29
Jan
pebble

If there's one product from the last year that's managed to capture the attention of just about everyone in the tech arena, it's Pebble. Between the somewhat tenuous underdog status of all Kickstarter projects, a general swell in "wearable tech" interest, and months and months of frustrating delays, it's proven to be even better fodder for bloggers than speculative hardware backers. Finally, 8 months after being successfully funded (and four months after the initial ship date) I've got one sitting on my wrist.

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So, is Pebble worth the wait? Putting aside the fact that the wait isn't over yet (most Kickstarter backers are still waiting, and it'll be a couple of months at least before you can buy one outright) the answer is a resounding "maybe." While there are some serious deficiencies in the design of both the hardware and software, the idea and the execution of Pebble are solid. And compared to other smart watches, Pebble wins thanks to what it doesn't do - it's the rare product where less really is more. Does that make it worth the $150 asking price that it will eventually reach? That's a tough call, and it will likely come down to what you want out of a computer sitting on your wrist.

The Good

  • Easy to understand and operate
  • Easy, consistent Bluetooth pairing
  • 5-7 days of battery life
  • Tough and waterproof
  • Lots of notifications out of the box

The Bad

  • Not an attractive watch
  • Very few apps available
  • No way to check previous notifications

Hardware

The design of Pebble is startlingly simple. If it weren't for the massive amount of media coverage, I wouldn't be surprised to see it in a department store sitting next to the old Casio Databanks. A full plastic body wraps around a 1.26-inch screen - a black-and-white "e-paper" panel with a backlight built in. The four plastic buttons are the only way of directly manipulating the Pebble: Up, Select and Down on the right side, and a Back button on the left. Below the Back button on the left side is the charging port, a pair of pogo plugs flanked by magnetic snaps.

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Around back you get the usual legalese and FCC emblems, along with a serial number and "Kickstarter Edition" for backers. Interestingly, the back panel is matte plastic instead of glossy. There is no way to access the battery thanks to the watch's 50m waterproof design. A black silicone strap matches the black face (several other colors are available), with fittings that should be good enough for just about everyone. The 11mm height of the watch body puts it comfortably between a dress watch and a chunky G-Shock digital, and it's notably slimmer than offerings from Sony and WIMM.

If you're being kind, you could call the Pebble's aesthetics utilitarian. If you're not being kind, a whole range of opportunities for abuse become available, up to and including "this thing looks like something I'd get in a Happy Meal." Glossy plastic and a silicone band (which I'm told is swappable with any 22mm band, but I sure can't figure out how) make it look undeniably cheap. It just doesn't look like a modern product, let alone a $150 watch. Maybe it's a bit much to expect jaw-dropping visual design from a company with just one other product under their belt, but the fact remains, you'll feel strange wearing this thing with a sportcoat or dress.

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All that being said, the cheap looks of the Pebble doesn't mean that the watch itself is flimsy. On the contrary, there's not an millimeter of give or flex in the casing, and it feels like I'd have a hard time doing real damage to the watch with anything less than a hammer. While the glossy face seems like it would be easy to scratch, a little nerve-wracking experimentation with a glass of water shows that the waterproof casing is the real McCoy.

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Interaction with the Pebble couldn't be easier. The buttons are a bit stiff, which is actually a plus, since it will prevent accidental activation on your wrist. The screen is clear enough, though the plastic casing has some distortion. Activating the backlight (any button press or a quick flick of your wrist to engage the accelerometer) takes care of that. In direct light or darkness the readout is easy to see, though the "viewing angles" are somewhat limited by the clear plastic. The screen itself is surprisingly responsive to the animations of the watch software - it's more like using an old Palm Pilot than the jerky refreshes of E-Ink.

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The spartan packaging is clearly inspired by the later Kindles, as it's a simple cardboard box with a plastic holster panel. Aside from the watch itself, you get a USB charger cable with no wall wart, and a link to Pebble's website for setup instructions. The charger cable snaps into place on the watch itself, in a manner that will be familiar if you've seen Apple's Magsafe chargers in action.

Software

The Pebble by itself is a truly lonesome piece of tech. You get a few watch faces, an alarm function and a few settings, and that's it - not even a calculator or a calendar. The watch faces range from stylishly modern to dependably old-fashioned, though it will take you a while to get used to reading a screen if you're used to a mechanical timepiece. The Text Watch face is probably the most unique among them without venturing into the nigh-useless territory of novelty.

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The watch only becomes useful once you pair it with the official Pebble app on your phone via Bluetooth. Once that's done, you can send apps and notifications to your wrist. Well, "apps" is a bit generous - right now there are only more watch faces, but we're assured that more useful fare is on the way. Software updates and time syncing are handled by the app; you should never need to plug your watch into anything but a charger.

But don't let it be said that notifications are lacking. At launch, Pebble can alert you to calls, texts, emails from both the standard Android client and multiple Gmail accounts, calendar updates, Google Talk, Google Voice (yes!), and Facebook. All of them are selective, so I can choose to get alerts for my personal email account and not my Android Police work account.

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When you get a notification, your watch will shortly vibrate and display the relevant message. Calls and texts fit neatly on the screen, but any email longer than "hi" will scroll using the buttons on the right side. Not far, mind you - after the sender and subject, you might get to see a sentence before you'll have to pull out your phone. Unfortunately, the Pebble will only display the latest notification, and the only thing you can do with it is dismiss it with the back button. So if your watch buzzes more than once, there's no way to see what you missed without, again, pulling out your phone.

At the time of writing, the only other functionality the Pebble offers is music control. Open the Music app and you can see what's playing in the default Google Play Music app, and pause, rewind, or advance tracks. It's quite useful if you're exercising or out and about. It has to be said that this didn't quite work on my DROID RAZR M - while the music displayed correctly, it couldn't be paused or controlled. Since the Pebble was able to control my Nexus 7 and Galaxy Nexus just fine (including A2DP control apps like Pandora), I'm going to assume that this is a problem with Motorola's Bluetooth stack and not the watch itself.

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Overall, the software is easy to set up and use, and as a quick and discrete way of alerting you to incoming messages it works very well. I only wish there were more utilities available at launch - a calculator, a lap counter, a way of silencing my phone. There also needs to be an option to read entire emails, see a notification history, and to quickly return to a favorite watch face. At the moment you have to dismiss a notification then select a watch face again. A long-press of the Back button should bring you to the last watch face. Software updates could, and hopefully will, address these problems.

Battery

This isn't my first run-in with smartwatches. About a year ago I purchased a WIMM One, to the tune of regret and $300. Examining the differences between these two devices gives a great example of a design team that knows when to exercise restraint. While the WIMM was (and is) more powerful and capable than the Pebble in every way, from its color touschscreen to its WiFi radio, it's also larger, heavier, and much less appealing.

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The biggest problem with the WIMM isn't that it's trying to cram too many features into a touch interface an inch across, it's that all of these features add up to a battery life measured in hours instead of days. A watch that lasts less than 24 hours becomes a few ounces of useless plastic by the time the evening comes to an end. My WIMM now belongs to an eBay shopper, unless he's gotten wise and likewise sold it to the next schmuck in line.

By contrast, the Pebble lasts for days on almost no charge at all. Thanks to low-power components, Bluetooth 4, and the e-paper screen, Pebble quotes the battery life at five days or more even when constantly connected. Since my watch has now been running for three days on a 90-minute charge, I'm not going to argue. For any mobile device, anything past 24 hours is a bonus. I only wish that the Pebble had a more persistent way of alerting you to a low power state - it more or less dies immediately after the battery runs down, with no warning. Another one for the update pile.

Usability

So, how does all of this come together? In its current form, the Pebble is basically a notification bar that detaches from your phone and sits on your wrist. Sure, there are music controls and changeable watch faces, but at the end of the day, it's a way to see if that email is important enough to stop what you're doing and reply on your Android phone. In this function, the Pebble is easy and discrete. It makes a great companion for class, the movie theater, or any social situation where actually pulling out your phone might be frowned upon.

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As a watch, it's hit or miss. The design won't turn any heads, and there is only one watch face available with a second hand. That means that a device that's technically hundreds of times as complex as a Seiko only manages to match it for precision if one out of six watch faces is applied. That said, for people like me who just like to have a watch on their wrist, it works well enough. I'll also mention that the accelerometer trigger for the backlight is ingenious: it's a way to check the time in the dark almost instantly.

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The real potential of Pebble, and any wearable platform like it, lies in the developer community. And unfortunately, it's hard to see that far into Pebble's future. While a few exercising apps from Pebble's creators and Runkeeper are already being planned, it remains to be seen how independent developers will take advantage of the hardware... and if the infrastructure will allow them to. (At least one developer isn't even waiting that long.) I'd hate to get into a situation where I need to root my watch to get the really cool functionality.

Conclusion

The Pebble was a solid enough idea that tens of thousands of people paid for it outright on a promise. And people who were that excited back in May will be more than satisfied with the result: the watch gets notifications, controls music, and the battery will keep going until the cows come home. I've come to rely on it for discretely checking communications - it's amazing how fast reaching into your pocket can become a chore. While the watch is downright ugly and feels cheap, it also feels like it could (if you'll forgive me) take a lickin' and keep on tickin'.

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For anyone else eager to put down their money, I would advise caution. While the Pebble is OK as it is, with just a few software tweaks it could be much, much better. It may become a truly great piece of hardware if developers can catch the excitement that the device created in the general geeky public. And after a hardware revision or two, it could be a must-have. At the moment, $150 seems like a bit much for what is basically a remote notification bar, even if you can track one down. After all, you can grab a good 7-inch tablet for a few dollars more.

But as a geek myself, I love the Pebble, warts and all. If you love playing with cutting edge mobile tech and you've got the money to spare, go for it.

GetPebble.com

Jeremiah Rice
Jeremiah is a US-based blogger who bought a Nexus One the day it came out and never looked back. In his spare time he watches Star Trek, cooks eggs, and completely fails to write novels.
  • CA719

    UGLY!?

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      As a watch, it is kind of ugly. It's nerdy and screams plastic.

      I probably wouldn't wear one because of its looks, but I'm sure I'll end up finding one that I will wear in the future. Maybe even something Google makes.

      • Kenny O

        Yep, this review confirms what I had been feeling.....this one is close, but not quite the one for me. I too am waiting for the Nexus W.

      • https://steamcommunity.com/id/m-p-3 m-p{3}

        I agree with you, but as a backer I would be stupid to not wear it :P

      • Abhigyan Banerjee

        Those Google Time concept photos were pretty sweet!

        • Sebastian Lundgren

          Right now so hope I that Google have look at the pictures and release it at Google I/O 2013 :D Buy, buy, BUY!! ;)

      • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

        Same feeling here. I backed it because I see some potential to develop for it and I wanted to play with it...but I don't think it looks nearly good enough to wear in regular situations. I'll wear it while running to control music or I might toy around with hiding it inside of a jacket perhaps, but it absolutely falls short on style for going out.

        It also pains me to see such a terrible font used all over the software. Based on the watch faces, the resolution looks fairly good, but the text fonts are atrocious. Maybe they will look better in person, and I'm sure it's another thing that will get attention in later updates, but pictures of that text hurts my eyes right now.

    • fixxmyhead

      everything is ugly these days. what are u expecting some sort of sci fi futuristic holograhic watch?

      • Justin Winker

        Yes. No, I want Google to see the Google time concept and make one like that. I'd wear that :-D

  • http://cassidyjames.com Cassidy James

    I don't know, I think there's a fine line between ugly and minimal. In my opinion, Pebble might flirt with that line, but sits in the minimal camp.

    I'm super excited about what's to come. They've committed themselves to frequent (like every couple of weeks) software updates, so hopefully we'll see third-party apps sooner rather than later. I'm looking forward to the fitness and sleep monitoring potential for sure.

    Do you guys remember the iPhone launch? (Maybe not since this is an Android site. xD) Similar things were said (e.g. ugly, simple, no apps, etc.). Indeed it was a simple device with a lot of potential. However, the true potential was unlocked when they added third-party apps. I expect a similar story here.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      But also when newer generations were released. Gen 2 or 3 might just be awesome and still run using the same platform.

  • http://www.anivision.org/ Christopher Bailey (Xcom923)

    Nice review. I didn't think the pebble was ugly though, but to each their own. I'm not gonna lie, I'm gonna scream like a school-girl when I get mine but it's not for those who are not technologically advanced. I'd give the advise to wait for better things down the pipe too. It shouldn't take long for devs to go nuts with this.

  • guyfromtrinidad

    I'm a backer and super excited, it baffles me however when people complain about the delay in the watch shipping since these guys initially asked and planned for $100,000 and they surpassed that in two hours and ended up getting 10 million. To pump out all those watches in the time frame they originally planned was never going to happen and I give them a pass for that.. I will be buying version 2 or 3 of this watch as well as I am really excited about the future of wearable tech

  • PCSievers

    Would look much better on a NATO band with one of the digital faces imo.

  • matt

    im going to say that based on the kickstarter support, this watch will be the spotlight for devs. hoepfully they add spotify support soon fir the music app

  • Wayne Randall

    Want! (v2 though)

    How about an update in a month, Jeremiah? Or after a firmware update.

    • http://www.mantrais.com/ Steve Schmidt

      Yes, I would like to wait for their next watch with cool design and updates.

    • Jeremiah Rice

      This is my personal Kickstarter backer unit, so I don't have to send it back. :) I'll definitely be keeping an eye on the updates, and I may revisit a review after any major changes to the platform.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dadtomlinson Jonathan Raymond Tomlinson

    ill wait for the 3.0

  • eTiMaGo

    As owner of a first-gen Sony "Smart" watch, this seems faaaaar more polished and usable!

    • http://the-jade-domain.com Jaime J. Denizard

      Would you mind giving a small review of the smart watch? I was actually really interested in that because of the touchscreen and the fact that it looked slightly more stylish than the Pebble ever did.

  • http://twitter.com/brk3 Paul Bourke

    What model is the Skagen watch it's pictured next to? Screw the pebble I want that!

  • sadf

    That was an awful review. All of your cons are ridiculous.

    Hardly any apps? Well you don't say, it JUST came out and the SDK for making custom faces hasn't even been released yet, and only a handful of people even have them.

    No way to check previous notifications? Why would you? It is not designed to replace your phone. It is designed to let you glance at a notification quickly when you don't want to pull your phone out of your pocket every time it vibrates.

    And honestly, you are the only person I have ever heard of that thinks this watch is ugly. The many thousands of backers disagree with you. It looks exactly as pictured when the kickstarter went up, which is sleek, minimal, and pleasant. I understand you have to review things, otherwise I would question why you backed it in the first place.

    Well, I am not surprised on these points, given that you don't even know how to change a watch band.

    • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

      Respectfully, you must not read much. Just among the 21 comments before yours, there are 5 comments that either criticize it outright for the looks, or they say that they would rather wait for a later iteration (or alternative) with a better design. Click through the related articles to find several past comments that are far harsher than they are here. Sorry, but Jeremiah is far from the only person who thought the watch deserved a better design.

      As far as notifications go...frankly, it's a real software issue for a "smart" watch. I'm perfectly happy to grant that the Pebble is still new and they haven't worked through this stuff, but there's a LOT of people already complaining about that particular oversight.

      The fact that you're calling out him out on comments about apps demonstrates that you're just looking for things to pick at. He's just acknowledging an issue that anybody getting one now is going to be facing; the first month or two (or more) is going to be a letdown for anybody who expected to see some awesome apps. He also points out that this depends on developers stepping up to deliver cool apps, which is very true. Truthfully, I think it's a huge mistake on Pebble's part that the SDK isn't out right now. Even if it were horribly early-beta quality, it would be far better if parts of the SDK were available today. There's no native sdk, no iOS sdk (hey, it's fair to mention it), and no Android sdk (beyond sending unformatted text notifications in a very hack-ish way). I'm sure Pebble will get caught up and this will get better, but it's fair to call this issue out.

  • Kevin Sauer

    A new strap seems like it could make the difference between ugly and stylish.

    Just a quick note: the current software is NOT using bluetooth 4 but Pebble has promised that it will utilize the low-power chip in future firmware updates.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667020551 Jose Torres

    So what would be the advantage of buying this over MotoACTV?

  • alesa

    "looks like something I'd get in a Happy Meal."
    "doesn't look like a modern product, let alone a $150 watch."

    dunno about you, but for me it's a good thing.
    that will prevent some nasty thief stole my precious smartwatch on public transport :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/monty.sloan.9 Monty Sloan

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtPde-M5Xz0

    first hit on google for "how to change a watch band" lrn2google

  • http://twitter.com/thejimmydimple Owen

    This "review" could essentially be boiled down to three major points:

    - "I think it looks ugly"

    - "I don't know how to remove a watch band"

    - "Why are there no apps for a phone that <1000 people have in the world, and the people that do have one have received it likely less than a day ago?"

    This was a very poor review and I think was written without much appreciation for the concept of the Pebble. The Pebble exists today, in real life, exactly as it was showcased all those months ago. If you didn't like the look of the Pebble renders, or the Pebble prototypes, or the pictures of the final Pebble (which looked exactly the same as the original renders), you wouldn't become a backer and you wouldn't pre-order one. The APPEARANCE of the watch is a moot point.

    The watch band is removable. If you can't figure it out spend five minutes on Google or ask your local watchmaker to do it for you.

    Unfortunately the SDK is currently only available to the backers who chose the developer special. But as for the rest of us, the watch started shipping on the 29th of January. It is now the 31st, so taking a best-case scenario shipping time of one day into account, some ~1000 people have had their Pebble for ONE DAY. Even if the SDK was available this would not be near enough time to write an app, submit it to Pebble/Google for review and have it listed in the Pebble app/Play Store (or however it works).

    You must remember that the Pebble team is not a multi-billion dollar international corporation like a Sony or an Apple. The Pebble team really is a team of people (ten people) who started out as a team of four people. TEN PEOPLE.

  • Sathiskumar.V

    Eventhough it is not looking attractive, it is necessary to have the option to go to the previous notifications. Without that it is little bit waste according to me. Because we cannot read everything within one time itself and also it is necessary to go there if we want to read that again

  • bashomatsuo

    Great review, and I agree with much of what you said. For me, the background is just as interesting as the device. I got mine a few days ago and did full review - with some new strap ideas - here: http://www.outsidecontext.com/2013/02/23/pebble-smart-watch-reviewmore-than-just-potential/

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