I've always been of the opinion that smartwatches are pretty pointless devices. It'as like someone decided to make a smartphone for someone's wrist, but in a way that's way more inconvenient and less functional than the mini computers they were initially designed as companions to. Recently companies have been trying to make them independent devices in their own right, and the Nubia Alpha is a next stage of trying to make that happen. It's a smartwatch that's being marketed as a wrist-born smartphone, and while it's a little bit wonky in practice, it's still an interesting idea.
While smartwatches have been trying to get smaller and more useful, Nubia has gone all in and developed a giant wristable that aims to everything a smartwatch can do and them some. You just have to look at the thing side-by-side by the Fitbit Charge 3 to see what I mean, and it even looks overwhelming on my big-ass wrists. That gold plating also makes it look like a reject from the 'Mr T Collection'.
That's a four inch screen, for those that didn't already know, and it means you can hold an awful lot of information on the display at any given time. A little too much, if you ask me. A good third of that display is used for icons you'd normally see hidden away on a separate quick launch screen, and the fact that they're always there was a bit distracting. I have a hard time believing that you need those icons to stay visible all the same, rather than, say, flicking down to open up a new menu. The same goes for the quick launch app icons below.
This isn't the only menu the Alpha has, and you can swipe from screen to screen as you would with a normal smartwatch. That way you can see way more than the homescreen has to offer, including various apps and services available. It's here that the larger screen does start to make more sense, because it means you can have a decent number of regular-sized app icons, rather than some of the tiny images you see on other wearables. Actually being able to hit the icons accurately is a big help.
That said it's not always easy, though I was trying to balance controlling the watch within view of a phone camera. It's far easier when you don't have to deal with such things, and actually know what you;re doing. For those that are curious, the touch controls are only for going forwards. If you want to go back you have to hit a physical button (the lower button), though that's not exactly going to be a problem for everyone that's used to using the android navigation system. For those that are curious, the top button is the power button. So hit that whenever you want to turn the screen off and save your battery.
Of course touch controls are only part of the equation. The Alpha also comes with air gesture recognition, which is what the sensor on the left is for. It's only usable for navigation, but it does help keep the fingerprints off your screen, I suppose.
Air gestures aren't the only ones to utilise either. While we don't know the full extent of the system, Nubia did tell us that you can tap on the camera screen to take photos rather than hit the dedicated button. Pressing and holding turns on the video camera too, as you can see below:
Voice is in there as well, though neither I nor the person on the MWC stand could get it working in the limited time I had to play with the watch. So I couldn't say how good or bad it might be, only that the initial press release made no mention of a virtual assistant that can already understand your words. That suggests its Nubia's own thing.
The voice is bound to be useful when you're sending messages off into the world, because as you can see in the image below the Alpha sees the return of the T9 keyboard most of us are glad to be rid of. I suppose that's one way to account for the fact a smartwatch screen can't fit an entire QWERTY keyboard without microscopic keys.
There are still a lot of questions that Nubia has yet to answer, though. For starters it's not clear what sort of app support the Alpha is going to get at launch and in the future. The models on display had a bunch built in, but the non-stock options seemed to be popular Chinese apps like WeChat. I didn't see an app store, but the software is supposed to be a custom version of Android. Google Play isn't available in China, so here's hoping a western version of the Alpha will include access to Google's store.
As for the whole flexibility thing, I hate to disappoint you but it's not actually that bendy. Not like the smartphones we've been seeing around the MWC show floor. It is flexible, and you can bend the outer ends of the display inwards by half a centimetre or so but not the other way round. The strap gets in the way, and it's clear the chassis isn't built to bend in that particular direction. So while it's flexible, it's certainly not foldable, and that's an important distinction to make.
Oh, and surprisingly it has speakers built in, should you want to listen to music. They're not very good, though, so you'd be better of connecting to a pair of Bluetooth headphones like the Nubia Pods the company would presumably like you to buy should you ever pick one of these up.
The Nubia Alpha is set to hit the UK later this year with eSIM and Bluetooth variants. No UK pricing is available, but the Bluetooth model will be available in Q2 for €449 ( £390). The eSIM model will arrive in Q3 in black stainless steel and 18K gold plated variants. Those will cost €549 ( £475) and €649 ( £560) respectively.