CES 2014: Hands on review of the new Pebble Steel smartwatch

Pebble is kicking off 2014 and this year's CES with a new smartwatch called Pebble Steel, a grown-up version of the original, playful Pebble.

Pebble won't have a booth at CES. Instead, the startup is making the rounds at the giant tech show to pitch its online app store, which will debut in late January, and to give folks a preview of Pebble Steel, the newest version of the smartwatch launched at last year's CES after a record-setting Kickstarter campaign.

I made a trip down to Pebble's Palo Alto, California headquarters late last week to get a look at Pebble Steel in advance.

"The original Pebble is colourful, lightweight, waterproof, it's more of a sports watch. We have people who love it for sailing, skiing, and that sort of thing. So it fits that niche really well," Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky told me as we sit down in a meeting room decorated with Tintin and Captain Haddock dolls.

"But we noticed a lot of people saying they wouldn't put it on their wrist when wearing a suit, in more dressed up situations, or even saying they liked it but the look wasn't what they wanted," Migicovsky said. "So we took that advice to heart, saw it as a design problem. How could we attract a different kind of person to Pebble, or even to smartwatches in general?"

Hands on with the Pebble Steel Smartwatch

Pebble will be courting that demographic with the Pebble Steel. The device is built on the same hardware platform as the original watch, though it has double the 64KB of memory in the first-gen Pebbles. There's a single LED light under the Pebble Steel display that lights up when it's being charged and can be used to signal incoming notifications.

The Pebble Steel also has a two-pin charging port as opposed to the four-pin connector on the original Pebble. But the important thing here isn't a few hardware tweaks. It's the broad move away from the playful, sporty look of the first Pebble towards a weightier, classier design utilizing a forged and CNC-machined stainless steel case.

And when I say "weightier," that's a reference to the new watch's aesthetic, not its actual weight. Holding the original, 47-gram Pebble and a Pebble Steel watch in either hand, it's tough to tell if there's much difference in their weight at all.

Two case options will be available for Pebble Steel, which is set to start shipping on 28 January with a price tag of $249 (£182). There's a brushed stainless steel case and another one with black matte finish made ultra-durable and scratch-resistant through a manufacturing process called physical vapour deposition.

You'll get a pair of straps when you purchase a Pebble Steel, either a brushed stainless steel or black matte strap, plus a black leather strap. I was happy to see the inclusion of the leather strap, because as much as I like the look of interlocking metal watch bands, I always find they start pinching the hairs on my wrist.

Migicovsky assured me that the Pebble Steel's metal bands won't do that. I have to admit that strapping one on didn't produce any discomfort at all, so maybe he's on to something. And as with the original Pebble, it's likely that third-party watch band makers will have lots of alternative bracelet options for the Pebble Steel.

New look, same basic platform

The Pebble Steel has a narrower case than the original Pebble, but the 1.26in, 144 x 168 pixel, non-touch, black-and-white e-paper display is the same, with a protective Corning Gorilla Glass cover with anti-fingerprint coating.

The watch functions by syncing to a smartphone — Pebble supports iOS and Android devices. There's a very low-power ARM Cortex M3 processor inside, plus a Bluetooth low energy (LE) radio, vibrating motor, magnetometer, ambient light sensors, and a three-axis accelerometer.

Pebble just started taking advantage of the accelerometer and the Bluetooth LE radio with the release of its second software development kit, giving developers the ability to write apps that utilise those two chips.

The watch has the same simple, four-button configuration as the original Pebble, though the three right-side buttons on the Pebble Steel are situated flush up against each other, rather than spaced out a bit. It's a simple and very easy-to-master input architecture.

The user interface is also unchanged, emphasising small bursts of interactive information that can be easily scrolled through or otherwise navigated. Simplicity is the mantra at Pebble.

Migicovsky emphasised that Pebble-friendly apps are about convenience, saving time, and serving up just the important bits of more complex apps on larger devices. If a smartwatch app isn't giving you a good reason to not fish your smartphone out of your pocket, it's not very useful.

Adding to the app alternatives

To that end, Pebble is working hard to stock its upcoming app store with plenty of useful apps. At CES, new Pebble partners like Pandora, ESPN, and Mercedes-Benz will demo their new apps for the smartwatch, adding to the existing stable of notable apps from Yelp, Foursquare, GoPro, and iControl.

Pandora's Pebble app lets you switch stations and more on a smartphone via the smartwatch, while ESPN's app is a pretty barebones but useful score ticker pulled and stripped down from the sports network's main scoreboard feeds.

The Mercedes-Benz app was the one that really blew me away, though. Outside your car, the app tells you how much gas you have in the car, how your tire pressure is holding up, and more. Inside the car, it switches over to syncing with the in-vehicle infotainment and navigation system, offering some basic input options you can do through your Pebble watch.

Pebble is facing some tough competition from some very big players in technology, including Samsung, Sony, and Qualcomm, all of which have introduced their own smartwatches in recent months.

But the secret to the startup's success following its record-setting, $10.3 million (£7.5 million) crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter in 2012 is that Pebble ships. It has now sold more than 300,000 units, and is moving fast to give its developer ecosystem the tools to build to the platform. Now there's a classy new alternative to the original sporty smartwatch, and for Pebble, that ain't bad.

Starting today, you can pre-order the Pebble Steel exclusively at getpebble.com.