Pebble Time review:

The utility vehicle of smartwatches is back with a few new tricks

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3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

5 stars 3 user reviews

The Good Always-on reflective color display; water resistant for showers or swimming; battery life lasts more than three days between charges; added storage holds dozens of apps and watch faces; works with iPhones and Android phones; most apps are free.

The Bad Display sometimes hard to read in dim light; fitness apps aren't as polished as on other premium smartwatches; apps and watch faces are plentiful but very mixed in quality; lack of touchscreen limits interactivity with some apps.

The Bottom Line The Pebble Time adds a few key improvements and a color screen compared to previous Pebble watches, but owners of previous Pebble watches may not see a need to upgrade yet.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 7.0
  • Battery 8.0
  • Performance 7.0
  • Software 8.0
  • Features 7.0

The Pebble has been my favorite smartwatch for over a year, despite more advanced contenders. What other smartwatch can last more than a few days on a charge? Can be worn while swimming? Has an always-on screen? The Pebble always had that appeal ; it was more of a regular watch than most smartwatches, and didn't have to be charged every day.

I've been wearing Pebble's latest, the Pebble Time, for a week. It lands in a world of Apple Watches and Google watches , and is finally being shipped to those who supported it on Kickstarter. For those who didn't, it'll cost $199 (UK and AU prices not currently available). This isn't the only new Pebble watch, by the way: the all-metal Pebble Time Steel will arrive this summer, with a longer promised battery life, for $100 more.

In some ways, the Pebble Time feels like a fine-tuned version 1.5 than a whole new 2.0 version of the Pebble smartwatch. It still doesn't have a touchscreen. Its new color display looks more like a Game Boy's than a high-quality mini-smartphone's. And it can't be used to make phone calls.

After spending several days wearing Pebble's latest, however, I've come to like it, especially because it's low-key. In the long run, surrounded by fancier watches with higher-profile apps, the appeal of the Pebble Time may wane. (And, if you haven't already pre-ordered via Kickstarter, the aforementioned Time Steel is definitely worth waiting for before committing to this model.) But in the current smartwatch landscape, the Pebble Time's advantages are still unique, making it a worthy alternative to the Apple Watch and Android Wear competition.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What does Pebble Time do?

The first Pebble watch debuted back in 2013; it emerged as a Kickstarter project and ended up being one of the best-reviewed smartwatches ever made. My favorite Pebble, the Pebble Steel , is a year and a half old: it went on sale January 2014, before Apple Watch, before Android Wear. If the Apple Watch feels more like a mini-smartphone than a watch, the Pebble Time is more like a watch.

The new Pebble Time isn't a bold reinvention: rather, it's sticking to Pebble's roots. Long battery life, always-on screen, 30-meter water resistance (swim friendly), support to a sizable mix of grassroots and DIY watch faces and apps. It works with both iOS and Android, too.

What's new compared with previous Pebbles? A color display, a microphone, a charge port that can be used for future smart strap accessories and a lot more onboard storage. It's unclear exactly how much, but older Pebbles could only store eight watch faces or apps at a time: the new Pebble Time can store dozens, or more.

The Pebble Time vibrates when it gets messages, shows upcoming events, and can run a number of apps: fitness ones, utilities, games, novelty watch faces. It's more of a wrist-pager than a full-blown gadget. But, it can run a lot of its basic functions, like time, alarms, and basic utility apps, without a phone being connected. Still, like most smartwatches, it's meant to stay connected via Bluetooth to your smartphone most of the time.

Nyan Cat, say hi. Sarah Tew/CNET

Design

The Pebble Steel was one of the best-looking smartwatches around back in 2014. The Pebble Time isn't one of the best-looking smartwatches right now.

Compared to the aspirational super-styled Apple Watch, the Pebble Time comes across as cutesy. Its rounded-edge square looks and bright colors give it the look of a toy.

It looks and feels a lot better in person. It's nicer than the original Pebble, which had a plastic-covered scratch-prone display, but looks less striking than the squared-off Pebble Steel. The Pebble Time has a plastic body, but a steel bezel framing a Gorilla Glass-covered color display.

Pebble Steel, Pebble and Pebble Time side by side (left to right) Sarah Tew/CNET

The Pebble Time comes in black, white or red, all with the same gunmetal steel rim. It's thinner than previous Pebbles, the Apple Watch, and nearly any other smartwatch I've ever worn. It hugs my wrist nicely.

There's a full steel version of the Pebble Time coming this summer for an extra $100, offering better battery life and a slightly thicker body. If you care about all-steel, you might want to wait.

Its reflective color display takes getting used to. It shows 64 colors, not millions, and has backlighting that turns on for a few seconds when you need it. It's nothing like the screens you're used to: it's more like an ancient Game Boy Color than the phone in your pocket. But, it looks great in direct sunlight, and always stays on. Built-in backlighting turns on at the shake of a wrist or press of a button, but makes the colors look even more washed out. It gets the job done, and has its charms, but isn't perfect for everything.

The Pebble Time, in profile, next to Apple Watch. It's thinner. Sarah Tew/CNET

It isn't touch-enabled, either: like previous Pebbles, you need to use four buttons (three on the right, one on the left) to navigate menus, load apps and watch faces, and set timers and alarms. It's like a regular digital watch. But that lack of touch means many apps are hard to interact with.

There is a microphone, but its uses are limited. If you've paired to an Android phone, you can use it to dictate responses to messages, which the watch translates to text just like on Android Wear and Apple Watch. You can also respond with a canned message or a list of emoji, too. In the future, iPhone owners will be able to use it with notifications coming from Google's Gmail app.

The Pebble Time feels great on my wrist with the included silicone strap. The slightly curved watch body is comfy, the band easy to attach, and it feels light. The straps are easily removable and swappable, either with Pebble's own, or with any 22mm watch strap.

The Pebble Time buzzes when it gets notifications, like your phone. The buzz is strong but not overpowering: I felt it more easily than that of the Apple Watch. It can be used for alarms, for silent but effective wake-up calls. I never missed a message.

Calendar events and more get folded into a daily timeline. Sarah Tew/CNET

Time as an interface: The timeline, and a new look

Pebble Time has changed its software and user interface since the older Pebbles: now, there are big animated transitions between apps, instead of tiny menus of text. It's cute, but a bit clunky. After living with the fast, slick main interface of the Apple Watch for a few weeks, it felt like a big letdown. But as I settled in with it, the Pebble Time's quirky-cute design won me over.

The biggest software addition is the timeline: press up or down on the right-side buttons, and you get a calendar-like rundown of everything coming up in future, or that's happened in the past. It's like a day planner for your immediate life.

I see that I have a phone meeting at 1:30. Then, at 7:30 p.m., the Mets play the Phillies. Sunset's at 8:16 pm. It'll be 90 degrees today. Tomorrow it'll be 82. I have an alarm set for 7 am. My flight to San Francisco leaves at 11:32 a.m.

Mets schedule imported to timeline, via ESPN app. Sarah Tew/CNET

You can keep pressing down to see your day by day calendar events, or any other things you've pinned to the timeline. Certain apps support pinning right now: ESPN for teams you follow, calendars, alarms, notifications, some fitness apps. The idea's that all your important info gets sucked up and shown as you need it, easily scrollable, like a day planner. Any event can be clicked for more info using the center button, and opened up in an app associated with it (if there is one).

It's a great addition to the Pebble interface, and a brilliant idea for a smartwatch. But button-pushing to scroll through calendar events is a clunkier process than, say, scrolling on a touchscreen. The Apple Watch I've been using does a far better job of scrolling through lots of stuff via its Digital Crown wheel and the touchscreen. Android Wear watches do, too.

Apps are shown one by one, in square icons. Sarah Tew/CNET

There's also a new way to bring up apps: all of your "owned" apps show up in a gigantic list of square icons when you press the center button on the right. You scroll down and open the one you want, or load one from your phone if it isn't there. Some apps will eventually be able to load up glance-like quick bits of info in this mode, like the Apple Watch; that could come in handy for some apps for things like sports scores.

One note: older Pebble watches will get this new timeline interface, too, in a future software update. When? Sometime later this year, but after the new Pebble Time. So, if you have an older Pebble watch, you'll get to enjoy this too. I really like Pebble's simple, clear-cut approach to seeing daily info. I'm just not sure I'd buy a whole new Pebble for it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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