Pebble Steel review: The first smartwatch worth wearing

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.9
  • Style: 9.0
  • Features: 7.0
  • Ease of use: 8.0

Average User Rating

4 stars 3 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good The Pebble Steel is a great-looking wristwatch with top-end construction. A growing list of apps can be swapped on and off of the watch, via easy-to-use iPhone or Android control apps. And, at long last, there's an app store.

The Bad Costs $100 more than the original Pebble despite offering the same underlying hardware. Only holds eight apps at a time. No microphone, speaker, touch screen, or color display. Fitness apps don't offer the same experience as a stand-alone device.

The Bottom Line Equal parts fashionable and functional, the Pebble Steel leaps to the top of the smartwatch heap, but does so by improving existing tech rather than adding something totally new.

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"That's a nice-looking watch," my sister said.

I had just showed the Pebble Steel to her. She had no idea that it was a smartwatch, but she liked what she saw. For the Pebble Steel, that amounts to mission accomplished.

In the nascent field of "wearable tech," the trick is getting the gadgets in question to be both functional and fashionable -- something you'd actually want to use, and want to wear. The $249 Pebble Steel is a significant success on both levels. It's a useful smartwatch, but more importantly, it's a good-looking watch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Beyond the significant cosmetic upgrade from the original 2013 Pebble, the Steel also delivers a worthy software upgrade (which is also coming to the earlier model), including -- finally -- a bona fide app store. But for all those improvements -- and despite being $100 more expensive -- the Steel ultimately houses the same innards as the older model, offering identical performance. For current Pebble owners, it may feel like not enough of a step forward.

That said, the software upgrade and the improved design do wonders here. If you're looking for a watch that's good-looking and does some fun, even useful things, the Pebble Steel is a great pick. It's an excellent nerd-watch, a stylish geek product. And while it's not quite a must-buy, it is the first smartwatch I've seen that I actually want to buy.

What's new: Not as much as you think

The Pebble Steel on top, original Pebble below. Sarah Tew/CNET

When it was released in 2013, the original Pebble Watch was a work in progress: it had an overly plastic design, a lack of apps, and no centralized app store to find any of these emerging apps in the first place. It had an overall sense of gadget tinkerer's toy, but earned its keep with a water-resistant design, great iOS and Android support, and the ability to work well when not paired to a smartphone via Bluetooth -- a simple expectation where many other smartwatches fail miserably.

New for 2014, the Pebble Steel has a Gorilla Glass-covered display, an all-metal steel body (it's available in matte black or brushed stainless steel), and included leather and metal watchbands. It weighs about a half ounce more than the last Pebble: a hair under two ounces. It's got smaller body, but it feels a bit thicker. The display, however, is the same. So is the processor and the backlighting. But, unlike the last Pebble, it's water resistant to 5 atmospheres (ATM) -- which means it's safe in the shower or poolside. A slightly new magnetic connector for charging and an added three-color LED for showing charge status round out the new features.

The two colors of Pebble Steel next to the original Pebble (right). Scott Stein/CNET

The rest is software: a new Pebble app, firmware, and an official Pebble app store, which is available through a Pebble companion app on iPhone or Android. Using the Pebble app, you can browse the Pebble app store and download new watch faces and tools, which can then be transferred from smartphone to watch via Bluetooth. These new apps support more of the Pebble's built-in features, like its accelerometer and gyroscope, and offer deeper two-way communication with your phone.

That software, however, will also work with the original Pebble. So, in the case of the Steel, what's really and truly new is its design. But it's the design plus software that creates a true sense of "newness" around this Pebble.

Here's what I liked:

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's a very cool-looking watch
Pebble nailed it this time. No matter who I've let peek at the Pebble Steel -- none aware that it was a smartwatch at all -- I've gotten kind words. "Nice watch." "I like the design." That's no small feat at all.

I love the way the Steel looks: it's somewhere between a Fossil and the iPod Nano-with-wristband I wore years ago. It doesn't look crazy-futuristic at all; in fact, it could look good with a suit or at a wedding. Or, playing golf (which I don't do).

The Steel with leather band. Scott Stein/CNET

It feels comfy, although the metal band nipped at my long wrist hairs. A leather band comes packed in, and needs less specific pre-adjusting (the metal band has an extension in the box, but extra links would need to be removed as with any metal watchband to get the right size).

The screen looks great in daylight and at night
Bright colored smartwatch displays like the Galaxy Gear and others may seem like a good idea at first, but they shut off to conserve energy. The Pebble's "e-paper" black-and-white screen 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. A side button adds backlighting at night, or you can shake your wrist to light up the screen.

You can wear it in the shower
Most smartwatches need coddling and certainly aren't water-friendly. The Pebble Steel keeps the same 5 ATM water resistance, and while I wouldn't necessarily swim with it, it's nice to know I can wear it and not freak out if I wash my hands and forget to take it off.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new Pebble app makes finding, downloading, and swapping apps a breeze
The Pebble never had an official app store before, sad but true: you had to find your apps on message-boards or with third-party tools. Now, at long last, there's a completely redesigned Pebble app for iPhone and Android with integrated access to the Pebble App Store. You create an account, and whatever apps you want get downloaded to the app and put installed on the Pebble as needed.

So, yes: there's a Pebble app you download on your phone, and that app opens up a gateway to all of Pebble's apps. But it's easy to manage: much like a Kindle app, you can download and collect whatever apps you find that suit your fancy and store them on your Pebble app before loading them onto the watch itself. If your app gets deleted, you can re-download them from the Pebble app store throughm your account.

Installing and removing Pebble apps takes seconds: you tap the screen, and watch a progress bar as the app is loaded wirelessly via Bluetooth. The app shows what apps are on your Pebble: click one, tap "remove," and it's gone back to your app locker.

The new app and system software, which also works with the original Pebble, are maybe my favorite new features of all.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The weird, wild world of Pebble apps, most of which are free
Last year, it seemed like the Pebble was mostly good for having cool watch faces, getting pager-like notifications, and not much else. Things are a lot different now: apps are finally on the Pebble, and many are pretty interesting.

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Where to Buy See all prices

Pebble Steel

Part Number: Steel Released: Jan 28, 2014
MSRP: $249.00 Low Price: $199.99 See all prices

Quick Specifications

  • Release date Jan 28, 2014
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