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Pebble Steel review: The first great smartwatch is still one of the best

What makes the Pebble Steel better than other smartwatches? An easy-to-read screen, new fitness apps, and an affordable price. Read our updated review.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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9 min read

Once again, I've come back to the Pebble Steel.

pebble-steel-product-photos-add03.jpg
8.0

Pebble Steel

The Good

A classic, sharp-looking design; works with iPhones and Android phones; screen readable in bright daylight; swim- and shower-friendly; built-in pedometer for persistent fitness tracking; wide variety of quirky apps.

The Bad

Older technology compared to competition; onboard storage limited to eight apps at a time; still requires charging twice a week; lacks heart-rate monitor or more advanced fitness features.

The Bottom Line

The competition is advancing fast, but the geeky-cool, functional, and affordable Pebble Steel's conservative approach still works.

Released back in January, the stainless steel-clad Pebble Steel is a cosmetic upgrade to the original crowdsourced 2013 smartwatch, the Pebble . Its features are now relatively ancient: it has a non-touch, black and white display. It doesn't track heart rate. It can only store eight apps at a time.

And yet, it's my favorite smartwatch. It's waterproof and shower- and swim-friendly. Its display is easily readable, even in bright sunlight. Its battery lasts longer than other smartwatches. It works with both iPhones and Android phones. And, even though it seemed big months ago, it's smaller and more discreet than recent watches like the Samsung Gear S and Moto 360 .

Sarah Tew/CNET

Recent changes, including a price drop -- it dropped to $199 from its original $249 (£179 in the UK, AU$229) -- and the addition of background pedometer fitness tracking, now make the Pebble Steel a better purchase than before.

Let's be honest: The wearable tech landscape is changing rapidly, and many more smartwatches are due early next year that could age the Pebble even further. It's also quite possible, if not probable, that you'll see a third-generation Pebble hit sometime in 2015. (The Steel was released in February 2014.)

But for the here and now, the Pebble Steel stands tall. If you want a watch that handles basic notifications really well, has a built-in silent alarm clock, is wearable all the time, and has plenty of fun apps to play with, the Pebble Steel wins my vote. It's a better watch than nearly any other smartwatch, and it's more polished than rival smartwatches that feel more experimental than refined.

Editors' note: This review has been updated since its original publication on January 28, 2014, with additional long-term impressions of the Pebble Steel. It includes comparisons to more recent competitors, hands-on testing of the latest firmware, and consideration of the September 30 price drop. As a result, the rating has been raised from 3.5 to 4 stars.

What I like

It's a very cool-looking watch

Even three quarters of a year into wearing it, the Pebble Steel still looks great. It's retro-chic, it's classic, it actually gets compliments. It's just hefty enough to feel substantial, but far, far less bulky than other larger-screened Android Wear and Samsung Gear smartwatches.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It doesn't look crazy-futuristic at all; in fact, it looks good with a suit or at a wedding. Or, going to the beach. I've tried them all, and the Pebble Steel never feels out of place.

It feels comfy, although the metal band nipped at my long wrist hairs. A leather band comes packed in the box, and looks smart, but the steel band -- which used to come packed in but now (after a price cut to $199) costs $20 extra -- is worth the upgrade. It makes the watch shower-friendly, because you're not going to want to get that leather band wet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The screen looks great in daylight and at night

Bright colored smartwatch displays like those on Android Wear and others may look nicer, but they shut off to conserve energy. The Pebble's black-and-white display stays active all the time. It's not like e-ink, exactly, but it's more crisp and vivid in everyday light than the average LCD. The flat Gorilla Glass panel on top helps reduce glare, too, unlike the curved scratch-prone plastic of the original Pebble (it can still scratch, but not as easily). A side button adds backlighting at night, or you can shake your wrist to light up the screen, a really clever touch.

You can wear it in the shower

Most smartwatches need coddling and certainly aren't water-friendly. The Pebble Steel has 5 ATM water resistance, which means you can swim with it up to 165 feet (50 meters), or shower with it. I've submerged my review unit over and over again. But again, you'll want to get that steel band so you don't ruin the leather one.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It silently buzzes when notifications arrive, and does it well

If I get a phone call at a party and can't hear my phone ringing, I'll feel my wrist buzz. I can track Apple Pay payment receipts. I know when important emails come in. I can see text messages, or Facebook Messenger, or Twitter direct messages. I can't respond right on the Pebble, but as a wrist-worn pager it's saved me a number of times. Adjusting which notifications come in just means heading to your phone's notification center and turning some apps on or off. The Pebble's Bluetooth connection problems used to be an issue, but now it works smoothly.

That vibrational buzz also works wonders for silent alarms: you can set an alarm manually, and the watch buzzes you awake. It's worked for me, and it works better than you'd expect.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It works with iOS and Android

Android Wear works with Android phones. Samsung Gear watches work with Samsung phones. Apple's upcoming Apple Watch will work with iPhones. But the Pebble works across platforms: iOS and Android alike, and most of its apps do, too. You just need to make sure your phone's got Bluetooth 4.0 (Bluetooth LE) and is running current software, but the experience is largely the same across operating systems.

The Misfit app on Pebble tracks steps and sleep automatically. Sarah Tew/CNET

Background fitness tracking at last, and it works with multiple apps

The Pebble's last firmware update allowed background step tracking, something it couldn't do before: at last, it can be a real pedometer. Even better, two already-available apps are from Misfit and Jawbone Up, two major forces in wearable fitness. (There's even a swim-tracking app from Swim.com.) The Misfit app tracks steps and sleep, while the Jawbone Up app only tracks steps. Both sync to their iOS and Android apps, with a bit of occasional coddling. The step counts are often over what more accurate fitness bands provide, but the fact that the Pebble can do what it does with major third-party apps is really a big plus. I've often used it as a replacement for wearing a Shine or a Jawbone Up band in a pinch. No, it doesn't offer the same type of get-up-and-move vibration alerts or features like Jawbone Up's power-nap, and if you switch fitness apps it doesn't carry the steps over, but step counting and sleep tracking add up to a nice bonus you won't get with a traditional watch at this price.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A quirky and huge collection of apps, many of which are free

Some are great, some are awful, but the Pebble and Pebble Steel share an extensive catalog of mostly free apps and watch faces, spanning the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. Weather watch-faces, an ESPN sports score app, camera remotes, Yelp and Foursquare, fitness apps, and even little games. You have to use the Pebble's four buttons to interact, but for many of these at-a-glance apps that works just fine.

Pebble's app on Android and iOS is also its own app store -- you transfer the apps and watchfaces to the Pebble from your phone via wireless Bluetooth. You can browse and download apps to manage in your own personal cloud-connected account. The watch faces and apps are pretty easy to find, too.

Battery life is good...for a smartwatch

The Pebble Steel charges up with its own magnetically-attaching cable, and an LED turns from orange to green when charged up, which takes a few hours. Once charged, the battery life ranges from 2 to 5 days, depending on how many notifications are being pushed and whether background fitness tracking is on.

It's not a dramatic leap into the stratosphere, and traditional watch owners may freak out at needing to charge a watch a couple of times a week, but it's a lot better than the 1 to 3 days of most color-screened smartwatches like the Moto 360, LG G Watch R or Samsung Gear S.

The Pebble Steel and original Pebble. Sarah Tew/CNET

What I don't like

You can only store eight apps at a time

Instead of offering storage space in terms of megabytes or gigabytes, the Pebble offers eight "slots" for adding anything: apps, watch faces, games. The Pebble Steel still only has eight storage slots. With the number of new apps on hand, that storage limitation becomes annoying rather quickly. Sure. getting apps on and off is a breeze with the app, and you'll always have those apps on your phone ready to be swapped in and out. And, these apps don't really retain any data, so there's no downside to deleting and re-installing. But, it means the Pebble Steel doesn't feel as standalone as it should. I wish there were at least eight slots for watch faces and eight for apps. It's an archaic system compared to the 4GB of flexible storage on many current smartwatches from Android Wear partners and Samsung.

Oddly enough, some newer apps bundle several functions or watch faces into one package, seeming to side-step the slot limit. I'm not sure how that will play out.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There's no touchscreen, no microphone, and no speakers

Some fancier smartwatches flaunt more advanced inputs, which can come in handy for voice recognition, apps with touch buttons, or audio alarms. The Pebble Steel just has buttons, and it can feel hampering for some more ambitious apps.

Fitness tracking still isn't great

Yes, the Pebble Steel can track steps and even sleep, but dedicated fitness trackers do a far better job. It's a hold-the-fort addition to compete against the landscape of smartwatches with pedometers and heart rate monitors, and even dedicated run and workout tracking. Both Android Wear and Samsung's Gear watches have deeper, if flawed, fitness ambitions.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You still need to charge it every few days

It beats other smartwatches, but the Pebble Steel's battery life is still nowhere near what regular watch users expect. It all lags behind some running watches like the Garmin Forerunner, which lasted nearly 15 days on a charge. This makes the Pebble Steel one more gadget to charge when traveling, and it means one more cable to pack...and a proprietary one at that (it's different from the original Pebble cable, too). If you keep Bluetooth turned off, the watch battery lasts far longer, for at least a week...but then you won't be able to use many of its apps, so where's the fun in that?

It's old tech

LED backlight, a 144x168-pixel black-and-white display, older ARM processor: under the hood, the Pebble Steel has the same tech as the 2013 Pebble, which already felt a little archaic. You're paying up for design. Newer smartwatches are throwing all sorts of tech at the wall: heart rate monitors, GPS, Wi-Fi, bright color screens, barometers, wireless payments, and even built-in 3G phone service. You don't need all of that stuff, but it's clear that compared to Android Wear watches, next year's Apple Watch and future Samsung products, this Pebble will feel very retro indeed in 2015.

Jawbone's fitness app works, but it's pretty simplistic. Sarah Tew/CNET

It's still an accessory for your phone

Think of it as a smart wrist pager, a clever at-a-glance watch, or a watch with flexible swappable faces: the Pebble does a lot of things, but mainly serves to remind you of phone notifications, or act as a second screen.

Future watches will increasingly do more in an ever-more-connected world, and even act as standalone devices. The Pebble Steel really isn't that type of product.

Sarah Tew/CNET

And yet, it's still my favorite smartwatch

Improvements in Android Wear, which are coming monthly, and the promises of the Apple Watch and its inevitable bevy of AAA apps could change the landscape fast, but the Pebble Steel is a watch first, a smartwatch second. I admire it for that. It's useful as a watch. It's got enough flexibility to serve my many needs. And it works well, with the least amount of recharging. It's been my "go" watch, something I grab and throw on my wrist before heading out the door. And yes, it's a still a bit of a novelty. Well, more than a bit. But the Pebble Steel has won me over, and impressed me over time.

I'd still warn you that it's not a necessary gadget...but if you want a smartwatch right now, it's the first one I'd point to. It's better, and more affordable, than ever before. You can go even cheaper and get the plastic Pebble for $99 -- practically an impulse purchase -- but for me, I'd be happy paying up for Steel. And even I want to get a "better" smartwatch next year, I can wear the Steel as a backup -- when that fancy new one is juicing up on the charger every night.

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8.0

Pebble Steel

Score Breakdown

Style 9Features 7Ease of use 8
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