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Review: Pebble Steel smartwatch

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June 19, 2014

What's old is new again, as Gizmag reviews the Pebble Steel smartwatch

What's old is new again, as Gizmag reviews the Pebble Steel smartwatch

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When companies release follow-ups to their existing devices, they usually bring some upgrades to the table. Bigger screen here, faster processor there and maybe some fun new features. Pebble's latest watch, though, is all new on the outside, but exactly the same on the inside. Join Gizmag, as we review Pebble Steel, a familiar idea that's wrapped in a stylish new package.

Like the standard Pebble, Pebble Steel has three buttons on its right and one on its left

Want the short version of our Pebble Steel review? Okay then: hit up our review of the original (plastic) Pebble smartwatch from 2013, and then imagine that watch with the snazzy stainless steel frame that you see above. The end.

Okay, so maybe that isn't the whole story, but it is the gist of it. That's because Pebble Steel has the same screen, software and guts as the original Pebble. Features? Yep, they're all the same too. You're getting the same watch, only with a stylish makeover.

Pebble Steel takes the same technology from the original Pebble, and puts it in a fancy ne...

If this were, say, a smartphone or laptop, then that wouldn't be a huge deal. Though looks are important in most tech products, function is still the star of the show. But since Pebble is a wearable device, and wearable devices double as fashion accessories, Pebble Steel makes for a pretty significant upgrade over the standard Pebble.

I was impressed with Pebble Steel's look when I first handled it at CES, and it looks just as sharp today. In a world of bulky and geeky-looking wearable computers, Pebble hit the style nail right on the head. This is one slick-looking watch.

Pebble Steel's body is 10.5 mm (0.41-in) thick

Pebble Steel's makeover is a huge step forward. Though it has the same layout as the original Pebble, with three buttons on the right (up, down and select) and one on the left (back), the stylish design – a stainless steel chassis framing a Gorilla Glass screen – adds a premium allure that wasn't there before. In fact, if you use a Pebble Steel watch face that has an analog clock on it (like below), some people could, at a glance, think you're wearing a designer watch picked up from your local jewelry store.

Pebble Steel's battery lasts about seven days on a single charge

For this review, we handled the Brushed Stainless Steel (silver-colored) Pebble Steel with black leather band. If you order straight from Pebble, though, you'll also get a matching stainless steel band (see our hands-on for a closer look at the steel band). I find the leather band to be sharp-looking and comfortable for both casual and formal use. It creates an especially nice contrast with this silver-colored body. For something like an important business meeting or an evening at an elegant restaurant, though, the steel band could be just what the doctor ordered. If given the choice, I'd say you're better off paying an extra US$20, ordering Pebble Steel straight from Pebble and getting both bands.

After spending countless hours with beaucoup wearables that try to do it all – from Google Glass to Samsung's Gear watches – it's still hard to beat Pebble's simplicity. Instead of trying to replace your smartphone, it focuses on a much narrower set of goals – but the key is, it hits those marks pretty darn well. It takes the info from your phone that you're most likely to need in a pinch (whether that's notifications, driving directions or weather), and puts it on an always-on black & white display that lives on your wrist.

Pebble still specializes in notifications

At heart, Pebble is a notification terminal for your wrist. Your smartphone is the mothership, if you will, and your watch is the sentry ship. You can't create or compose much of anything on it, as it has no easy way of entering text. But what the Pebble does excel at is receiving quick, glanceable alerts. Lift your wrist, read the info and decide whether it's worth whipping out your phone or saving it for later.

On the inside, there actually has been one big change since we reviewed the original Pebble. The company released a big firmware update earlier this year that speeds things up, stores your notifications in one easy-to-reach hub and, most importantly, adds an app store. The Pebble 2.0 software is now standard on both the OG Pebble and Pebble Steel, and its biggest accomplishment is that it makes it much easier to find apps for your watch.

You'll need to pair your Pebble (via Bluetooth) with an iPhone or Android phone

Lots of those apps are watch faces that do little more than give you something different to look at when you glance at your wrist. Others add new functionality to the watch, like finding a nearby place to eat with the Yelp app, browsing notes in your Evernote account or even getting Google Maps turn-by-turn alerts on your wrist (see below). Pebble lets you control your music, tweak your Philips Hue lights or Nest thermostat and share your location with a friend. And, like any self-respecting app store, there are even a few fart apps.

One of the coolest third-party apps displays Google Maps navigation directions on your wat...

Taken as a whole, there still isn't that much functionality here. There's only so much that a watch without a touchscreen, microphone, camera or speaker can do. But I think Pebble is a great example of constraints encouraging creativity. Browse the Pebble Store, and you might be surprised at the clever ideas that developers have come up with. The store bears the fruits of active and enthusiastic developers who seem to genuinely love the product and platform. As a user, that can make for some fun discoveries.

Any talk of the Pebble's bustling app community, though, needs a big honkin' asterisk next to it. My biggest beef is that Pebble and Pebble Steel only let you install a maximum of eight combined third-party apps and watch faces at a time. So you can browse those apps and clocks to your heart's content, but you'll never be able to use more than eight of them at once. It's a bummer for sure, and it's disappointing that Pebble didn't raise this limit for the newer and more expensive Steel.

You'll be hard-pressed to find a more stylish wearable device right now

Another frustrating limit is the Pebble's fitness tracking. There are plenty of step-tracking apps available for Pebble, which display your workout info on your wrist. But if you want to track your steps and sleep 24 hours a day, like you would with a dedicated tracker such as the Fitbit Flex or Jawbone Up, you have to leave a third-party app constantly running in the foreground. No standard watch face for you: glance at your wrist and all you'll see is this step-tracking app. Maybe that will work for some people, but I'd say that's a pretty big compromise. A deal-breaker, in fact, if you were hoping for 24-7 fitness tracking.

It's understandable that Pebble doesn't want third-party apps running in the background, draining batteries and flooding the company's customer support inbox with complaints. But I still think there needs to be some kind of integrated fitness tracking in there. There's a prime opportunity there that's left (mostly) untapped. Every time I look at my wrists and see Pebble Steel on my left and Jawbone Up24 on my right, I'm reminded of this annoying chasm in Pebble's platform.

Customizable alerts from your phone will be beamed to your watch, vibrating your wrist on ...

Is Pebble Steel worth its $230 or $250 asking price? Well, it's going to depend on what you want out of a smartwatch. If you're looking for as much smartphone-like functionality as possible, then I'd say you're better off waiting for Android Wear watches like the LG G Watch and Moto 360. Apple's iWatch (or whatever it's called), which is rumored to have some health-focused sensors onboard, is also likely only three to five months away. These devices should all allow for more sending of information, rather than just receiving.

But if all you're looking for is a glanceable second smartphone screen on your wrist, and you want to look like one sexy mamma jamma while wearing it, then Pebble Steel could be well worth the investment.

Pebble Steel makes it easier to live with the limits of the Pebble platform. If I'm wearing something that looks like a tech gadget that just so happens to be wearable, then its bar is raised higher. By wearing it I'm already compromising something on a style level, so that puts a lot of pressure on its tech features. They need to be absolutely amazing, or it's not worth it. But Pebble Steel, which could look right at home sitting next to a Movado or Tissot designer watch, puts less pressure on the tech side of things. As the most fashionable wearable computer around, all it needs to do is a few things very well. That's exactly what Pebble Steel does.

Pretty stylish, is it not?

The more I use wearable tech products, the more I realize that fashion is the most important part of the equation. It's almost laughable how obvious that statement is, but it's also a point that Samsung, Google, Sony and just about every other wearable maker (up to this point) have all missed. Wearables need to be jewelry that just so happens to have some cool tech inside. Companies that put tech ahead of style are limiting their audience to the über-geeks and early adopters. The original plastic Pebble was sitting on that fence, but Pebble Steel is very much facing in the right direction. The folks at Pebble seem to get this emerging product category, and it's a company that looks like it's here to stay.

Gizmag highly recommends Pebble Steel to anyone looking for a fashionable smartwatch that keeps you on top of your most important smartphone alerts. It doesn't have as much of a fitness focus as we'd like, and the eight-apps-at-a-time limit is a little baffling. But, taken as a whole, I'd say the total package is still the best wearable you can buy today.

Pebble Steel is compatible with both iPhones and Android phones (sorry, Windows Phone owners). It's available now from Best Buy ($230, with a leather band only) and the product page below ($250, including both leather and steel bands).

Product page: Pebble

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin is Gizmag's Mobile Tech Editor, and has been part of the team since 2012. Will has a Master's degree from U.C. Irvine and a Bachelor's from West Virginia University. He currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
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