Long battery, water resistance and a low price. Just keep your fitness-tracking expectations to the basics.
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.
I like the Pebble 2 as a watch, but I don't like it as a fitness tracker.
Smartwatches are about compromise. Fitting everything on a tiny little wrist-gadget isn't easy. And one thing most smartwatches cut short is battery life. That's why Pebble's watches have always earned a soft spot in my geek heart: they compromise on other things, but deliver on longer battery.
Pebble watches have features that no other smartwatches have really been able to crack: longer battery life, truly always-on screens, and all Pebbles (except the Round) have been water resistant, even for swimming.
Now, the Pebble 2 is going after full-on fitness tracking. Fitness trackers dominate sales on the list of top watches and wearables. The Apple Watch shifted into a fitness-forward mode. And so it's no surprise that Pebble has jumped into fitness feet-first now, too.
New to this year's Pebbles is an optical heart rate tracker: both the Pebble 2 and upcoming Pebble Time 2 (a color-screened sequel to last year's Pebble Time Steel, coming later this year) have them.
The Pebble 2 is, otherwise, like a true sequel to the original, utilitarian black-and-white Pebble model from 2013, keeping that plastic design and tiny Game Boy-like screen. The Pebble 2 adds some improvements, like a Gorilla Glass-covered display and a built-in microphone to create voice notes or voice-respond to texts and Gmail (even on iPhones). It's more compact, too. But it's that fitness tracking, specifically heart rate, that's new.
The Pebble 2's going for fitness, not style. Can heart rate, combined with automatic step and sleep tracking, turn this smartwatch into a full fitness tracker...for $130 or £100 (equivalent to AU$170)?
Well, that's where I ran into problems. I wish I could say everything worked as well as promised. I've been wearing the Pebble 2 for a week, and it's far from what I'd call a great fitness tracker. But it's trying really hard.
Thanks to updates, last year's Pebble Time and Time Steel have already been able to track steps and sleep automatically, with decent success. The Pebble 2 + HR model reviewed here (there's another heart-rate-free Pebble 2 that costs only $100; this heart-rate-enabled version costs a bit more) takes things another step forward, with an optical heart rate tracker that sits on the back of the watch and spits out flashing green LED lights.
There are compelling reasons for the idea of Pebble-as-fitness-tracker: its battery lasts longer than any Android Wear, Samsung or Apple Watch (five days, even with heart rate enabled). And yes, the tracking for heart rate, steps and sleep is all automatic. It's swim-friendly. And the only thing you need to manually do is start and stop workouts via a new included Fitbit Workout app.
But...Pebble's fitness tracking feels like a bonus feature more than the main event, and that's where many people will get turned off from the start. Pebble doesn't have any of its own fitness watch faces, meaning you'll have to find a third-party one that works for you if you want at-a-glance data without clicking down into Pebble's app menus.
There are tons of watch faces on Pebble's app store, many of them fitness-related, and some tap into the Pebble's onboard heart-rate data, but they mostly look terrible, and aren't easy to look at or use. A few are keepers. They tend to have a home-made, throwback, slightly ugly aesthetic. Pebble's watchfaces aren't easy to swap out, either, and can't be easily be customized with complications -- bits of at-a-glance data. Some watch faces support customizations, but you'll have to hunt for a solution. I'd kill for a handful of good baked-in Pebble fitness watch faces.
To see steps, sleep and heart rate data, you press up on the Pebble 2's side buttons. Steps and activity are tracked automatically, which is handy. The Pebble phone app also syncs this data and presents graphs of daily steps and sleep, and all-day heart rate charts.
But workouts are a problem. A new Workout app has been added to the watch, which tracks walks, runs or generic "workouts." Starting a workout means heart rate data, distance, pace and steps are shown at a glance. I found, however, that tracking walks or runs sometimes ended up with the app folding in data from before my stated workout time...as if the app sensed I had been walking already, and wanted to count those steps. But what if I don't?
Looking at the workout app, and even starting and stopping exercises, isn't easy either: the Pebble 2's side buttons are super small, and hard to recognize by feel (there are three buttons on the right, one on the left).
Even worse, the Pebble 2 doesn't currently sync workout data to the phone app at all. An update to allow this is expected by November, but right now it means there's no meaningful accumulation of workout info. So, right now, the Pebble 2 doesn't keep track of workouts.
Pebble stores fitness data on the Pebble phone app, but doesn't cloud-store the data like Fitbit. That means if you install the Pebble app on another device, you'll lose the data. Pebble can sync its data (minus heart rate) via Apple's HealthKit or Google Fit, but I'd be worried about suddenly losing a lot of accumulated charts down the road. The Pebble 2 works with a handful of other fitness apps, including Runkeeper, but support for these apps is a mixed bag, and not everything works with the Pebble 2's heart rate monitor.
Heart rate measurements were erratic, too. My resting heart rate sometimes seemed normal, and other times skyrocketed. During walks and runs, my readout changed to readings far lower and higher than they should have been. I wouldn't pay up for heart rate on the Pebble 2.
Some third-party apps can access heart rate data too, but Pebble's app store selection leans so far away from recognizable third-party names that your options feel half-baked, certainly compared to what's available on Android Wear and the Apple Watch.
The Pebble 2 won't necessarily win on style, but its pared-down design sometimes feels welcome next to more advanced and sometimes too-complicated Apple Watch, Samsung Gear S2 or Android Wear watches.
Pebble's clean focus on basic time-telling and messages, plus its easy-access timeline for daily appointments and events, is still a great thing. Having an always-on display means I can check the time or messages without any weird tapping or too-obvious weird arm-lifting. And with the Pebble's minimal power comes great battery life (for a smartwatch). The Pebble 2 lasted five days on a full charge, even with heart rate monitoring running continuously. That's days better than Android Wear or Apple Watch, and equivalent to the Fitbit Charge 2. And, because I can wear it to sleep, I can use its buzzing silent alarm to wake me up in the morning. I use this feature a ton.
This little watch can also last in a shower or a swim, a feature you'd have to pay up for on Apple Watch. And that's another charm: price. Even at the with-heart-rate $130/£100 price, the Pebble 2 is more affordable than any other new-for-the-holidays smartwatch (although it's easy to find older models of most watches on sale for a song).
Pebble's improved software now has pop-up notifications for any information you add to that timeline, too, which are less intrusive.
But all of these features can be gotten on last year's Pebble Time and Time Steel watches, too...which are often on sale. I'd consider last year's Pebble Time over this year's Pebble 2. The smaller screen on this watch is harder to read. The buttons are harder to press. And some well designed color Pebble Time watch faces aren't compatible with the new Pebble.
Pebble's real downfall as a platform is its weird selection of watch faces, and even its apps. There are plenty to choose from, and some -- like Uber -- work better than expected (yes, you can call a car from your wrist). But many pared-down apps feel homemade, like indie hackathon projects. They're not always easy to use with the limited on-watch buttons. Most of the watch faces are just downright ugly, and the few I really like lack lots of on-display bits of information to make at-a-glance use possible. I've always liked the community-driven style of the Pebble app store, but as time goes on I'm losing patience with how Pebble's apps and watch faces feel stuck in limbo.
I've gotten addicted to the Apple Watch's customizable complications, which at least hook into things like timers, weather, email and turn-by-turn directions easily. On Pebble, it's a button-pressing labor-intensive process. And watches like Android Wear and the Samsung Gear S2 seem to have a larger selection of functional and attractive watchface designs.
The Pebble 2 connects with iPhones or Android phones, but it sometimes didn't sync perfectly. Its lack of onboard Wi-Fi meant a shorter range of connection to my phone than what you'll experience with Android Wear, the Apple Watch or the Samsung Gear S2.
This is a fine little watch for getting notifications like texts or email, and for checking basic information like weather or sports scores. But it suffers beyond that.
Would I buy the Pebble 2? Probably not. And existing Pebble owners who are already happy with their watches won't find the fitness tracking additions to be worth an upgrade. But I appreciate what it's trying for. Something all-in-one, compact, maybe more effortless. Something lower-key. Comfy to wear. Fun, and something of a throwback.
I started missing more hooked-in watch features after a few days. On-watch voice commands, or using my watch as a speakerphone. Or, being able to scroll through email easily. Things I've started doing on an Apple Watch. What do I value more -- function or battery life? Can I have both? No.
If you think of a smartwatch as something that should as much like a watch as possible, and less like a smart wrist computer, the Pebble 2 could be your thing. If you're on a budget, and want a basic tool. The Pebble can't keep up with where Apple Watch and Samsung and even Android Wear (once it gets improved, no doubt, in 2017) are going. But it's a reminder that other things are important, too. Like battery life.
If only the Pebble 2 were better. But as a low-cost, low-worry smartwatch, it does a surprising amount of things well. As a value pick, the Pebble 2 has real benefits. It's not the best smartwatch, or even the best Pebble. But it still shows the smartwatch industry the value of everyday utility -- and hey, I'm wearing it on my wrist now. This thing is starting to grow on me.