Pebble Steel

Equal parts fashionable and functional, the Pebble Steel leaps to the top of the smartwatch heap, but does so by improving existing tech rather than adding something totally new.

CNET Rating

"That's a nice-looking watch," my sister said.

I had just showed the Pebble Steel to her. She had no idea that it was a smartwatch, but she liked what she saw. For the Pebble Steel, that amounts to mission accomplished.

In the nascent field of "wearable tech," the trick is getting the gadgets in question to be both functional and fashionable — something you'd actually want to use, and want to wear. The US$249 Pebble Steel is a significant success on both levels. It's a useful smartwatch, but more importantly, it's a good-looking watch.

Beyond the significant cosmetic upgrade from the original 2013 Pebble, the Steel also delivers a worthy software upgrade, including (finally) a bona fide app store. But for all those improvements — and despite being US$100 more expensive — the Steel ultimately houses the same innards as the older model, offering identical performance. For current Pebble owners, it may feel like not enough of a step forward.

That said, the software upgrade and the improved design do wonders here. If you're looking for a watch that's good-looking and does some fun, even useful things, the Pebble Steel is a great pick. It's an excellent nerd-watch, a stylish geek product. And while it's not quite a must-buy, it is the first smartwatch I've seen that I actually want to buy.

What's new: not as much as you think

When it was released in 2013, the original Pebble Watch was a work in progress: it had an overly plastic design, a lack of apps, and no centralised app store to find any of these emerging apps in the first place. It had an overall sense of gadget tinkerer's toy, but earned its keep with a water-resistant design, great iOS and Android support, and the ability to work well when not paired to a smartphone via Bluetooth — a simple expectation where many other smartwatches fail miserably.

The new look for the Pebble Steel.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

New for 2014, the Pebble Steel has a Gorilla Glass-covered display, an all-metal steel body (it's available in matte black or brushed stainless steel), and included leather and metal watchbands. It's got smaller body, but it feels a bit thicker. The display, however, is the same. So are the processor and the backlighting. But, unlike the last Pebble, it's water resistant to 5 atmospheres (ATM) — which means it's safe in the shower or poolside. A slightly new magnetic connector for charging and an added three-colour LED for showing charge status round out the new features.

The rest is software: a new Pebble app, firmware, and an official Pebble app store, which is available through a Pebble companion app on iPhone or Android. Using the Pebble app, you can browse the Pebble app store and download new watchfaces and tools, which can then be transferred from smartphone to watch via Bluetooth. These new apps support more of the Pebble's built-in features, like its accelerometer and gyroscope, and offer deeper two-way communication with your phone.

That software, however, will also work with the original Pebble. So, in the case of the Steel, what's really and truly new is its design. But it's the design plus software that creates a true sense of "newness" around this Pebble. Here's what I liked:

It's a very cool-looking watch

Pebble nailed it this time. No matter who I've let peek at the Pebble Steel — none aware that it was a smartwatch at all — I've gotten kind words. "Nice watch." "I like the design." That's no small feat at all.

I love the way the Steel looks: it's somewhere between a Fossil and the iPod Nano-with-wristband I wore years ago. It doesn't look crazy-futuristic at all; in fact, it could look good with a suit or at a wedding.

It feels comfy, although the metal band nipped at my long wrist hairs. A leather band comes packed in, and needs less specific pre-adjusting (the metal band has an extension in the box, but extra links would need to be removed as with any metal watchband to get the right size).

The screen looks great in daylight and at night

Bright coloured smartwatch displays like the Galaxy Gear and others may seem like a good idea at first, but they shut off to conserve energy. The Pebble's "e-paper" black-and-white screen stays active all the time. It's not like e-ink, exactly, but it's more crisp and vivid in everyday light than the average LCD. The flat Gorilla Glass panel on top helps reduce glare, too, unlike the curved scratch-prone plastic of the original Pebble. A side button adds backlighting at night, or you can shake your wrist to light up the screen.

You can wear it in the shower

Most smartwatches need coddling and certainly aren't water-friendly. The Pebble Steel has 5 ATM water resistance, and while I wouldn't necessarily swim with it, it's nice to know I can wear it and not freak out if I wash my hands and forget to take it off.

The new Pebble app makes finding, downloading, and swapping apps a breeze

The Pebble never had an official app store before, sad but true: you had to find your apps on message-boards or with third-party tools. Now, at long last, there's a completely redesigned Pebble app for iPhone and Android with integrated access to the Pebble App Store. You create an account, and whatever apps you want get downloaded to the app and put installed on the Pebble as needed.

So, yes: there's a Pebble app you download on your phone, and that app opens up a gateway to all of Pebble's apps. But it's easy to manage: much like a Kindle app, you can download and collect whatever apps you find that suit your fancy and store them on your Pebble app before loading them onto the watch itself.

Installing and removing Pebble apps takes seconds: you tap the screen, and watch a progress bar as the app is loaded wirelessly via Bluetooth. The app shows what apps are on your Pebble: click one, tap "remove," and it's gone back to your app locker.

The new app and system software, which also works with the original Pebble, are maybe my favourite new features of all.

Last year, it seemed like the Pebble was mostly good for having cool watch faces, getting pager-like notifications, and not much else. Things are a lot different now: apps are finally on the Pebble, and many are pretty interesting. Some of the 200 or so apps already available for the Pebble include remotes for TVs, apps for checking calendars and lists, fitness apps for sleep-tracking, step-taking, cycling, and running (that require the use of your phone to mirror data back to the watch), home automation apps that control lights, plain text readers and some oddball games. It's a motley mix, but at least having an official app store makes finding these apps easier.

There's no better smartwatch out there

What the Pebble does, and the number of phones it works with, is arguably still better than any other smartwatch. It lacks the bells and whistles of a microphone, speaker, touchscreen or camera — but it also avoids the "jack of all trades, master of none" pitfall that befell the Samsung Galaxy Gear. It works reliably, ties into many services and notifications, and is the best watch I've seen among smartwatches.

In the current marketplace, I'd gravitate to using a Pebble Steel over another smartwatch — no question. But there are a few things I didn't like:

There are only eight storage slots for apps

Instead of offering storage space in terms of megabytes or gigabytes, the Pebble offers eight "slots" for adding anything: apps, watch faces, games. The Pebble Steel still only has eight storage slots. With the number of new apps on hand, that storage limitation becomes annoying rather quickly. Sure. getting apps on and off is a breeze with the app but it means the Pebble Steel doesn't feel as stand-alone as it should.

There still aren't any Fitbit-killing fitness apps

Sure, there are lots of apps on Pebble that mirror what your phone does: running apps, cycling apps, sleep-tracking apps, even a pedometer app that connects with the iPhone 5S and its M7 processor to display steps. But, none of these are true offline fitness-trackers that work in the background. I still can't use my Pebble to replace my Fitbit, Up, Fuelband or whatever fitness tracker I keep on my wrist.

You still need to charge it every few days

After power-using the Pebble Steel through tons of app installs, continuous toying around and doing lots of syncing, it lasted three days before needing to recharge. The Pebble Steel USB charge cable magnetically attaches like the old Pebble's, but the plug has been redesigned for a better grip (that means your old cable won't work, though).

The original Pebble below the Steel.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

Under the hood, a lot of it feels the same

LED backlight, a 144x168-pixel black-and-white display, ARM processor: if this sounds like the older Pebble Watch, that's because it is. The Pebble Steel adds Gorilla Glass and a stainless-steel case and band, as well as a three-colour LED light that indicates when the battery's charging, but everything else under the hood, including expected battery life, is about the same. You're paying for design. A year after the first Pebble debuted, it's fair to ask whether a true Pebble 2 will arrive to offer next-level performance, or whether the Steel really is the "Pebble 2."

Conclusion: The one smartwatch I'd currently want to buy

With the Pebble Steel on, I feel like I've got a regular watch on my wrist. A cool, weird one, one that can be a clever pager, or a remote, or a little computer that could tie into my Twitter account. I don't know how many of those weird little features I'd ever use, but at least they're there to browse.

The biggest problem with the Pebble Steel isn't its app selection, though. It's the fact that the new Pebble does basically the same thing as the old one: this is a cosmetic improvement, not an under-the-hood upgrade. It's even limited to the same eight slots of app/watchface storage space, which now feels extremely limiting. The admittedly crisp black-and-white display doesn't have touch.

And yet, I want to buy a Pebble Steel. This is a smartwatch the way I imagined it. It won't do everything in the world, but it'll do a lot. Its design, app selection, phone compatibility, water resistance, and overall ease of use have won me over, and everything finally feels fully-baked. There might be a better watch coming this year, and who knows what wearable tech will bring, so you might want to wait. Or, if you really want a smart watch, you might just want to take the opportunity to get on board the Pebble universe now and have some fun. It's not the Pebble redesign that's the big event here: it's the official app store and the arrival of a true next generation of Pebble apps.

The good news is, you don't need a Steel to try these new apps. An original Pebble can take advantage of them, and some people will smartly choose to save US$100. But, let's face it: you're wearing a watch for style. The best-looking watch is the Steel, and if you care about that, it's probably worth the extra cash.

But, 2014 is a long year, with lots of competition that's sure to come soon. You might just want to wait and see what the landscape brings.


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BH posted a comment   

Just a minor comment, the previous model pebble (which I own) is also waterproof to 5 ATM.

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