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Wearable Tech

Pebble Steel smartwatch: Steel, sleek, coming end of January along with an app store (hands-on)

Can better design take the Pebble to the next level? That, and a new app store, promise to transform the Pebble in 2014.

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LAS VEGAS -- Wearable tech is exploding if you count the number of gadgets, and many more are sure to emerge, but Pebble seems ready to face the wave. The biggest influences on this market, as gadgets like fitness bands and smartwatches become more familiar and established, are design and new services and software. Pebble, last year's darling of the smartwatch scene, is working on both: an all-metal souped-up Pebble Steel watch coming January 28, and an official app store, at long last. With bigger app partners, no less. It's been no small undertaking, and CNET's gone behind the scenes to look at that process.

Scott Stein/CNET

I've seen the newest Pebble Steel at CES 2014, and as far as the design is concerned, I'm impressed. Stainless-steel chassis and wristband, an included leather strap, a shrunken-down size, and a Corning Gorilla Glass-covered screen all elevate it to looking a lot more like a product from Fossil or a major watch manufacturer, or even what Martian aimed for last year: a smartwatch that looks more like a watch than a geek gadget.

But that effort will cost you: in this case, $249, which is $100 more than the current Pebble. The Pebble Steel is a cosmetic overhaul, mainly: the e-paper display is the same, and still isn't touch-activated, and the buttons are all in the same place. But the display looks sharper and somehow more compact in the Steel's bezel-reduced design. On my wrist, with the analog watch face on, it easily looks like there isn't a screen at all.

The Pebble Steel in both colors next to the original Pebble (right).

The Pebble Steel comes in two colors -- "brushed stainless" and "black matte," both made of the same machined stainless steel. The design reminds me of the original Nano Hex watchband on my iPod Nano that made me fall in love with smartwatches in the first place. Some might prefer the simpler, geekier (and less expensive) original Pebble, but the Steel clearly aims high, although I've seen other watch designs around CES that seem to taking similar angles.

Scott Stein/CNET

A few new hardware additions include an RGB LED in the bottom left that indicates charging status -- always hard to tell on the original Pebble -- and could be used for other notifications, too, in certain apps.

The magnetically attaching charge cable has also been revamped; it's smaller, color-coded to stand out more in a bag of charge cables, and sports larger magnets for firmer hold.

New charge connector: red-colored, with larger magnets. Pebble hopes accessory makers will adopt the standard. Scott Stein/CNET

A new antenna around the steel body helps improve Bluetooth reception in the metal case, and the Pebble Steel is just as waterproof as before. An included optional leather band, of course, won't be all that pool-friendly, but the Steel with leather band makes for a very nice combo, and for this price, it's good to see the band in the box.

The leather band. Josh Miller/CNET

Along with the Steel, an official app store -- something that's long been lacking on the Pebble -- will arrive by the "end of January," according to CEO Eric Migicovsky. Partner apps from ESPN, Yelp, Mercedes, and Pandora are some of the handful that were demonstrated to me. Some of these apps were surprisingly innovative: the Mercedes app (which I didn't get to see in a car, but is being demonstrated at the Mercedes booth on the show floor) syncs with new Mercedes models to get car-repair status and information like tire pressure, and when driving allows you to customize Pebble buttons to activate in-car features.

A peek at the Mercedes app. Scott Stein/CNET

ESPN's app offers a simple scoreboard of various sports. Pandora uses the right-side buttons to rate the songs you're listening to. Yelp promises local attraction infor paired with your phone's GPS, and a shake-to-shuffle way to bring up new suggestions.

There are only so many buttons on the Pebble -- four, to be exact -- so interactions won't always be as simple as on a phone or touch-screen device. But the Pebble, and Pebble Steel, seem to be aiming more for a "smarter watch" territory than a do-it-all superwatch concept like the Samsung Galaxy Gear or Omate TrueSmart. The new design is great, but really, the biggest way to make the Pebble better will be getting a next generation of software and apps to run on it beyond notifications, watch faces, and quirky games.

Scott Stein/CNET

The only problem I see is that spending an extra $100 for a Pebble Steel -- two-thirds the price of a current-gen Pebble -- is a lot to ask, especially since the changes seem largely cosmetic. Plus, the original Pebble is still available -- and can run the upcoming app store too, no less. The $249 price places the Pebble Steel much closer to the prices of watches like the Galaxy Gear and Qualcomm Toq. Will trading out affordability for a premium feel be a good gamble?

Either way, it looks like the Pebble Steel, plus an app store, will equal the "Pebble 2," and it's an undeniably strong design improvement. Now we'll just have to see how good 2014 will be to Pebble: the company's clearly getting an early head start, because there are some big competitors on the horizon coming, and who knows how soon.

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