Pebble: The First Great Smartwatch

The $150 Pebble isn’t the first smartwatch, but it’s the first really good smartwatch. The category isn’t new: Microsoft had its Spot Watch, which could read sports scores, news, and other info over a data radio; Fossil had the Wrist PDA, which was essentially a Palm Pilot with a wrist strap; and there were even wrist straps to convert Apple’s iPod Mini into a big and awkward watch. All of these solutions had issues: price, size, functionality, a lack of style, etc.

pebble

The Pebble succeeds because it doesn’t try to somehow fit a full-function, color computing device on your wrist. Instead, it pairs via Bluetooth with your iOS or Android smartphone and acts as an accessory for it. It can display incoming text messages, caller ID, and notifications from applications like Facebook on its battery-friendly, Kindle-like, e-paper screen. You can also use it as a remote control for music playback, pausing or skipping songs.

PebbleData

Along with displaying caller ID when your phone rings, the watch itself can vibrate as well to alert you to the incoming call. This is a very welcome feature for those of us who sometimes don’t feel the phone vibrating when it’s silenced.

The watch itself is just slightly thicker than a typical digital watch. It uses a standard 22mm watchband, so you can replace it if you want something more stylish than the black plastic strap it comes with. The 1.26-inch, 144×168 pixel monochrome e-paper display is crisp, if not particularly high-res. It’s very visible in bright sunlight, unlike the color displays used on some smartwatches. It also has a backlight which can be activated using a button, or just by flicking your wrist.

There’s a trio of built-in watchfaces, with new ones appearing on a daily basis in the Pebble forums and on the MyPebbleFaces website. Here’s my initial collection:

PebbleWatchfacesAlong with the custom watchfaces, there’s the promise of custom applications. Right now there are a few that have been created using the watch face development kit: stopwatches, Tetris, and so on. Once the full software development kit is available, there’s the promise of more sophisticated applications. The one I’m hoping for is an exercise tracker that will use the accelerometer in the watch to duplicate the functionality of the Nike+ Fuelband I’ve relegated to my right wrist, so I can stop dual-wielding devices. Pebble’s a small company, though, and the watch they projected delivering to me in September, 2012 didn’t arrive until April, 2013, so I won’t be surprised if the SDK takes a while to fully gel.

The watch comes with a magnetic USB charging cable. Battery life is rated at about a week; I just throw it on the charging cable next to my bed at night occasionally. The Pebble is rated as waterproof down to 165 feet, so no worries wearing it while showering, swimming, or snorkeling.

You can’t go out and buy a Pebble watch right now. Its development was funded using Kickstarter.com (I paid for the one I just received a few days after it was launched, in mid-2012), and as of April 2013 the company was finally almost finished shipping units to the early investors. Right now you can preorder a Pebble with planned shipping in Spring 2013. (If you really want one, you can buy one now on Amazon, but sellers are making a significant profit as of this writing.)

Some people stopped wearing watches with the advent of smartphones, because they could just look at the phone to see the time. But for the same reason I continue to wear a watch — it’s far more convenient to just glance down at your wrist than to pull out your phone and turn it on — Pebble makes info on your wrist even more attractive. It lets you keep the phone in your pocket even more often. If you get a text during a meeting, just glance at your wrist to read it. Call during the movie? Look down and see if it’s an emergency call from the babysitter or something less important.

And it even tells time.

— Denny Atkin

4 thoughts on “Pebble: The First Great Smartwatch

  1. You might want to place a warning about using watch faces from my pebblefaces.com some faces can brick your pebble. Also pebble has warned that when updates to the SDK comes it could cause issues with the watch faces and again brick your pebble.

  2. Adam, I hadn’t heard about any watchfaces bricking Pebbles. I’ll have to check the forums.

    As for SDK updates, the smart thing to do is probably to reset the Pebble before doing a firmware update, to remove any customized add-ons/faces.

  3. What about the effect the Pebble app has on the usability of your smartphone? The watch itself is good and I haven’t had any issue with scratching, like some I’d heard of, but the constant pop over request from the app to communicate with the watch is a showstopper for me.
    The problem comes about because iOS manages background apps and when it needs more memory, it can boot the app out of RAM. Pebble like to say it happens when you run a memory intensive app on your phone like a game, but for me it’s happening all the time in normal usage. Email with attachments, web pages, normal things that you use a smart phone for have a detrimental effect on the smart watch app. And because the pop over is modal, you have to select ‘Ignore’ or ‘Allow’ before you can do _anything_ else with the phone.
    That’s unacceptable for me and the only way to avoid it seems to be to turn off all the notifications to the watch and just use it as a dumb watch with changeable faces. Pebble claim their working with Apple on a fix, but that’s going to require a change to the way iOS handles background apps and memory management. Not a small task, and possibly not something their willing to change for the benefit of a third party. Pebble don’t consider this a defect and won’t consider refunding the watch because of this problem.

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