Modern-day smartphones solved a lot of problems. It’s easier to keep in touch with people, play addictive bird-themed games, and manage your calendar. But they also created a bunch of new problems like having to whip out your phone every time you want to check a new alert. And sometimes that can be pretty rude.
You’ve probably experienced a similar scene: A dark bar or party filled with people’s faces illuminated by their smartphone screens. Or perhaps a colleague is staring at her phone when she’s supposed to be paying attention in a meeting. Why talk to each other in person when the rest of the Internet demands your attention?
That’s where the promise of smart watches and other wearable gizmos like Google Glass come in. The idea is to make checking an incoming tweet or text message no more intrusive or rude than checking the time. It’s a young, emerging space that everyone from Samsung to Microsoft to Apple is experimenting in.
But the best device in the category right now doesn’t come from one of those tech giants. It comes from Pebble, a startup that got a lot of buzz in 2012 when it raised $US10.2 million on Kickstarter for its eponymous smart watch.
Now we have version two, the Pebble Steel, which is essentially the same device but with a new body wrapped in metal and a heftier, $US249 price tag. I’ve been using the Steel for a little over a week, and even though it’s not my ideal device, I can definitely tell Pebble is on to something great.
What is it?
On the inside, the Pebble Steel is nearly identical to the original Pebble watch that launched about a year ago. It has the same 1.26-inch black and white display, same apps and capabilities, and same battery life.
But the Steel is a lot prettier than the first Pebble. The watch is wrapped in a stainless steel body with an optional metal or leather band, which makes it a bit heavier but a lot less geeky-looking than the plastic basic model. At first glance, it doesn’t even look like some sort of futuristic wrist-computer, but a normal watch you’d find in a display case at a department store.
The Pebble connects to your iPhone or Android phone using a Bluetooth connection and the Pebble app. (I tested the Pebble using my iPhone 5S.) After a quick setup process guided by the app, all your notifications such as incoming calls, texts, emails, and tweets appear on the Pebble’s screen as they roll into your phone. You can also control your music or end a call using the buttons on the side.
For the most part, the Pebble only tells you what’s happening on your phone. The idea is to glance at the watch and decide whether or not you want to address those notifications. You get the alert — a snippet of the text message or email — and that’s it. You can also cycle through all your past notifications in case you missed something.
The biggest change to Pebble recently is the new app store. Developers can now write apps for the watch that you download through the Pebble app, and there are already a few big names like Foursquare and Yelp. But since there’s limited space on the Pebble watch, you can only store a maximum of eight apps on it at one time. The rest of your apps are stored in a virtual “locker” in the Pebble smartphone app so you can switch them out when you need to.
What’s it like?
The Pebble Steel is a bit bulky, but not nearly as heavy and cumbersome as some of its competition like Samsung’s Galaxy Gear. And it’s no more obtrusive than some of those big, fancy pieces watch aficionados like to wear. The Steel comes with a metal or leather band option. I found the leather band to be more comfortable, so that’s the one I stuck with. (One problem with the bands: if you’re a watch nerd and like to try different ones, you’re out of luck. The Pebble Steel has a “toothed” attachment, so you won’t be able to slap on a standard watch band of your choice.)
I get a ton of email. On a good day, that’s fewer than 200 messages. On a bad day, it’s 300 and up. Add that to all the tweets, Facebook messages, texts, Instagram likes, and LinkedIn requests I get, and my phone never seems to stop buzzing. So my favourite thing about the Pebble was not having to immediately address every notification that came to my phone. The Pebble helped keep me focused. Instead of unlocking my phone every time a new alert arrived, I could just glance at my wrist and decide whether or not to respond. It saved me a lot of time.
However, there are some downsides. Pebble claims a 5-7 day battery life, but I got way less than that. On average, I was able to get two days in one charge at best. At worst, it was barely one day, and even then, it drained the battery on my iPhone very quickly. When I asked Pebble about this, the company’s support staff told me to reinstall the smartphone app and reconnect the watch to my phone over Bluetooth. That helped a little bit, but I still didn’t get anywhere close to five days on a charge.
The screen isn’t so great to look at either. It can only display grainy, black and white images, sort of like the original Game Boy or one of those other old-school handheld video game systems. It’s not ideal, but the lack of a high-res colour display like you’ll find on other smart watches helps keep battery life in check.
As for apps, the store is pretty limited right now. There are a few simple games, including a Flappy Bird clone. I mostly used the Foursquare app, which lets you check in from the Pebble, and Yelp, which lets you browse nearby restaurants and other venues. Still, the app store could be one of Pebble’s biggest strengths down the road as smart watches become more popular. As we learned with smartphones, the platform with the best apps usually wins. And right now, Pebble has the best app selection for a smart watch.
I’m not the first person to make this comparison, but I’ll repeat it anyway. The state of smart watches today feels a lot like the state of smartphones before the original iPhone launched in 2007. The Pebble Steel does what it promises to do — deliver notifications from your phone so you’re not constantly staring at your phone like some sort of drone. And it does it well.
But it’s not the most elegant solution. You still have to deal with a grainy, black and white screen. You still have to charge it every few days, unlike a normal watch. You still have to control many functions from the accompanying smartphone app.
No one has perfected the smart watch yet, but if you’re interested in the category, the Pebble Steel is without a doubt the best one you can buy right now.