Note: This post was originally published on iamianwright.com it’s been moved here for archival purposes.
What is a Pebble?
The Pebble smartwatch connects to your Android or iPhone handset via bluetooth and displays text messages, emails and other configurable alerts on it’s e-ink display. It’s the result of the most successful kick-starter project since the site’s launch. Pebble were originally looking for $100,000 but wound up raising a staggering $10 million during their campaign.
I thought it looked like a great product when I first saw the demo videos during the funding stage but due to a lack of funds I didn’t back it. I signed up to pre-order one in February this year and was contacted at the beginning of August to say that my Pebble was ready for me. It arrived about three weeks later and after paying around £25 in import duty it was in my grubby mitts.
It arrived in a very minimal package, just the watch and the proprietary USB charger in a long thin mailing box. The setup instructions are available online and in the companion apps for iOS and Android. Setup was almost instantaneous, download the app, open it, it asks for permission to connect on both devices and then you start configuring any IMAP accounts you want it to alert you to.
(NOTE: As I have an iPhone 5 the rest of the pebble review will be around the experience of pairing a pebble with iOS 6.)
Notifications were the main reason I wanted a pebble. Text messages (SMS) and iMessages are displayed on the Pebble in full and they work flawlessly. I have been surprised at how handy it is and I wouldn’t want to be without my Pebble for this feature alone!
Like most people I get a lot of email, some of it is even important but soon after getting my first iPhone I disabled the email notifications as it became frustrating to get my phone out when it buzzed only to delete yet more spam or social media notifications. Pebble allows you to set up a number of IMAP accounts that it watches and then notifies you when new email is received. It vibrates and displays the first few lines of the message. For email notifications to work the Pebble app has to be running in the background on the iPhone. So far I have found that it doesn’t consistently alert me to emails but it’s hardly life or death.
You can set up notifications from any app to display on the Pebble by setting them to show on the lock screen in the Notification Center preferences of the iPhone. However at the moment this is a bit hit and miss. Pushover seems to work fairly consistently but Prowl refuses to play nice with the Pebble at all. The general consensus seems to be that iOS notifications should be improved in iOS7 and until then it’s a case of turning the settings on and off until they stick.
Pebble comes with a built in Music app that allows you to play, pause, skip forward and skip back through what is playing on your iPhone. It also works flawlessly, if nothing is currently playing it will start playing wherever you left off, whether you were in an album or playlist. There are no controls to navigate through your library so you’ll have to get your iPhone out if you fancy switching album or playlist. In it’s current incarnation I think it’s perfect for skipping the dud tracks on albums while commuting or walking when you might rather leave your phone out of sight. It’s also good in shuffle mode to check the name or artist of a track you’ve forgotten.
There’s an inbuilt Alarm Clock app that allows for multiple alarms. The alarm itself is silent as it just vibrates the watch against your wrist. I don’t really have any need for it as I don’t wear it to bed and have no need of alarms during the day but it’s a sensible addition.
There is one other app included although it only gets activated when you launch a compatible companion app on the iPhone. The Sports app works with iOS apps like RunKeeper to display information on the Pebble about your workout; elapsed time, miles covered and current pace. It also allows you to pause the workout without having to get your phone out. I have been using it to track my rides to work for the last week. I found just the act of tracking them to be quite motivational and being able to put my phone in my bag and start/stop the workout from my wrist makes it much more convenient.
The Pebble SDK has been available for a few months and there are some third party apps available. Even though I didn’t buy the pebble for apps, it was a fun to play Space Invaders on my watch although the buttons make it too uncomfortable and impractical to be any more than a novelty. I did also download Cave Worm, which is a clone of a game I spent many hours playing on the school computers during form time. It runs smoothly and is easily playable, in part because it requires only one button but again it becomes uncomfortable quickly.
It will be interesting to see what third-party developers will come up with as the install base increases.
There are quite literally thousands of watchfaces available for the Pebble. The vast majority of them are created using online generators and as such are all much the same. There are some diamonds in the rough though, in the picture above I’m using Squared, I also really like the idea behind LinesWatch although it’s not easily legible. The built in Fuzzy Time face was part of the original draw for me as I’m a bit of a typography geek.
I cobbled together my own watchface with the generator and it was very simple but limiting in what you can achieve. The SDK is available and there seems to be quite an active community but I don’t have time to investigate it in detail at the moment.
Having not worn a watch for a few years it felt strange for the first day but I soon got used to it again. It’s light and comfortable on my wrist although I wonder if people with slimmer wrist might find it a little too large. The build quality is pretty much exactly what I expected, it’s not Apple’s level of industrial design but it looks good and it’s the first product from a small crowd funded startup. It’s smooth and sleek, the screen is excellent and clearly legible in all lighting conditions. It comes with a user-replacable silicone strap which I will be changing as I’ve always found they irritate my skin in the past. It’s a fairly standard size so there are plenty of options to customise the strap.
The vibrations are strong enough to get your attention but discreet enough not to alert everyone around you. The battery life is quoted at around seven days and so far that seems in keeping with my experience. I had been concerned that it might kill my iPhone’s (already poor) battery life but it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of difference and I’m still charging the phone each night.
I have received a couple of positive comments on my Pebble mostly due to the slightly peculiar watchface I’m using. It seems that most people have never heard of it but at least one person that I talked to about it asked where to buy one. I think the Pebble is understated enough that the majority of people are unlikely to remark upon it unless they recognise it.
My only real worry is scratching the face of the watch as it’s plastic. There are a number of companies offering wraps for Pebble and they also include a clear screen protector so I may invest in one of those.
After my first week with it I’m really impressed with the Pebble and I wouldn’t willingly give it up. I’ve been fascinated by wearable technology since I was a teenager and it seems like this may be the first consumer priced step on that journey. I’m hopeful that the imminent release of iOS 7 will address some of the inconsistencies with notifications and possibly allow more communication from phone to pebble.
If the much rumoured Apple smart watch ever materialises then no doubt it will have a higher build quality and be more feature rich than the Pebble but I doubt it will be priced around $150 nor will it last a week on one charge.
Pebble offers an attractive, well-priced and open platform to those interested in wearable tech. It’s probably not for everyone but it suits me and I’m looking forward to integrating Pushover in future projects purely for geek value.