• The Pebble is not a smart watch, yet: A backer's review

    Oh Pebble, Pebble, Pebble. How much ink and pixels have been spent on you so far? From the initial crowd-funding effort that saw you zoom 100 times past your goal to reach $10 million and become the most-backed Kickstarter ever, to the long-delayed shipping date that came from having to make 85,000 Pebbles, to the deluge of articles about ‘smart watches’ that you've inspired since deliveries finally started. Funny thing is, Pebble themselves have never directly called it a smart watch, just a 'customisable' watch. So what is really going on, and what is the truth about the Pebble and what it is and isn't but maybe nearly is and might become?

    Unlike many professional reviewers who had their loan Pebbles for less than a week before publishing reviews (I'm looking at you The Verge), this writer was an original backer who pledged their own hard cash and suffered through the long delayed production phase. My Pebble (so glad I chose the cheaper black version as they shipped first) arrived about 12 days ago and has become the first watch that I've worn for 13 years. Yep, this is not just 'try the latest gadget' territory - this is potentially an 'iPad-level impact on how I communicate and do computing' event. To find out if it will keep its hold on the valuable space that it seems the wrist is about to become, read on...

    But first, let's discuss 'Smart Watches'. What are they? One way to think of it is to consider phones - once upon a time we never knew our Nokia bricks were 'dumb phones', until say Palm and Windows Mobile PDAs morphed into phones that could also do email, some internet and run 'applications'. Later of course the iPhone etc introduced a whole new level of 'smart' into the form factor such that today we have dumb phones at the lower simpler end, largely touch screen smart phones at the top end, and what's called 'feature phones' that provide some customisable smart features in the middle.

    Apart from the Pebble, there are several other products being crowd funded or that have even been released in the last year or so, some from major companies like Motorola, but most from startups and independent developers. Many of these I would label 'feature watches'. But the fact that this space is heating up, and that computing and communication tech has gotten small enough to fit in a watch means that its ripe for a certain fruit company to sweep in as its done before - not with the first product, but with the best product. Just google 'iWatch' and see what happens.

    Which brings us back to Pebble - is it far enough out in front to survive? What it is - is simple. Indeed Apple showed with the iPhone 1.0 that doing a few new things really well mattered more than implementing too much poorly. Right now, my Pebble can:

    • tell the time, and date
    • wake me with a buzzing alarm which is better than the audible alarm on my phone that used to sometimes disturb our 1 year old
    • display notifications that are beamed over from my phone
    • let me install new watch faces

    and thats it.

    The notifications are perhaps the most 'smart' aspect, but when I go to get pebble.com, I read that its customisable-ness should also extend to installing apps. Despite having promised an SDK for a while now however, at present, there are no apps available. When that changes, I think we really can talk about it as a smart watch, but for now, let's review the Pebble for what it is.

    Watch faces: These are cool. While not everyone will like the minimal curved plastic design of the Pebble, the fact that you can change the face to one of about 10 (currently) designs depending on your mood is a big advantage over every standard watch out there. The designs are well thought out but with enough variety, from analogue clock-hands to futuristic dots, to keep everyone happy.

    Notifications: When they work, these are great. Without knowing I needed it before, there are quite a few times when I can’t pull out my phone but when its great to get a buzz and then message on my wrist - such as when driving, or in meetings. At other times, it still feels like you don’t have to be a slave to feeling like you have to instantly jump on your phone and reply.

    What I would like is a way to scroll through the last few alerts and then tap a button and have that appear on my phone. With iOS6 however, getting notifications to consistently show up on the Pebble involves manually toggling the notification settings for each and every app you want alerts from every time you lost connection to the Pebble. For me this is once a day. I’ve surprised myself by taking the time to do this so far - a sign that I really do value the notification function I guess.

    Battery life: According to the Pebble forum and blog comments, some users are getting only 3 days of battery life rather than the usual 5-7. I am one of these. Hopefully there’ll be a firmware fix sometime as currently there isn’t even a battery indicator, and I really don’t need another gadget (I’m looking at you iPhone 5) that needs charging every night.

    Other items of note: Outside of just the Pebble -> iPhone world, I wanted to note that the development team are apparently working with IFTTT (the if-this-then-that web service that you can use to auto-trigger notifications and online actions) on a Pebble channel. ‘Other’ smartphones (ok, we are talking Android here) also get a Pebble app - which in some ways is reportedly better than the iOS one. For a start apps are already appearing in the Google Play Store that enhance the Android notification experience, and you don’t have to re-enable the notification toggles every day or so like with iOS.

    Speaking of Android, this whole space reminds me of 2012 when I bought a Nexus 7 tablet a few months before the iPad mini came out. I mean its possible that iOS7 will bring an update that allows devices like the Pebble to work fully with notifications, but its also possible that iOS7 will instead bring support for the iWatch, an Apple version that leverages their legendary in-house control of their platform’s hardware and software to go even further in this space. Actually my money is they’ll also take on Fitbit et al with sports features and call it the iPed...

    So, in closing, for the $99 I paid via Kickstarter, I think the Pebble is a great early edition to the ‘wearable-tech for the masses’ space which as an early-adopter type, I’m very happy with. It will keep its place on my wrist for sometime, especially if I can find a watch-band to replace the Pebble’s basic rubber one. If you’re not an early-adopter though, and especially seeing as the current asking price is US$150, I’d advise waiting for the promised Pebble apps to appear before making your call. Until then, consider it a good edition to your personal ‘network of things’, but please don’t call it a smart watch.


    • You can read more of Jonathan's ‘jnxyz’ articles here at Mactalk, his Education blog, or at his ‘Appcessories’ review site here. Follow his #EdTech, #Slide2learn and #iPadEd tweets as @jnxyz.
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