The Pebble watch began its life with a simple proposition: what if a little watch could pair with your phone and run apps right from your wrist? It took about a year, but the true dream of the Pebble has finally been realized: a new Pebble app store filled with new types of apps has turned the Pebble into a more useful device. The Pebble is now the product I hoped it would be back when I first tried one on last spring.
Pebble was one of Kickstarter's first serious success stories. The goal: create a bona fide smartwatch -- something more akin to the fictional Dick Tracy accessories than real-world pre-iPhone predecessors like the Casio Databank and Microsoft SPOT Watch. A wristwatch that can connect to your phone and interact with apps. Now, after tons of other smartwatches have debuted and largely failed -- the Samsung Galaxy Gear, Martian Passport, and others -- the Pebble still stands. More than that, it's improved.
Does that make it the best smartwatch on the market?
I think it does, because the Pebble has always had the other part nailed: it's a comfy, highly functional watch that's waterproof. And, now, it runs a lot more apps, and supports more iOS and Android devices than any other wearable I can think of.
Now, however, there are two Pebbles: one, the new Pebble Steel, is sleek; all metal, glass and style. It also costs $249. This Pebble -- the original, humble plastic Pebble -- is still on sale, and guess what? It can do everything the Pebble Steel can. It's all plastic, but it costs $100 less. Which do you choose? It's a matter of taste. I'm just here to remind you that, one year later, the original Pebble is hardly a throwback: it's ready to run the same class of apps as its fancier Steel sibling, and it holds its own quite well.
Design: Geek time
Design matters in what you wear. The new Pebble Steel has a sleek modern look with just the right drop of geeky. The original Pebble, on the other hand, goes full-tilt towards a plastic, toy-tech look. It's a minimalist retro-geek style that'll appeal to lovers of Kindles and Casio watches, but the chunky design and scratch-prone display won't win tons of admirers. Crack open the brown cardboard box it's packaged in and you'll just get the Pebble, its USB charge cable, and an invitation to go online to download further instructions.
The Pebble has a tiny (by current smartwatch standards) 1.26-inch diagonal "E-Paper" display, with a 144x168-pixel resolution. E-Paper is a bit of a misleading label. This isn't e-ink, but rather a black-and-white LCD display with a more-reflective-than-usual back. In daylight, text and icons seem more crisp. There's also an LED backlight that turns on with a press of the left-side button, or a flick of your wrist.
The Pebble comes in a choice of five colors: orange, red, black, white, or gray. I've tried two colors: the gray and the black. I preferred the black one, because it made the Pebble's boxy body seem a little less conspicuous. The glossy plastic face is scratch-resistant, according to Pebble's Web site, but I picked up some minor scuffs and scratches in a week of normal, careful use. The rubberized watchband is comfortable and snug, and feels invisible after a week's wear (the Pebble is lighter than the Pebble Steel). There are a variety of other watchbands sold online that you could mix-and-match with. It's like the Swatch of the smartwatch world.
The Pebble's rated at 5 atmospheres (ATM) water resistance for uses up to and including swimming and showering. That alone could make a difference to potential smartwatch shoppers. After months of use, I've never had a problem.
There's no touch screen, but the four buttons handle most tasks well enough. Buttons on the right handle scrolling up and down through the main menu; the center button selects options; the left button both acts as a back button and activates the watch's backlight. Theoretically you could shake the watch as another input, but that's not used much in the current software.
Hardware: Packed with potential
Under the hood the Pebble has a three-axis accelerometer, a magnetometer, and an ambient light sensor, along with a Cortex-M3 ARM processor and a small amount of onboard storage for downloading and retaining apps and watch faces. The Pebble's memory can hold eight apps and watch faces.
This smartwatch has the sensors and the tech to be capable of many things -- but that's dependent, of course, on apps. Thanks to a new version of the Pebble app, new developer software, and new Pebble firmware, many more apps are appearing to take advantage of these features...some better than others. The Pebble's evolution has been slow but sure, although many of its best apps feel more like shrunken-down Palm Pilot applications than true iPhone or Android alternatives.
The new Pebble app makes finding, downloading, and swapping apps a breeze
The Pebble never had an official app store before, sad but true: you had to find your apps on message-boards or with third-party tools. Now, at long last, there's a completely redesigned Pebble app for iPhone and Android with integrated access to the Pebble App Store. You create an account, and whatever apps you want get downloaded to the app and installed on the Pebble as needed.
So, yes: there's a Pebble app you download on your phone, and that app opens up a gateway to all of Pebble's apps. But it's easy to manage: much like a Kindle app, you can download and collect whatever apps you find that suit your fancy and store them on your Pebble app before loading them onto the watch itself. If your app gets deleted, you can re-download them from the Pebble app store through your account.
Installing and removing Pebble apps takes seconds: you tap the screen, and watch a progress bar as the app is loaded wirelessly via Bluetooth. The app shows what apps are on your Pebble: click one, tap "remove," and it's gone, back to your app locker.
The new app and system software really do make the Pebble feel like a whole new device.
The weird, wild world of Pebble apps, most of which are free
Last year, it seemed like the Pebble was mostly good for having cool watch faces, getting pager-like notifications, and not much else. Things are a lot different now: apps are finally on the Pebble, and many are pretty interesting.
Some of many apps already available include remotes for TVs, cameras like the GoPro, and even the Nest thermostat; apps for checking calendars and lists; fitness apps for sleep-tracking, step-taking, cycling, and running (that require the use of your phone to mirror data back to the watch); home automation apps that control lights; sports-score-checking via ESPN; a Foursquare app; Yelp ap; poker timers; plain text readers -- and some oddball games. It's a motley mix, but at least having an official app store makes finding these apps easier.