Pebble watch review: A tiny watch with big ambitions

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One of our guest contributors, Ian, talks us through his Pebble watch review and reveals why it is definitely a case of less is more with this groundbreaking smartwatch.

What is a Pebble?

When you look at the idea behind naming the first real smartwatch the name ‘pebble’ does not really seem quite apt.

After all a pebble in itself is small and tiny and only has one real purpose whereas the Pebble watch has many different purposes but is still smaller than other smartwatches that are currently available.  With Pebble being the first smartwatch released to the masses has it made a lasting impression or is it just another failed attempt at bringing technology that we are not ready for?

First of all my one is in orange, and looks the the one pictured above.  I could not find this in stores in Bangkok and the Pebble website (at the time) was cheaper than buying from one of the stores that now sell Pebble – even with customs tax on top.  For someone who appreciates all the latest tech you will be surprised to know that, up until a few months back, the last phone I had was a Nokia Lumia which I was very impressed with and I had never owned an Android device but I know I needed to get one to use Pebble.

Obviously, to use the Pebble I would need to have to ditch the Lumia and get either an iPhone (had an iPhone 4 – sold it to get the Lumia) or an Android device.  And now I have a Note 4 thanks to my wife buying it for me for an early Christmas present so after eagerly picking up my Pebble (well, my wife did as I was at work) I was eager to see what it could do.

There is no doubt that the Pebble is a great watch to look at.  Many people ask me what I am wearing on my wrist it is that unique but it may stand out too much for some which is probably why there is the Pebble Steel which goes well with suits and such whereas the standard Pebble is for those who are more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt.

One thing to remember about Pebble is that the screen is not colour.  Those who are expecting a display in full colour glory like the Samsung Gear or Motorola G Watch R will be disappointed.  In fact two of my friends have both of those watches and when I saw the screen I felt an initial pang of disappointment that I had made the wrong choice. You also cannot make calls on the Pebble either so seeing my friend make a call on his Gear made me a little jealous too until it failed to understand his voice and so, by the time he had actually initiated the call via the Gear, it was quicker to just use his Android device and make the call without using the watch.

This shows that making calls on a smartwatch is not quite perfected yet so the Pebble is not actually losing out by not having this feature.

Extended battery life

pebble watch orange 1

As a keen runner the Pebble also does not have built in GPS which is a shame but all of this (tiny screen in no color and no GPS) allows the Pebble to have battery life that leaves all of its rivals in the dust.  I only have to charge my Pebble once a week whilst my friends constantly need to have the USB charger on hand to make sure the watch keeps ticking. Nothing can be done on the Pebble without syncing it to a phone first.  I found this to be a simple enough process but the software did hang on the Gmail integration screen even though I had synced my Gmail account with the Pebble app on my Android phone.

To get around this I had to restart the Pebble app on my device and it seemed to work the third time I tried it.  Since I downloaded the app it has been regularly updated and you can now set the language of notifications and the actual app itself so it is good to see that the app is being updated with new features.

Updating the watch to the latest firmware is as simple as going to the Settings menu of the app on your device and checking for updates which will then be downloaded to the device via the Bluetooth connection between your device and the watch. After an update is applied the watch restarts and you get the latest software.  This brings us nicely to perhaps the weakest area of Pebble though, which, arguably is the most important and that is apps.

To start with the Pebble watch had no app store and third party websites were the way to go but this was all fixed in the release of Pebble SDK 2.0 and now the watch has its own app store and eco-system but this is where the limitations of the Pebble let it down because, as with Windows Phone in its infancy, the apps are usually from hobbyists with no real support from well-known developers but this changed with Windows Phone as it got older and Pebble is showing signs of this too with developers such as Runtastic creating dedicated apps to be used with the Pebble.

But there are still many apps that could benefit from real Pebble support.  The app store for the Pebble gives you a choice of downloading apps or a custom watchfaces so you get two choices to customise your Pebble the way you like it.  However the lack of support from well-known developers is evident as many of the apps and watchfaces have no real purpose and feel somewhat cheap.

For example I spent an age trying to find a simple watchface which allowed for multiple time zones to be showed on the same screen.  The fact that this is not included as standard (because, after all, the Pebble still functions as a normal watch) is a glaring oversight.    The watch itself features a simple to use OS which allows to play music from your connected device and you can also set alarms to wake you up as well, view notifications, turn Bluetooth on or off, change the display settings (backlight control) and reset or shut down the watch.  Everything is easy enough to navigate but the Pebble app itself and what it can give you notifications for pales compared to third party offerings.

For example, the default Pebble app does not give you notifications for LINE but the third party program, Pebble Notifier, allows you to select any Android program, device or service on your device to receive notifications for.  This easily solved my issue of no LINE notifications and I could set notices for pretty much everything on my Android device.  I showed this to my friend with the Galaxy Gear and they were impressed that so much of the OS was freely available to be accessed by the Pebble whereas their Gear was somewhat lacking (notifications for Dropbox on your device – only on Pebble!) and again this is helped by the Pebble SDK which is easy to program for (apparently).

Notifications on the go

pebble orange watch

Another benefit of Pebble Notifier is that you can get notifications for all email accounts on your device (Yahoo, Microsoft Exchange etc.) instead of just Gmail that the default Pebble application supports so, if you are not much of a Gmail user then Pebble Notifier is for you.  I believe this makes Pebble the only smartwatch to support Microsoft Exchange (I may be wrong!) so it already makes it ideal for corporate users who use Outlook or Exchange at their workplace.  Hopefully the default Pebble app will add more functionality (Whatsapp notifications were in beta last time I checked) but relying on a third party piece of software right now is the best way if you want to capture all of your usual information from your device as well as some information that may have no purpose whatsoever.

But all is not perfect with Pebble.  One issue I have found with notifications on the watch is the need to scroll through some of the messages to read it all and sadly some of the messages are still too truncated to read properly but for a quick glance to see the contents of an email or SMS is easy enough to do.  Another issue is that the Pebble has its own unique USB charger and right now there is no ability to connect this USB charger to a plug to allow for plugging it in to a wall to charge instead if you do not have a PC or Mac handy.  The Pebble is also not waterproof so you may want to keep it out of heavy rain but these are just minor niggles really.

Being able to just look at your watch to get your latest emails, SMS messages or Facebook notifications (Pebble Notifier to the rescue, again) initially feels a little strange at first.  But once you get used to it and understand the convenience of not having to grab your device all the time to get the latest information then the idea of glancing at your wrist (which vibrates) for every notification soon becomes second nature and soon you wonder what you ever did without it.

For example, imagine you are on a banking website and you need to enter a special code to authorise a transaction.  Instead of having to go to your PC, log in to your email and wait for the email to arrive you simply glance at your watch when the email arrives and you then enter the code to complete the transaction.  Having the Pebble on your wrist can actually help productivity as you can focus more on getting work done without needing to constantly keep checking your email as you simply have to glance at your wrist.

Unfortunately though the original Pebble design cannot be customised as much as the device itself, unlike the Pebble Steel, you cannot change the wristband so you are stuck with the same wristband which means you should make sure you at least pick the right colour that you want but the colour is not really an issue and the issues with the Pebble currently are actually very small.

The only smartwatch worth buying?

Pebble Watch Review

Considering the Pebble was the first smartwatch to be released thanks to Kickstarter it has grown from strength to strength and whilst it is not going to be a direct competitor to the likes of Apple Watch it does serve a purpose as an all-round watch and notification device that is cheaper than its rivals and this is what elevates Pebble at this time to be the premier smartwatch you can buy.

Sure, it doesn’t have apps you may want just yet and the display is small and not colour but it makes up for this with great battery life, easy to use software and for focusing on hardware and not features and it just gets the job done. It does what it says and nothing more and that is enough for me.

Pebble is definitely a case of less being more when compared to its rivals, sure, competitors may have more features but this comes at a price (literally and in term of hardware and software) and as Pebble is designed to be accessible to all as the world’s first smartwatch it does this job very, very well.  So, if you are thinking of taking the plunge and getting a smartwatch then get one that does everything it advertises and does it well which makes the Pebble a great place to start for those wanting to know more about smartwatches without spending too much money making it an ideal Christmas gift or treat to yourself.

Ian
Ian, in what little spare time he has, is always interested in all things tech. Ever since the Commodore Amiga up until the latest smartphones and consoles. If it's great tech then he is passionate about it and loves writing about it to anyone who is interested in reading it. Ian currently divides his time between the UK and Thailand.
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