Pebble Steel review

Pebble has followed up the launch of its original smartwatch with the Pebble Steel, a smartwatch for grown-ups which, as the name suggests, is crafted from stainless steel rather than plastic.

Its purpose is simple: to pair with your smartphone to offer watch-based notifications without the need to look at your phone all the time. And, of course, it tells the time just like a normal watch. Of all the smartwatches so far, Pebble is our pick of the bunch.

But which one should you get? Should you opt for the cheaper but equally fun version, or the Steel because it looks like a "proper watch" and will go better with your suit?

Hiding in plain sight

When wearing the original Pebble smartwatch, in orange for our review sample, it's fair to say that not a week would go by without someone commenting on it. It's nice that it triggers such interest, in the same way as wearing something like the Nike Fuelband does.

It's a statement; a statement that you are on the cutting edge of technology and happy to overtly express that, and that seems to draw the attention of interested passers-by.

READ: Pebble review

So it came as something of a surprise when not one person asked us about the Pebble Steel when we were wearing it. Nobody seemed to notice that we were wearing "the future" - and most just thought we were checking the time because we had somewhere to be.

We tell you all this because it shows that Pebble has cracked the design to the point that it no longer looks different to a "normal" watch. But it no longer looks "special" from a tech point of view - and that can be judged as both a good and a bad thing. 

Design

The Steel looks like a standard formal watch that you would be happy to wear with any suit, shirt, or sweater. The watch itself is encased in metal and has a black bezel around its monochrome screen. It is well built, sturdy, and for the most part very "manly" in its design.

The watch is available in brushed stainless steel or matte black. We've got the stainless steel version for this review which we don't think is overly flashy or super-bling. It's very understated, but we like that.

The concept and execution hasn't changed much since the launch of the first version. In terms of operation it's just like the original Pebble with four buttons in total for accessing the menu, while a shake of the wrist turns on a light so you can see the display in the dark.

The display is the same 1.26-inch, 144 × 168 pixel e-paper panel, but now it's protected by Corning Gorilla Glass - a scratch-resistant type of glass. Also new this time around is an LED light so you can see when the Steel is charging and a logo to remind you what you're wearing, which also means the screen's position is slightly off-centre to accommodate for this and a change in the circuitry.

A new and improved magnetic charging port on the left makes charging easier, but it still suffers from the same problem of falling off if you happen to knock it. It is better than before, but still not perfect and, yes, you'll still need a bespoke cable.

Rather than the rubber strap of the original Pebble, the Steel comes with either a leather strap - it smells of glorious real leather when you take it out of the box, none of this faux nonsense - or a linked metal strap. The metal strap is silver coloured if you choose for the brushed steel facia and matte black to match black version.

You'll need a 1.5mm screwdriver to swap between metal and leather, and Pebble recommends you take the metal strap to a watch shop to get it fitted properly. Chances are it will be too big out of the box too, as for us it was massive. Once adjusted we found the Pebble Steel comfortable to wear. Just like a proper watch.

Sadly the straps aren't interchangeable with standard watch straps, but with two options in the box, that should be too much of a problem.

Non-stop notifications

The whole idea of the Pebble smartwatch is to get notifications from your phone and to do stuff with apps. On the notifications side of things the new Pebble 2.0 software works on iPhone and Android and in the case of the iPhone - which we'll deal with first - will pick up any notifications your phone sends out.

If that's an email, great. If it's your phone ringing, perfect. If it is an over-zealous zombie game informing you there is a zombie horde coming, then it's probably not ideal. That's the downside of the iPhone Pebble experience, as it has an all or nothing approach to notifications at the moment.

Setting up notifications is easy, as is setting a do not disturb feature so you are not constantly inundated with alerts through the night.

Depending on how needy you are, you can set the notifications to come through thick and fast for all your messaging services. Texts, emails, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, the list goes on - but doing so will not only drain the battery quicker, but also can become an annoyance. We've had to remove the watch a number of times because of it vibrating excessively following a successful tweet, or an office email resulting in lots of replies.

Remember, each time you get a notification on your iPhone the watch buzzes. That is amazing and annoying at the same time. Amazing because you will never miss a call again, annoying if you get loads of notifications in a short space of time.

That's less of a problem on Android as you have more control over those notifications you get. There are options for fewer notifications, with Pebble 2.0 very much sticking to the core apps: calls, messages, emails, Hangouts, and Facebook with beta support for WhatsApp. That means you get the important stuff, and not those in-game notifications.

Apps

With Pebble 2.0 you now get apps. The software is identical to that running on the original Pebble. You can store eight apps or watch faces on the phone, and more in a virtual locker. Apps range from a Yelp app to tell you where's good to go nearby, through to letting you check in to Foursquare via your wrist. There are more appearing all the time from big companies like eBay and Mercedes, and some more gimmicky ones like shaking your wrist to roll a dice.

Sadly the long and short of it is that although you'll download a bunch, you'll rarely touch them once you get them on your watch. Of all the apps available, we use Runkeeper on a regular basis, and yet we don't use it with the Steel because it's not the sort of watch you would want to go running with.

Music control is another great feature. You'll be able to play/pause and skip tracks, which is useful if your phone is in your pocket. Again, though, we would use it for commuting rather than running in the case of the Steel.

The Android app goes as far as letting you select the app you want to play music, from Play Music to Spotify and more. On the iPhone, again, you get Music controls, so a poke of the button will see playback start.

Menu

The Pebble's overall menu interface, which is best described as the same hierarchical system you use to access songs on your iPod, is a bit of an issue as its slow and cumbersome. Unlike an iPod there's no touchscreen or gesture controls.

Many of the apps available fail to recognise this slow nature, forcing you through multiple menus. By the time you've done this you might as well have got your phone out and pressed a single button instead.

It is early days and the idea behind the apps, if someone manages to crack the interface properly, gives the Pebble huge potential. It's still a step ahead of the competition, but there's room for improvement.

Checking the time

As with the original Pebble you can have multiple watch faces to suit your mood, or just to look different. Interestingly the design automatically pushed us towards analogue styled faces, which seemed more in character with the watch. You can of course run digital faces, but they don't look as good as the design of the Pebble Steel perhaps isn't as versatile as the original watch which looked good either way.

Society has deemed looking at your watch a bad thing. In most cases it means you aren't interested in what is going on and you are keen to get moving along. The Pebble, on the other hand, wants you to look at it more. Although you avoid the usual tuts you'd get if your phone was in your hand, those who aren't aware that you are wearing a smartwatch won't realise you are keeping track of the world as you talk to them.

At lunch, when you can quickly see that the person phoning you is important or irrelevant, that's great news. We love the Pebble for that feature alone, but overuse it, or take too much interest in the functions the Pebble brings when in company and people start to think you're losing interest in them.

A couple of times since wearing the Pebble Steel we've fallen foul of the "have you got to get going?" remark. "No, you were boring, so was checking email".

The perception of looking at your wrist instead of at a phone screen will change, but at the moment it is still something to bear in mind. It is just another screen and you need to manage your time in front of it with consideration. 

Running two watches

A final point regards running two watches. Now you might think "why would anyone own two Pebble watches?" but we've naturally divided them in daily use: the original Pebble for running, the Pebble Steel for the day to day. So if you already have a Pebble and are looking at the new model for something more formal in appearance then it's not an unthinkable or unlikely scenario to own both.

The good news is that you can't run both at the same time, so you won't have one buzzing in the other room while the other is on your wrist. You can only connect your phone to one Pebble at a time is the simple reason for this but, thankfully, the Pebble app doesn't forget your original smartwatch either. So you can run both but separately which we found very handy indeed.

Verdict

As a piece of technology the Pebble Steel is fantastic. It delivers the same brilliant experience as the original Pebble in a device that looks far more premium. However with that discreet new look comes a different way of using the device - an issue being that few will realise the power you have on your wrist and, for some, that's the whole reason to get a smartwatch in the first place.

Pebble smartwatches were early to the game and that has given them an advantage. For now Pebble is the best of the bunch, but whether it withstands the test of time once the likes of Apple, Samsung, or even conventional watch manufacturers start pushing aggressively into this space is yet to be seen. When we see new interface adjustments and yet more third parties making apps then this will further bolster Pebble's power and usability.

If you want a smartwatch and need to look presentable then the Pebble Steel certainly makes the "smart" in smartwatch mean more than just being clever. It's one smart looking device too and is hands-down the best smartwatch available on the market now.