Pebble watch review, part 2: one week of '10-4'

The Pebble doesn't reply, archive, or otherwise act on messages. It just tells you about them. That can be quite liberating.

Photo via Pebble/Kickstarter

With Apple purportedly exploring a watch-like device, and advances in Bluetooth technology making connected, power-saving watches a real possibility, the Pebble “smartwatch” is arriving at a very interesting time. I’ve had a Pebble on my wrist for about one week now--including showers. I wrote up my impressions of the Pebble after three days; these are the rest of my impressions.

You may have just read the word "impressions" and thought, "Whoa, hey, I don't have that kind of time!" Here is what I think of the Pebble, then, in short. I really like it: for $100, or maybe $115, but $150 seems a bit too much. And I think you have to be willing to either wait for the really interesting exercise, movement, and geo-locating apps to come along, or be excited at the prospect of pulling your phone out far less. I am both those things, and an Android user, so I really like it.

What the Pebble really does

The Pebble can control music on your smartphone, or even music on your Bluetooth speakers connected to your phone. You can also, some day soon, use cycling and running and range-finding apps without having to pull out your phone. But what I find myself doing most often is using the Pebble for this: “10-4.” 10-4, as in “Understood,” in public radio/HAM-speak.

Typically, when your smartphone receives a message--text, iMessage, Twitter, Facebook, Gmail--it vibrates or plays a sound, and you are drawn to see what’s going on. This is intriguing and exciting for the first few hours you have your brand new smartphone; soon after, you’re digging in the settings, figuring out how to turn off various kinds of notifications. At the same time, a buzz or beep in your pocket doesn’t tell you the difference between “Hey, this is your boss, contact me immediately with three new project ideas or you’re fired,” or “Picking up the kids from daycare, see you soon,” so you can’t entirely ignore every message. There are apps for every modern device that offer to filter and prioritize messages and notifications, but filters must be regularly fixed and expanded. Soon enough, you are an unwitting mechanic for everybody else’s messaging habits.

After setting up the Pebble and strapping it to your wrist, the buzz and the nature of the message are now one and the same. It is physically easier to look at your wrist than to pull out a phone, of course. But it’s also very easy to look at the first few words of a message or notification and acknowledge what it’s telling you. Pebble’s interface is designed around this idea of at-a-glance information. Messages do not stack up; there is only ever one most current message showing. You cannot reply or archive or interact with the notification, just dismiss it (except for phone calls, which you can accept or dismiss).

pebble_plus_cat_0.jpgPhoto by author
The Pebble and its quite cat-proof music controls

I’ve seen some complaints about this simplistic display, but, keep in mind that you still have your phone if you want to check on everything you’ve missed recently. The Pebble just tells you, quickly, that you need to respond to your spouse’s request to be picked up at work, or that you can ignore the 20th message about that Facebook event you’re not even going to.

If you sent every single buzz about everything that happens on your phone to your watch, it could be a two-headed, data-connected, battery-draining monster of distraction. But used with some knowledge about what’s important to you, it keeps you more aware than anxious, and makes you calm about what’s lurking in your various inboxes--because you have, after all, seen the important stuff.

Where the Pebble needs improvement

A quick hit-list of things I’ve noticed in one week of use

  • Smarter/easier connection status: I’ve woken up many times to see my phone report that it’s connected to my Pebble watch, which was actually shut down and across the house. I’ve also seen the Pebble freak out a bit when I connected my phone to Bluetooth speakers simultaneously. This stuff is not easy, especially across multiple devices, but there’s room for improvement.

  • Micro-tiny time on message screens: When you have a notification up, or you’re controlling music, the current time becomes an extremely tiny little line at the very top of the screen, in the zone of the e-paper screen that can become difficult to read at certain angles. It’s a design challenge.

  • Offer total app access on Android: As noted in my first 3-day review, there is already an app in the Google Play Store, Pebble Notifier, that can pass along notifications from any app on Android to the Pebble watch, with customized subject/ text fields. Pebble’s own app could presumably offer some version of this select-your-apps utility, and probably do it with less energy used on both sides of the watch-phone connection. iOS is a different, more restricted situation.

I find the Pebble to be good at what I think its job is: keeping you aware of things, and giving you freedom to acknowledge (“10-4”) and dismiss things as they come in. Is that utility worth Pebble’s now $150 retail price? Not to everyone, and especially not to people who use a wide range of apps on iOS, or, conversely, people who really don’t like to set up gadgets. But for the Kickstarter backers, and for those enthused at the idea of keeping on top of messages with a cursory glance and button click, the Pebble is a great product in the early days of smartwatches and inter-device awareness.

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