What makes a smart watch smart?
With over $10 million raised, Pebble is one of Kickstarter's first serious success stories. The goal: create a bona fide smart watch — something more akin to the fictional Dick Tracy accessories than the real-world, pre-iPhone predecessors like the Casio Databank and Microsoft SPOT Watch — a wristwatch that can connect to your phone and interact with apps.
Watch the official video and you can see the appeal: instant notifications, health-based apps, plenty of funky watch faces and water resistance, plus iOS and Android support. What's not to like?
As it exists right now, the US$150 Pebble is a cute little watch that does some things as advertised: it receives messages and helps you screen calls, plays and pauses music from your phone and offers a cool collection of digital watch faces. It's fun at times, useful at others and feels just a little futuristic.
For the rest of the Pebble's potential, you'll have to wait — and hope. The health app is still being developed. A formal app store beyond watch faces doesn't exist. And the lack of a software development kit (SDK) means that third-party apps are currently extremely limited.
In other words, to get to that "promised" Pebble, you're taking a leap of faith that the Pebble will continue to gain relevancy to users and developers through 2013 and beyond. That may be acceptable to hard-core gadget-heads and tinkerers, but the masses used to the polish (and full feature sets) of current smartphones should think twice. The Pebble just doesn't do enough to earn a place on most people's wrists. At least, not yet. With the Martian Passport, Sony SmartWatch and others, you have to wonder how crowded the future of watches is going to get.
The Pebble has a minimalist retro-geek style that'll appeal to lovers of Kindles and Casio watches, alike. Crack open the brown cardboard box it's packaged in and you'll just get the Pebble, its USB charge cable and an invitation to go online to download further instructions.
The Pebble has a tiny (by current smart watch standards) 1.26-inch diagonal "E-Paper" display, with a 144x168-pixel resolution. E-Paper is a bit of a misleading label. This isn't E Ink, but rather a black-and-white LCD display with a more-reflective-than-usual back. In daylight, text and icons seem more crisp. There's also an LED backlight that turns on with a press of the left-side button or a flick of your wrist.
The Pebble comes in a choice of three colours (red, black or white), plus a special two-tone gray/black Kickstarter version for early adopters (my review unit). The glossy plastic face is scratch-resistant, according to Pebble's website, but I've already gotten some minor scuffs and scratches in a week of normal, careful use. The rubberised watchband feels comfortable and snug, and felt invisible after a week's wear.
The Pebble's rated at 5 ATM water resistance for uses up to and including swimming and showering. That, alone, could make a difference to potential smart watch shoppers. (Disclosure: I still took mine off for anything more than washing my hands.)
There's no touchscreen, but the four buttons handle most tasks well enough. Buttons on the right handle scrolling up and down through the main menu; the centre button selects options; and the left button both acts as a back button and activates the watch's backlight. Theoretically, you could shake the watch as another input, but that's not used much in the current software.
Under the hood, the Pebble has a three-axis accelerometer, a magnetometer and an ambient light sensor, along with a Cortex-M3 ARM processor, and a small amount of onboard storage for downloading and retaining apps and watch faces. Eight apps and watch faces can fit on the Pebble itself, and there are currently 12 free watch faces and apps in the Pebble app's "store" (11 are watch faces, one is the classic game Snake).
This smart watch has the sensors and the tech to be capable of many things ... but that's dependent, of course, on apps. And current apps don't take advantage of everything the Pebble could theoretically do.
Link via iOS or Android
The Pebble is compatible with the iPhone 3GS, 4, 4S and 5; an iPod Touch running iOS 5 or 6; and Android phones running 2.3 or later. The experience is remarkably similar: both have a Pebble app that can be downloaded and used to install or remove apps (again, right now, these are just watch faces).
There are hidden differences. In iOS, notifications are largely limited to email, SMS/iMessage and phone calls. The Music app, however, works with most music-playing apps I've tried. On Android, there's the capability to tie in notifications from other apps more easily, plus there are additional apps out there from third parties, even if they're extremely limited and not all that practical. The Music app, however, only works with your onboard music player and Google Music.
Getting pairing and notifications to work properly can be a pain, no matter which OS you choose. Both iOS and Android nest essential settings controls in odd spots outside of the Pebble App itself (in iOS, you'll have to adjust each app's notifications; in Android, you'll need to adjust Accessibility settings and tweak apps, too). The Pebble can accidentally pair with more than one phone: it got thrown into a tizzy and rebooted when I had a Galaxy Note 2 and iPhone 5 connected at once. Pairing generally works, but I kept getting pings from the Pebble app asking permission to reconnect. It's all not as utterly seamless as it could be.
Apps and features
Look at the official Pebble Watch Kickstarter page, watch the video and browse the features. You'll see several things proposed that still aren't available yet: most notably, the cycling, golf and running apps. The rest of Pebble's functions are handled either via built-in features, or via mini apps that can be loaded wirelessly over Bluetooth from your phone to the watch. No USB cables or PCs are needed. Firmware updates are handled the same way, via phone connection.
Managing these watch faces and apps is easy: the Pebble App lets you tap to delete any file or choose another one to upload via Bluetooth. It's just a shame that there aren't more.
As mentioned above, there are a small handful of third-party compatible apps, but they load separately and hook in individually. A notifier app I found on Google Play allows a larger set of compatible apps to display on the Pebble, and a second app sends GPS-acquired high-tide information to the watch, but has no settings for hourly updates or anything, really, other than the one-button "Send to Pebble" functionality.
These third-party apps don't seem integrated with the main Pebble app, either, lending a bit of a grassroots-fragmented, hobby feel to app discovery.
For iOS, the Pebble's feature set is surprisingly limited at the moment. You can connect via Bluetooth to receive notifications, which right off the bat means text messages/iMessages and incoming call info. The Pebble vibrates with a solid buzz, but doesn't have any sounds or tones. Caller ID info appears on the watch face, and you can choose to accept or ignore a call (ignore sends to voice mail). You can't literally answer the call on your wrist like you can with the Martian Passport; this is just a physical button to initiate calls, like the remote on a headset.
It amounts to a wrist-mounted pager, which is what many smart watches of 2013 are aspiring to be. That's not such a bad thing; after all, I often find my phone annoyingly out of reach, or the ringtone or vibration hard to hear or feel, so the Pebble gives me better awareness of who's calling or texting in noisy, busy places.
The other functions of the Pebble are less exciting. A built-in music control app shows song and artist info, and offers basic play/pause/track skipping controls for most music apps on iOS (Spotify, Pandora, Music, Amazon Cloud Player, Podcasts and TuneIn Radio all work) and Google Music on Android, but no volume adjustment or advanced menu navigation. You can't browse your music library via the Pebble, or pick a song. It could be useful as a remote when your iPhone is plugged into a dock and if your favourite headphones lack an in-line remote of their own, or if you're just curious and what's playing and don't feel like digging out your phone.
The selection of watch faces is fun; some faces are more attractive than others. But I'm spoiled by my iPod Nano, which has 12 generally better-looking animated watch faces, in full colour, no less. The Pebble's watch face gallery has some winners, but others feel hokey and low-res. It's a watch-fetishist's fantasy, though, because more watch faces are being promised from outside developers and via the forthcoming SDK.
Thankfully, the Pebble does work well as a timepiece, whether connected via Bluetooth or not. And it automatically syncs its time with your phone whenever you're paired.
What I loved over my week with the Pebble Watch: using the Pebble as a simple watch, switching up watch faces, and being able to scan incoming calls and texts on the go and in noisy places. What I didn't love: the lack of other features and the short battery life.
Battery life (for the Pebble, and your phone)
With that black-and-white E-Paper screen, you'd expect some truly excellent battery life; instead, the Pebble's rated for "two to seven days" of use between charges. In my experience over a week of use, I found it closer to two than seven.
The Pebble has its own magnetically attaching USB charge cable, which snaps on much like Apple's MagSafe Mac cables or the Surface Pro's contact connector, but the magnets are weaker. I found that the cable would snap off too easily at the slightest nudge on a table. I love the "clean-attach" philosophy, especially since it helps make the Pebble water-resistant, but you'd better not lose that cable.
It's unclear when the Pebble's done charging, exactly, or how much battery life it ever has left: a few cryptic indicators pop up from time to time, but with no consistency. There's no "Charge done" message when you plug in a cable, nor a little LED that changes colour like on the Martian. It's a little ridiculous. I kept guesstimating my charge time, and found the watch suddenly out of charge in the middle of a birthday party. An indicator fix is promised in a forthcoming software update.
I also found that keeping my phone constantly connected (the Pebble tends to frequently ping my iPhone throughout the day asking for permission to connect, an annoying bug) drained the battery. How much, exactly, is hard to tell, but it seems to at least meet the 5 per cent to 10 per cent a day claimed in the Pebble's instructions.
I love the initiative behind the Pebble, but its full potential isn't realised yet. The real question is: by the time it arrives, assuming it does, will the evolution of smart watches have passed the Pebble by? To its credit, the Pebble performs its basic functions well enough; those being to tell the time, and receive texts and caller information. But that just isn't enough to elevate it to a must-have, especially when the battery requires such frequent charging.
The Pebble does a few things well right now, though: it's affordable, it's water-resistant, it has a variety of fun watch faces and it can receive incoming caller ID and text notifications. But its battery life isn't as great as you'd think. Its uses are limited. Apps still haven't arrived yet that take advantage of the Pebble's magnetometer, accelerometer and other sensors.
In a few months, maybe the Pebble will be a programmer's playground, a tinkerer's device and an app-curious, watch-lovers' paradise. It's hard to tell with developers and SDKs. If you're a developer who knows how to program, you might be interested in the Pebble. But the average consumer might just want to wait and see what else comes down the pike.
Currently, the Pebble is a little bundle of potential more than a real killer product. But that's the kicker: it depends on whether you believe in that potential, because a lot of what could make the Pebble great isn't here yet. At the moment, it just isn't mature enough for most people to embrace it. With more apps, that could change. Apps will be what make the Pebble rise to fame or sink into obscurity.
Final impression for now: clever, but not as amazing as its Kickstarter sales pitch.