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.