Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Pebble Smart Watch Review

I've always liked wearing a watch. I've had many different types of watches, ranging from inexpensive, sporty Timex models, to expensive, fashionable Esquire and Fossil pieces, and up to weird little experiments like getting a watch strap made to fit my 6th Gen iPod nano. I enjoyed the novelty of the nano on my wrist, but having to reach and turn on the screen every time I wanted to see the time, short battery life, and lack of integration with other products made it just that, a novelty. I've been watching the smart watch scene with slight interest for a while, really since the Pebble was first introduced, but haven't felt it was the right time to jump on board until now. I was trying to wait out until I got a sense of what the ever-elusive iWatch was going to bring to the table, but when I saw the Pebble 2.0 software upgrade coinciding with the Pebble Steel, I decided to make the jump. Read on for my thoughts and experiences from my first few days with my new Pebble.

First off, I decided to stick with a regular Pebble rather than a Pebble Steel. I did this for a couple of reasons. For starters, I like the look of the regular Pebble. I chose the black model, and it's been fine to wear at work with my shirt and tie every day, but easily goes with a t-shirt and jeans as well. I've ordered some skins, including a couple of wraps that alter the appearance and a clear screen protector. The plastic cover on the Pebble was really the only concern when choosing not to go with the Steel, since a nice Gorilla Glass coating would have been preferred.

YWeather: A great watch face that displays time, date, weather, battery life and bluetooth connection.

The second reason I chose the regular Pebble was the price. I set a price watch on futureshop.ca and it notified me of a one-day sale, which I took advantage of, but even without that small discount, the extra $100 didn't seem worth it to me for the Steel upgrade, likely because I'm still cautious about this being a stop-gap product until Apple or someone else comes out with something better. Now that I've made the purchase, I'll likely hold out even if/when Apple releases the iWatch, and buy the second gen version. I won't mind upgrading in a year or two if I get some good use out of the Pebble, and the $100 I saved by sticking with the regular version, in my mind, is $100 saved toward something in the future. Having something to hold me over might stop me from jumping on a first run product, and when I look at the iPad 2 or 3 vs. the iPad 1, waiting for the second iteration seems like a really solid plan.

For hardware, the Pebble features a 1.26 inch 144 x 168 pixel e-paper display. It's black and white only, but I actually like the choice, as it's low energy, has a great backlight (that you can turn on with a flick of your wrist), and displays information in a crisp, clear way while allowing the Pebble to stretch out an estimated 5-7 day battery life, which seems pretty accurate so far. I charged mine up a little on Friday when I got it, then fully Saturday, and have been using it on that charge ever since. It's only Tuesday, and I have 40% battery life, but that's 3 full days of heavy use and I should get another day or two. Once the novelty wears off and I'm not swapping apps in and out and testing every feature under the sun, I really expect that battery life estimate will hold up. The watch talks to your phone, most of the time, using Bluetooth LE, which stands for Low Energy. When it needs to swap out an app or something heavy, it can switch to normal Bluetooth on the fly, and this saves battery life for both the watch and your phone. I'll discuss battery drain on your phone a little further down. Overall, I'm very happy with the display, and prefer it greatly to the full colour touch screen of the nano that had to be turned on when I wanted to simply see the time. It might sound dumb, but I enjoy when my watch can function as a watch. I want to be able to glance down and quickly see what time it is, or what's going on, and if I have to get my other hand to tap a button to do that, I might as well reach for my phone. If someone can come up with a hybrid e-paper display that can turn in to a bright, colourful touch screen when it needs to, I'll be on board. Until then, I'll take a Pebble with amazing battery life over something like a Galaxy Gear or iPod nano any day.

In regards to build quality, the Pebble isn't going to win any fashion awards, the Pebble Steel is a step in the right direction, maybe, but this one is purely plastic. I'm not saying that's a bad thing though, as I really like how it looks and feels on my wrist. I think watched are a very personal item, so I won't weigh too much on this, and just let you make up your own mind. I can say that the buttons all feel nice and have a good click to them, and even the strap, which I assumed I would be swapping out immediately, doesn't feel horrible, although I'm still shopping around for replacement options.

With all that out of the way, let's dive in to what a Pebble actually does. For those that don't know, the Pebble is a smart watch that connects to your iPhone or Android phone to get data and display it on screen. I've been using it paired with my iPhone 5s, so I can't talk about any Android features, but I think they're pretty similar overall anyway. The Pebble will alert you to texts, phone calls, emails, and pretty much anything else you have set up to go in Notification Centre if you've upgraded to iOS 7 (which you should have by now). 

You can download new watch faces and apps from a newly released Pebble Store, which isn't nearly as curated as Apple's App Store, but does a good job of helping you find useful things. There's definitely room for improvement, and I think once more developers show interest, we'll see bit more polish to how things are displayed. The watch has enough memory to fit 8 items, whether they be watch faces or apps. The Pebble Store app on your phone makes it really easy to switch apps back and forth, using bluetooth to swap them out with the tap of a button. Apps and faces you download past the 8 item limit are stored in you Pebble Locker, so if you only use a stopwatch when you're doing laps at the pool (yes, the Pebble is waterproof!), you may want to keep it in your locker until you're at the pool and simply swap it out for something you won't be using while you swim, like a watch face or Yelp. 

The Pebble Locker

I've been swapping out watch faces daily, but I like the built in faces too, which don't take away from your storage space, but sadly can't be turned off or on, meaning you still have to scroll through them when you're flipping through your other watch faces, which is done from the watch screen by pressing the up and down buttons on the side.

Simon: A classier llooking watch face inspired by a Simon Carter wristwatch.

Apps are accessed on the watch by clicking the center button on the right side of the watch and going through a few too many clicks for my liking (more on that later). The apps range from professional grade things by big name developers, to absolutely terrible garbage made by goons in theirs mother's basements, but I've found a few that are pretty useful so far and there's a simple but decent "like" button style rating system that I hope helps in curation. 

The App Store 

There are a few simple little games that work better than I expected on the simple screen, but honestly if I want gaming on the go I'll be going to my phone or 3DS. For an app to be useful, it has to do something for me that makes it easier to go to my wrist, rather than take out my phone and play around with a bunch of apps and things. Foursquare, in particular, is an app I use regularly on my phone, but always found it slightly inconvenient to pull my phone out when I'm ducking in to a store, or sitting at a restaurant. With Foursquare on my wrist, I've been checking in to places much more regularly. This might be partially due to wanting to play with my new toy, but it definitely seems easy and less obtrusive than pulling out a phone, especially for people that might leave their phones in bags, purses, or zippered jacket pockets in the winter.

Foursquare on your wrist!

Most of these apps use your phone to do all the heavy lifting, tapping in to GPS, motion sensors, etc to feed data to the little screen on your wrist. Like I mentioned before, the use of Bluetooth LE for most of this data transfer saves battery life on both the watch and your phone, and I've honestly noticed very little battery drain on my phone compared to before I got the Pebble. The only time I notice significant drain is when I'm swapping apps and watch faces in and out, but once you settle on a few standard apps, you're not going to notice this as much. I've also been able to cut down the amount of times my phone screen turns on, because with notifications now buzzing on my wrist, I've turned off the feature that repeats when I get texts or emails, which I used to use to prevent missing important messages. Playing around with notification setting a little more, plus the ability to screen emails and messages so you're not turning on your phone's battery-sucking screen every time you hear a ding or feel a buzz in your pocket, could really negate any battery drain that comes from data transfer. I'd be curious to see if I can actually improve my phone's battery life by changing all my notifications to go just to my wrist, but that's an experiment for another time. 

All of this brings me to my final points, the need for a Pebble in the first place. Like I stated in my open in sentence, I've always liked wearing a watch. I was going to be in the market for a new watch regardless of it was smart or not, and I just chose to go with something a little cutting-edge and different. Like I said earlier, I like a watch to function as a watch first. I want to be able to glance down and tell the time without any fuss, and the Pebble nails it in that category. 

You'll never have a problem finding a new watch face. 

The ability to swap out watch faces is great, and keeps things fun and interesting, but the apps and notification settings really just solve incredibly first world problems. There's no killer feature here that makes a smart watch a must-have item like the smart phone has become. There's no improved feature like the bigger form factor of the iPad that made browsing, emails, and photos much more engaging than they've ever been. Everything about this is simply a mild convenience, and for that reason, I can only suggest a Pebble to people like myself that like technology simply for the sake of technology. With everyone so connected and distracted with their smart phones, it could be argued that being able to sneak a glance at your wrist is less distracting than taking your phone out every second, and this kind of thing could make it easier to ignore the buzzing in your pocket for a bit and remain engaged with actual people, but it could be flipped and said that people will just be constantly looking at their wrist instead of engaging in real conversations. I'll leave that debate for someone else, but my experience is leaning toward not looking at my phone as much as I used to, and that's a good thing. 

The Pebble is a good product, but is still not fully ready for an average consumer. Whether it's the haphazard app store, needing to reconnect to your phone too often, or the fact that it takes too many clicks to scroll down the menu and select an app, there are just too many little things that keep this product from being ready for, say, my mother, like the iPad is. A great example is something like this; I should be able to organize the menu so Foursquare is top of the list. Right now all downloaded apps are dropped below the built in options, meaning you have to click the centre button from the watch face screen, then scroll down through Music (controls your music on your phone, will be using that in the summer for sure!), Notifications (shows your prior notifications), Alarms (set an alarm to buzz on your wrist), Watchfaces (a list of the watch faces installed on your watch, utterly useless) and finally Settings (useful but rarely needed after setup). That's 6 clicks, and only if you installed the app you want to use first. If not, there's no other way to even organize that order either. If I found, for instance, 8 apps I wanted to use and just stick with the standard watch faces, I would have to click through the 5 built-in options, plus every other installed app in the list, just to get to what I want to use. This can and should be easily handled in the Pebble App on my phone, and I hope it is fixed soon. Again, first world problems, but it's little things like that that a company like Apple will jump on and make this product obsolete before it really got started. There were music players before the iPod, Apple just made it SUPER easy to use. The same thing can be said for notifications. I'm not sure if there's a way around this due to the way they're sent to the watch, but if I already have my phone out and a message comes in, I don't need to see that on my watch, but there it is anyway, waiting for me to clear it before I can see the time again. Tiny little things, but they take me out of that seamless experience I'm used to having with all my connected devices. 

In short, I am really enjoying my Pebble watch so far, I really am, but it's not perfect by a long shot, and I'm glad I went with the standard version instead of spending extra money on the Steel version, since I can see some obvious ways another company could swoop in and improve on what Pebble has started here. So, while there are a few bumps in the road, I'm happy to be on the bandwagon, and I'm enjoying seeing new apps and watch faces pop up every day from the active and growing development community. I think the Pebble is very close to being ready for mass consumers, and I love seeing a small player trample the other smart watches on the market from bigger companies. For now, if you tend to lean on the geeky side of things, and don't mind technology that's certainly helpful, if a little rough around the edges, I definitely suggest trying one out. Otherwise, think about holding off for a year or so. 

What do you think? Do wearables like the Pebble interest you? Sound off in the comments!

I'll leave you with a couple of my favourite geeky watch faces. 

A little throwback for classic Mac fans

The Q Watch: Inspired by Goldeneye 007 for N64, the left side represents battery health, the right is your Bluetooth Connection Strength

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