Though it may be a surprise to some, smartwatches are hardly a new idea.
From the first digital watches to their number-pad-sporting calculator descendants to the current batch of Bluetooth-connected devices, there is a rich history of wrist-worn gadgets that have aspired to do a lot more than merely tell time.
And though our fascination with digital timepieces fell into sharp decline during the 90s and the early part of the new millennium, they’re back for another kick at the can, this time with a new value proposition: they want to be the ultimate add-on for our constant companion – the smartphone.
And what better companion for a smartphone than a smartwatch?
The elevator-pitch is certainly compelling: What if you no longer needed to reach into your pocket or purse to see who’s calling or texting you? What if you could answer or dismiss that call with a quick click of a button on your watch? What if you could harness the GPS power of your phone to tell you how far the next hole on the golf course is from your current position without setting aside your golf club? The list of possibilities seem endless. At least, that’s what the creators of the Pebble smartwatch are banking on.
What’s a Pebble?
The Pebble is light weight wristwatch with an “e-Paper” display. Note, this *not* the same as the e-Ink displays found on reading devices like the Kindle and Kobo. Unlike e-Ink which is designed to use no power whatsoever while displaying information, e-Paper has more in common with the monochrome LCD displays you’re used to seeing on regular digital watches. It won’t go as long between charges as your e-reader, but it also refreshes much faster, letting it show smooth animations like a second-hand on an analog watch face. What it does share in common with e-Ink, is that the display is easier to read under bright conditions than colour LCD – and indeed it is very easy to read. Watch faces and text have excellent contrast, but you will notice some jaggedness. Despite having a decent resolution of 144×168, the display can only do black and white, with no shades of grey. This means that text can’t be smoothed out using a process known as anti-aliasing. It’s kind of a shame, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker.
How does it work?
The Pebble communicates with a dedicated Pebble app running on either your iOS device (iPhone, iPod Touch etc.) or your Android device (ver. 2.3.3. or later). All of the Pebble’s software and apps are updated from your phone over Bluetooth. In fact, the Pebble is in constant communication with your phone which lets it receive a variety of alerts (everything from emails to text messages) but this does take a toll on your phone’s battery life. The company claims about a 10% hit which seems to be fairly accurate based on my experience with the watch.
What can it do?
Right out of the box, the Pebble comes pre-loaded with 3 watch faces, a Music app, and the ability to set several independent alarms. A further 7 watch faces were available to be loaded from the Pebble app at the time of this article.
The watch faces run from the practical (a Classic Analog face with day and date) to the unique (Fuzzy Time actually spells out the time e.g. “Ten Past Eight”) to the downright geeky (Just A Bit shows the time using some kind of binary display which I have yet to learn to decipher). But the user has little control over how these faces are displayed. Even though there is a setting on the Pebble which lets you choose between 12 and 24 hour time readouts, each watch face seems to have its own personality. The aptly named “Simplicity” face is locked into 24 hour time, making it virtually useless for those of us who can’t break free of our a.m./p.m.-based childhoods. Likewise, even though one of the Pebble’s strengths is its ability to display black-on-white or white-on-black screen elements, each watch face has only one mode. If you’re a black-on-white person, you’ll have to hunt for a face that matches your taste – even though logically *each* face should be reversible according to the user’s preferences.
On the bright side (literally), the Pebble’s built-in backlight works very well. You can set it to “on”, “off” or “Auto” which uses an ambient light sensor to determine if the backlight is needed. At any time, you can simply give your wrist a shake and the backlight will turn itself on briefly – a very thoughtful feature for times when you need to read your watch in the dark but can’t spare your other hand to press the button.
Buttons and case design
Speaking of buttons, each of the Pebble’s four buttons (back/home, up, down and enter/OK) have excellent feel and are very comfortable to operate – they provide a slight but satisfying click but do so with very little resistance. They feel light and solid at the same time. This is true of the Pebble overall. In fact, the watch might almost be too light for its own good. a slightly heavier weight would have imparted a greater sense of quality in the same way that the solid “thunk” of a car door helps to reinforce the notion that the car has been well-built. But I’m really nit-picking. How can you really complain about a watch that you can completely forget about? The Pebble’s rubber strap is simple, utilitarian and very comfortable. But it doesn’t need to be the only strap you use: the Pebble has been built to accept any standard 22mm watch strap. The Pebble is also designed to be water-resistant. According to the published specs, you should be able to swim, bathe and shower with the Pebble without any problems. I haven’t exactly swam a race with it, but it can definitely handle a little splashing.
Charging is achieved through the included, proprietary magnetically-attached USB cable. This might be the most surprising and delightful element of the Pebble. The cable can be plugged into any powered-USB port: Your PC, your car-charger, the wall-charger that came with your iPhone… any of these will do fine. The business end of the cable is a curved plastic terminal that automatically snaps onto the side of the Pebble’s case when you bring it within a millimetre or two. There are no unsightly ports that require rubberized covers and no awkward twisting of the cable to find the right alignment. It just works.
Pebble claims that charging takes about 5 hours to complete and lasts about 7 days. That has proven to be fairly accurate, though obviously if you choose to be notified every time you receive a new email, that could quickly drop to 4 or 5 days.
You can program your smartphone to send alerts to the Pebble that you can feel through the watch’s built-in vibration motor. It’s strong enough that you’ll definitely feel it, even during activities that require a lot of attention – like driving – yet it’s not so intrusive that you’ll be unpleasantly shocked by it. And unless you betray it by looking down at your wrist, no one else will know you’ve received an alert.
Calendar reminders, emails, text messages, etc. Each can cause your Pebble to vibrate, while text-based messages can be read on the Pebble’s screen.
Unfortunately, these text messages have a limited life-span. If you don’t check you watch within a few minutes of receiving a message, it evaporates from the Pebble and can’t be retrieved. There is no user setting to override this function or adjust the timing. Moreover, there is no message buffer: if you receive two messages in quick succession, only the most recent will be viewable. This is a significant drawback and hopefully the engineers will find a fix in a future code update.
Beyond the ability to receive alerts to your Pebble (and see caller-ID information) the coolest Pebble function is the Music app. If your phone is running any kind of music app (I’ve tried the built-in Music app on iOS, Songza and CBC Music – they’re all supported) you’ll be able to see track info for the currently playing song and control the play/pause and skip forward/backward a track if those features are supported. It works instantly and so far, flawlessly. While a little on the gimmicky side, the Music app has real value to people in specific situations. If you want to keep your phone tucked away, say because you’re on the subway and don’t really want to show off that $500 device of yours, simply reach down to your wrist and control the tunes that way. This also works for accepting incoming calls. Likewise, if your phone is docked into a speaker system, you can control the tunes from further away than the dock’s included remote will allow, and without the need for line-of-site (ain’t Bluetooth grand?)
This brings us to a design anomaly of the Pebble. Within the device’s user interface, all of watch faces options as well as any apps you have loaded, are all presented as a scrolling list on the Pebble’s Home screen. There is no discernable rhyme or reason to the list’s order. It starts with the three default watch faces which are not list alphabetically and is followed by the Music app, Set Alarms feature and the Settings function. Any add-on watch faces or apps you’ve loaded appear after this – but again the order appears random. There seems to be a way to re-order the watch faces via the app on your phone, but I’ve been unable to update the watch with the changed order. I’m not the only person to have remarked on this awkward arrangement, and it looks as though this area of the design is up for revamping as early as next week. [See Update below]
If there’s a downside to the Pebble, it’s that for all of its potential, it remains a smartwatch with very few “smarts” – at least for the moment.
A quick read through the Pebble’s website, getpebble.com, give one a sense of the plans the engineers have for the watch. Cycling apps. Running apps. Golf rangefinding apps. Not to mention a planned integration with productivity website and service IfTTT.com, which lets users create an almost infinite number of rules-based alerts and activities using some of the web’s most popular sites such as Facebook and Evernote. None are available yet.
The site also claims that “tons” of watch faces have been built, though as noted above, only a handful appear to be available right now.
But this is still very early days for the Pebble. Much like the original iPhone which suffered from a number of weaknesses including the absence of copy/paste and no third-party app support whatsoever, the Pebble is in its infancy. We can certainly be patient while we, er, watch how the platform evolves over time.
Early adopters of the Pebble will not be getting the watch of their dreams, at least not initially. For now the Pebble remains a toy. A $150 toy to be precise. But a toy nonetheless.
Only time will tell if this toy develops into the must-have digital accessory for the smartphone age.
Interested in buying a Pebble? They can be pre-ordered at getpebble.com for $150 U.S. + shipping. But you’ll need to be patient. The company is still feverishly working on fulfilling the over 80,000 orders they received through the Kickstarter promotion.
Update March 20, 2013: Last night, Pebble release a code update which has substantially improved the interface discussed above. Now, instead of having watch face options list in a somewhat random order on the main menu, there is a new “Watchfaces” sub-menu that contains all of the downloaded faces. Also, switching between watchfaces can be done from the current watchface, using the up and down buttons. This change definitely cleans up the Pebble’s interface.
Update April 11, 2013: A few days ago Pebble released an update to all of their watchfaces. While you can still only display watchfaces in one colour scheme, the time display will now correspond to your preference of 12 or 24 hour time as you’ve chosen it in the Settings menu. The Pebble team is clearly staying true to their commitment to releasing bug fixes and software updates on a regular basis.