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Pebble Time Steel review: Time, with a battery boost

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I've stopped worrying about charging my watch.

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7.9

Pebble Time Steel

The Good

Solid, all-steel construction; boosted battery life should last over a week; 30 meters water resistant; always-on display; works with iPhone and Android phones.

The Bad

Design doesn't look much different than the less-expensive non-steel Pebble Time; can't make phone calls; fitness tracking is less accurate than rival wearables.

The Bottom Line

Pebble's step-up all-steel smartwatch has added battery life and a more durable feel, but it's basically a tiny upgrade to the less expensive Pebble Time.

After living my spring and most of the summer with the Apple Watch , I've gotten into a routine with watch-charging, taking it off my wrist each night. But I like to keep my watch on all the time. That's the biggest advantage Pebble watches have over the smartwatch competition, and the Pebble Time Steel pushes battery life even further.

Pebble watches have always had good battery life. The Pebble Time Steel takes it up another notch, offering a promised 10 days on a charge. The Steel is a step-up model to the already available Pebble Time . It also costs an extra $50: $249 with the leather band, versus $199 (around AU$339 or £160).

Besides that battery boost, the Steel -- as you can guess from the name -- has an all-steel body. But it's otherwise exactly the same smartwatch as the Pebble Time that came out a few months ago, which feels like a slightly improved color-screen version of the original Pebble that came out in 2013. For $299, you also get two bands: one leather, one steel. (Note: My review version of the Pebble Time Steel wasn't sent with the steel band, so I couldn't evaluate that band design...but I saw it briefly in Barcelona, and it's definitely a step up over leather.)

Sarah Tew/CNET

I've come to appreciate that the Pebble is a completely different product than the Apple Watch or Android Wear devices like the Moto 360 . It's a watch first, smartwatch second. It's low-key, always on, and skips a touchscreen in favor of physical buttons. It's shower friendly. And that battery life is mighty nice to have. But this Steel version is nowhere near as impressive as the Steel upgrade to the original Pebble that debuted in early 2014. That felt like a whole new watch. This feels more like a minor upsell. I like great battery life on a watch, and the Steel version definitely delivers on that. Would I pay an extra $50 for the Steel? I didn't think so at first, but now I think I would, especially since the build quality and buttons are better on this model. (Originally, when I wrote this review, Pebble hadn't announced the $249 version: instead, you had to pay an extra $100 for the $299 two-band one, which seemed like too great a leap.) But, $249 isn't cheap, and it comes close to the price of other smartwatches that have inferior battery life but superior features.

Before you read this review, go back and read my Pebble Time review . Since this is nearly the same watch with a thicker body and better battery life, most of what I say there still stands, including what it does and how its software works. Below, I'll mainly focus on what's different on the Steel.

Editors' note, August 10, 2015: This review was updated with updated battery life results and impressions, including a revised opinion on the overall watch price and value proposition.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design: A muted affair

Take the Pebble Time watch and cover it in metal, and you have the Pebble Time Steel. But the funny thing is, most people probably won't notice the difference. Take a look for yourself.

That's because the Pebble Time already had a steel front bezel that made it look like it was all-metal, even though the body was plastic. The gunmetal version of the Time Steel I received to review isn't easily identified as an "all metal" watch, either: the sides and back are muted gray, blending with the faded brown leather strap it came packed with.

Pebble family: Pebble Time Steel (left), Pebble Steel (middle), Pebble Time (right) Sarah Tew/CNET

Compared to the gleaming, squared-off retro look of the Pebble Steel from a year and a half ago, this watch is more bulbous, and less eye-catching. And the Pebble Time Steel's thick black bezel only emphasizes how small the display looks in the middle. This new Pebble is the better watch, but also somehow the less impressive-looking one.

The Pebble Time Steel and 42mm Apple Watch are a similar size. Sarah Tew/CNET

It's nearly the same size and thickness as a 42mm Apple Watch, leading a lot of people to ask me if this Pebble was an Apple Watch. In some sense that's a compliment to Pebble, but in reality the Steel's design is clean but somewhat innocuous. It doesn't look bad at all, but neither does it leap out and make a statement.

With a steel band, my opinion might change. The Pebble Time Steel does come with both a leather and steel link band, but I only got the leather band, and it doesn't do the watch any favors. The band's faded leather feels too faded for me, and doesn't seem to match the watch's design. The band can be easily popped off and swapped for another: either one of Pebble's, or a 22mm watch band you find anywhere else.

The Pebble Time Steel comes in black (seen here, but it's more like dark gray), silver and gold finishes. Each design has its own set of color-matched straps.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In a side-by-side test, several people in my office preferred the less expensive Pebble Time with a silicone band, as, perhaps more pertinently, did my wife. Maybe that would change with one of the Pebble Time Steel's other colors or watch bands. With the steel-link band that's not currently available yet -- but is part of the Kickstarter backer package -- it cuts a much sharper profile.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The best part of the Steel's design, and the reason to consider the upgrade, is its buttons. There's no touchscreen on the Pebble Time Steel: you need to press buttons on the sides to interact. The slightly thicker body seats the buttons higher, and they're easier to click than on the Time. The metal buttons are also less mushy, and more responsive, than the plastic Time's seemed to me.

The Pebble Time Steel is water resistant to 30 meters, just like the Pebble Time, which I love. But you need to change out the leather band before you dive in a pool or the shower: leather doesn't hold up when wet.

The timeline view is simple but great. Sarah Tew/CNET

Pebble Watch OS: Throwback tech

Compared to everything the Apple Watch can do in theory, the Pebble Time Steel's tech feels far less impressive. The reflective display, while always readable, feels a bit like a Game Boy Color, and isn't as vivid as an OLED display on watches like Apple Watch or LG Watch Urbane . The non-touch screen means you won't be swiping and tapping (a plus to some), but the reliance on side buttons means scrolling through menus and dismissing notifications requires several button presses, which can get clunky.

There's a microphone on the Pebble Time Steel, just like on the Pebble Time, but for iPhone users it doesn't do anything yet. When paired with an Android phone it allows you to dictate responses to messages, like you can with Android Wear watches.

After using other cutting-edge smartwatches, the Pebble Time Steel can't help but feel a little less exciting. But I realized, after five days with it on, that its low-key design can be a plus. Once again, I realized that I treated it more like a regular watch with benefits. It could buzz me as needed with a message, but I didn't feel compelled to fiddle with its many views and apps like I often do on the Apple Watch. It's less a smartphone on my wrist, more an advanced digital watch.

Pebble's apps can be loaded up via the Pebble app for iPhone or Android. Sarah Tew/CNET

Pebble's app connects to an app and watch face store with hundreds of little apps to download. They're often quirky. Some are fun, some are weird, some seem like trademark violations. Timers, stopwatches, sports score tracking and weather apps galore are available to try.

Pebble's recently updated the OS to allow for more customization since my last review: you can adjust screen brightness, text size and vibration strength. But the Pebble handles notifications pretty basically. Messages pop up like cards, and you have to dismiss them with several button presses. More impressive is a timeline of past and future events, including hooked-in data from apps: weather, sports scores, appointments and more are always in reach, like a little day planner.

Misfit and Jawbone both have fitness apps on Pebble. Sarah Tew/CNET

I remain torn on the Pebble's fitness tracking, which is basic and relies on free third-party apps to carry the load. Yes, it can track steps and even sleep automatically in the background. I used the Misfit app to track my daily progress. But its step count accuracy varied greatly from what my phone's accelerometer or the Apple Watch read, sometimes by as much as 1,500 steps. It's good enough for basic activity monitoring, but it's not good enough to replace a dedicated fitness tracker.

Charging up the Pebble Time Steel: you won't do it that often. Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life: Charge once a week, if that

Pebble claims that the Time Steel has 10-day battery life. I've finally been through an entire battery run: I charged late Saturday night, and made it all the way to the following Saturday night. That's seven full days, with background fitness tracking, app downloading, and frequent daily use.

Yes, that's less than the promised ten days, but it's stellar compared to any other smartwatch. The step-down Pebble Time lasted about four days with the same level of use. Even at 5 percent battery remaining on its final day, my Pebble Time Steel made it through morning to 9:15pm.

Compared to "normal" watches, this might sound disappointing. Compared to current smartwatches, however, it's a quantum leap. The Apple Watch lasts me, at best, a day and a half on a charge. Android Wear watches hang in two or three days, maybe. You could wear the Pebble Time Steel for a week and not have to hunt for a charger.

Even if you do exhaust the battery, the Pebble watch will still work as a regular watch for days until you get a chance to charge it again: this is a bit like the Apple Watch's power reserve mode, except the display is always-on.

But yeah, don't lose that charger. It's a specialized magnetic USB cable, and like most wearable charging cables and dongles, if you misplace it you'll need to go buy another.

That rear charge port will also work with promised smart straps that could offer extra sensors, features or even battery packs. Those smart straps could be a brilliant idea: when they finally arrive, I'll update this review with further thoughts.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion: A mild upgrade, with a handy battery boost

Stay tuned for a full battery run once enough days have gone by, but the Pebble Time Steel does seem to deliver on its battery promises. The question is, do you need that? Do you even need a Pebble?

If you're an Android phone user, the Pebble is a tempting alternative to Android Wear, and simpler to use. It's got awesome battery life, and handles notifications (and even some voice-transcribed responses) well. iPhone owners would probably be better off getting an Apple Watch. But the Pebble is also a difference in philosophy. It's a less intensive smartwatch. It trades deeper, more complex tech for long battery life and an always-on screen. I love those features, but miss some of the advanced tricks I've come to use on Apple Watch. And the Pebble Time still doesn't cut it as a fitness tracker for serious fitness...although it's okay for casual use.

The Pebble Time looks just about as good and costs less, while still lasting days on a charge. Even though this review's rating is similar, I'd recommend spending down, not up. The older Steel stood out in a less crowded landscape as a fashion statement. That's no longer true. The Pebble Time feels best right now as a more budget-friendly watch, not a high-end device.

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7.9

Pebble Time Steel

Score Breakdown

Design 7Battery 9Performance 7Software 8Features 7