After a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $10 million (£6.6 million), and nearly a year spent working out the kinks of a grass-roots effort to bring a consumer product to market, the Pebble Smartwatch is finally here – well, you can pre-order it now at $150 (£99, plus shipping costs) for an April/May delivery.
So is it everything its creators boldly promised it would be? Yes and no. The Pebble is still a work in progress, but a really cool work in progress. It syncs up with iOS or Android smartphones, delivering useful notifications right to your wrist. By letting you easily screen notifications, the Pebble can help liberate you from the compulsive need to glue your eyes to your smartphone's screen.
There are still some rough edges in the software, and app compatibility is limited right now, but the Pebble shows plenty of potential. Whether or not developers take advantage of that remains to be seen.
There's a certain elegance to the Pebble's simple and understated design. I think it's far better looking than, say, the squat and thick Martian Passport smartwatch (see this article for more on Martian and other smartwatches besides the Pebble). The plastic casing feels hollow, though, and the buttons along both sides of the watch face feel a bit mushy, preventing the watch from having a rock-solid feel. The included polyurethane band is decidedly understated, but you can swap in any standard 22mm watchband.
The Pebble is available in black, white, red, orange, or grey. On the left side is a single button that takes you to the Menu page, while the right side houses Up, Down, and Select buttons for navigation. Tapping any of the buttons activates the Pebble's backlight, and quick flicks of your wrist also light up the display, which is a nice touch. The watch face is customisable, and at the time of testing there were nine choices that ranged from a standard analogue look to a futuristic dot matrix (see the image below for three examples).
The 1.26in 144 x 168-pixel e-paper display isn't the clearest or sharpest, but it gets the job done. The e-paper should not be confused with the E-Ink displays you'll find on ebook readers like the Kindle Paperwhite. It doesn't have the same printed look as E-Ink displays; instead it's more of a monochrome LCD. As such, the viewing angle isn't a full 180 degrees, and it becomes hard to read the watch when you look from an angle. The screen is also pretty reflective, and even with the backlight on it can be hard to read in bright outdoor light, which differs greatly from E-Ink.
On the left side are three contact points that connect to the included charging cable magnetically. It's reminiscent of Apple's MagSafe connector, but the magnetic hold is a bit weaker – I could detach it simply by picking the watch up.
The Pebble has a waterproof rating of 5 ATM, which means it can be submerged up to 165 feet and has been tested in both fresh and salt water, so you can shower or swim with the watch. The battery is rated for more than seven days of use, and in my several days of testing, the battery never ran out, despite only charging once for about an hour. You can plug the included USB cable into a computer, or a wall charger from a smartphone. The only things included in the box are the watch itself and the charging cable.
Android and iOS experience
The primary purpose of the Pebble is to make push notifications accessible on your wrist, and the watch is compatible with both Android and iOS devices. You get the same basic functions on both platforms, but setup, notification settings, and features like music playback work differently on Android and iOS. The nine swappable watch faces, at least, are the same between the two. For my tests, I used an Apple iPhone 5 and an Android-based HTC One X+.
For both platforms, you must first download the Pebble app and pair your phone to the smartwatch using Bluetooth. From there, however, the experiences are decidedly divergent. Upon initial setup with Android, you need to enable Accessibility Services on your phone to get notifications pushed to the Pebble. During this process, you'll see a somewhat disconcerting message that reads: "Pebble can collect all of the text you type, except passwords. This includes personal data such as credit card numbers. It can also collect data about your interactions with the phone."
To set up Gmail notifications you must also enter your security credentials directly into the Pebble app. This is because the Pebble is actually fetching email data through IMAP, rather than relying on your phone's email notifications.
On Android you can use the Pebble app to specify which apps can push notifications to your watch, but only ones that are supported by Pebble. At the time of testing, this included Android's native Phone, Calendar, SMS, and music apps along with Gmail, Google Talk, Google Voice, Facebook, and WhatsApp notifications.
In iOS, all Pebble notifications are set up through the system notification menu, not the Pebble app. That means, in theory, that Pebble supports all apps that can push notifications. In the Notification area of iOS, you have to enable the Show Preview option and also set alert styles to Alerts, and not Banners. This must be done for every app you want notifications from.
In my tests, notifications were nearly instantaneous on both platforms, and they trigger a visual alert and a vibration on the watch itself. Pressing the middle button clears the notification, while the top and bottom buttons scroll through the notification. Call notifications show contact information, text messages show contact information and a preview of the message, and emails show the sender, subject, and the first few lines of the body text.
In comparison, the Martian Passport watch only shows basic caller ID notifications on its tiny OLED screen. On the Pebble, though, there's no way to look back at a notification once you clear it from the watch face, and you can't control the length of time the message remains displayed.
I also noticed a few bugs on both platforms during testing. On Android, music control is a bit tricky, especially if you use multiple playback apps. For example, on my test HTC One X+, I have the native music player app, Google Music, and Spotify installed. As a recent Spotify convert, I use that service more than the others, but the Pebble can only control the default player and Google Music since Spotify isn't yet supported. Also, you can't select which music app the Pebble controls, and in my tests, the watch face would often display track info for Google Music, while controlling playback for the native music app.
If you use third-party text messaging apps, like GoSMS Pro in my case, notifications are even trickier. GoSMS Pro disables the default text messaging app's notifications to eliminate redundant notifications, and its own notifications are not supported in the Pebble app. I didn't receive text notifications on my Pebble until I re-enabled the default app's notifications, which in turn caused multiple notifications on my phone.
With iOS, placing a call brings up a notification on the Pebble, and when you hang up, the Pebble then shows a missed call notification. I also had some issues with email notifications, which were pretty much hit or miss. You don't have to go through the same Gmail setup on iOS, but the native iOS email app wouldn't properly push notifications to the Pebble. Reconnecting the Pebble would temporarily fix this, but I also noticed other notification settings would be lost afterwards. Spotify music control works on iOS, and the Pebble always controlled the current running music app, unlike on Android.
Luckily, all of these are fixable issues. For Android, the biggest problem I encountered was app support, which should be remedied with time, as long as developers commit to the platform. On iOS, the biggest issue is the lack of smooth system-wide integration, which should also be improved over time. The biggest question mark is apps specifically designed for the Pebble. The company promises cycling, running, and golf rangefinder apps, and I've also seen mock-ups on Pebble's website of watch faces that incorporate weather forecasts and other quick snippets of information.
When I first saw the Pebble Smartwatch in its Kickstarter infancy, my thoughts turned to feature-packed watches like the robust Casio Databanks of the past. But after using it for a week, it reminds me more of a flip phone from a couple of years ago, with a small secondary LCD on the outside that simply displays notifications and the time.
The Pebble is, essentially, that small notification LCD, just in wireless form on your wrist. Still, it's a useful concept. I didn't truly appreciate the Pebble's convenience until a few nights into my testing period, during a TV programme watching binge, when I was able to sort the inane WhatsApp messages from the texts that I actually cared about. It eliminated the need to constantly check my phone for updates, and felt somewhat liberating.
Despite some of the pesky bugs and varied implementation on Android and iOS, all of which is fixable, the Pebble is a pretty impressive first effort from an untested company. With on-going development and the promise of new apps, I think there's a lot of potential for the Pebble to become more than just a secondary notification screen, and given the device’s relatively reasonable price, it's worth the investment to find out.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
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