What's the difference between the Pebble Steel and the original Pebble? Under the hood, nothing at all.
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.
I played with as many as I could, and to be honest, a lot of them aren't all that useful. Some, however, are charming. Others are a lot of fun. Some apps occasionally crashed or had problems syncing data. Does this sound like a big grab bag? It is, and that's part of the fun. It's also part of what makes the Pebble's app ecosystem feel like a work in progress.
This all might sound familiar to some: a black-and-white screen, home-brewed funky little simple apps -- it's a lot like having a Palm Pilot on your wrist. And in execution, it's as good and bad as that analogy. Lots of potential, lots of intriguing DIY fun, and also lots of novelty, absurdity, and semiworking funk. I don't need a dice roller on my watch. Maybe you do.
My favorite of the apps I've had early access to are Foursquare, which does simple check-ins based on your location; Yelp, which brings up lists of local restaurants and even lets you see a few reviews; ESPN, which gives basic no-frills scores; and Orbtime, a Drop7 game clone that works pretty well with the limited Pebble button controls.
But I'll also say that there are only so many apps I really plan on checking on my watch. ESPN and Yelp show what can be done, but after noodling around on each for a bit I started wondering why I wouldn't just use my phone. In fact, I used my phone quite a bit, even while wearing the Pebble. Because the Pebble lacks a touch screen or a more advanced color screen, it's not really intended as a phone stand-in. Keeping things simple is probably the best way to proceed, and, in a sense, is largely what many Pebble apps seem to aim for.
Compatibility: iOS and Android, happy as can be
The Pebble is compatible with the iPhone 4, 4s, 5, 5c, and 5s with iOS 6 or iOS7, and Android devices running OS 4.1 and up. The experience is remarkably similar, for the most part: a new Pebble app for both iOS and Android handles pairing of the Pebble, setting up notifications, and browsing for and loading watch faces and apps.
A year ago, that wasn't the case. And, yes, there are still some apps that are Android-only, meaning they require some Android feature or companion app to work properly. But, many of the Pebble's key features, such as its ability to get any notifications you get on your phone, work equally well on iPhone or Android. Pairing is generally simple, but sometimes I had problems getting the watch or the app to enable notifications.
What it does best
My favorite use for the Pebble is still as a connected wrist-worn pager of sorts: it'll buzz and give you heads-up notification about who called, who sent texts, what's happening on Twitter and Facebook, or whatever other notifications pop up on your phone. The Pebble saves you a check-your-phone motion. Of course, now that's check-your-wrist instead of check-your-phone, but besides any pretenses of social graces, the Pebble has helped me not miss phone calls or important texts while at noisy parties, or commuting, or being any place where I might have missed that iPhone call even with it set to vibrate.
It amounts to a wrist-mounted pager. That's not such a bad thing; after all, I often find my phone annoyingly out of reach or the ringtone or vibration hard to hear or feel, and the Pebble gives me better awareness of who's calling or texting in noisy, busy places.
I also like the Pebble's built-in music control app, which shows song and artist info and offers basic play/pause/track skipping controls for most music apps on iOS (Spotify, Pandora, Music, Amazon Cloud Player, Podcasts, and TuneIn Radio all work) and Google Music on Android. But, there's no volume adjustment or advanced menu navigation. You can't browse your music library via the Pebble and pick a song. It could be useful as a remote when your iPhone is plugged into a dock, if your favorite headphones lack an in-line remote of their own, or if you're just curious what's playing and don't feel like digging out your phone. Third-party music apps attempt to fix this, but I haven't seen any for iOS that have fit my needs perfectly. Also, I'd prefer not to waste one of the eight storage slots on a "better" version of an app that's already baked in.
The selection of watch faces is fun; some faces are more attractive than others. It's addictive to swap, but the eight-app limit on the Pebble means you'll have to choose between watch faces and apps, and continually swap them out. It's not enough storage space, and it feels more restraining now that so many hundreds of apps are finally out there, asking to be installed.
The Pebble also works excellently as a timepiece, whether connected via Bluetooth or not. The screen is easy to read, a shake-to-light function is handy in the dark, and it automatically syncs its time with your phone whenever you're paired.
Battery life (for the Pebble, and your phone)
With that black-and-white E-Paper screen, you'd expect some truly excellent battery life; instead, the Pebble's rated for "two to seven days" of use between charges. In my experience over a week of use, I find it hovers around four.
The Pebble has its own magnetically attaching USB charge cable, which snaps on much in the way of Apple's MagSafe Mac cables or the Surface Pro's contact connector, but the Pebble's magnets are weaker. I found that the cable would snap off too easily at the slightest nudge against a table. I love the "clean-attach" philosophy, especially since it helps make the Pebble water-resistant, but you'd better not lose that cable.
Finding how how much battery life remains, or how much charge time is left when you're plugging it in, is less of a guessing game than before: some apps show battery life status, which wasn't the case a year ago. But, the original Pebble lacks the glowing LED of the Pebble Steel that turns green when fully charged. And, there's no clear percentage indicator on the watch, which means it can (and sometimes does) go completely dead in the middle of the day -- often when I least want it to. The only solution: a full charge at least every other day.
I also found that keeping my phone constantly connected (the Pebble tends to frequently ping my iPhone throughout the day asking for permission to connect, an annoying bug) drained the battery. How much, exactly, is hard to tell, but it seems to at least meet the 5 percent to 10 percent a day claimed in the Pebble's instructions. Be forewarned, and keep a battery pack handy.
Conclusion: A polished Pebble
The Pebble is the best-functioning all-around smartwatch out there, even with its relative lack of bells and whistles. There's no color touch screen, no speaker, no camera, no microphone. And, for the most part, the Pebble is better off for it. It's the smartwatch I choose to wear the most, because it's the most comfortable and waterproof. And, for everyday heads-up notifications, it's also the best. A year of software development and the launch of an app store have finally provided the extras that I was hoping for last year. Hey, better late than never.
But, despite all this, it's not perfect. The apps still feel experimental, and there are times when not having a touch screen -- or true multitasking -- limits what can be done. Also, despite the many health apps, there isn't a true standalone Fitbit-killer fitness app baked in. Some apps will mirror phone fitness tracking or temporarily track steps, but I haven't seen one that does it offline and reliably. Fitness bands are a huge part of the wearable world, and it would have been ideal if the Pebble could have stepped in and offered that same function plus a whole lot more.
The Pebble has a new lease on life, and it's more polished than ever. Is that enough to survive the second wave of upcoming watches and wearable gear? We'll have to see what competitors -- and Pebble -- have up their sleeves. But right now, it's the value-pick smartwatch compared to the Pebble Steel, and that's not such a bad thing at all.