Review: Pebble smartwatch
September 8, 2013
Smartwatch Mania is coming. Whether or not Apple releases its rumored iWatch this year, Samsung's Galaxy Gear and Sony's Smartwatch 2 are in the pipeline, and many more are on their way. Some big companies have bet some big bucks that the wrist will be the next big battleground in computing. So what better time to take a closer look at Pebble, the crowdfunded watch that helped create all the fuss? Read on, as Gizmag reviews the retail version of the Pebble smartwatch.
Apple has taken a lot of flak for letting its iPhones and iPads fall into a rut of minor, iterative updates. But really, how much innovation can today's smartphones and tablets offer? They've covered all the obvious bases, so we see companies getting more and more, shall we say, "imaginative" with the things they brand as new and exciting (back-facing buttons, anyone?).
The smartwatch, though, is a different story. The biggest wells in Smartphoneville and Tabletland may have been tapped long ago, but the wrist is uncharted, fertile ground. It's ripe for some real, honest-to-goodness innovation.
Is Pebble an innovative product? Well, smartwatches had been around before Pebble (including some extremely primitive ones dating back to the 1970s), and some of the more recent examples provide a lot of the same functionality as Pebble. But Pebble did two things differently. For starters, it made its watch compatible with the iPhone. Then, partly as a result of that, it captured the imaginations of a heckuva lot of Kickstarter backers. Innovative or not, there are much worse ingredients to use when you're trying to cook up a breakthrough product in 2013.
Whether Pebble's legacy will be that of a breakthrough product, or just a precursor to much more important products, is unknown. But at the very least, it's a great reference design for a breakthrough product category.
What Pebble is
Pebble is, of course, a watch that you wear on your wrist. Like any watch, it has a face, but here that face is a 1.26-inch "ePaper" display. Just don't confuse it with the e-ink screen you'll find on a Kindle, as this one is actually an ultra low-powered Sharp LCD.
That low-powered (we're talking seven-day battery life here) display is often mistaken for e-ink because it isn't typically backlit. The display does have a blue-ish backlight, though, that helps out in the dark. It only turns on briefly: when you're pressing buttons, when you receive a notification, or – here's the really cool part – when you snap or jerk your wrist. Yep, Pebble threw in a motion-sensing accelerometer to make reading your notifications a piece of cake, even when it's dark. And no, it doesn't turn on during the regular swinging your arms will do when walking or running. In our testing, it only responded to (and always responded to) a deliberate shaking or jerking gesture. It's a very nice touch.
On the watch's left side sits a back button and a charging port (the bundled cable snaps in magnetically). On its right side lies three more buttons (up, down, and select).
Pebble's buttons are the most cumbersome part of the device. Living in the age of touchscreens, it feels like a step back to replace swipes, taps, and pinches with physical navigation buttons. It's perfectly functional, and it didn't detract too much from our experience of using Pebble. It did, however, feel a bit like switching from a multitouch smartphone to an old keyboard-laden feature phone, where adding a new contact required forty-seven consecutive button mashes.
Fortunately, Pebble's menu system is very shallow and simple, so we're spared the agony that those dumbphones induced. Anything more in-depth than Pebble's short list of simple menu entries would have turned the button-pressing into a hassle.
Pebble has a rubbery-feeling strap. We didn't mind it, but if you do, you can easily replace it with any standard (22 mm) watch strap. The strap has nine holes along its band, so you can adjust it for wrists of all sizes.
The biggest question surrounding the watch's hardware is whether you're comfortable with the size of its face (50 mm x 32 mm x 8.4 mm). It's pretty big and thick. I didn't mind the size, and found it to be close enough to what I'd expect from a standard mens' watch. My wife, however, found it to be too big to want to wear. Everyone will have their own impressions, but at least in this example, it looks like watch-makers – who have spent years making bigger faces for men and smaller ones for women – did their homework.
What Pebble does
Pebble is all about notifications. And when we say "all about," we really mean it, because Pebble doesn't do a whole lot else.
But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. We loved receiving notifications on our wrists. After the initial Pebble setup (courtesy of an iOS or Android app on your smartphone), your watch will vibrate and the backlight will briefly come on whenever you receive a call, email, or text. The message will display on Pebble's screen, and you can use that down button to scroll through an email (at least up to 400-500 characters) or SMS.
You hear a lot of talk about how these first smartwatches are primitive, rudimentary, and merely paving the way for the really good stuff that will come later. We don't doubt that: it's a new tech product, and there will always be something better on the horizon. But we think notification terminals like Pebble are still a pretty big deal in their own right.
If you're considering buying Pebble, you might want to first ask yourself these questions:
- Do you often grab your phone to check for messages, missed calls, the weather, or your fitness tracking?
- Do you use your phone to play music, and tire of the constant picking up, unlocking, and switching of tracks or volume?
- Do you often waste time checking your phone, only to find that you don't have any messages ... or perhaps to read a couple texts and emails that you'll reply to later?
If the answer to any of these is "yes," then Pebble could make things a lot easier. Whipping out your phone just to glance at the lockscreen or read some quick info becomes a thing of the past.
When the info you need is on your wrist, a quick tilt of your arm gives you the info you're looking for. And because Pebble vibrates right on your wrist, you're much less likely to miss that call or text than you would with a pocketed phone. After using Pebble for a few minutes, we quickly realized that we could leave our phones in silent mode all the time.
What Pebble isn't
We're so used to our mobile devices doing anything and everything, that it's worth noting the things that Pebble won't do for you. Though you get call notifications, which you can dismiss straight from Pebble (and a third-party app even lets you answer it from Pebble), you can't actually use the Pebble as a phone. You also can't type or dictate, so you can only send a few pre-written, canned messages.
There's also no Siri or Google Now-like voice control (Pebble doesn't even have a microphone), and it doesn't have a camera. Dick Tracy's video chat watch isn't here yet. Like we mentioned earlier, Pebble is very much a notification terminal ... with a few extra tricks thrown in as a bonus.
Out of the box, Pebble supports notifications for email, SMS, incoming calls, calendar reminders, Google Hangouts chats, Facebook, Whatsapp, and Google Voice (at least on Android, where we tested it). But there are third-party apps that will stretch that list to any notification on your phone. In case we haven't repeated it enough times, notifications are Pebble's bread and butter.
Out of the box, Pebble also gives you some limited music control. You can play, pause or skip to the last or next track. This works with a variety of music apps, so no worries if you use Spotify or Pandora. An excellent third-party Android app called Music Boss enhances that control, throwing in raising and lowering of volume, as well as viewing the current track info.
Another nice third-party Android app called Glance for Pebble lets you see your current weather right on your wrist. You can even scroll down to see the forecast for the next week. The same app also lets you, as we mentioned earlier, send a text from a list of customized and pre-written messages.
Pebble can also replace some of the functionality of fitness trackers like Jawbone Up and Fitbit, by syncing with third-party fitness apps on your phone. We tested RunKeeper as a pedometer, and it worked to perfection. Your distance, pace, and time stay on the watch's screen during your workout. You can even pause and restart your tracking by pressing the select button. The app can be set for walking, running, cycling, yoga, strength training ... the list goes on. The tight integration with RunKeeper and similar apps makes Pebble a handy instant-gratification fitness tracker.
The RunKeeper app also tracks swimming, and, believe it or not, that's an option with Pebble. The watch is water-resistant (rated at 5 atm, for up to 50 m of submersion), so you can swim or shower while wearing it. You'll want to leave it on shore for your snorkeling and diving expeditions though.
Though it isn't quite ready for prime time, there's even an experimental Android app that shows turn-by-turn navigation directions on your Pebble watch. When you approach a turn, the watch will vibrate and display the upcoming direction. The developer readily admits that the app is very much in beta, but it's also a glimpse into just how much farther this whole smartwatch thing can go.
Welcome to the future
Five or ten years from now, we wouldn't be surprised if smartwatches were our main mobile devices. As more and more advanced technology is squeezed into these little watch faces, our smartphones will become less and less necessary. In a way, smartwatches could do to smartphones what smartphones and tablets have done to PCs: push them to the sidelines.
This is all, however, assuming that the consumer mainstream ultimately embraces smartwatches. But our time with Pebble makes it easy to see that happening. Spend a few minutes receiving your calls, texts, and emails on your wrist, changing your Spotify track from your wrist, or checking to see how far you've biked on your wrist, and you realize that they're really onto something here. As watch-makers figured out centuries ago, the wrist is a great place to store pertinent, glanceable info.
We know this is just the beginning, but we also don't necessarily subscribe to the "these first smartwatches are crap" mentality. Just because something can – and will – improve doesn't mean the current version is unworthy of your attention. In fact, at US$150 (currently available at Best Buy), we'd say Pebble is worth taking a long look at.
Will Pebble be upstaged and forgotten, as much richer companies fight for the right to party on your wrist? Or will the startup ride its Kickstarter buzz and become a major player in itself? It's too early to say, but for the moment, Pebble is one of the best examples around of this breakthrough product category. Welcome to the age of the smartwatch.
You can hit up the product page below for more info on Pebble. Or, for a glimpse of what the really big companies are doing, check out our full review of Samsung's US$300 Galaxy Gear.
Product page: PebbleShare
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