Wearable tech continues to attract a lot of column inches, despite the coming and going of products like the Galaxy Gear and Sony Smartwatch. With Google looking to enter the market with its own Android Gear timepiece platform in the near future, the interest in this sector is hotter than ever – but curiously, it could be argued that no single device has proven the potential of the concept as yet.
That’s where the Pebble comes in; one of the early Kickstarter success stories, it was crowd-funded and reached the market a short time ago. Backed by a companion application and its own app store, this is arguably the strongest case for wearables yet seen – but can it really convince the masses that the concept it anything but a pipedream? Let’s find out.
Pebble Watch Review: Design
The Pebble’s slim and all-plastic body might not find much favour with fans of more rugged timepieces, but on the upside it’s lightweight and compact. The face of the watch features a piece of glossy plastic which is marketed as being scratch-resistant – a total fib on the part of the manufacturers, of course. Even if you’re super careful with the watch, you’ll find that it picks up dents and scratches within weeks of purchase. This is largely because the watch – being secured to your wrist – is naturally going to bang and make contact with all manner of objects during a normal working day. The glossy surface might be appealing to look at, but it really should have come with more protection – like the chunky bodies seen on Casio’s G-Shock range, for example.
Because of its delicate nature, one of the first things you’ll want to invest in is some kind of protector. Skins are available which mimic the covers for smartphone displays, but a better option is the Pebble Cover, a 3D printed bumper which costs less than £10. It clips onto the front of the watch and prevents it from making contact with things when you either bump or brush your arm against them.
Quibbles relating to the scratch-prone design aside, the Pebble is a subtle but classy watch. If you opt for the black one, you’ll notice that the 1.26-inch 144 x 168-pixel resolution has a tendency to blend in with the body of the watch, adding to the sense of style. Other colours are available, but I personally feel the black version is the best of the bunch.
At odds with the delicate nature of the Pebble is its ability to resist the effects of water. Unlike some other smart watches, you can keep the Pebble on when you’re in the shower or doing the washing up without fear of it being ruined. The lack of a capacitive touchscreen also means you can still operate it properly during these dips too.
Pebble Watch Review: Display
The Pebble’s monochrome display is marketed as “E-Paper” but that’s as misleading a claim as the watch’s “scratch-resistant” bodywork. What we actually have here is a standard LCD panel, but one which is easy to view in direct sunlight. There’s a backlight for those moments when you’re in darkness, and this can be activated by either pressing the button on the left-hand side of the watch or shaking your wrist to “wake” the device. The screen itself isn’t particularly high-resolution, but it doesn’t need to be – it’s perfectly fine for displaying a few lines of text and is easy to read.
Unlike many of its rivals, the Pebble doesn’t feature a touchscreen, instead opting for physical buttons arrayed on either side of the display. The left-hand button triggers the back light and acts as a “back” button when navigating the watch’s menu system. On the right hand side there are three buttons – two for moving up and down the menu, and another in the middle to confirm selections. Using these four commands it’s surprisingly easy to get things done, and after a day or two you won’t miss the lack of a touch interface at all. In fact, such a configuration ensures that greasy fingerprints never sully the Pebble’s face.
Pebble Watch Review: Software
On its own, the Pebble is useless – you need to install the companion application on your iOS or Android device to get it working. This not only allows the watch to synchronize its time with your phone, but also allows for notifications to be sent directly to it – such as email alerts, text messages and incoming phone calls. You can also use the watch to control your phone’s music player – the app even allows you to pick which one if you have multiple players installed.
The Pebble store is divided into two sections: apps and watch faces. The former is pretty self-explanatory; you can download programs which do everything from monitor your movement (ideal for fitness fanatics) to controlling elements of your handset – such as an app which takes a photo using your phone’s camera. You can also download simple games, such as a variant of Flappy Bird and Tetris.
The watch faces are perhaps a more visible customisation; you can pick from a staggering range of designs, some of which are quite basic while others cram in as much information as possible, including battery level, date information and weather updates. My personal favourite is one which showcases Super Mario, who jumps up and hits a pair of blocks whenever the time changes.
Installing an app or watch face on your phone is simply a matter of selecting it via the application and beaming it across via Bluetooth; apps are selected from the main menu while all of your installed watch faces can be scrolling through sequentially using the “up” and “down” buttons. The biggest catch here is that you can only install eight items on the Pebble at once – so if you have five watch faces, that only leaves space for three applications.
On paper is sounds almost absurd, but in practice it’s unlikely that you’ll have more than a couple of faces in use at any one time, and because so much functionality is baked into the watch – notifications, music control and alarms, for example – the small amount of app storage space isn’t as terrible as it might seem. Also, swapping apps is really simple and takes just a few seconds, so you can switch them around if you need to. Still, it’s an area where the Pebble’s successor needs to improve.
Pebble Watch Review: Battery
The black and white screen might suggest impressive battery life, but in reality the Pebble can’t match the current heavyweight champ, the Bluetooth-enabled Casio G-Shock GB6900AA, which is rated for around two years of life off a single battery. That’s hardly a fair comparison given the difference in functionality between the two watches, but even so, the Pebble’s quoted five-to-seven day life is slightly disappointing. In real world terms, we found it could only last about four days with a pretty standard usage pattern.
The Pebble is charged using a bespoke cable which clips onto the side of the watch via two small magnets. It’s an elegant solution but one that presents an obvious issue – if you lose your cable, then you have no way of charging the device. Sony’s original smartwatch used a standard Micro USB port to overcome this, which was handy but sadly prevented it from being waterproof.
Actually ascertaining how much juice is left in the Pebble’s tank is harder than you might expect, largely because in its default form, the watch has no battery indicator whatsoever. The only way you can discover this info is to install a third-party watch face which includes this information. The Pebble will helpfully flash up a warning when it dips below 20% battery life, but for power users this could mean less than a day of use, so it’s not that useful when you’ve left the house for work and have forgotten to bring your charging cable.
Pebble Watch Review: Connectivity
If you’ve been following the evolution of the smartwatch, then you’ll know that some of these devices work better than others. Sony’s first smartwatch was a disaster – it constantly dropped Bluetooth connectivity with your phone, making it worse than useless. Happily, we can report that the Pebble suffers from no such shortcomings; during our review, it remained paired to our Android phone without incident. When it did become disconnected – from switching it off, or moving the phone out of range – it relinked instantly, without any troubles.
The fact that the Pebble works on both iOS and Android is another massive bonus – many other smartwatches are Android only. The Bluetooth connection doesn’t really suck too much of your phone’s juice, either – the manufacturer quotes between 5 and 10% of power drainage per day, but I didn’t notice a significant change to my handset’s stamina. In fact, because you can view notifications without having to turn on your phone’s power-hungry screen, you may even find that using Pebble has a positive impact on how long your handset’s battery lasts between charges.
Pebble Watch Review: Conclusion
Pebble isn’t entirely perfect, but it’s the best smartwatch out there by a mile – it’s a great way to get notifications without having to constantly remove your phone from your pocket, and the growing app store means it could potentially become even more useful than it is now. Add a lightweight, waterproof body and a subtle yet classy design and you’ve got a genuinely appealing product which proves the concept of wearable tech isn’t a dead-end. The shortcomings are therefore easily put aside; battery life and app storage could be better, but they’re not deal breakers. The fact that the Pebble picks up scratches so readily is more of an issue, but even this can be overcome cheaply by investing in either a skin or a protective case.
Google’s own Android Wear platform will no doubt make smartwatches even more popular, and when Apple finally decides to enter the arena itself then we should see an explosion in public interest. However, don’t let anyone tell you that the smartwatch revolution is yet to begin – the Pebble is conclusive proof that it’s already here.
Pebble Smartwatch Arrives In UK
The Pebble smartwatch will officially arrive in the UK this month, with the wearable being supplied to several major retailers and networks during October.
The announcement was made on the official Pebble blog, where it was revealed that Amazon.co.uk and Dixons will stock the watch, and it will also be available via mobile network O2. The regular Pebble will retail for £99, while the premium metal Pebble Steel costs £179.
To coincide with the expansion of availability, Pebble has released some new firmware for the smartwatch – Pebble Firmware 2.6. Here are the release notes detailing the new features and changes:
- NEW: Activity. Activity tracking apps (e.g. Jawbone, Misfit, Swim.com) for Pebble now work seamlessly in the background. View installed Activity apps and toggle preferences in the Pebble Settings menu. An Activity icon is visible within Pebble menus when a compatible app is installed and running.
- NEW: Quick Launch. Set shortcuts from a watchface to your favorite Pebble apps with a long press of the Up or Down buttons. Enable Quick Launch and set app shortcuts in the Pebble Settings menu.
- Battery icon is now persistent within Pebble menus.
- Select button once again dismisses notifications when paired with an Android device or iOS device on iOS 7 or lower. iOS 8 users get notificaion dismissal for both Pebble and the paired device when pressing Select.
- Bug fixes and improvements.
To update to the latest firmware:
- Open the Pebble smartphone app for iOS or Android.
- Select Support » Update Your Pebble in the Menu if the update does not begin automatically.
“Last January at CES 2014, we unveiled Pebble Steel to critical acclaim. It was a resounding success and the catalyst for tremendous growth,” the company said in its blog post. “Since then, we’ve opened the Pebble appstore, which boasts over 4,000 apps that have been downloaded five million times. Our open platform counts over 18,000 developers, from passionate hackers to partners like Mercedes-Benz, Pandora, the Weather Channel, and ESPN.”
Thanks to Mobile Fun for supplying the Pebble Watch used in this review.