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Pebble Time review: The utility vehicle of smartwatches is back with a few new tricks

Scott Stein wore the Pebble Time for a week: here's his full 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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13 min read

The Pebble has been my favorite smartwatch for over a year, despite more advanced contenders. What other smartwatch can last more than a few days on a charge? Can be worn while swimming? Has an always-on screen? The Pebble always had that appeal ; it was more of a regular watch than most smartwatches, and didn't have to be charged every day.

pebble-time-3641.jpg
7.8

Pebble Time

The Good

Always-on reflective color display; water resistant for showers or swimming; battery life lasts more than three days between charges; added storage holds dozens of apps and watch faces; works with iPhones and Android phones; most apps are free.

The Bad

Display sometimes hard to read in dim light; fitness apps aren't as polished as on other premium smartwatches; apps and watch faces are plentiful but very mixed in quality; lack of touchscreen limits interactivity with some apps.

The Bottom Line

The Pebble Time adds a few key improvements and a color screen compared to previous Pebble watches, but owners of previous Pebble watches may not see a need to upgrade yet.

I've been wearing Pebble's latest, the Pebble Time, for a week. It lands in a world of Apple Watches and Google watches , and is finally being shipped to those who supported it on Kickstarter. For those who didn't, it'll cost $199 (UK and AU prices not currently available). This isn't the only new Pebble watch, by the way: the all-metal Pebble Time Steel will arrive this summer, with a longer promised battery life, for $100 more.

In some ways, the Pebble Time feels like a fine-tuned version 1.5 than a whole new 2.0 version of the Pebble smartwatch. It still doesn't have a touchscreen. Its new color display looks more like a Game Boy's than a high-quality mini-smartphone's. And it can't be used to make phone calls.

After spending several days wearing Pebble's latest, however, I've come to like it, especially because it's low-key. In the long run, surrounded by fancier watches with higher-profile apps, the appeal of the Pebble Time may wane. (And, if you haven't already pre-ordered via Kickstarter, the aforementioned Time Steel is definitely worth waiting for before committing to this model.) But in the current smartwatch landscape, the Pebble Time's advantages are still unique, making it a worthy alternative to the Apple Watch and Android Wear competition.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What does Pebble Time do?

The first Pebble watch debuted back in 2013; it emerged as a Kickstarter project and ended up being one of the best-reviewed smartwatches ever made. My favorite Pebble, the Pebble Steel , is a year and a half old: it went on sale January 2014, before Apple Watch, before Android Wear. If the Apple Watch feels more like a mini-smartphone than a watch, the Pebble Time is more like a watch.

The new Pebble Time isn't a bold reinvention: rather, it's sticking to Pebble's roots. Long battery life, always-on screen, 30-meter water resistance (swim friendly), support to a sizable mix of grassroots and DIY watch faces and apps. It works with both iOS and Android, too.

What's new compared with previous Pebbles? A color display, a microphone, a charge port that can be used for future smart strap accessories and a lot more onboard storage. It's unclear exactly how much, but older Pebbles could only store eight watch faces or apps at a time: the new Pebble Time can store dozens, or more.

The Pebble Time vibrates when it gets messages, shows upcoming events, and can run a number of apps: fitness ones, utilities, games, novelty watch faces. It's more of a wrist-pager than a full-blown gadget. But, it can run a lot of its basic functions, like time, alarms, and basic utility apps, without a phone being connected. Still, like most smartwatches, it's meant to stay connected via Bluetooth to your smartphone most of the time.

Nyan Cat, say hi. Sarah Tew/CNET

Design

The Pebble Steel was one of the best-looking smartwatches around back in 2014. The Pebble Time isn't one of the best-looking smartwatches right now.

Compared to the aspirational super-styled Apple Watch, the Pebble Time comes across as cutesy. Its rounded-edge square looks and bright colors give it the look of a toy.

It looks and feels a lot better in person. It's nicer than the original Pebble, which had a plastic-covered scratch-prone display, but looks less striking than the squared-off Pebble Steel. The Pebble Time has a plastic body, but a steel bezel framing a Gorilla Glass-covered color display.

Pebble Steel, Pebble and Pebble Time side by side (left to right) Sarah Tew/CNET

The Pebble Time comes in black, white or red, all with the same gunmetal steel rim. It's thinner than previous Pebbles, the Apple Watch, and nearly any other smartwatch I've ever worn. It hugs my wrist nicely.

There's a full steel version of the Pebble Time coming this summer for an extra $100, offering better battery life and a slightly thicker body. If you care about all-steel, you might want to wait.

Its reflective color display takes getting used to. It shows 64 colors, not millions, and has backlighting that turns on for a few seconds when you need it. It's nothing like the screens you're used to: it's more like an ancient Game Boy Color than the phone in your pocket. But, it looks great in direct sunlight, and always stays on. Built-in backlighting turns on at the shake of a wrist or press of a button, but makes the colors look even more washed out. It gets the job done, and has its charms, but isn't perfect for everything.

The Pebble Time, in profile, next to Apple Watch. It's thinner. Sarah Tew/CNET

It isn't touch-enabled, either: like previous Pebbles, you need to use four buttons (three on the right, one on the left) to navigate menus, load apps and watch faces, and set timers and alarms. It's like a regular digital watch. But that lack of touch means many apps are hard to interact with.

There is a microphone, but its uses are limited. If you've paired to an Android phone, you can use it to dictate responses to messages, which the watch translates to text just like on Android Wear and Apple Watch. You can also respond with a canned message or a list of emoji, too. In the future, iPhone owners will be able to use it with notifications coming from Google's Gmail app.

The Pebble Time feels great on my wrist with the included silicone strap. The slightly curved watch body is comfy, the band easy to attach, and it feels light. The straps are easily removable and swappable, either with Pebble's own, or with any 22mm watch strap.

The Pebble Time buzzes when it gets notifications, like your phone. The buzz is strong but not overpowering: I felt it more easily than that of the Apple Watch. It can be used for alarms, for silent but effective wake-up calls. I never missed a message.

Calendar events and more get folded into a daily timeline. Sarah Tew/CNET

Time as an interface: The timeline, and a new look

Pebble Time has changed its software and user interface since the older Pebbles: now, there are big animated transitions between apps, instead of tiny menus of text. It's cute, but a bit clunky. After living with the fast, slick main interface of the Apple Watch for a few weeks, it felt like a big letdown. But as I settled in with it, the Pebble Time's quirky-cute design won me over.

The biggest software addition is the timeline: press up or down on the right-side buttons, and you get a calendar-like rundown of everything coming up in future, or that's happened in the past. It's like a day planner for your immediate life.

I see that I have a phone meeting at 1:30. Then, at 7:30 p.m., the Mets play the Phillies. Sunset's at 8:16 pm. It'll be 90 degrees today. Tomorrow it'll be 82. I have an alarm set for 7 am. My flight to San Francisco leaves at 11:32 a.m.

Mets schedule imported to timeline, via ESPN app. Sarah Tew/CNET

You can keep pressing down to see your day by day calendar events, or any other things you've pinned to the timeline. Certain apps support pinning right now: ESPN for teams you follow, calendars, alarms, notifications, some fitness apps. The idea's that all your important info gets sucked up and shown as you need it, easily scrollable, like a day planner. Any event can be clicked for more info using the center button, and opened up in an app associated with it (if there is one).

It's a great addition to the Pebble interface, and a brilliant idea for a smartwatch. But button-pushing to scroll through calendar events is a clunkier process than, say, scrolling on a touchscreen. The Apple Watch I've been using does a far better job of scrolling through lots of stuff via its Digital Crown wheel and the touchscreen. Android Wear watches do, too.

Apps are shown one by one, in square icons. Sarah Tew/CNET

There's also a new way to bring up apps: all of your "owned" apps show up in a gigantic list of square icons when you press the center button on the right. You scroll down and open the one you want, or load one from your phone if it isn't there. Some apps will eventually be able to load up glance-like quick bits of info in this mode, like the Apple Watch; that could come in handy for some apps for things like sports scores.

One note: older Pebble watches will get this new timeline interface, too, in a future software update. When? Sometime later this year, but after the new Pebble Time. So, if you have an older Pebble watch, you'll get to enjoy this too. I really like Pebble's simple, clear-cut approach to seeing daily info. I'm just not sure I'd buy a whole new Pebble for it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Notifications: Easy to use

I mostly use the Pebble as a wrist-pager. The Pebble Time buzzes and shows you notifications as you receive them, and they're easily readable. But if you have too many, it can start getting overwhelming. Each one needs to dismissed with button-presses: they don't go away automatically. Swiping away checking notifications is a bit easier on a touch-screen smartwatch, and a lot faster on the Apple Watch.

But, most of what people think of as "smart" on a smartwatch has to do with notifications, and you can get them all here. I follow baseball game scores, credit card charges, when my home alarm has been activated, and can make sure I don't miss incoming phone calls or text messages.

iPhone users have limitations: you can't set up notifications separately from what your phone serves up. You can't really interact much with these notifications, either. Android owners get extra notification-filtering options, and can use the microphone on the Pebble Time to respond to messages via voice dictation, a nice plus. It works, but just like other voice dictation smartwatches, it got what I said wrong nearly half the time ("hey there, but you later," was the message I accidentally sent myself, along with a few poop emoji. I have no idea what I originally meant.)

Yes, a Street Fighter watch face. Sarah Tew/CNET

Apps: A great big bag of quirky stuff, mostly free

There are a lot of Pebble apps out there. You can run them all on the Pebble Time, plus Pebble Time-optimized apps which basically add color and timeline hook-ins. It's a squirrely landscape of weird, indie apps that lurk on the Pebble, many feeling hacky, or with designs that aren't that pretty. But you can do a lot on the Pebble with these apps: custom stopwatches, timers, calculators, converters, fitness trackers, games, smart home remotes, and lots and lots and lots of watch faces.

The watch faces range from the really cool to the horrible, and many have a loose grasp of copyright. I looked at Mickey Mouse, Pokemon, Totoro, and Twin Peaks watchfaces. Some add weather, or fitness, or battery life. You can add or remove as many as you wish.

A weather watch face, Real Weather. Sarah Tew/CNET

Also, these apps are all free. Some are "free," meaning you'll need to install a paid app on your phone to unlock it, but those are few and far between. And most of these apps run even when your Pebble is disconnected from your phone -- they can't pull data, but they can work for other uses. That's great news for apps like timers, or games or fitness trackers.

The new Pebble app's app-management page. You can move your many apps up or down to prioritize. Sarah Tew/CNET

You can store a lot of apps on the Pebble Time at once, but Pebble doesn't make it clear how much storage the Pebble Time has. CEO Eric Migicovsky told me the Pebble Time can store at least 50-100 apps and watch faces at a time. Others that aren't loaded can be loaded from your phone app, or by browsing your watch's app or watch face menu. App installation takes a few seconds.

Apps can run in the background, like fitness trackers that use the Pebble Time's accelerometer, or timers that count down while you're doing something else. But, only one fitness app can run at a time. Jawbone Up and Misfit both have basic fitness apps on the Pebble, but you have to pick one...and switching means you lose your accumulated data.

Misfit's app: OK, but pretty much the same as the last time we checked. Sarah Tew/CNET

Fitness: not bad, not great

Which brings me to fitness and the Pebble Time: it's not a great fitness watch, but it's a functional one. The Apple Watch, and Android Wear, have built-in continuous trackers that sync to a hub app and are generally easy to use. The Pebble relies on third-party apps that can be installed, but aren't always necessarily running. These apps are largely exactly the same as they were a year ago when I first tried them. Jawbone Up and Misfit are still the biggest offerings. It's great that these big-name companies let you use the Pebble like a fitness tracker, but the Up app only does step-counting. The Misfit app also has step-counting and automatic sleep-tracking, but neither app feels as elegant or syncs as easily as using actual Misfit or Jawbone fitness trackers.

Fitcat! (you feed a cat with your fitness) Sarah Tew/CNET

Runtastic, Endomondo, Swim.com and others have apps on the Pebble. But fiddling around with these apps and trying one that works feels more like a hobby than a killer experience. Most people have a hard enough time caring about their fitness, and it would be far better if Pebble just designed its own built-in system for basic tracking, with these others as options. But hey, there's Fitcat! It's now one of my favorite weird Pebble Time fitness app-games, like a Tamagotchi that lives on your fitness-earned dollars and becomes happy.

You can't track heart rate, yet. But that's not a huge loss, since heart-rate tracking's largely a mess of a landscape. But smart straps could fix that...maybe.

Future straps could (and hopefully will) use the charge port to add smart features. Sarah Tew/CNET

Smart straps: A promise of strap-cessories

The rear charge port on the Pebble Time doubles as a hardware port, and Pebble has already claimed that smart straps taking advantage of that port will arrive later this year. What could they be used for? Extra battery life, strap-worn heart-rate monitors, possible GPS modules, light-up novelty straps. It's all promise, with little that's emerged to prove how viable these straps could actually be.

In theory, strap-based accessories for adding extra features are a brilliant idea. I can't judge them, however, without trying them. How many will emerge, how much they'll cost, and how functional they'll really feel remains to be seen.

Smart straps could end up being an idea that spreads across all smartwatches, but for now they're a promise versus any sort of reality. I'll update this review when those straps arrive.

Rear charging is a little odd, but at least the cable's magnetic. Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life benefits

The Pebble Time, like previous Pebbles, promises seven days of battery life between charges. My actual experience was less than that: my first charge lasted a little over three and a half days, and my second charge has lasted through 50 percent over two days. But, I've been testing the Pebble Time using early-release software that's been continually updating, and I've been installing and playing with lots of apps. A full sense of the real battery life won't be possible for another few weeks.

However, it's already a lot better than the Apple Watch, or Android Wear watches. I woke up one morning to find the Time at 10% battery, and the watch lasted the whole day.

When the Time's battery's been kicked, you can still tell the time: much like the Apple Watch's Power Reserve mode, the watch saves just enough juice to see the time and nothing else. I was able to use mine through the next morning in that 0% mode as a basic watch.

An included USB charger has a custom magnetic prong that latches onto contacts on the back of the watch. The fit is not perfect: I found it detached a few times when I left it on my bedside table. Older Pebbles charged on the side, and I prefer that: the bottom-charging means you have to handle it a bit more delicately when laying it down. Unfortunately, the new Time charge cable is different than both the Pebble and Pebble Steel chargers, so don't lose it.

A full recharge took a few hours. The previous Steel had a glowing LED that changed from orange to green when fully charged; with the Time, you have to look at the screen to see your progress.

Why not get an older Pebble?

The new Pebble has some nice new features, but a lot of what it does can also be done with an older Pebble watch. The original Pebble is still on sale for $99, or even less. The Pebble Steel, which I still like the look of, has often been on sale for $150.

The higher price of the new Pebble Time gets you a color screen, the promise of smart straps, added storage for apps and watch faces, and a redesigned body. And, for Android owners, a microphone that currently has a pretty limited use. There isn't a whole lot that the new Pebble offers to give it a huge leg up on older models, unless you place a huge premium on extra app storage. I don't use a lot of Pebble apps, generally, so it doesn't bother me much to reload from my phone when needed.

Sarah Tew/CNET

...My wife likes it

The Pebble Time shows that great battery life and easy-to-use simple functions matter. So does excellent water resistance. But Pebble hasn't done all that much to make great strides in the landscape versus the competition.

But my wife approved of the Pebble Time. She said I stared at it less, obsessed less over it. It wasn't as super-tech, not as needy. It made me feel a little less tethered to my gadgets. And that's supposed to be what smartwatches are good for: putting away your phone. Pebble still feels better at that than any other feature-packed smartwatch.

Those fancier watches may win out in the long run, but for now, Pebble's simplicity still charms. And it's mainly this that makes me want to keep using the Pebble Time. I didn't like it at first, but it won me over, just like the first Pebble. It's a low-key smartwatch. It's not as forward-thinking as Apple Watch, but it's also a lot easier to recommend.

pebble-time-3641.jpg
7.8

Pebble Time

Score Breakdown

Design 7Battery 8Performance 7Software 8Features 7
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