Editors' note, December 7, 2016: Pebble has announced that its assets have been acquired by Fitbit and it will no longer release new products. While the Pebble 2 and other Pebble watches will continue to work, no new software updates or features will be released. Pebble also warned that down the road functionality or service quality may be reduced. Kickstarter backers of the Pebble Time 2 and Pebble Core will receive a full refund for their purchase.
Pebble's back with more smartwatches...and something else.
Good news if you were a fan of Pebble's formula for smartwatches: There are two new watches on their way this September. They're more affordable, look better and have added heart rate tracking. The Pebble 2 and Pebble Time 2 hit Kickstarter today. But there's another thing coming early next year, called Pebble Core, that's not a watch at all.
It's a box. A clip-on. A keychain. A smart button. A Spotify music player. A GPS and even 3G-enabled fitness tracker. An emergency gadget-slash-Pebble accessory. A programmable Android mini-computer.
And it doesn't even have a screen.
I got a chance to look at both at Pebble's headquarters in Redwood City, California, while talking with CEO Eric Migicovsky about why he's decided to move beyond the wrist for the first time.
Pebble Core: A little do-it-all smart button box-slash-music player-slash-fitness thing
Migicovsky has believed in fitness on smartwatches since the Pebble first launched. The campaign video for the Kickstarter campaign of the first Pebble Watch in 2012 focused on running, cycling and swim tracking. Migicovsky is a fitness addict. He's also casual. He met with me wearing a t-shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops.
Pebble watches run their own operating system, and have their own unique advantages compared to other watches in the ever-more-crowded wearable world. They have always-on reflective displays, week-plus battery life and better water resistance. But they're also less feature-rich than Android Wear, Apple Watch and Samsung's Gear S2. For instance, they can't directly play music.
The Core feels like a bundle of smartwatch features all put into a separate kinda-sorta accessory. It has 4GB of storage and dedicated Spotify support to download music playlists (or, even stream over cellular wireless connection once a 3G SIM card is popped in), it has GPS and it has two touch surfaces that act as buttons, which can be programmed for anything from hailing an Uber to sending an emergency text SOS. Or, opening a smart lock. "In some ways it's a computer on your keychain," says Migicovsky.
It's small, it's plastic. And it looks more like a pebble than anything Pebble's made before.
"I love running with Pebble, but at the same time, I end up taking my phone because I like to listen to Spotify when I run and I like GPS for tracking," explains Migicovsky. "And we looked at it and we looked at integrating it all into a watch. And we decided to actually create a secondary device, something that clips on to your waist belt or you can put in your pocket."
"We built it because we got feedback from our users that said they didn't want to run with their phone," says Migicovsky. In that sense, Pebble Core is almost like part of a high-end 3G GPS-enabled smartwatch like the Samsung Gear S2 3G, peeled off and turned into its own device.
Pebble Core could be a super-smart version of a Tile thing-finder, or simply a music player (it has a headphone jack and Bluetooth) and GPS-connected fitness tracker. It connects with a Pebble watch, or it can work alone. And at just $69 for its Kickstarter price (about £50 or AU$100 converted) it may well be the wireless-headphone-friendly, Spotify-capable iPod Shuffle replacement that many runners have long dreamed of. Battery life lasts for up to 9 hours of music playback with GPS enabled, or for days on standby. And the Core charges wirelessly using the popular Qi standard, unlike Pebble's watches that use their own custom charge cables.
Migicovsky sees a future where many little wearable devices work together all over your body, not just on the wrist: "I see a future where at some point you're gonna have multiple wearables that all talk to each other, that connect through the Internet." Pebble Core is clearly aiming to take a first bite of it.
Pebble watches with heart rate are closer to Fitbit than ever
The watches are coming in September and fit a far clearer need. They're both distinct, affordably priced improvements to existing Pebble watches. And they both come closer to being full-fledged fitness trackers.
Most notably, they both have optical heart rate tracking via a little bump on the back where continuous heart rate readings are measured on-wrist once every 10 minutes, or continuously during exercise.
The Pebble 2 is a reboot of the very first black and white plastic Pebble, redone with a Gorilla Glass-covered black and white display and a slim, clean look. It has a microphone, just like the Pebble Time, for voice responses to messages. It's 30-meter water resistant. It costs just $129. (That converts to about £90 or AU$180.)
Pebble Time 2 gets rid of any distinction between the plastic Pebble Time and its better all-steel model. This is basically the Time Steel with heart rate tracking and a 50 percent larger color screen, at a lower $199 price (that converts to about £135 or AU$275). Both watches are compatible with the same magnetic chargers, and Pebble's embryonic smart strap system, which allows bands to attach to the rear charge port to access data and power.
One year later, and smart straps still seem more like a promise than a reality, with only a few Kickstarter-type concepts in existence. Migicovsky still says Pebble doesn't plan to make any itself. "Our smart strap strategy is very much about enabling and helping the community get these to market. We're a small company, we're focused on making the watches and the Core. That's the main focus for us. We see that the community is already starting to build these great accessories."
Other than a larger, color display and better battery -- the Pebble 2 gets around 7 days of battery life, the larger Pebble Time 2 should get 10, according to Migicovsky -- these work the same. I'd probably go for the smaller, more affordable Pebble 2. It reminds me of a new-age Casio watch. I think it's the best-looking option.
Much like last year, early Kickstarter adopters get discounts on both watches: $99 for Pebble 2, $169 for Pebble Time 2. Despite last year's somewhat controversial Kickstarter-first launch of Pebble Time, the same thing's happening again this year. According to Migicovsky, it's to satisfy the Kickstarter community that supported Pebble in the first place.
Pebble's OS is also getting an update with some useful additions:
- Quick-peek notifications now pop below the watch face much like they do on Android Wear or Apple Watch, instead of taking over the whole screen.
- Actions, which are basically programmable quick functions that can do specific tasks faster. Checking weather, calling an Uber, or doing one-function things can be assigned to the Pebble buttons, or pulled out of a list-like menu.
Migicovsky quotes the refrain that repeats throughout wearable tech: It's still too slow, and "3 to 5 seconds" is the goal for any interaction. "It still takes too many clicks to navigate through the app list and dive all the way into an app. And when in reality, you've got your phone. If you're gonna spend more than 5 or 10 seconds on your watch, then you might as well take out your phone."
How much more room is there on the wrist...or anywhere else?
With Apple, Google, Samsung, Fitbit and a ton of other traditional watch companies like Fossil heading into the mix, Pebble might have a rough time gaining ground. But maybe there's a future in devices off-wrist.
Or, maybe, Pebble Core hints at a future beyond the current Pebble watch. Music playback. GPS. Android. A more flexible, programmable design.
Doesn't sound like a bad idea for Pebble 3.
This article also appears in Spanish. Read: Pebble 2, Pebble Time 2, Pebble Core: Pebble lanza tres nuevos monitores de actividad