Pebble Steel review: The first great smartwatch of 2014 is still the best

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent
  • Overall: 8.0
  • Style: 9.0
  • Features: 7.0
  • Ease of use: 8.0

Average User Rating

4 stars 3 user reviews
Review Date:

The Good A classic, sharp-looking design; works with iPhones and Android phones; screen readable in bright daylight; swim- and shower-friendly; built-in pedometer for persistent fitness tracking; wide variety of quirky apps.

The Bad Older technology compared to competition; onboard storage limited to eight apps at a time; still requires charging twice a week; lacks heart-rate monitor or more advanced fitness features.

The Bottom Line The competition is advancing fast, but the fashionable, functional, and more affordable Pebble Steel's conservative approach puts it at the top of the 2014 smartwatch heap.

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Once again, I've come back to the Pebble Steel.

Released back in January, the stainless steel-clad Pebble Steel is a cosmetic upgrade to the original crowdsourced 2013 smartwatch, the Pebble. Its features are now relatively ancient: it has a non-touch, black and white display. It doesn't track heart rate. It can only store eight apps at a time.

And yet, it's my favorite smartwatch. It's waterproof and shower- and swim-friendly. Its display is easily readable, even in bright sunlight. Its battery lasts longer than other smartwatches. It works with both iPhones and Android phones. And, even though it seemed big months ago, it's smaller and more discreet than recent watches like the Samsung Gear S and Moto 360.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Recent changes, including a price drop -- it dropped to $199 from its original $249 (£179 in the UK, AU$229) -- and the addition of background pedometer fitness tracking, now make the Pebble Steel a better purchase than before.

Let's be honest: The wearable tech landscape is changing rapidly, and many more smartwatches are due early next year that could age the Pebble even further. It's also quite possible, if not probable, that you'll see a third-generation Pebble hit sometime in 2015. (The Steel was released in February 2014.)

But for the here and now, the Pebble Steel stands tall. If you want a watch that handles basic notifications really well, has a built-in silent alarm clock, is wearable all the time, and has plenty of fun apps to play with, the Pebble Steel wins my vote. It's a better watch than nearly any other smartwatch, and it's more polished than rival smartwatches that feel more experimental than refined.

Editors' note: This review has been updated since its original publication on January 28, 2014, with additional long-term impressions of the Pebble Steel. It includes comparisons to more recent competitors, hands-on testing of the latest firmware, and consideration of the September 30 price drop. As a result, the rating has been raised from 3.5 to 4 stars.

What I like

It's a very cool-looking watch

Even three quarters of a year into wearing it, the Pebble Steel still looks great. It's retro-chic, it's classic, it actually gets compliments. It's just hefty enough to feel substantial, but far, far less bulky than other larger-screened Android Wear and Samsung Gear smartwatches.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It doesn't look crazy-futuristic at all; in fact, it looks good with a suit or at a wedding. Or, going to the beach. I've tried them all, and the Pebble Steel never feels out of place.

It feels comfy, although the metal band nipped at my long wrist hairs. A leather band comes packed in the box, and looks smart, but the steel band -- which used to come packed in but now (after a price cut to $199) costs $20 extra -- is worth the upgrade. It makes the watch shower-friendly, because you're not going to want to get that leather band wet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The screen looks great in daylight and at night

Bright colored smartwatch displays like those on Android Wear and others may look nicer, but they shut off to conserve energy. The Pebble's black-and-white display stays active all the time. It's not like e-ink, exactly, but it's more crisp and vivid in everyday light than the average LCD. The flat Gorilla Glass panel on top helps reduce glare, too, unlike the curved scratch-prone plastic of the original Pebble (it can still scratch, but not as easily). A side button adds backlighting at night, or you can shake your wrist to light up the screen, a really clever touch.

You can wear it in the shower

Most smartwatches need coddling and certainly aren't water-friendly. The Pebble Steel has 5 ATM water resistance, which means you can swim with it up to 165 feet (50 meters), or shower with it. I've submerged my review unit over and over again. But again, you'll want to get that steel band so you don't ruin the leather one.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It silently buzzes when notifications arrive, and does it well

If I get a phone call at a party and can't hear my phone ringing, I'll feel my wrist buzz. I can track Apple Pay payment receipts. I know when important emails come in. I can see text messages, or Facebook Messenger, or Twitter direct messages. I can't respond right on the Pebble, but as a wrist-worn pager it's saved me a number of times. Adjusting which notifications come in just means heading to your phone's notification center and turning some apps on or off. The Pebble's Bluetooth connection problems used to be an issue, but now it works smoothly.

That vibrational buzz also works wonders for silent alarms: you can set an alarm manually, and the watch buzzes you awake. It's worked for me, and it works better than you'd expect.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It works with iOS and Android

Android Wear works with Android phones. Samsung Gear watches work with Samsung phones. Apple's upcoming Apple Watch will work with iPhones. But the Pebble works across platforms: iOS and Android alike, and most of its apps do, too. You just need to make sure your phone's got Bluetooth 4.0 (Bluetooth LE) and is running current software, but the experience is largely the same across operating systems.

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Pebble Steel

Part Number: DSAUSE5059
Low Price: $229.00 See all prices
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