5th Dec 2013 | 00:46
There's a reason why it's making a splash
Introduction and design
When we're all rocking smartwatches in ten years time, will we thank the Pebble? Some people will say so. Some people argue it's not even a smartwatch yet.
But whatever chord the Pebble strikes with you, there's no denying that the watch has gained an impressive amount of admiration, completely smashing past its initial Kickstarter funding goal and reigniting interest in an area of tech that was seemingly dead and buried.
It's a fact that seems almost ludicrous for something so understated - but the simplicity is half of what makes the Pebble so appealing. A Galaxy Gear-style kitchen sink watch, this is not.
The other half of Pebble's success lies in its customisation and openness. From watch faces to apps, you can completely tailor the Pebble to you, and for the resonable price of $150 (about £92, AU$166). It's the Linux of smartwatches, if you will.
The design of the Pebble might be its biggest area of contestation. Sure, it's a lot more understated in its looks than many of its rivals and could easily be mistaken for nothing more than a basic time teller, but it's likely to prove to be a tad too big for those with smaller wrists.
I wouldn't call the Pebble bulky but it's on the border of being so, and certainly has a tendency to snag if you're putting on anything with narrow sleeves.
The fact it doesn't come in different sizes means that there's no convenient way to get around these problems. But for most people, the watch will fit comfortably enough, even if it's not as snug as it could be. The Sony Smartwatch 2 is still nicer.
The Pebble comes in white, black, grey, red or orange. Beyond the face, the ticker also comes with a 22mm plastic watch strap which is nice and comfortable, but you can switch that out for a strap of your own choosing if you so wish.
The Pebble might be a very passive device but it does require some level of interaction. And how do we interact with it? Buttons! You remember those, right?
On the left of the watch face is one big home button, while three others can be found on the right side - up, down and select. Below the button on the left you also have three contact points for connecting the magnetic charger that comes bundled in the box. And yes, that is the only way to charge it, annoyingly.
The good news is that the Pebble has an impressively long battery life. I found I could expect to get between five and seven days of moderate use without the need for a charge.
The Pebble feels robust, although build quality of the buttons doesn't feel particularly amazing. In fact, using buttons (especially ones this big) just feels a bit odd in these modern times. But they're enough to meet the simple demands of the watch in its current form.
Which brings things to the display. When you look at what else is out there, the Pebble's e-paper display (no, not e-ink, this is a low-power monochrome LCD) looks a bit primitive but, once again, fits with the watch's simplicity.
Chances are we'll see the Pebble introduce a colour display somewhere down the line but the black and white screen makes the watch easy to read in a variety of lighting conditions - although direct sun glare does tend to reflect quite harshly.
There's also a backlight that's activated when you press a button on the Pebble or - thanks to the inbuilt accelerometer - jerk your wrist quickly.
Plus, the Pebble is waterproof to 5 atmospheres, which means you can even take it for a swim in fresh or salt water and it'll be absolutely fine. Just don't go below 160 feet.
Features and apps
Features and apps
While the watch itself runs on its own Pebble OS, it supports both iPhone and Android. In a market of Android-only smartwatches, this earns it bonus points from the very start. For this review I primarily used iOS 7, though I also tested it out with Android too.
In order to get the Pebble up and running you'll need to install the official Pebble app. Like the watch itself, it's an extremely basic-looking piece of software but it gets the job done. As soon as you're paired via Bluetooth 4.0, you're good to start playing.
Out of the box, the Pebble is primarily a notification device,requiring little interaction with the watch. One baked-in feature gives you control of music playback happening on your phone, letting you skip and pause tracks. It also displays incoming phone calls and will let you accept or reject them using the watch buttons.
What you can't do is actually have a phone conversation through the Pebble, but I consider this a positive rather than a negative. We might have marvelled at the Dick Tracy watch back in the day, but now it's a possibility we've realised that no one really wants to speak into their wrist.
It says a lot that even after all these years we still make remarks about people who walk down the street talking into their Bluetooth headsets. Chatting into a watch is the same sort of deal.
But it's notifications that are the most useful and impressive aspect of the Pebble. Notifications on your phone are almost instantly transmitted to the watch, which will give you a gentle vibrate to get your attention. What's more, the recent 1.3 firmware update has given the Pebble full support for iOS 7 and its Notification Center, bringing it closer in line with the Android experience.
Texts, tweets, Facebook alerts, Google Maps alerts, Snapchat notifications - you can have as many or as few of them as you wish. The Pebble is great news for phone-checking compulsives in this age of endless notifications; if your wrist isn't rumbling, there's nothing significant to report.
Yes, the perceived liberation from your phone is ironic given that you're now essentially wearing it, but if that means less pocket fumbling every five minutes then I'm all for it.
But chances are you'll soon be over the pre-installed features and want to see what else is out there. This is where the Pebble really takes off.
There's a massive developer community supporting the Pebble, even a Pebble Subreddit. Venture out and you'll find all sorts of apps, from Runkeeper to maps, from remote camera controllers to actual games. There are a number of apps on the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, but that's really just the beginning.
And when you do find a new app you like the look of, all you need to do is download it to the phone, open it in up and install it to the watch. Simple and easy. That's the Pebble way.
The best thing that can be said about the Pebble is that it doesn't make the mistaking of trying to be a phone on your wrist. It's much smarter than that.
Instead, Pebble is an expert notification deliverer. It's also open to total customisation, and you'll kill hours just trying out cool new watch faces and playing with new apps.
Eventually you'll find a handful you use the most and they'll be the ones that not only define your Pebble experience, but help you appreciate why the smartwatch has become a viable bit of tech.
The design won't be for everyone, likely to be especially unpopular among those with smaller wrists. Granted, it feels a lot nicer than many other options, but you get the feeling that a slicker model is just around the corner.
The fact it requires its own special charger means you'll have to carry around an extra cable with you, which is something that feels less forgivable than it does with a phone. Some sort of USB charging on the next iteration, please.
Finally, the design isn't quite up to the standard of the Sony Smartwatch 2. The lack of a colour display doesn't feel like a big deal now but it's something that people will be expecting as smartwatches become more popular.
For the most part, the Pebble excels past the other smartwatches available right now. Why? Because it's everything a smartwatch should be - simple, understated, accessible. It sounds backwards, but it's what the Pebble doesn't do that's most pleasing.
Because we don't need to talk into our watches and we certainly don't need a built-in camera. A smartwatch isn't just another screen for us to deal with - it's a way of making our lives that little bit easier.
When you're crammed on the bus at peak time, when you're out driving the car, when you've had to leave your phone charging in the other room. These are the times where having a smartwatch on your wrist makes perfect sense.
Pebble knows that. And while it's a little primitive in some respects right now, incremental upgrades will continue to pay off in the long run. It will be interesting to see how it continues to evolve into 2014.
Don't believe the smartwatch is here to stay? Pebble is ready to prove you wrong.