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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Review: LG Optimus Elite for Virgin Mobile


eliteYou might recall a post I wrote in April in which I was debating whether to stick with Virgin Mobile or move on to T-Mobile since Virgin was going to make it practically impossible for users to avoid rate increases by implementing said increases upon the activation of any smartphone released after May 2012.

I thought long and hard about it and decided to stick with them by buying the Optimus Elite, and here is my review of the device which I’ve had for a couple of weeks.

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My Most Essential Android Apps, Part II


As promised, this post will be dedicated strictly to the apps related to photography.

Let’s get one thing out in the open: when it comes to photography apps, iOS definitely has Android beat. I check AppShopper daily on my iPod for literally thousands of free iOS apps and there’s always an abundance of photography apps. There may be a few I’d love to have but being my iPod is 3rd-gen and sans camera, they don’t do me much good.

So I’ll go and check both Android Marketplace and Amazon App Store for the app I saw and I’m not too surprised when I can’t find it. It’s a shame because some of them look like they’d be winners.

But I can’t cry over that, can I? I’ve found a few Android photography apps that I really like and use them more than the standard camera app because they are so versatile. So without any further ado, here they are and in no particular order.

quickpicQuickPic (free): If there’s one thing that I can’t stand about the Android OS, it’s the Gallery photo viewer. It tries too hard to be pretty and visually stunning and as a result, lags badly. I don’t need that. What I need is an app that will show my images when I click on it without any goofy transitions or bells or whistles. This is where QuickPic excels because it does just that: it works, and quickly. Because of this, QuickPic is my default photo viewer and it should be yours, too.

retrocamRetro Camera (standard and full version available, downloaded full version for free as part of Amazon’s Free App of the Day, regular $2.99): This is by far my most favorite camera app. While both free and full versions offer several different camera types, the full version comes exclusively with the Hipsteroku camera which is cool but not stunning. The only setback with this app is that it sometimes takes time to load so if you’re looking to shoot something really quickly, this might not be the app for you but if you see some kind of inanimate objects that would make a nice artsy shot, then this will do you just fine. Here’s a shot I took over the weekend in my hometown of Wilmington, CA:

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I’ve printed some shots taken with Retro Camera + and they all turned out pretty clear considering the camera’s miniscule 3.2MP resolution. The full version offers many, many more options such as ASA, shutter button assignment, memory consumption, etc. and is worth the price.

picsayPicSay (standard and full version available, downloaded full version for free as part of Amazon’s Free App of the Day, regular $3.99): So you’ve taken a few pictures with your phone and realize that a lot of them could use a little help. PicSay can easily help you transform your dark, off-color, of just plain dull images into something worth sharing by letting you adjust contrast, RGB, or even add text balloons to them. As always, the standard version will give you a good idea of what the app is capable of doing but is lacking in a handful of features and options, which is why I jumped on this one right away when it was Amazon’s Free App of the Day. If you’re not up to spending the money now, give the free version a shot. It’s pretty cool.

picplzPicplz (free): Part of the fun of owning a smartphone is having the ability to share your images with friends or more than likely, your social network. Picplz does just that and does it rather well, allowing you to post your image to Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Flickr, Tumblr, Dropbox, or Posterous – all at once, if you please. All of those options make it my favorite photo-sharing app, despite its poor results if you choose to one of its built-in filters which can be applied before uploading. They look good on the phone but once uploaded, then appear really murky. But hey, that’s why we have PicSay, right?

pocketPocketbooth (downloaded for free as part of Amazon’s Free App of the Day, regular $1.99): Do you remember the old photo booths? The cramped space, that funny, spinning stool that couldn’t support more than 150 pounds, the smell of the photo chemicals on your strip of pictures when they were spit out of the side of the machine? You don’t? Well, I do because I’m old, okay? The Pocketbooth app is just plain fun because it takes people like me back to the days of the photo booth but without all of the mess or claustrophobia. This app takes 3 or 4 images in a row, just like the classic photo booths, in black-and-white, color, sepia or antique. You can also choose (virtual) matte or glossy texture as well as the color of the border. Not quite as fun as the real thing but a bit of nostalgia nonetheless. Here’s a sample taken with the app.

Honorable Mention: Fatbooth (free): Have you ever wondered what you’d look like if you were of a larger girth? Download Fatbooth and see for yourself! I tried it on our cat Monte and the results were pretty funny.

While I’m constantly on the lookout for any new and exciting photo apps for my phone, most of them seem to be rather lackluster. These, in my opinion, are the best ones I’ve come across as of this post. Give them a shot and see what you think.

My Most Essential Android Apps, Part I


Ever since I got my Virgin Mobile Optimus V smartphone, I’ve been downloading apps like a madman. The bummer, of course, is the phone’s extremely limited memory that gets maxed out in no time at all.

Once I made this discovery I decided that if an app was going to be on my phone, it had to be worth the memory it was occupying (read: little to no games; mostly productivity). I’d now like to entertain you with a list of some of my most essential apps which will be divided up into a few posts. Note that they are not in any order of preference.

amazon-app-store-app_thumbAmazon Appstore (free): Although their selection isn’t as wide as the Android Marketplace, the Amazon Appstore is great in that it offers a free paid app every day. Sometimes the apps are worthy of jumping on right away and other times you don’t want to give them a second thought because of their ratings. Either way, offering an app that will be regular price the next day is a great way to try it and if you decide you don’t like it, you haven’t lost a dime – and you can always go back and download it again if you’re one of those indecisive types like me. I’ve saved a ton of money with this app and it’s pretty much where I get most of my apps now.

hi-124-1SMS Popup (free; full version available): As I had mentioned in my review of the LG Optimus V, one thing the phone lacks is any kind of visual alert (in silent mode) for text messages. And being I work in a rather quite place, I need to keep my phone volume off and can’t always hear it vibrate since I listen to my iPod all day while I work. SMS Popup solves this issue by popping up a dialog box on my screen with the sender’s info and their SMS. It takes a little configuring to get it just right (disabling SMS alerts in the main Android settings) but once I figured it out, it was well worth the effort. The app also allows you to assign different notification sounds to your contacts so you know where the incoming message is coming from without looking at the screen. Highly recommended.

hi-124-21Office Calculator Free (free; full version available): I suck at math, which pretty much explains why I live from paycheck to paycheck. And while I know my fractions/percentages fairly well and can figure out what the discount may be when something’s on sale, most of the time I need a little help. That’s why Office Calculator Free is by far the best calculator app I’ve tried. Why? One key: %=. That’s right, one little key has separated this one from the pack. Say something is $247.99 and there’s a 33% discount. Hey, no problem! The price is $166.15. But tax is 8.75%! Okay, the total will be $189.69. I just used it to figure those out. Cool, eh? It also has a faux tape of your running calculations so you can go back and see what you’ve done. I like this one a lot because, well, I suck at math.

71oqDV7iSrLApp 2 SD Pro (downloaded for free as part of Amazon’s Free App of the Day, regular $1.49; free version also available): App 2 SD is a simple app that does a few things. First, it offers an easy way to view, move, and uninstall apps from your phone and separates them by Moveable, On SD Card, and Phone Only categories. The good thing is that it doesn’t list all those useless bloatware apps like Twidroyd and airG Chat that can’t be deleted; it only lists those that can. Once you install an app that is capable of being moved to your SD card, it will prompt you and ask if you would like to move it. Easy stuff but note that if the app offers a widget and you love it to the SD card, chances are that the widget will not be functional and not show up when you want to add it to your Home screen. App 2 SD also lets you easily (and that’s the keyword here) clear up space from your cache so your phone has more memory to work with. I have not been disappointed by this one, especially since I got it for free.

817fEX QIbLTweetCaster Premium (downloaded for free as part of Amazon’s Free App of the Day, regular $4.99; free version also available): Up until I started using TweetCaster, I tried my share of Twitter apps and each had their faults. Seesmic was a bit clunky, and HootSuite and TweetDeck gave me serious heck when it came to configuring. I solved most of those issues once I started using TweetCaster which also encouraged me to do a bit more tweeting. TweetCaster allows you to post to multiple Twitter accounts as well as your Facebook status, both of which can be the same (but under 140 characters, naturally). True, I still have to use a separate app for Facebook browsing but I that’s okay; I use Twitter as more of a news-gathering site anyhow. Facebook is more of a social thing that gets cluttered with too much other stuff when I just want some quick news from those I’m following. TweetCaster does the trick beautifully and functionally.

Well, there’s the first five of what will be, well, I don’t know how many I plan to write about. Just keep checking back for more as I continue to use my phone and make note of my most often used apps. All I know is that there are a bunch of photography apps that I use regularly. Okay, tomorrow I’ll write about those.

Oh and special thanks to reader Branni Mikal who left a nice comment on my review of the Optimus V that inspired this and the following posts. Hopefully this will help them and any others who might be wondering what to download to their phone next.

Thanks Branni, and congrats on your purchase. You will love this phone!

App Review: Bike Repair


518WzXhc1BLI know two things about my bike: it has wheels and I like to ride it. In fact, it’s become a weekend tradition of mine to saddle up and hit the local trails down to the beach or ride circuitously around the park just so I can log at least 20 miles.

No, it’s not exactly Tour de France but it’s something  look forward to doing since I no longer weigh 300 pounds, with the 20-mile mark being my weekly milestone as sort of an in-your-face to my former flabby self.

All of that said, and despite putting hundreds of miles on it, I don’t know jack about fixing my bike. Sure, I’ve replaced a tube now and then but the most difficult part of that is finding the right tube for your tire. The rest is pretty easy.

But as far as major repairs go I’m a novice and frankly, a bit worried about attempting to make any kind of repair – especially if it involves the brakes.

That’s why I decided to buy the Bike Repair app for my Android phone and while I haven’t made any repairs just yet, I’ve been nosing through the app and I can tell you that it was definitely money well spent.

Take a look at the main screen:

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You just scroll down and see which part of your bike you suspect there is a problem with and it will give you a list of options. So let’s say it’s your rear derailleur giving you heck. Press that and you get this screen:

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Hopefully, your problem is listed here and if it is, choose it and you get the problem’s explanation and solution. The app goes into great detail in plain, well-written English to explain what it takes to solve the issue. It also includes a list of tools and even step-by-step images for those of us who aren’t exactly comfortable with bike repairs.

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I don’t think it can get much easier than this. I will give it a through look-through this weekend since I do need to give my bike an inspection, which the app also covers in great detail. It even has pictures showing how to use a chain tool, something I didn’t even know existed until the app pointed it out to me.

Hey, I said I was a novice right? But as is obvious, this app has already given me some knowledge on how to keep my bike functioning in top condition and how to avoid potential future problems.

Price: The Bike Repair app averages $3 between the three major outlets (Amazon, Android Marketplace, iTunes) but I got it on sale for .99 cents at the Amazon Appstore for Android. Note that with so much offline detail, the app is a huge file at over 30MB so Android users had better make sure there is room on their card to hold it since, well, this will kill your internal memory. The download did stall a few times but closing and re-opening  the Amazon Appstore app did the trick and it went straight to my microSD card so no shuffling was required. Also, because of the file size, I’d recommend using wi-fi.

All in all, with its 42 guides and 58 problems explained, Bike Repair is a definite must-have for the novice and serious cyclist alike. Just make sure to remove any muck from your hands before scrolling through the app’s pages. Things could get ugly.

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