Entertainment, Hardware, Software Programs

Pebble Review – The Smartwatch For The People

While I like to consider the Pebble my very first smartwatch, I would be lying to you and myself with such a statement. Because in reality, my first smartwatch was the Sony Smartwatch which was possibly the worst thing I have seen Sony make in many years. They’ve been killing it in smartphones and tablets and their PS4 isn’t a bad piece of hardware either. Now, the Pebble for those unfamiliar with it is a smartwatch that was born purely of the Crowdfunding era, completely and fully funded by Kickstarter. At the time, the Pebble was the biggest Kickstarter project ever and probably the most successful and considering the momentum that Pebble has today. Pebble raised over $10 million to make a smartwatch for the masses that was flexible and customizable but also looked half decent.

While I am not a huge fan of plastic watches, the Pebble does a pretty good job of not being an eyesore. Additionally, the Pebble’s design is very inviting and allows you to pick from multiple colors, adding a unique level of customization that the Sony and other smartwatches lack. In addition to the variable colors, the Pebble’s wristband can easily be replaced with basically any 22mm standard watch band. While I haven’t had a chance to swap out the rubber wristband, it will be among my first priorities when I get back to the US in 2014. The Pebble itself features a small 1.26-inch (144 x 168) e-paper display running an 80MHz ARM Cortex-M3 chip and has an accelerometer, an ambient light sensor and will soon have an e-compass capability.

In terms of aesthetics, I would really like for a metal Pebble to exist and I believe that they would be able to charge a premium for such a ‘luxury’ model. In their current plastic form factor, however, they make themselves incredibly accessible and durable. This watch has been hit many times and dropped many times and I don’t see anything as far as a scratch anywhere on the watch. So, its incredibly durable and not to mention water resistant up to 5M to boot. This is possible due to the way that the Pebble charges, which I find a bit frustrating but still better than Sony’s original smartwatch implementation.

(Toq left, Pebble Right)

While the Pebble uses a proprietary USB charging cable, it is magnetic which makes it easy to use and disconnect in the event of a quick yank. I would love for a wireless charging option, but this would vastly increase the cost of the Pebble beyond the very accessible $150 pricetag. While I do hate proprietary cables, losing one of their cables would likely only result in a $10-$15 replacement cost. While some wireless charging options like Qualcomm’s Toq could easily run into the $80 range due to the fact that the charger for the Toq actually has three wireless charging plates and is a big bulky carrying case that won’t even hold the watch (its for the wireless Bluetooth headsets sold separately). In terms of charging and battery life, the Pebble charges pretty quickly and from my experience easily lasts 5 days under heavy use and 6-7 days under lighter use.

In order to use the Pebble itself, you have to connect the Pebble to your smartphone (Android or iOS) directly via Bluetooth and install the Pebble app on your phone. With the Pebble connected via Bluetooth and the Pebble app installed you can easily and quickly manage your pebble from your smartphone’s Pebble app. My experience with this process was mostly good with the one exception of an update nearly bricking my Pebble. Thankfully though, the community around Pebble is so good that I was able to read a forum post about the issue and resolve it myself within a matter of minutes. When you connect your Pebble to the phone for the first time it will check for updates and 9 times out of 10 it will have to update itself, so be aware of this fact. There will be some delayed gratification.

The pebble also has a set of four buttons on the device, one large button on the left side of the watch and three on the right. The button on the left is the backlight button and the back button while the buttons on the right are the menu buttons. They generally correspond to up, select and down for most uses however they can be customized by any app for any use. The top and bottom buttons are how you switch songs and the center button is play or pause. Many applications adopt similar usage scenarios but are not limited. At first, but buttons were a bit difficult to press due to being so new, but over time they became more giving and easier to press. Granted, it seems like Pebble clearly wanted to make sure that they weren’t too easily pressed as well, which would explain the firmness.

Now, in terms of using Pebble apps, there is a pretty vast developer base behind the Pebble for both Android and iOS and as a result there are countless applications that make the Pebble vastly more useful than it seems at first glance. The way that I look at the Pebble is that it is a sort of blank slate that you can customize to your own personal wants and needs. You can personalize the color, watch band, apps and watch faces. There are tons of applications the help you manage your calendar, exercise and countless applications. One of my favorite apps is the snake app that allows you to play Snake on your watch without even taking out your smartphone. The added fact that the Pebble display is e-ink and effectively looks like a Nokia 3310’s display adds to the nostalgia of the experience itself.

Personally, I prefer to use the Pebble as a way to view my text messages, application notifications and to tell the time all without having to take out my phone. In order to accomplish this, I installed the Darth Vader watch face and Pebble Notifier which pretty much covers all of the bases on application notifications that you might need. There is already a built-in text message reading feature and call receiving feature, however you can only reject calls from the Pebble but not pick them up. This appears to be a clear design decision by the Pebble team and while understandable, only seeing call reject feels somewhat incomplete when compared to my Toq which allows both. I can appreciate and understand the decision that went into this, but it certainly appears to be a personal preference in this case.

Speaking of notifications, one of my biggest problems with the Pebble is the fact that the vibration of the watch is jarring. I think that there should be an option to adjust the strength of the vibration because during the first week or two of having this watch I jumped at almost every notification. There is also an app that you can inst
all that notifies you when you’ve walked away from your phone so that you don’t lose your phone or have it get stolen. I was also very impressed with the Bluetooth range of the Pebble with my Nexus 5 as I was able to connect to my Pebble across the apartment (about 25-30 feet) without worrying about the disconnect warning. Sure, this reduces the functionality of the phone theft app, but it still will help remind you when you’ve left your phone somewhere. Sometimes great technology doesn’t always mean the perfect solution.

In addition to all of that, one of my biggest pet peeves is that the Pebble can’t simply be turned off, it has to run until it dies. And with such a long battery life this presents a significant problem for anyone that wants to turn it off to save battery for any reason. Additionally, I must say that the guys and girls at Pebble really did a great job of the backlight for the Pebble and the fact that it is perfectly lit. During the day the display is perfectly visible and at night the backlight is never too bright at night like on my Toq. However, the display itself is pretty limited in terms of resolution and certain applications like calendars that require higher resolutions simply don’t cut it for me. I also believe that the Pebble should have some sort of way to easily see how much battery is left on the device rather than simply finding out that the battery is low. In previous firmware iterations of the Pebble (before I had one) it wouldn’t even do that and would simply die once it ran out of battery, so clearly the people at Pebble are making progress.

But the Pebble still has a lot of really great redeeming values. For me, one of the biggest ones is being able to see my notifications while I’m driving so that I don’t have to take my phone out to see every single buzz. Sure, my car will let me know who’s calling and allow me to pickup a call hands free, but the Pebble lets me see who’s emailing me, texting me and messaging me. To me, this is one of the greatest features of having a smartwatch. Sure, not everyone cares about that right now, but for me it means safer driving and still not reducing my connectedness. I also like the fact that I can have my Pebble on while in my apartment and not have to carry my phone around all the time. I can read and see all of my notifications easily from the watch which means only grabbing my phone when I need it.

The Pebble itself comes with a 1 year warranty from Pebble and currently sells for $150. When you order the Pebble all you can expect to get is a cardboard box, a Pebble, the charging cable and a small quickstart guide. Plain and simple, like the Pebble. In terms of value, the Pebble is pretty bare bones but relative to other smartphones, the Pebble’s greatest value and strength is that it works on both Android and iOS and that the developer community empowers the device unlike any other. If you buy a Galaxy Gear or Toq you’re effectively stuck with what that company creates until more developers start using them. But with Pebble, things are changing and improving daily and while it isn’t necessarily the most elegant solution, its far better than anything before it or anything in the same price range. After all, the Gear is $299 and the Tow is $349, both cost over double what the Pebble costs and I’m not quite sure they’re worth double the price.

In conclusion, the Pebble is probably going to be the best smartwatch for people that simply want a good way to communicate with their smartphones. The Pebble doesn’t necessarily have a big display, or a beautiful one. But the Pebble has great battery life, a very functional application marketplace and tons of developers. Add the fact that it supports both iOS and Android and the Pebble is still by far the strongest contender in the smartwatch marketplace. For the majority of early adopters wanting to get a smartwatch, the Pebble is going to be the best fit. Sure, it isn’t perfect, especially not for someone like me that loves metal watches and leather bands, but its certainly a promising sign of progress and I can’t wait to see what their next watch will be. As a result of our testing and review, I am going to award the Pebble our Editor’s Choice Award for Mainstream because of the price, functionality, and flexibility of the Pebble.

I also wanted to add some anecdotal evidence regarding the popularity of the Pebble. I recently was posting pictures of the various smartwatches that I have on Instagram and noticed that the hash tag for smartwatch was dominated by essentially two watches, the Pebble and the Galaxy Gear. However, more than 50% of the watches that were shown at all were Pebble smartwatches. Pebble clearly has a lead in the smartwatch category and we?re starting to hear rumors that they?ll be announcing something big at CES. Perhaps, even, a new model that addresses some of our reservations.

I also wanted to give a personal thanks to Myriam Joire of Pebble for providing us with the Pebble to kick off our smartwatch reviews and comparisons. We will have a review of the Qualcomm Toq in the coming day(s) followed by Galaxy Gear after CES.