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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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