My Pebble arrived last Thursday and I spent the weekend getting familiar with it. A big part was just getting used to wearing a watch on my wrist again, not having worn one for over 10 years. I used to love watches going back to my Casio databank, but its surprising how many others seem to have abandoned watches altogether too.
The Pebble powered on straight away and instantly prompted to pair with my phone. I’m using the Pebble with an iPhone5 and consequently its range of notifications isn’t as wide as with Android phones, but its what I use. There is no support for anything else at present, so Windows Phone and Blackberry users are out of luck for the time being.
Download the Pebble App from iTunes (here) or from Google Play (here) to connect and configure your watch.
When connecting the App it first checks for a firmware update, which inevitably enough there was, and it downloaded it and sent it to the watch. This immediately reinforced the strength of the Pebble system, being able to update it over the air and for that system to work quickly and seamlessly is a key ingredient to any smart device.
Once updated there are a couple of iOS prompts to allow Pebble to access notifications which you need to allow in order to see calls and SMS messages.
I selected the black coloured Pebble, which together with the black watch straps makes it nice and discreet. The face has a scratch and shatter resistant lens, which despite its “anti-glare optical coating” is quite reflective, but the 144 x 168 pixel, black and white e-paper display is very readable in all light conditions. It is backlit too, which is activated by the accelerometer and a flick of the wrist. Once on it stays lit for about 4 seconds and then goes off again.
There is a large ‘Back’ button on the left side of the watch, with the charging connector below it. On the right side are 3 buttons, the top and bottom ones serve as navigation managing up and down actions, and the 3rd middle button is the ‘Enter’ button for confirming selections.
Supplied in the case is a USB charging lead, which connects to the watch via a custom magnetic connection. This allows Pebble to remain waterproof as the contacts are sealed and is a logical if more expensive improvement, made possible by the significantly increased funding provided via the huge Kickstarter backing.
The Pebble at the moment (firmware 1.8.1) has a fairly simple menu system – or Launcher as they term it. Activating the menu shows a scrollable list containing a selection of 3 preloaded watch faces (text time, fuzzy time and classic analogue), and the ability to load more via the App. The App has a further 6 watch faces at the moment (Brains, Segment Six, Just a Bit, Big Time 12hour, Big Time 24hour and TicTockToe) but with the open Pebble SDK allowing any developer to create their own and submit it for inclusion.
In addition to the watch faces, there is a music control section, which displays the name of the track currently playing. Top and bottom buttons skip forward and back tracks, and the middle button serves as the Play/Pause. It seems to work with whichever App is playing music, it works perfectly with my favourite podcast App Downcast (see our review of Downcast here) which is great. One on my complaints about the Plantronics M55 Bluetooth headset (see my M55 review here) was that it could play podcasts for you but there was now way to pause them without getting your phone it of your pocket. Well Pebble has solved this problem nicely too.
Moving down from the music control app is the Alarm app. Here you can set multiple alarms, which will vibrate the watch on your wrist at the appointed time. There are no audible sounds on the Pebble – vibration its its only notification option. The alarms work regardless of connectivity status to a phone.
Last on the list is the Settings section, which shows you Bluetooth status (what phones are connected), the ability to set the date and time – although this is automatically set by your phone, display settings for font size and turning off the backlight. About shows information about the watch including the Bluetooth MAC address and firmware version.
The last two items within Settings allow you to shut down the watch if you don’t plan to use it for an extended period and a factory reset option.
Some of the headline software features, such as RunKeeper support and a Golf Rangefinder app are disappointingly missing at present. These should hopefully be available soon although there’s still no dates as yet.
This is the real meat of what so many people, including myself, were interested in. The first device to officially support iOS notifications, Pebble gives you instant alerts for text messages, phone calls and emails.
It’s hard to describe the experience of glancing at your wrist to see who’s calling you. Not only who’s just sent you a text message, but that they’ve said. What email you’ve just received. Liberating is the best word I can come up with. It’s so easy. You don’t have to take your phone out of your pocket or bag, you can see if something is important or not quickly and discretely. Reject a call if you’re busy or if its important take your phone out and answer it. Even better, if you’re using a Bluetooth or wired headset, answer it on that.
That’s about it for iOS (I’ve never been a fan of jail breaking, but I know further options exist if you take that route) but in Android you can also have things like Tweets and Google Voice SMS and Google Talk notifications displayed on the watch – I can only hope this level of functionality is enabled by Apple too in the future.
The only thing lacking is the ability to better respond to these notifications. Imagine being able to reject a call, and use the built in canned text replies? Or responding to a text message or email. Of course this requires an input system that isn’t available on the Pebble or any other Smartwatch. At the moment.
The battery life, in the 4 days I’ve had it so far, has been great. It’s running off the charge it was delivered with and hasn’t needed connecting to power yet. I’m averaging about 10 SMS notifications, 2 to 3 calls and numerous emails each day, in addition to activating the backlight to see the time in the evenings and overnight. Pebble estimate that the watch will run for between 5 and 7 days per charge, this of course varies on the number of notifications the watch has to report, but so far I’d say that estimate is accurate.
Oddly the battery indicator only shows when the watch is charging or running out of power. The first battery sign indicates 12-20 hours remaining with a further change of indicator for very low power. This will work perfectly though, allowing you to leave the charging lead at home, knowing that even if the low battery notification pops up on your way to work, it will still comfortably get you through the day.
Pebble have yet to enable connectivity over the low-power Bluetooth 4 chip, instead still using the more hungry 2.1+ EDR. When 4 is enabled and used with compatible devices, like the iPhone5, I expect the battery life to improve further, but even at this stage it meets the minimum requirements to be a usable solution for me which “once a week” charging.
This is probably the main weak point at the moment for me, and for various other reports I’ve seen online. After the initial connection request is authorised, if the watch and smartphone go out of Bluetooth range from each other, or the watch is powered down, very often the authorisation request pops up again. Not every time either, which is inconsistent, but some of the time.
Also Caller ID doesn’t seem to be working for me at the moment. I received a prompt to allow Pebble access to my contacts which I approved, but calls just display numbers at the moment. I’m still investigating if this is a configuration issue or an actual bug. The beauty of the over the air firmware delivery and a nimble development team though, means this critical link should become more stable with future updates. There are decent articles on help.getbebble.com on iOS Bluetooth troubleshooting and Android Bluetooth troubleshooting, but unfortunately this serves to highlight the instability of Bluetooth connections.
Overall the Pebble Smartwatch is a great device, the best looking watch I’ve seen available to date, with a wealth of features.
My chief worry however is that Pebble has been a victim of its own success. The unprecedented Kickstarter response, garnering over $10 million in backing, may have awoken the sleeping giant of Apple. No doubt they will have considered the area of wearable technology already but the scale of this interest has shown there is much greater demand than anyone previously thought.
Rumours abound at the moment of a dedicated team inside Cupertino working on an ‘iWatch’ and if one is released by Apple you can guarantee it will have access to more features, and provide more functionality than any third party product is allowed to do.
The main disadvantage of the Pebble, mentioned above, is its lack of input. If Apple releases its iWatch with Siri integration – bringing voice dictation and consequently email and text messaging capability? Well to put it simply, it’s another market they’ll dominate.