by Joe White
September 18, 2013
The Pebble smart watch smashed its $100,000 Kickstarter campaign goal over a year ago, raising more than $10 million through the crowd-funding website, and the unofficial predecessor to Apple's anticipated "iWatch" started reaching customers some months back. In this article, AppAdvice goes hands-on with Pebble, and offers readers an insight into what life's like with the popular smart watch at one's side.
BackgroundIt's been over a month now since the Pebble smart watch - perhaps one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in the history of the website, and arguably one of this year's most talked-about gadgets - reached my right wrist. This might sound a lot like Apple blasphemy, but during those final days as my jet back Pebble peddled across the United States, paddled over the Atlantic, and cruised along the motorways of Britain towards my front door, it felt an awful lot like I was about to receive a next-generation iDevice. This is because Pebble, much like Apple's iPhone and iPad, is something of a game-changer, due largely to the fact that it's what many have chosen to call a "real" smart watch. Of course, we've seen similar products claiming that title in the past (there's Cookoo, for example, and a number of Linux-powered wristwatches surfaced in the first decade of the new millennium), but Pebble's impressive combination of competent hardware and well-attuned software made me and countless others shiver with anticipation back in April 2012, when its Kickstarter video first aired online. For those unfamiliar with this latest piece of gadget heaven, then, Pebble is an "e-paper"-style wristwatch that uses Bluetooth to wirelessly connect to an iPhone, or to an Android-powered smartphone, in order to deliver push notifications - such as those for phone calls, messages, and emails - "at the wrist." Using the smart watch, you can therefore check on incoming calls, read through texts and emails, and even receive social network notifications all without touching your smartphone, and thanks to Pebble's impressive battery life this sci-fi-style kind of tech-glory can last for a full seven days without a recharge. Though different prices were offered in the original Kickstarter campaign, iDevice owners can presently preorder Pebble online for $150, and it's been said that a number of Best Buy locations across the United States are once again set to stock the smart watch in the near future (though we don't know exactly where, or when). However, one downside to preordering Pebble at this moment in time is the wait: from what we've been told, the Pebble team is still working on shipping orders placed towards the end of last year, meaning new preorders are likely to take a long, long time to fulfil. But will the wait be worth it?
HardwareLet's begin, then, by talking about Pebble's hardware, starting firstly with the smart watch's display. Pebble is advertised as an e-paper smart watch, however though the Kindle-esque term "e-paper" kicks up associations of Amazon's e-reader devices, it's worth noting that for all intents and purposes the product's 1.26-inch screen is actually a liquid crystal display (LCD). Naturally, this is conducive to everyday use for a number of reasons. First, the LCD (or, to be more specific, the Sharp-manufactured MemoryLCD) makes Pebble's seven-day battery life possible: having no battery-hogging backlight-powered display built into the smart watch is a big, big power saver. More importantly, though, this energy efficient black and white display can be viewed in direct sunlight. Unlike Apple's iDevices, checking on Pebble in the great outdoors is no problem, in either rain or shine - because aside from the benefits of the smart watch's LCD screen, Pebble is also entirely water resistant. At the minute, there are five different colored Pebbles available to preorder online: Jet Black, Arctic White, Cherry Red, Orange, and Gray. However, if you've got the black model like me, you'll also find that the smart watch's screen cunningly looks larger than its 1.26 inches, since the display merges in with its black plastic surround (provided, of course, that you're using a white-on-black watch face). This trick, however, doesn't work on different colored Pebbles, whose screens may, for some, overtly seem to be a little on the small size (despite all Pebbles having the same 1.26-inch screen). One downside to owning and using a smart watch is that while wearing it, it's incredibly easy to scratch the product's screen. Though the Pebble team asserts that the smart watch features a "scratch resistant" screen, early reports soon indicated that it was nevertheless easy to catch and scratch Pebble's plastic screen while on the move. Fortunately, this is something Pebble users can counter in advance through the use of a screen protector. For my Pebble, a screen protector from Gadget Wraps is being used: these retail online for $9 and are barely noticeable once applied. Surrounding Pebble's watch-front are four buttons - one of the left, and three on the right - all of which are plastic, and come out to around 1-mm or so. The left-hand button sits alongside Pebble's charging port, and is simply a "back" button, while the three right-hand buttons are used to navigate through the smart watch's various menus, apps, and watch faces (and correspond to "up," "select," and "down"). Pressing buttons while on the go isn't a problem: since Pebble is strapped to your wrist, there's no danger of dropping and breaking the product, and bringing your free hand round to access all of the smart watch's buttons is easy to do. That being said, for the most part, users will find that while on the go they're only really interested in one button - the "back" button - since this allows users to dismiss notifications as they appear on-screen, and to activate the smart watch's built-in backlight. Talking of Pebble's backlight, the smartwatch ships with an accelerometer built in, and this cleverly allows users to sort of "shake" this backlight into action. I've found that a simple flick of the wrist is good enough in this respect, allowing me to activate Pebble's backlight while on the move, without having to press a single button. This is a great and largely under-discussed feature, and something Pebble users will undoubtedly appreciate. Finally, all Pebbles ship with watch straps, which are rubber and don't feel too bad against the skin. However, users have the option of switching these with their own 22-millimeter bands, which can be purchased online from the likes of Amazon or eBay. All in all, my impressions of Pebble's hardware are extremely positive. It's a sturdy device that looks and feels great. Just remember to grab a screen protector before first wearing the smart watch, as unlike an iDevice, Pebble is always exposed to the elements and indeed benefits from a bit of extra protection in this respect.
SoftwareThough Pebble's hardware ticks all the boxes, what makes the smart watch truly shine is the operating system that powers it, and how this OS - called Pebble OS - talks and works with our iPhones. Notifications are Pebble's forte, and as a notification-receiver the smart watch works perfectly. In order to connect Pebble to an iPhone, a companion iOS application is required. This can be downloaded free from the App Store, and guides users through the process of connecting one's Pebble to an iPhone using Bluetooth. You can even check on the connection using Pebble's iOS app, and if the connection fails, reports can be sent directly to the Pebble team from within the application. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKTrkirelbs&feature=player_embedded
If you can't see the above video, please click this link.After users have configured Pebble with their iPhone, then, notifications are pushed over to the smart watch's screen. For calls, Pebble OS displays the caller ID or number; for messages, both the sender and a large section of the message is displayed; and for emails, the sender, the subject line, and the content of the email appears on Pebble's screen. You can use Pebble's "up" and "down" buttons to scan through messages, and incoming notifications are also accompanied by a short (and largely silent) vibration. As such, Pebble users will find that audio tone alerts on their iPhone soon become entirely redundant: for the last month, I haven't heard my smartphone cry out its "marimba" or "tri-tone" call, and this has been an entirely refreshing, almost therapeutic tonic. It's not possible to compose and send text messages from Pebble, however jailbroken iPhone users can download a jailbreak app called Smartwatch Pro, which makes it possible to send off precomposed response messages from the smart watch. The same goes for email, though users can dismiss incoming calls using one of Pebble's buttons. If you happen to be popular and receive more than one un-dismissed notification, then Pebble will stack up your messages, allowing users to browse through them one at a time (with the most recent appearing first). There's no way to skip through messages, and so notifications must be scanned through entirely before moving onto the next. Though it would make more sense for a long-press of the "down" button to bypass a notification at once, this is only a minor qualm and something Pebble users won't find too annoying. Pebble OS has proved to be responsive throughout the course of my testing, and the software also features a number of built-in applications which can be accessed through the smart watch's menu. These apps include a Music application, which allows users to control the iOS Music app using Pebble, and a Set Alarm app. Both work well, with alarms waking users through short vibrations at the wrist (rather than an audible noise), which is definitely more of a relaxing and less intrusive way of waking up. Further down the menu, the Watchfaces app allows users to select a watch face for their smart watch. Though Pebble comes with three different watch faces built in, using the iOS application it's possible to install additional third-party watch faces on Pebble quickly and easily. These can all be found online (the Pebble forum is a good place to start). You'll need to be browsing using your iPhone, though, since linked watch face - and watch app - files must then be opened in the Pebble iOS app. However, most of the third-party software available for Pebble can be downloaded free of charge, which is great. Finally, a Settings app allows users to adjust Pebble's notification options, to connect or disconnect the smart watch, and to reset Pebble entirely. Below this application, any additional third-party apps downloaded online will also be included. It should also be noted that users must uninstall iOS applications using the Pebble iOS app, rather than the smart watch itself. Pebble OS works well and provides Pebble users (and developers) with a sound platform for the smart watch. Built in applications run entirely as advertised, and as mentioned, the Set Alarm app puts a refreshing spin on waking up in the morning. This combination of hardware and software results in Pebble's impressive battery life, and my smart watch has indeed reached the seven-day milestone quoted by the Pebble team (online, there are reports of Pebbles lasting beyond this estimation, too, though one imagines that this depends on the number of notifications delivered to the smart watch each day). Pebble maintains a good connection with its accompanying smartphone, and I've been able to leave my iPhone out of reach, and walk around the house (even venturing upstairs) without the Bluetooth connection dropping. Apple's iOS 7 brings support for low-energy Bluetooth 4.0, which Pebble supports, and as such the smart watch is set to become even more efficient once its users have installed the seventh iteration of Apple's mobile OS. In addition, iOS 7 also adds support for system-wide notifications to Pebble, allowing users to easily configure all manner of push notifications - regardless of the app - to work with the smart watch. For an idea of how this is going to work, take a look at the below video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjpABOt7MeY&feature=player_embedded
If you can't see the above video, please click this link.
Recommended appsThere are a number of iOS apps Pebble users may be interested in. Below, we've provided a list of our previous coverage of such applications, for potential users and Pebble owners to check out:
In addition, I've complemented my Pebble with the following Pebble OS-only watch apps:
- Pebble Hike Brings Mapping Information To The Wrist For Hikers, Runners And Bikers
- Oh, Snap! How To Shoot Images Using Your Pebble, Jailbreak-Free
- Pebble Users Can Enable Push Email Now Using eNotify For iOS
- Add Additional Features To Your Pebble Smart Watch With Smartwatch Pro
- Heartbeats Introduces Your Bluetooth Heart Monitor To A Pebble Smart Watch
- Cydia Tweak: PebbleActivator Enables Control Of Your iOS Device From A Pebble Watch
- RunKeeper Update Brings Integration With The Pebble Smartwatch
- Make The Most Of Your Pebble Smartwatch With Its Official iOS Companion App
It's also worth noting that the "Pebble Watchapp Directory" in the Pebble forums provides a space for developers to post their latest and greatest watch apps, along with their new Pebble-compatible iOS apps and app updates.
- Shoppin' with Pebble
- Multi Timer