The Pebble smartwatch: 72 hours review

As a 4/12 backer (this is how people identify themselves on the shipping ranks over at reddit or the Pebble forums–those with earlier dates lord over those who have later dates as they’re likely the ones with a pebble over those who don’t. For the truly curious, you can look at this chart and think about what you are curious about.) I got my black Pebble just before Chinese New Year. CNY is important to Pebble backers because China goes into holiday mode for a week or so during CNY, and little gets done. Which means if you aren’t within the allotted 16k or so watches that were made and shipped to the distribution centers before CNY, you’ll have to wait that extra week. I guess I’m also within the first 5000 black pebble backers!

Gloating aside, the Pebble is sort of hyped, but it probably does not deserve the hype. What is really interesting about it is that it is an e-ink smartwatch. It’s not the first nor the last nor the best looking out of the lot. (Okay, the CST watch is probably too unique-looking for me; now if they made it in silver…) It is the first one with e-ink. The point about e-ink is that you can get some extraordinary battery life out of an e-ink display and designing the gadget around that low-power concept. I think this applies to mechanical and typical battery-powered watches just as much, but nobody wants to run out of juice on their watches. If you tell me I have to charge my watch every night I would not be a happy camper, even if I can live with it. The Pebble strikes a comfortable compromise at about 7 days of battery life. Throwing in waterproof at 5 ATM (as far as I know no other smartwatch does this either) you got a sale. It helps that I swim.

But anyways, the thing with smartwatch is about designing a personal electronics thing that does not rely on a feature set. This is something, sadly, that the industry as a whole suck at. Watches are not a new fangled thing. It’s about marrying new technologies together to do something pretty ordinary. Which is to say, Pebble does very little else besides as a watch with an e-ink watchface. Its most boasted secondary feature is that it funnels notifications from your phone, so if you get an email or text, it will let you know. Maybe you can even read off it. But if you were expecting the Pebble to do something special, you might be disappointed.

What e-ink offers is that you can have an always-on watchface that you can develop and customize. Pebble actually does promise this, but they haven’t released the watchface SDK (which is different than the general SDK I guess) so there are about only 7 watch faces you can choose for the time being. It defaults to the text watch watchface, and I think that is a big reason why I took a liking to back the Pebble early. There’s a widget on my phone that displays the time and date basically in the same way; I see the pebble being the wristwatch extension of the same.

For details on the hardware, I think various gadget sites like Verge and Engadget covered it well. It’s not a pretty thing but it looks durable enough and functional. The display is NOT retina, and the viewing angle is not the greatest, and it’s a not matte screen. HAHA matte screen oh man I wonder if anyone dislike the glare on your watch HAHAHAHA. Anyway, the display is not the best because it’s pretty low resolution, and if you look at some of the smaller font stuff on the watch (such as when the watch is in phone mode) it makes you feel like you’re operating a budget LCD watch. The construction is what you’d expect for a waterproof 5 ATM watch. It’s glossy, but since it lives under my sleeves most of the time, it doesn’t get any fingerprints anyway.

If there’s a knock on the construction it would be the way the buttons work. They require a good hard press, but the covering for the buttons feels loose laterally; they don’t move, but when you push down it is not a solid feeling. It’s like they’re spring-loaded but the touch trigger is just a bit aways further in. The design for the buttons could also be better–they could be a little smaller I think, and for a left-hand wearing experience, the button on the left side could be placed better. I kinda get why they put it towards the top, but it’s hard to press.

If you watched the Pebble presentation at CES, they demonstrated the accelerometer-triggered backlight. It’s nice, but it doesn’t work super well by tapping (tapping lightly doesn’t quite always do the trick), but if you flick your wrist it turns on. Which means it turns on when my left hand does anything quickly. Not a problem, but it is something I wish I could turn on or off. Other semi-important things the Pebble is missing includes the lack of a battery level display. I think if it runs out of juice, it just stops working. Having the Pebble for 3 days (after a full charge) I didn’t get to see this.

The current UI design for the music player just doesn’t work. It takes way too many presses (on those hard buttons) to get to the music app. But in the music app you can’t tell time! Actually it takes just as much work to switch back to the watchface. Ugh. And personally I prefer a volume control dial on the watch more than forward/backward, but oh well. It’s all software, so something hopefully can be fixed (or maybe more like, changed) in the future.

I won’t cover anything about iOS on the pebble, because I read it works entirely differently than Android. The Android Pebble app lets you feed some basic notification to the watch, like phone calls, texts, calendar updates. It uses the accessibility service hook to grab the texts from some app updates, like FB, Google Talk and Voice, FB, default email app, and WhatsApp. It requires authentication to use Gmail, which means you have to give it your password. Which is more than what is comfortable for me. Plus I use 2-step so that means extra-extra work. Thankfully someone wrote a Tasker-based plugin/app hybrid that simply repeat the “pipe accessibility updates to pebble” feature that the Pebble app does, but for all your apps, and I found that works a lot better since you can use it to pipe any app’s update with an easy scroll list of checkboxes. The downside is that unless you fine-tune the notification traps, you might not get all the updates you want, and you can’t fine tune anything with this 3rd party app alone. For example, I use TweakDeck, and it sends a update when it tries to send a tweet; this means sometimes it notifies the Pebble when I don’t want it to. But it’s all I can do right now, versus getting no updates from TweakDeck at all. I suppose the development work on Pebble’s part is to write that bit of the notification trap code to ignore certain notifications for that specific app. It’s something you can do with the full-blown version of Tasker, DIY, if you write that bit of the code to go with the Pebble plugin for Tasker.

I remember my Casio LCD watch I wore as a kid…I had that thing for like 6 years on one battery! It was probably also almost $100 (adjusted for inflation). (And no, it was not a calculator watch…I was not that nerdy.) So I guess that is not unreasonable to expect of the Pebble, especially since all we’ve considered is its basic functionality as a watch, and maybe how it can vibrate to remind you of a incoming text or phone call. The true promise of a Pebble is its extensive SDK crap that they haven’t delivered fully. It has the hardware to replace a Fuel Band or Fibit, it can even do other things unimaginable yet. Well the SDK is not out yet, so this is all just invisible gravy. If you’re interested in a Pebble, consider preordering, because the current pebble is just a watch. A watch that can notify you of your phone’s doing, sure, at the expense of your phone’s bluetooth power draw, but it’s still just a watch.