Pebble Watch review: A more polished Pebble, thanks to apps

Some of many apps already available include remotes for TVs, cameras like the GoPro, and even the Nest thermostat; apps for checking calendars and lists; fitness apps for sleep-tracking, step-taking, cycling, and running (that require the use of your phone to mirror data back to the watch); home automation apps that control lights; sports-score-checking via ESPN; a Foursquare app; Yelp ap; poker timers; plain text readers -- and some oddball games. It's a motley mix, but at least having an official app store makes finding these apps easier.

I played with as many as I could, and to be honest, a lot of them aren't all that useful. Some, however, are charming. Others are a lot of fun. Some apps occasionally crashed or had problems syncing data. Does this sound like a big grab bag? It is, and that's part of the fun. It's also part of what makes the Pebble's app ecosystem feel like a work in progress.

This all might sound familiar to some: a black-and-white screen, home-brewed funky little simple apps -- it’s a lot like having a Palm Pilot on your wrist. And in execution, it's as good and bad as that analogy. Lots of potential, lots of intriguing DIY fun, and also lots of novelty, absurdity, and semiworking funk. I don't need a dice roller on my watch. Maybe you do.

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My favorite of the apps I’ve had early access to are Foursquare, which does simple check-ins based on your location; Yelp, which brings up lists of local restaurants and even lets you see a few reviews; ESPN, which gives basic no-frills scores; and Orbtime, a Drop7 game clone that works pretty well with the limited Pebble button controls.

But I'll also say that there are only so many apps I really plan on checking on my watch. ESPN and Yelp show what can be done, but after noodling around on each for a bit I started wondering why I wouldn't just use my phone. In fact, I used my phone quite a bit, even while wearing the Pebble. Because the Pebble lacks a touch screen or a more advanced color screen, it's not really intended as a phone stand-in. Keeping things simple is probably the best way to proceed, and, in a sense, is largely what many Pebble apps seem to aim for.

Compatibility: iOS and Android, happy as can be
The Pebble is compatible with the iPhone 4, 4s, 5, 5c, and 5s with iOS 6 or iOS7, and Android devices running OS 4.1 and up. The experience is remarkably similar, for the most part: a new Pebble app for both iOS and Android handles pairing of the Pebble, setting up notifications, and browsing for and loading watch faces and apps.

A year ago, that wasn't the case. And, yes, there are still some apps that are Android-only, meaning they require some Android feature or companion app to work properly. But, many of the Pebble's key features, such as its ability to get any notifications you get on your phone, work equally well on iPhone or Android. Pairing is generally simple, but sometimes I had problems getting the watch or the app to enable notifications.

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What it does best
My favorite use for the Pebble is still as a connected wrist-worn pager of sorts: it’ll buzz and give you heads-up notification about who called, who sent texts, what’s happening on Twitter and Facebook, or whatever other notifications pop up on your phone. The Pebble saves you a check-your-phone motion. Of course, now that's check-your-wrist instead of check-your-phone, but besides any pretenses of social graces, the Pebble has helped me not miss phone calls or important texts while at noisy parties, or commuting, or being any place where I might have missed that iPhone call even with it set to vibrate.

It amounts to a wrist-mounted pager. That's not such a bad thing; after all, I often find my phone annoyingly out of reach or the ringtone or vibration hard to hear or feel, and the Pebble gives me better awareness of who's calling or texting in noisy, busy places.

I also like the Pebble's built-in music control app, which shows song and artist info and offers basic play/pause/track skipping controls for most music apps on iOS (Spotify, Pandora, Music, Amazon Cloud Player, Podcasts, and TuneIn Radio all work) and Google Music on Android. But, there's no volume adjustment or advanced menu navigation. You can't browse your music library via the Pebble and pick a song. It could be useful as a remote when your iPhone is plugged into a dock, if your favorite headphones lack an in-line remote of their own, or if you're just curious what's playing and don't feel like digging out your phone. Third-party music apps attempt to fix this, but I haven't seen any for iOS that have fit my needs perfectly. Also, I'd prefer not to waste one of the eight storage slots on a "better" version of an app that's already baked in.

One of the odder watch faces. Sarah Tew/CNET

The selection of watch faces is fun; some faces are more attractive than others. It's addictive to swap, but the eight-app limit on the Pebble means you'll have to choose between watch faces and apps, and continually swap them out. It's not enough storage space, and it feels more restraining now that so many hundreds of apps are finally out there, asking to be installed.

The Pebble also works excellently as a timepiece, whether connected via Bluetooth or not. The screen is easy to read, a shake-to-light function is handy in the dark, and it automatically syncs its time with your phone whenever you're paired.

Battery life (for the Pebble, and your phone)
With that black-and-white E-Paper screen, you'd expect some truly excellent battery life; instead, the Pebble's rated for "two to seven days" of use between charges. In my experience over a week of use, I find it hovers around four.

The Pebble has its own magnetically attaching USB charge cable, which snaps on much in the way of Apple's MagSafe Mac cables or the Surface Pro's contact connector, but the Pebble's magnets are weaker. I found that the cable would snap off too easily at the slightest nudge against a table. I love the "clean-attach" philosophy, especially since it helps make the Pebble water-resistant, but you'd better not lose that cable.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Finding how how much battery life remains, or how much charge time is left when you're plugging it in, is less of a guessing game than before: some apps show battery life status, which wasn't the case a year ago. But, the original Pebble lacks the glowing LED of the Pebble Steel that turns green when fully charged. And, there's no clear percentage indicator on the watch, which means it can (and sometimes does) go completely dead in the middle of the day -- often when I least want it to. The only solution: a full charge at least every other day.

I also found that keeping my phone constantly connected (the Pebble tends to frequently ping my iPhone throughout the day asking for permission to connect, an annoying bug) drained the battery. How much, exactly, is hard to tell, but it seems to at least meet the 5 percent to 10 percent a day claimed in the Pebble's instructions. Be forewarned, and keep a battery pack handy.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion: A polished Pebble

The Pebble is the best-functioning all-around smartwatch out there, even with its relative lack of bells and whistles. There’s no color touch screen, no speaker, no camera, no microphone. And, for the most part, the Pebble is better off for it. It’s the smartwatch I choose to wear the most, because it’s the most comfortable and waterproof. And, for everyday heads-up notifications, it’s also the best. A year of software development and the launch of an app store have finally provided the extras that I was hoping for last year. Hey, better late than never.

But, despite all this, it’s not perfect. The apps still feel experimental, and there are times when not having a touch screen -- or true multitasking -- limits what can be done. Also, despite the many health apps, there isn't a true standalone Fitbit-killer fitness app baked in. Some apps will mirror phone fitness tracking or temporarily track steps, but I haven’t seen one that does it offline and reliably. Fitness bands are a huge part of the wearable world, and it would have been ideal if the Pebble could have stepped in and offered that same function plus a whole lot more.

The Pebble has a new lease on life, and it's more polished than ever. Is that enough to survive the second wave of upcoming watches and wearable gear? We'll have to see what competitors -- and Pebble -- have up their sleeves. But right now, it's the value-pick smartwatch compared to the Pebble Steel, and that's not such a bad thing at all.

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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.