In the spring of 2012 the startup Pebble wasn’t much more than a few people with a Kickstarter page.
But the vision laid out there proved there was a hunger for a viable smartwatch, even if it did come from a company no one had heard of before. (Over 68,000 people donated to the project.) And this was a year before the news even leaked that Apple was working on a watch of its own and everyone from LG to Motorola scrambled to beat Apple to market. Samsung alone launched six smartwatch models within a year and they were all duds.
But Pebble was there first, and it was doing it better than some of the biggest names in tech.
The company’s newest device is the Pebble Time, a smartwatch that works with both the iPhone and Android phones. It’s the first Pebble with a colour screen. It’s waterproof. Its battery lasts longer than any other smartwatch. And it starts at $US199, or $US150 cheaper than the cheapest Apple Watch.
The Pebble Time is far from perfect, but then again, so is the Apple Watch. The question today is whether or not you want a smartwatch — no one really needs one — and the Pebble Time is a good option if you don’t want to spend a fortune.
How it works
The Pebble Time connects to your Android phone or iPhone using Bluetooth. There’s a companion app stored on your phone for managing basic settings, installing apps, and changing the customisable watch faces.
Unlike the Apple Watch’s sharp, full-colour touchscreen, the Pebble Time can only show limited colours on its “e-paper” display. It’s kind of like looking at a children’s picture book.
The screen looks dated, but the upside is you get several days of usage on a single charge and it always stays on. Pebble claims the Time lasts up to seven days, but I only got a little over four days out of a charge. Still, that’s four times longer than the Apple Watch’s battery can last.
Once you’re all set up, the Pebble Time mirrors all the notifications that hit your phone. If you don’t want to receive a certain type of notification, you’ll have to switch it off in your phone’s settings. I tested the Time with an iPhone, which doesn’t allow you to interact with notifications like you can on the Apple Watch. Instead, you can only glance at incoming texts, tweets, news alerts, etc. You have to go back to the phone if you want to respond or get more information.
The Pebble companion app on your phone doubles as an app store, which has a bunch of third-party apps and customisable watch faces that you download to your Time. Most of the apps are pretty bad, either dopey games or useless utilities like battery monitors. But I did find a few diamonds in the rough like Foursquare’s Swarm app, which lets you check into locations from the Time.
I also liked Misfit, an app that unlocks the Time’s fitness-tracking capabilities, but the Time is limited compared to other fitness trackers. You’ll need to install multiple apps from different developers like RunKeeper in order to get the most out of the Time as a fitness trackers. And, of course, the Pebble Time doesn’t come equipped with a built-in heart rate monitor like the Apple Watch, which is a key piece of technology for measuring how hard you’re working during exercise.
But for the most part, I didn’t use too many apps on the Time. As is the case with the Apple Watch, most Pebble developers haven’t figured out how to simplify their apps and make them useful for a tiny screen. The watch is best used to quickly glance at the time and incoming notifications.
Finally, there’s the timeline view, which you access by pressing the bottom right button on the watch. The timeline shows you upcoming events in your calendar, and third-party apps can integrate with it by letting you “pin” upcoming events. For example, the ESPN app plugs into the timeline so you can check when your favourite team is playing next.
It’s not a looker
My biggest complaint with the Pebble Time is the way it looks.
It’s made of plastic with four chunky buttons that bulge out from the sides. The bezel around the screen is really wide too, so it feels like the watch is taking up a lot of unnecessary space on your wrist. Pebble also has the Time Steel, which costs $US50 more and has a nicer-looking metal casing, but I’m still not crazy about the overall design.
The Pebble Time’s design makes me feel like I’m using a kid’s toy, something you’d get out of a cereal box or as a prize at a carnival, not a serious piece of technology. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who will dig the look — thousands of people have already preordered the Time without even seeing it in person — but I don’t. If I’m going to spend $US200 or more on something that’s strapped to my body and in plain view all day, I want it to look good too.
But the upside to the design, especially for watch enthusiasts, is you can swap out the bands with any standard watch band. Pebble may not give you something beautiful right out of the box, but at least you can customise it a bit to distract from that.
Ahead of its time
Design quirks aside, I think Pebble has pulled off something none of the big companies exploring smartwatches have been able to do. The company understands the philosophy behind the smartwatch better than anyone else.
The Time acts as a watch first and foremost, and there are layers of “smart” stuff — apps, notifications, fitness tracking — beneath that. Pebble isn’t trying to cram the smartphone experience into a tiny screen on your wrist. It built a watch that happens to do a few other things pretty well.
My biggest criticism with the Apple Watch is that it does too much and is best used when you strip out or ignore a lot of its features. The Pebble Time may seem limited and simple out of the box, but that’s its greatest advantage.
I tested a near-final version of the Pebble software, but there were still a few bugs. The most recent software update causes my Time to randomly unpair itself from my iPhone, forcing me to restart the watch in order to get it to connect again. I also couldn’t get the music controller, which lets you play, pause, and skip tracks you’re listening to on your phone, to work. Pebble tells me these bugs will be ironed out in time for the product’s public launch.
Should you get one?
Smartwatches are still in their infancy. The question today isn’t really which one you should buy, but whether or not you should buy one at all.
I’ve been wearing a smartwatch for the past month — first the Apple Watch, and now the Pebble Time — and I’m starting to see the value. I let a colleague borrow my Pebble Time the other day so he could shoot a video demo. As I left my office to grab lunch, I found myself glancing at my wrist several times to check the time, weather, and any missed notifications out of habit.
I think that’s the real advantage to smartwatches, at least in the near term. The wrist is a natural location to turn to in order to see what’s going on. For decades, that just meant the time, but today we carry around a computer in our pocket that’s constantly pinging us with alerts. A smartwatch is the perfect filter for those nuggets of information, and I’ve enjoyed using one.
If you have an Android phone, the Pebble Time is easily the best smartwatch you can buy today, much better than Google’s Android Wear watches. iPhone owners will get a better experience out of the Apple Watch, but the Pebble Time makes a decent companion to the iPhone if you don’t want to spend too much and can look past the awkward design.
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