Review: Pebble smartwatch is a few software updates short of greatness

At a Glance
  • Pebble

I’m not a Watch Guy. At least, I don’t own a bunch of different watches and wear them on different occasions, nor do I own pricey jewelry watches. I’m not this guy. But I’ve worn a watch almost every day since I got my first Casio C-80 calculator watch (stylin’!) in elementary school.

And yet, even though my beloved Swiss Army watch with the black leather band had served me well for years, in April of 2012 I paid $110 and joined a Kickstarter project to buy the Pebble Smart Watch. I can’t even recall my thought process, other than I thought it seemed cool. After all, my first watch was a calculator and my second was a watch with digital hands! Maybe I’m a Tech Watch guy, despite nearly two decades of analog life.

Regardless, I do wear a watch on my wrist, and feel disconcertingly unarmed without it. Yes, I can reach into my pocket and pull out my phone in order to find out what time it is, but a quick glance at the wrist just seems more efficient. And for the last week, the thing on my wrist has been a Pebble—which has completed its journey to reality—paired with my iPhone.

It’s… a watch

I’ll get to the Pebble’s “smart” features in a moment, but the most important thing is that it does work as a watch. It’s a little bit larger than my last watch, but it fits comfortably on my wrist and comes with a nice vinyl band that can be replaced with any standard 22mm watchband, from metal to leather. My watch has a black face, but there are four other colors (white, red, gray, and orange) available.

Pebble on wristRobert Cardin
Pebble's best watch face is the Text Watch.

The Pebble comes preloaded with three watch faces, and more are available online, downloadable via Pebble’s iOS or Android apps. Though it does offer classic analog hands and an amusing “fuzzy time” face that keeps things vague—at 4:53 it still says “ten to four” on it, the best face is called Text Watch. It features an attractive typeface that displays smoothly on the Pebble’s 144-by-168 screen, and rather than showing hands or digits, it spells out the time “four fifty three” with the hour bolded.

There’s a misperception that the Pebble is a watch that uses the same E Ink technology found in ebook readers like the Kindle, but that’s not true. It’s actually a low-power LCD screen with a backlight. (The watch is readable in normal light, but in the dark you can activate the light by touching a button or even just giving the watch face a hard tap.)

A button on the Pebble’s left side takes you out of watch mode and into a set of menus, which you can navigate by using three buttons on the right side—the top and bottom move the selection up and down, with the center one choosing the highlighted selection.

Just below the one button on the left side are a series of four metal circles, to which you connect the Pebble’s included, magnetic USB charge cable. I haven’t had the watch long enough to rate its battery life—the company claims it’s about a week—but as someone who takes his watch off every night anyway, it’s no great hardship to plug it in along with my iPhone, iPad, and laptop every few days.

If Pebble did nothing more than tell the time, it would be a decent watch. But of course, it does more.

It talks to your phone

The Pebble is a Bluetooth peripheral for your iPhone or Android Phone. You pair the two devices together and then you can use the Pebble to control certain phone features. In addition, the Pebble can receive notifications from the phone.

When I paired the Pebble to my iPhone 5, it immediately connected to the Phone, Music, and Messages apps. When I received a call, the Pebble vibrated and displayed the identity of the caller. When someone send me a text message, the text appeared on the screen. (You can dismiss the text with a single button press.) The Pebble’s built-in Music app lets me see the currently playing track; and play, pause, and change tracks.

Phone notifications - at least some of them - show up on the watch display.

Unfortunately, adding support for other notifications is spotty due to an incompatibility between the Pebble and iOS 6. To enable push notifications from other apps to appear on the Pebble, I had to go to my iPhone’s Settings app, tap on Notifications, and then toggle the notification options for particular apps on and off.

Once I toggled the setting for Boxcar, for example, my Boxcar push-notifications started coming to my phone. Unfortunately, when the phone and watch lost contact with one another—for example, when I walked outside while my phone was charging in the house—the app’s notifications stopped being sent to the Pebble until I toggled the setting again.

That’s a bummer, because I really enjoy getting notifications on my watch. Just as I’d rather glance at my wrist to see the time rather than pull my phone out, it’s nice to see who’s calling (or what that text message says) without having to get out the phone.

What’s missing

The Pebble watch itself is loaded with nifty hardware, such as a low-power Bluetooth 4.0 radio, a magnetometer, and an ambient light sensor. But none of those features are supported right now. Instead, according to Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky, the company will be releasing software updates every couple of weeks until all the features promised on the Pebble Kickstarter page are available.

So while one day I might be able to use a golf range-finder app (I don’t play golf, though), or integration with RunKeeper (but I don’t run!), right now I can tell the time and see some push notifications, and that’s about it. As someone who does ride a bike, I’m looking forward to the promised bike-computer app, at least.

Enjoy the ride

When I asked one of my colleagues who also bought a Pebble how he liked it, he said that even without more software updates, he’d spent $100 on watches that were far worse than the Pebble. That’s how I feel: This is a cool, geeky electronic watch that might end up being a whole lot more if the company can make good on its software promises. It was probably wise for Pebble to focus on getting the hardware right first—after all, software is updatable but hardware is forever—but it still leaves the impression that this is an unfinished work.

If Pebble’s makers do indeed fulfill their promises, I might recommend it to my geekier friends. For now, though, I’d recommend people who didn’t buy the promise of this watch on Kickstarter to wait and see how it develops. The hardware is solid enough that I’m optimistic, but it seems premature to encourage all but the most adventurous to jump on board.

This story, "Review: Pebble smartwatch is a few software updates short of greatness" was originally published by TechHive.

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At a Glance
  • Pebble

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