Computers, Electronics, Entertainment, Gadgets, Geek Stuff, Product Review, Smartphones

Review: Pebble Smartwatch


As I do on occasion, today’s post is a review about a recently acquired item. But first, let me tell you of the story behind it.

My lovely wife Ann thought it would be nice to buy me a nifty gadget – she knows I love technology – for Christmas in the form of a Metawatch Strata. While I did like it, there were a few things that I couldn’t really get used to, namely the difficult-to-read silver (?) display and its failure to control music on my phone. This would have been a great feature when I was out running. But no matter how I tried, it just wouldn’t read the music on my phone which was pretty disappointing.

After two days, I reluctantly returned it to Best Buy for an exchange. I say “reluctantly” because I am the guy who never, ever returns gifts no matter what. I just don’t do that. But in this case, with a smartwatch that wasn’t all that smart, I didn’t have much choice.

I had been researching the Pebble Smartwatch before I went to the store and ended up getting it for the same price as the Metawatch Strata (on sale for $79.99). Ann still seemed disappointed in my choice but she’s since learned that it was the right one, and here’s where the review begins. Note that I am currently using an HTC one M7, probably the best phone I’ve had, to connect to the Pebble.

unnamedWhat Is Pebble?
For starters, I should go over what exactly Pebble is. It’s a simple, functional smartwatch with a black-and-white backlit LCD display that does only what it needs to do. It’s not fancy like Samsung’s Gear smartwatches and doesn’t promise to do all the ridiculous things that Apple is saying its Apple Watch will eventually do when it’s finally released – whenever that will be. Pebble is indeed the Bauhaus of smartwatches in a market currently ruled by Warhols, and that’s a good thing.

Pebble is designed to be an extension of your smartphone by displaying notifications for incoming phone calls, emails, and texts. (Additionally, you can set the Pebble to vibrate for any and all alerts.) It also lets you control smartphone apps and functions such as music and fitness apps such as Endomondo, my preferred fitness app. You can also load apps like Yelp and onto the watch although some of them may need the full-size accompanying app (like Endomondo) on your phone in order for them to run.

Design
The Pebble is what it is: simple. You won’t be overwhelmed by its looks but if you feel that making a fashion statement is part of owning a smartwatch, then you definitely have other more expensive choices out there. It’s available in white, black, or red and if your feeling really GQ, you can go for the Pebble Steel, twice the cost of the standard model and with a few more features. As for me, I opted for black as I know it will be getting banged up and dirty between running, cycling, and the daily rigors of work.

(Speaking of getting banged up, I bought a Zagg InvisibleShield protector to cover the screen. The only image on this post without it is the one showing how to control music.)

There are a total of four buttons on the Pebble: the three right-side buttons are for navigation and the left-side button is for the backlight, although there are settings in the app to activate the light when you shake your wrist. Your choice.

Connectivity
Pebble connects to your phone via Bluetooth, which means that you should expect a shorter battery life from your phone as it is talking to the Pebble constantly. Through the use of the Pebble app, you can designate which smartphone apps you would like to receive notifications from, in my case I only have it set up for text alerts, emails, calls, and a few select apps. That’s about all I really need. When you get a notification, it will show up on the Pebble’s screen. Note that in order to receive email notifications, you must be connected to your data network. I only state this because I always have my data off. Text messages, however, will always show up but MMS messages will not send an alert to Pebble as it cannot display images.

One of the downsides I immediately noticed was that when I got a text, I still had to use my phone in order to reply. This was remedied when I discovered the Awear app which lets you reply with, not compose, short messages. You can select from a predetermined list of replies (Positive, Negative, etc.) or make your own list of personal Shortcut messages within the app to reply with (e.g. “Stupid cats!”) Despite a few bugs, Awear is exactly what I needed.

Speaking of Bluetooth, Pebble had a few problems while I was running with Bluetooth earbuds, namely freezing, resets, and songs playback being really choppy. I’ve since learned to stick with wired earbuds which isn’t a big deal since they sound better and playback is not hindered. I’ve never run more than one thing on Bluetooth before so I’m not sure if it was my phone or Pebble acting funny and not being able to handle everything.

Battery Life
The Pebble comes with one of the strangest proprietary USB charging cables I’ve ever seen: magnetized. The charger has a few small prongs extruding from it along with some small magnets. Line them up and the watch charges, but the trick is getting the charger to stick. The magnets don’t stay in place very well and the watch has to sit just right or the charger will not connect – and the watch won’t charge. The good thing is that a single charge will last you a few days if you are just using it for basic functions. Here’s a shot of the Pebble with the weird charger attached.

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However, if you plan to run other apps on top of that, then expect considerably less life from the battery. After a nearly 9-mile run the other day, it was down to 40% but being it charges quickly, it wasn’t an issue once I was home. That said, you can’t just plug any USB cable into it to charge. You’ll need to buy another proprietary one from Pebble.

Functions
I’m trying to figure out the last time I was out for a run and had this much fun. As stated earlier, Pebble can control a variety of apps including Endomondo. Before I had Pebble, it was a real pain to stop said app on my phone while standing at a crosswalk or taking a quick hydration break. Now it’s as easy as pressing a button.

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These are my stats after my run a few days ago. As you can see, the middle-right button is the start/pause button and that’s a freaking godsend when compared to reaching for my armband, waking up my phone, then hoping that it can register my tap over the armband’s thick, plastic window. With Pebble, hit that middle button and the app stops. Amazing. (While Endomondo does feature an automatic start/stop function based on your movement, I prefer doing it manually.) The three stats you see here can be changed within the Endomondo app, and Pebble requires installing their Endmondo app in order for this to work.

Then there’s the music.

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Pebble has a built-in Music app that lets you control whichever music app you choose via the Pebble app on your phone. Again, this beats the hassle of reaching for my phone all the time while running. All it takes is a few presses of a button and the music is paused. Once I’m ready to go, I start it up again. It works flawlessly.

Along with those two functions, you can install apps to give you updates on weather, sports, stocks, etc. The downside here is that Pebble limits you to a combined eight apps and watchfaces so you’d better choose wisely.

Watchfaces
Pebble comes with a few watchfaces preinstalled and you can download more via the Pebble app. More are designed by other users and some are really amazing (Mario Bros. and retro Casio faces) while others are equally crappy. Once you download them, you use the app to send them to the watch. The problem with almost all of these watchfaces is that they are more aesthetically pleasing and less functional, meaning they don’t give you stats on missed calls, texts, battery and phone life, etc. And while the Awear app has its own watchface that displays all of those things, it cannot be customized.

Enter Pebble Canvas, a third-party smartphone app that allows users to create their own custom watchfaces. Not only that, you can also customize watchfaces created by others once you download them to the app. The possibilities are practically endless. Here are the watchfaces I’ve created so far, with Basic being the most popular of the three with over 20 downloads.

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Since creating Basic, I’ve added the Bluetooth icon, unread Gmail and Weather features to it (see image under Battery Life above). While watchfaces created in Pebble Canvas won’t be nearly as clean or fancy as those available in the Pebble app’s store, they serve a better purpose and give the freedom of complete customization.

Summary
I’ve had my Pebble a few weeks and I admit that I really enjoy it. The Pebble watch is uncomplicated. Its e-reader display won’t win over a lot of people and neither will its limited functionality. However, there were plenty of people who believed that Pebble’s limited functionality was worth the $10.3 million it raised via Kickstarter. While I didn’t contribute, I’m a believer in this little smartwatch and all it has to offer despite the few hiccups I’ve encountered along the way. It’s a great running mate, a functional smartphone notification system, a fine music controller and oh yeah, it tells the time as well. I couldn’t expect it to do more and while not for everybody, I’ve been very happy with it so far.

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