The Pebble smartwatch for iPhone and Android is a prime example of the bizarre times in which we live. In an era of people increasingly telling time by looking at the corner of their computer's screen or their smartphone lock screens, Pebble wants to make the wristwatch everyone's preferred timepiece. But instead of pitting the watch and smartphone as competitors for one function, Pebble tries to go beyond the default use case for either device and do much more.
Sony, Microsoft, Motorola, among others have also tried to turn the watch into more than just a timepiece, but even their millions of dollars in R&D and years of manufacturing experience couldn't quite get the category right. Yet Pebble, a humble Kickstarter project embraced by nearly 70,000 backers, is the most buzzed-about smartwatch yet. Have those early believers been vindicated by the release of a phenomenal product or are they just another cautionary tale of what happens when reality doesn't meet the hype?
Hardware and Design
Pebble retails for $150, and that cost doesn't buy good looks. The watch features a plain rectangular plastic face connected to an equally plain - though to be fair, quite comforting - band made of smooth rubber.
Multiple colors are available for the watch portion, but the glossy plastic frame and exposed charging connector are about as stylish as a watch found in a sporting goods store. The nondescript design is forgivable considering that no one is buying Pebble to make a fashion statement. While it's not the prettiest timepiece on the market, Pebble is simple enough to not clash with most attires or look cheap.
A 1.26-inch black and white e-paper display with 144 x 168 resolution shows the time and compatible notifications from an iOS or Android device. A backlight makes the screen more legible when in the dark. This light can also be automatically triggered by gently flicking one's wrist.
A menu button and a charge connector are on the left side, and navigation buttons for scrolling and selecting are on the right. Pebble is light as a feather, so pushing the buttons with too much force will cause the device to slant at an uncomfortable angle, but the light feel is otherwise a blessing.
Key specs to know about the Pebble include:
- Scratchproof, shatter-resistant, and 5 ATM water-resistant
- Vibrating motor to send notifications and alarms
- Accelerometer sensor to use gesture detection
- Bluetooth 2.1+EDR and Bluetooth 4.0
- Replaceable 22mm watch bands
Pebble's superficial shortcomings are a non-issue for most. The real value of a smartwatch is its "smarts" offered through software. While craftsmanship and fashion play a much larger role when selecting a standard wristwatch, Pebble attracted scores of customers by promoting the idea that their watch could do more than simply tell time. The Bluetooth 4.0-capable watch can link with a smartphone to download customizable clocks, relay notifications from a smartphone, and even initiate controls on an Apple iPhone or Google Android device.
The type of smartphone someone owns greatly affects just how smart Pebble can appear. An iPhone is currently able to receive notifications for incoming calls, calendar appointments, text messages, and iMessages, but not all apps are able to send notifications. The watch proves to be a nice timesaver because it shows Caller ID information and can accept or decline calls, though it doesn't automatically turn on speaker mode, so you'll still have to pick up the phone. I also loved Pebble's music control feature that's able to start, pause, and select next or previous tracks in the Music app. There are no volume controls, but the pause and next track buttons also work in other apps like Pandora and Slacker.
The Android version of Pebble is noticeably more powerful. In addition to the standard reminders and music controls previously mentioned, the Pebble Android app supports notifications for the Email, Gmail, Calendar, Google Voice, WhatsApp and Facebook apps. Even more control is available by using a third-party app that can route notifications from any app to the Pebble, something not available on an iPhone unless you are on a jailbroken device.
One uncomfortable aspect is that Pebble requires Gmail login information to access Gmail notifications, something that many might be hesitant to do, and for good reason in light of concerns for account security. Another shortcoming is that the app treats notifications on a last come, last served basis. There's no way to scroll through alerts, so it will only display the most recent message or tweet to appear, so you could conceivably miss an important notification.
Apps were also supposed to be a part of the Pebble package, but the watch sadly does not yet have those features. The original plan for Pebble included added functionality for apps, the most notable being run stats being displayed on-screen for RunKeeper. Despite having an SDK available since last spring, and an early demonstration of the feature, RunKeeper and other third-party apps are sadly absent from Pebble. The only things downloadable so far are additional clocks, which are nice but not enough to make anyone forget about what Pebble is capable of accomplishing.
As I alluded to earlier, Pebble is not the first device that attempts to extend the power of connectivity from the pocket to the wrist. The difference is that other solutions have used power-sucking LCD screens that require frequent charging, which is a non-starter for most people. Pebble avoids that issue entirely because the e-paper display is long lasting, and Bluetooth 4.0 uses less energy when paired with a capable smartphone. Pebble has an advertised seven days of battery life, but that can be lessened if Bluetooth is always on and someone constantly accesses the backlight.
I managed to use the Pebble frequently, with both the Bluetooth and backlight always enabled, for more than four days before the battery indicator began warning that it may be time to charge the device. Pebble lasted for at least another six hours even with the indicator on. The only concern will be related to the smartphone, which will noticeably drain faster depending on the device and usage habits. Pebble will continue to function as a watch when disconnected, but notifications will obviously cease once Bluetooth is disabled.
Pebble is a bold project that clearly ran out of the gate faster than anyone expected. The small startup that developed the watch has had to learn and adapt on the fly because of unexpected demands, and that has led to the device falling short of its potential.
The good news is that there's still a lot of upside and room to grow. Apps will eventually help fulfill Pebble's promise, and the device is already a good product. Over the past week, I've enjoyed being able to skip songs without having to reach for my phone and cut down on the amount of calls missed when I was in another room. I've even found a new way to locate my frequently misplaced phone by remotely starting a song and following the noise.
That won't be enough for most people to spend $150, so Pebble is currently a fancy toy with a chance at being more. Pebble is not yet the elegant solution that its Kickstarter project inspired, but it's a functional timepiece well on its way to becoming something special.