Sunday, February 16, 2014

Product Review: The Pebble Smartwatch

After my mediocre experience with the second generation of Sony Smartwatch, I decided to wait for better smartwatches to come out. After seeing the ridiculous Galaxy Gear with its pitiful 16 hour battery life and the Cookoo and Citizen Proximity ignoring the fact that Android has Bluetooth 4.0 support, I decided to buy the Pebble.

Truth be told, I've had my eye on the Pebble for a while. I almost bought it earlier, but videos of it made it look clunky and slow. It's really not. I almost went for the extra hundred dollars and bought a Pebble Steel, but after looking at the specs, it was no better than the regular version of Pebble except with a flashier presentation.

First off, the Pebble's body is a rectangular thing which immediately stands out. I've already gotten several comments about it just based on its appearance. For me, it's just the right size for my wrist. Someone smaller and the watch might overhang, but most people shouldn't have any issues with it. It comes with a silicone strap. Some might find this a bit cheap, but it's really very comfortable to wear. I haven't really worn a watch in years and I find myself missing it when I take it off.

The right side of the Pebble's body is devoted to three buttons: up, down, and an OK button (probably as best it can be described). The left side of the body contains a back button and the charging port. The Pebble uses a magnetic clip with a USB cord. This is the only other item in the box besides the watch. While it is a non-standard charging method, you can't really fault it that much since in order to achieve 5 atm for the watch, it had to be sealed completely. Since it is 5 atm, you should be able to go swimming or use it in the shower. However, I have not yet since I'm a bit leery about taking expensive electronics near water. Maybe in the future I'll see how it works.

The Pebble uses an "e-paper" display, however it's more a transflective LCD than what you might see in a Nook. I doubt the Pebble can maintain an image on the screen without electricity like true e-paper technology does, but I digress. The screen's resolution is 144 x 168 giving it a pixel density of 139. It's certainly not crystal clear and monochrome, but this isn't some super watch. For what the display looks like and what the watch does, it's certainly passable. It's easily readable in daylight and it has a nice feature that a quick flick of the wrist turns on the backlight for night time reading.

So what can it do? Well right now, Android is still waiting for the launch of the Pebble App Store, but the basic uses of the watch are to receive notifications (from your Calendar, Gmail, Email, Facebook, Messaging app, and more), control your music, tell time (obviously), use the alarm, and reject or accept calls. The Pebble is limited to a combination of eight watch faces and/or apps. Still, I was able to load a calendar app onto the Pebble and I've seen other apps for things like using the watch as a speedometer for biking, Google Maps, and a few other programs I don't use.

A sample of an email sent to the Pebble (not my arm).

Overall, I've found it's use very good. I often run around at work with little time to check my phone in the instance of an important message or notification. With the Pebble, the watch gives me a pleasant vibration and the message remains on the screen until I dismiss it with the back button. In the instance of multiple notifications, you scroll through them with the up/down buttons. Multiple dots at the top of the screen indicate how many notifications you have. I'm not sure how many it can store before it is full so someone with more knowledge feel free to chime in on the comments section. When not in a notification, scrolling with the up/down buttons changes with the clock faces.

Another plus is clock faces can be animated (at the cost of battery life) and every thing is done through the Pebble control app. Syncing with the phone was fairly painless on both my Nexus 4 and 5. I believe I only lost connection one time so far in the two weeks of owning it. In addition to helping the pairing process, the Pebble control app also allows you to download a few new watch faces by the company that makes the watch, test notifications to determine how they work, adjust which music player the music command controls, choose which programs can send notifications, act as a go-between for third party apps, and update the firmware. Updating the firmware is easily the nicest part of it as it doesn't require any technical knowledge or wired set-up. Everything is done through the app wirelessly.

Battery life is pretty decent for the watch. I was hoping for a little more than I got, but it managed to eek out five days on the first charge and about five on the second as well. When the battery is getting low a battery icon appears at the top of the screen in the menu section (it never shows in the clock faces to remain unobtrusive). More daily notifications, animated clock faces, and using the backlight and alarm will drain the watch faster obviously. Charging from the computer tends to take about an hour to an hour and a half, but is not too long.

So are there any downsides? Well a little. Navigating with the scroll buttons can be a bit of chore depending on the notification, battery life could be a bit better, and there needs to be more storage for apps. Also, notifications like emails that contain images and HTML show up as code. So those kinds of notifications you'll be grabbing your phone to figure out what's in it.

Still, for all that it does and the story of its origins (the Kickstarter is still the highest funded project on the site), the Pebble is actually a triumph. It's a smartwatch cheap enough for anyone to purchase and useful enough to not regret buying it. It's still got some growing pains, but it's obvious from recent firmware updates, the Pebble Steel, and the app store that the company is dedicated to taking this smartwatch all the way. I recommend it for anyone considering a smartwatch, but remember it's not a do-all kind of watch. Instead, think of it as a notification hub and control center for your phone.

The Good: Comfortable to wear, screen is visible in all conditions, maintains good connection, all updating and app transfer done wirelessly, backlight gesture is a great idea, water resistant to 5 atm, not too costly.

The Bad: Battery life could be a bit better, scrolling larger notifications can be annoying, limited app storage.

Final Grade: B+  

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