Why the 6-month-old Pebble Steel is still the best smartwatch

Smartwatches are cropping up everywhere, but which one is worth wearing? Right now, I still recommend Pebble, because it's the one that's found a way of sticking around on my wrist.

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Google has made Android Wear. Samsung has released its Gears. And halfway through the year, the world of wearable tech -- and smartwatches -- still looks like a complete mess.

I've tried them all, or most of them. And one has remained on my wrist after all the others: the Pebble Steel.

Yes, Pebble. The small start-up that made the watch with the black-and-white screen, the non-touch display, the Game Boy-style graphics. It has no microphone, it has no true always-on pedometer. So how is it my favorite?

Because, if you care about having a watch, I think Pebble is still the best. And it does things that no other smartwatch, to date, is doing. Yet.

It's waterproof.

The Pebble Steel and original Pebble watch can survive up to 5 ATM for actual underwater use. The recent Samsung Gears and LG G Watch are water-resistant, and can be showered with, but forget about diving in a pool. Now, I don't know if I'd really recommend swimming with any smartwatch long-term, but the fact that the Pebble can survive a dunk and even a prolonged dip makes it stay on my wrist.

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You don't have to charge it as much.

"Up to a week" battery life usually ends up being more like four days, but I'll take that over recent Android Wear watches, which last a mere day, or the Samsung Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, which last two or three. The more battery life I can eke out of my watch, the less I'll feel like wearing a smartwatch is an absurd decision. I do not want to charge more things every day. My damn phone is already more than enough.

You can see the screen all the time, in day or night.

The Pebble uses a highly reflective LCD display that's great outdoors. And indoors, it has a shake-to-light LED backlight. You can see it all the time. That's not true at all with any other color screen smartwatch: the OLED Samsung Gears are opaque in the sun, and the LG G Watch is no better. And color displays keep turning off or dimming to save battery drain: the Pebble's always on. You can't beat that for at-a-glance convenience.

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It works with most phones.

If you have an iPhone, your options for smartwatches are incredibly limited. If you want a fitness tracker, you're golden: but, if you want something that gets messages on your wrist, the Pebble's your best bet. And it's really nice that Pebble works with Android and iOS alike: both platforms allow you to download and install Pebble apps, get all sorts of notifications, and adjust settings. As I flip between iOS and Android on a daily basis, the Pebble hangs in there and connects wherever I want. Google's Android Wear is limited to Android phones, and Samsung's Gear watches (except for the Gear Live, which is Android Wear) only work on Samsung devices.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

It looks better than anything else out there, for the moment.

Six months later, guess what? The Pebble Steel's design, which seemed cool if retro back in January, looks even better now. Other smartwatches are larger and feel geekier: they're chunky, square boxes. The Pebble Steel comes off as practically unisex in comparison. Around CNET, I've heard a lot of people tell me many smartwatches are ugly. And yet, everyone's found the Pebble Steel attractive. Design matters in a watch, and Pebble got it right with the design of the Steel. Motorola might be next to impress with the upcoming Moto 360 watch, which could steal the spotlight from Pebble, but for now I haven't seen anything else look better on my wrist. But, even next to the Moto 360, the Pebble Steel's external design holds its own.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

It's the best watch, even if it isn't the smartest watch...and that matters most.

I wear a watch to quickly see things on my wrist. I don't like noodling around with apps and tapping a lot. As a watch, the Pebble is better: it currently has the best batch of watch faces, looks good, is easy to use, and lasts longer. Android Wear and Samsung's Tizen Gear software are more feature-packed, and in some ways definitely smarter. Pebble's large collection of apps actually aren't what I love most about the Pebble: the apps often feel clunky, and sometimes a little silly. I like the Pebble's basic way of getting messages sent to my wrist quickly, and telling me basic info like weather or sports scores.

Being more connected than that, on my wrist, doesn't do much for me now. Maybe in six months Android Wear will end up being a superior landscape of amazing apps and connected services, and Android Wear watches, including the Moto 360, will be the height of wearable fashion. But that's the future. In the present, I still wear my Pebble the most. And that's the simple reason why I think it's the best smartwatch right now. Even if it isn't perfect, or the most technologically advanced.

What that says about the current state of smartwatches, well...draw your own conclusions.

About the author

Scott Stein is a senior editor covering iOS and laptop reviews, mobile computing, video games, and tech culture. He has previously written for both mainstream and technology enthusiast publications including Wired, Esquire.com, Men's Journal, and Maxim, and regularly appears on TV and radio talking tech trends.

 

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