Earlier this week, Pebble kicked off CES 2014 by announcing a high-end version of its popular smartwatch called Pebble Steel. Today we had the pleasure of sitting down with Pebble and taking the new watch for a test-drive. Read on for our early impressions.

I'm not going to beat around the bush: Pebble Steel looks and feels very sharp. Although the original Pebble brought about as much style as could be brought to a plastic watch, well, it's still a plastic watch. The stainless steel Pebble Steel feels less like a tech gadget and more like a piece of jewelry that happens to have some cool tech inside.

You can get a sense of how sharp it looks from pictures, but my biggest surprise on seeing it in person was how much it changes the Pebble's overall aesthetic. Though it's mostly the same as the original on the inside (the new model has more storage), the two slick new designs (Brushed Stainless and Black Matte) really changed my perception – for the better. It's like taking a familiar painting, putting it in a more expensive frame, and seeing the artist's vision in an entirely new light.

When I started flipping around Pebble Steel's UI, I wondered if it had a faster processor than the standard Pebble. It zips around noticeably quicker. But Pebble's Myriam Joire told me that it's all on the software end. That's good news for owners of the original (plastic) Pebble, as an upcoming update will give it a perceptible speed boost too.

I also got to see some of the unreleased apps made with Pebble's SDK 2.0. The SDK 2.0 apps that you'll find in Pebble's upcoming app store will all be built in Javascript. That means a more focused (no long list of apps to install) and consistent (the same on iOS and Android phones) user experience.

Yelp's Pebble app looks very nice. Open the Yelp app on your watch, perform a quick gesture with your wrist, and you'll immediately get suggestions for nearby restaurants. Likewise there's an ESPN app, which you open and immediately get scores for your league of choice. Pebble is about simplicity and glanceability, and the company is building quite a promising ecosystem on that foundation.

When I reviewed the original Pebble, I wondered: would the scrappy startup be remembered only as an early torch-bearer, only to be quickly overthrown by bigger companies with deeper pockets? Or could it establish itself as a leader and innovator, standing alongside (or above) those mega-corporations? It's too early to say for sure – and I wouldn't pretend to know the future – but it's clear that Pebble is a company determined to be the latter. The Steel is the sharpest-looking smartwatch I've used, and its app ecosystem is about to take a big leap forward.

Pebble Steel is up for pre-order for US$250. No matter which of the two styles you choose, it will ship with both a matching steel band and a black leather one. Apparently sales have been off to a good start, and shipping times have slipped to "mid-February."

Product page: Pebble Steel