March 12, 2013, 10:17 AM —
Image via Pebble
I was one of nearly 69,000 people who pledged a collective $10 million to the Kickstarter project to build Pebble, an intriguing "smartwatch." Long story short, it took many, many months more than expected for Pebble to figure out its manufacturing needs and get the watches out, but mine finally arrived on Friday. I like it, but it's definitely not a mass-market thing. It might just be great for very particular Android owners.
The goal of the Pebble is to provide a literally at-a-glance look at data and notifications for which you would normally need to pull your phone from your pocket. It does this by pushing notifications over Bluetooth from your phone to your watch: text messages, Twitter/Facebook updates, calendar reminders, and more. It's an e-paper watch, meaning that, similar to Kindle's e-ink Kindles, you can see the screen in direct sunlight. You can swap in and out some very creative and stylish watch faces, and, some day soon, use your watch to track your golf range, your exercise distance, and more.
That last bit is key: "some day soon." The Pebble is very much a product in development after it lands on your wrist. There is literally technology inside the Pebble, like Bluetooth low energy, or BLE, that is not accessible right now, but will be unlocked by a future software patch. Many of the features touted by Pebble's website have yet to arrive on the watch, including some watch faces that have simple things, like today's date. If you want to really extend your Pebble beyond the basic message notifications it carries right now, you'll need to have an Android phone and install some extra things—more on that in a bit.
On the hardware front, the Pebble is rather neat. The curved watch body has a scratch-resistant lens that I and my dog have, inadvertently, put through its paces this past weekend—so far, completely clean and smooth. The body is water resistant to 5 atmospheres, which is why the charger involves a proprietary USB cable with a pin connection. That charger slips off very, very easily, which means you might wake up with your watch not fully charged if you jiggled the cable overnight. The Pebble has a good weight on your wrist, and while the strap is a fairly basic rubber-like number with square latch holes, it is a standard 22-millimeter size, so you can swap in anything you feel works better. Overall, it has a modestly modern look that I like.
Photo by Jemal/Flickr
Speaking of charging, that is the second-most important thing to consider in considering a Pebble. Can your phone stand to lose 5 to 10 percent of its charge every day? That's what Pebble claims an all-day Bluetooth connection to a watch will cost your device. And that's probably an estimate for a newer phone with a fresh battery. If you have any existing concerns about your battery, the Pebble is not for you. That battery-saving low power mode is on the way, sure, but only for phones sporting Bluetooth 4.0 chips, which, right now, is basically the iPhone 5, the Nexus 4, and a few others. One friend saw serious battery drain, to the point where he was forced to avoid a dead iPhone at 2 p.m., but my Galaxy Nexus seems to be okay with the Pebble, with just a trickle more juice taken out.
As for the Pebble's own battery, I haven't had it more than three days to really test it, and I fully charged it the first night I had it. I've read and heard both "one day, two max" and "yep, seven days' charge," so it will be interesting.
In general, an Android seems to work better than an iPhone with the Pebble. Not that some people might not get everything they need from the iOS app, but if you're looking for complete phone-to-watch connectivity, Apple doesn't quite allow that. With Android, there's a bit more flexibility in the information flow, due mostly to how Pebble and other apps can register themselves as "accessibility tools," allowing for full data access. Still, though, the Pebble only grabs a modest set of notifications on its own. But one quick glance through the Play Store, and you find many third-party apps that can step in. The easiest and most reliable seems to be the aptly named Pebble Notifier, which pulls up a list of every app you have installed on your phone. Click the apps you want to be able to send notifications to your Pebble, and now you get alerts from news feeds, Google+, or whatever you like.
The Pebble is a really neat step forward for the nascent smartwatch market. It certainly seems quite a few steps ahead of the alternately awkward and overpriced competition, as reviewed by David Pogue at the New York Times. If you truly feel that the annoyance of pulling your phone out to constantly check up on text messages and smartphone ephemera—or, like me, your tendency to miss some important messages and phone calls—demands a solution that is worth $150, it's a neat and somewhat stylish fix. And if you're an Android enthusiast, in particular, the Pebble watch could make sense. But you can also wait to see how the Pebble ecosystem of watch faces, apps, and connectivity plays out over the next few weeks or months, and then decide if the Pebble fits on your wrist.