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.


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.


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 (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