I love Pebble watches. They're utilitarian, and value basic function above all else. The Pebble Time Steel gets over a week of battery life on a single charge; I can swim and shower with it; its screen is always on. Those are perks that smartwatches like Apple Watch lack. It made me forgive Pebble not having more advanced smartwatch features like voice calling, heart-rate monitoring and wrist payments.
So it's funny that Pebble's newest watch, Pebble Time Round, gives up the things that made it so unique. It's like an O. Henry story of smartwatches: The Round finally has a sharp design and a super-slim build, but now it can't be worn swimming. Its battery life has shrunken to just two days on a charge. And it can't even run all the apps that other Pebbles can (but it can run a good number of them).
It is, however, one of the lightest, most comfortable smartwatches around.
The Round is the third Pebble watch released this year, and it's all part of the same family as Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel, so you don't have to choose the Round. In fact, that's the idea: The Round is a design choice, not a replacement for the other watches in Pebble's lineup.
For $250 (£230 in the UK, or AU$250), I wouldn't pick the Pebble Time Round, I'd get the beefier Time Steel instead (available for the exact same price). But maybe you value style over battery, or water resistance, or full app compatibility. On a watch, it's not unreasonable. The Round keeps the Pebble's core functions and a good chunk of its apps, but I think it loses too much to win me over...although I really like where Pebble is going with its watch design aesthetic.
Design: Seriously thin
I can't tell I'm wearing the Pebble Time Round. It slips under my sleeve, and hugs my wrist. The stainless steel body and slightly domed anti-glare Gorilla Glass-covered display feel and look great. So does the Round's included leather band, which you can easily pop off with an easy-release mechanism to add other bands, or any standard 20mm band (or 14mm band, if you buy that version) instead. Pebble says this is the slimmest, lightest smartwatch in existence, and I certainly can't think of anything that beats it.
There's no smartwatch that looks as slim as this watch does. Android Wear watches and the 42mm Apple Watch look gigantic in comparison. But the utilitarian crisp style of my black-and-grey review model has one drawback: a seriously thick bezel around the display.
Regardless of the color, all Pebble Time Round watches seem to have too much bezel. The reflective color display -- the same as the Pebble Time and Time Steel -- is circular this time, but feels dwarfed in the middle of that bezel on the edges. If I pick the right watch face, it balances out and can look good. But sometimes it just looks weird. Admittedly, the Pebble Time has a large bezel, too -- actually, a double bezel -- but on the Round it somehow feels like it stands out more.
The Round is beautifully built. The steel body feels strong and sturdy, the glass on top meets the edges elegantly. The side buttons are small but easy to find and have an excellent feel, they click easily and are well-spaced from each other. It's a lot better than the Pebble Time's mushy, cramped plastic buttons.
And I should add that the Round accomplishes its biggest goal: it's more appealing to women, it seems. Several women around the office liked the way it felt on their wrists, and the slimmer design makes the Round seem far less bulky than nearly every other smartwatch that's on the market. (My wife also liked it.) The Round comes in black, silver or gold steel cases, with a variety of watchbands.
Clean software, but fewer apps
Pebble's software is simple and functional, and somewhat elegant, and it keeps getting better. Notifications from your phone pop up and stay up until dismissed. You can jump straight to a timeline mode that shows upcoming appointments and notes, like a day planner. Apps can be run from a side menu; Pebble's app store has a lot of apps to choose from, most free.
You can pair Pebble with an iPhone or Android phone, making this one of the best "universal" smartwatch platforms. Both iOS and Android Pebble apps open up to the Pebble app store, which syncs your apps to an account that remembers what you own.
It's easy to snooze notifications and enter "quiet time" on the Pebble, and new voice-enabled apps put the built-in microphone to good use. A voice-dictation Notes app and a translation app which transcribes into other languages are surprisingly good, and work for both iPhone and Android phone owners (voice-transcribed response to iOS messages will be coming soon, but only work on Android for now).
The Pebble has always felt more like a regular watch than a feature-stuffed smartwatch; it lives with me and bugs me less.
But there's a big caveat: Pebble's wide assortment of watch faces and apps won't all run on Pebble Time Round. If you browse Pebble's app store on your phone, you'll only be able to get apps that have been updated to work on this Pebble's new circular display. Many of my favorite Pebble apps like ESPN, Misfit and Jawbone currently show up as non-functional within my phone's Pebble Time hub app, grayed-out. Pebble says they're coming soon, but the question is which apps won't make the cut? Major apps will optimize for the Round, but will all of them?
I'm looking at an early version of the watch on pre-release firmware, so many apps will probably be updated. But I can't guarantee it.
There are still a bunch of good round watch faces and apps to choose from, but the Round's in an awkward place at the moment, and it's only a fraction of what the regular Pebble already is.
A Pebble that looks better, does a little less
Why did this watch have to make compromises? It pains me to know I can't swim with it anymore, or wear it in the shower without worrying (water resistance has been downgraded from 3ATM to IPX7, which means it's recommended that you don't get it too wet). Battery life has been shrunken down to just two days, according to Pebble: in my use, I got two and a half days on a full charge.
At least you can quick-charge a lot of battery life back in a short span of time: Pebble claims 15 minutes of charging can add a day of battery life, and indeed, 15 minutes of charging took my Pebble Time Round's battery from 10 all the way to 70 percent. That's amazing, but it also means you need to remember to charge.
Two and a half days on a charge is still better than many smartwatches, but it still meant I had to keep an eye on battery life over a weekend -- something I never had to do with a Pebble before. When the Pebble's battery is kicked, at least it goes into a clock-only mode that stays on for a while, so you can keep using it as a basic regular watch till you find time to charge, but that's small comfort.
I loved the Pebble for its unique qualities that other smartwatches lacked: better battery and better water resistance. It made me like the watch more than the competition, even though other smartwatches like the Moto 360 , Samsung Gear S2 and Apple Watch can do more.
The Pebble Time Round sacrifices function for style. It's why I wouldn't want to buy this watch. If future Pebbles can look this good and either be more affordable or do more, I'd be excited. But this watch feels like it's stepped sideways, rather than forward.
But at least the Pebble Time Steel is still available, so you still have a choice.