Pebble review

Pebble. The name hangs in the air when you say it. The darling of Kickstarter, the smartwatch that's acceptable to own. 

Pebble was previewed at CES 2013 before shipping started later in January. With chatter about wearables now everywhere, the timing was certainly good, even if that inevitably means that Pebble now faces an increasing number of challengers for that space on your wrist.

There's the refreshed Sony SmartWatch 2, the Samsung Galaxy Gear as well as others with smaller marketing budgets, and we're sure the next 12 months will see an escalation in yet more wearable devices.

So what's all the fuss about with Pebble? Why would you consider opting for what appears, on the surface at least, to be a lesser specified device than the competitors? Read on and we'll tell you why.

It's not a smartwatch

If you think of Pebble as a smartwatch, it's difficult to separate it from an all-singing, all-dancing model like the Samsung Galaxy Gear. Samsung has packed in a great touch display, a load of functionality, a camera and more. Pebble doesn't compete and in a shoot-out in the pub, Samsung's glitz will wow your audience.

READ: Samsung Galaxy Gear review

Where the Galaxy Gear will do a chunk of stuff that your smartphone can, but in a less capable way, there's something endearing about the fact that Pebble doesn't. You can't talk to it, you can't take creepshots with it. 

But think about Pebble as a platform and things are much more exciting. There's a vibrant community, lots of apps so you can change what your Pebble does for your smartphone. It's the customisable smartphone companion that's not only widely supported by Android and iPhone devices, but manages to strike a balance that gives it appeal.

Admittedly, it's heavily steeped in geek appeal and that's the real challenge that Pebble faces moving forward: growing beyond geek chic and breaking into the realms of the common man in the face of the huge marketing that will be pushing seemingly more sophisticated alternatives.

Divided design: Sink or swim?

The Pebble's design offers a range of colours - orange, cherry red, jet black, arctic white and grey - and it's a relatively small watch, which we suspect will widen its appeal for those with smaller wrists who don't want a huge chunk of tech strapped to their arm.

It's small too, measuring 52 x 36 x 11.5mm and weighing in at just 38g. We feel that Pebble could be bigger, certainly chunkier, to give it a little more masculinity - although perhaps that'd be pushing into "stone" territory - but the slim profile means it slips under a shirt cuff in a way that some larger watches won't. Those that do want something more "suit attire" looking should check out the newer and more expensive Pebble Steel. 

The strap is 22mm wide, so it's easy enough to swap the standard black plastic strap that it ships with for something that better suits your style, perhaps to give the chunkier looks we think the Pebble would benefit from.

Aside from what we think, we've found that plenty of people have commented on it. It looks distinctive enough to be recognisable and the general feedback is that people like how it looks on the wrist.

One other key point about the Pebble is that it is water resistant to 5 atmospheres. That's the sort of waterproofing that means it doesn't mind getting wet in the shower or when you're pushed into a swimming pool. You can leave it on all the time without worry.

Putting the smart into the watch

There are four buttons on the Pebble for control: a left-hand home button and three right-hand buttons that will let you select options and navigate through menus. With no touchscreen in place you're left to work within these parameters, so in operation the Pebble is like any number of sports watches with a tiered navigation system.

Sitting in the centre of Pebble is a 1.26-inch 144 x 168 e-paper display with an LED backlight. It's important to note that the e-paper display referred to here isn't E-Ink as you'd find in the Kindle, but a low-power LCD display that's engineered to remain visible in bright conditions.

The backlighting isn't on all the time, but can be triggered with a flick of the wrist, thanks to the on-board 3D accelerometer. That means that to read the time in the dark a sharp twist of the wrist will illuminate the display for you, which is a practical and convenient solution.

There's also an ambient light sensor, as well as an e-compass, which Pebble says is something to be enabled with a future software update. 

It's all powered by an internal battery that will give you about five days of use. It uses a bespoke magnetic connector for charging - a bit like Apple's MagSafe MaxBook charger - which is a bit of a faff, as it means you need to use its dedicated cable.

It's all about apps

Pebble is really a platform. The device runs on a proprietary OS, appropriately called Pebble OS. Making changes to the device happens through the connected smartphone and for the purposes of this review, we used Android.

Running everything is an ARM-based 80MHz processor and the connection is made to your smartphone via Bluetooth 4.0. We've found the connection to be reliable during the time we've been testing it.

The starting point of setup is the official Pebble app. This will make your connection and get you started, letting you push official updates to the watch as well as letting you decide how the watch will behave.

You could just stop at the stock experience: it gives you various cool watch faces, you can control music playback on your phone, as well as set alarms. You might be happy with those functions in return for your $150, but that's not really what Pebble is about.

If you are running Pebble 2.0 then you also get access to an app store that lists thousands of apps for you to choose. The software breaks down the selection into "watch faces" and "apps" and as you can imagine there are hundreds to choose from. 

On the watch face front you can have anything from something with a eyeball to more traditional looking watch faces and the hardest part to be honest will be trying to choose one that you like. Once found, all you have to do is press add, and then the Pebble app seamlessly transfers the new watch face to your watch. There are no cables involved, plugging in, or any other faff. 

It's the same with apps, although the selection is greater and the point of purpose more focused. Here apps are pigeonholed into a number of sections including remotes, fitness, games, and daily. Most work on their own, however others need a companion app also installed on your phone. Runkeeper is a good example. It's programmed in Pebble support from the regular app so you don't really need to add anything else. Yelp, one of the new Pebble 2.0 apps needs to you install the dedicated Pebble app. 

READ: Pebble 2.0: The first eight apps to download to your new watch

The way you manage apps on the Pebble is slightly different to how you manage apps on your phone though. For starters you can only have eight apps loaded on the phone at any one time, although you can store more "favourites" in the app on your phone in a "locker". 

Loading and unloading your apps is very easy allowing you to switch stuff around quickly, but it does focus you on being specific about the task at hand. 

Apps also vary in their end goal. Apps like Dice are playful things that let you roll a dice with the flick of your wrist, while something like Pebble Cards gives you weather, RSS, notes and more. All of the Pebble apps are free, however you might have to pay for their companion apps or in the case of the third-party Sonos controller, the Sonos system itself. 

It's those such features that makes Pebble exciting because within a couple of button presses you can completely change what the watch is doing and how it does it. You might just want the time and that's no problem, you might want to have it showing your phone's battery life, missed calls, awaiting emails and weather instead.

Notifications

One of the big things about Pebble that we really like is notifications. With so many different methods of communication channeling into your smartphone, notifications is quickly becoming the hottest topic around. Android handles them well, fortunately, but with Pebble you don't need to go fishing your phone out of your pocket, just because your Aunty Mable sent you an SMS thanking you for the (late) birthday card. 

Of all the things we've done with Pebble, it is notifications that have really made an impact on us. You're driving, you get a message and it's there, at a glance, on your wrist. There's a call coming in during a meeting: your phone is on silent, but Pebble's soft vibration lets you glance and see if it's something you need to answer.

You can set-up Pebble from the default software to handle a wide range of other channels too. You can get Facebook messages, although you'll probably want to switch that off as it's all Candy Crush requests these days, and you can also get emails through it too.

Again, if you receive any volume of business emails, you'll want to avoid that, or you'll be constantly glancing at your watch. Alternatively, if you're at a tedious social function and want to keep up with what's going on it the world, without the ignominy of hoisting your phablet from your pocket, you can easily enable them.

The soft vibration of the Pebble is also great as a silent alarm, meaning that you can wake up early without an alarm that blares out, waking up whoever you happen to be sharing your bed with.

Verdict

We like the fledgling platform that Pebble runs on and we like the fact that there is a community looking to take advantage of it. It's a fun smartwatch and it feels sophisticated where others might feel like they're trying too hard or have come to market too hastily.

Is this a competitor to other smartwatches? It's certainly smart, but in the same way that ebook readers can sit in the shadow of LCD tablets, Pebble may suffer the same fate. It's easy to look at the gloss of Samsung's watch and fall for its charms, but dismissing the Pebble for not being all those things would be wrong. We prefer the Pebble.

This is the fun Pebble, for those that are looking to use it as a running watch, or like having something on their arm that is a bit different, and therefore happy to be noticed. The bright red and orange versions certainly ensure that.

The app store also makes the watch what you want it to be. It is very easy to ignore all of them and just use the Pebble with Runkeeper and notifications and be happy. Or use it to turn off your lights, or change your music. There are some apps that won't be worth bothering with - just like in Apple's App store or the Google Play Store, but if you can find the gems, they have the potential to make the Pebble even more invaluable. 

The Pebble is a charming device. It's fun to use and more importantly, feels like it does enough to compliment your smartphone rather than duplicate it. Pebble has that certain something about it. It just works - and that's something you don't necessarily get from a product with a packed-out spec sheet and none of the charm.



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