Geek Review: The Pebble Smart Watch

April 16th, 2013 | Posted in General

We interrupt this art blog for the occasional review of geeky gadgets, and today I’ll be reviewing that Kickstarter darling, the Pebble smart watch. I usually try to review gadgets from an art-centric point of view, meaning if the product has any relevance to an artist, what that might be. The Pebble has basically none, but it is quite handy in real life.

For those not familiar with the Pebble, it’s a Bluetooth watch that pairs with your smart phone and displays notifications like incoming texts or phone calls on its face, as well as doing a few other functions like controlling your music playback. This allows you to keep the phone in your pocket, but see with a quick glance at your watch who is calling, or read the full copy of a text. It works especially well with the iPhone. It uses an “ePaper” sort of display like eBook viewers use, with a backlight for low light situations. The bluetooth flavor it uses is the low-power Bluetooth 4.0, which allows for longer battery life.

I was a late supporter in the Pebble Kickstarter campaign, so my watch arrived only about a month ago compared to many getting theirs weeks earlier (although many months later than was originally promised by Pebble in their Kickstarter… I know, SHOCKING). So, I am probably going to be about the millionth person to do a review of the Pebble on the interwebbies. I had to wait to use it a bit… now that I’ve had it for several weeks, I must say I am satisfied but a little underwhelmed.

The hardware is about as basic as you can get…a chunky plastic rectangle with thick, physical buttons on the sides and a rubber strap. If you are looking for style, this isn’t it. It’s pure function. On the plus side, the screen is pretty large and the text is very readable despite the low-resolution nature of the display. The buttons might be big and bulky but they are easy to find and press as a result. the three right side buttons scroll menus up and down and select menu items. The left button turns on the backlight when in “watchface” mode or acts as a “back” button when in menus. The backlight is also activated when you flip your wrist to look at the face, eliminating the need to use that button. Also on the right is the charging socket, which is magnetic and easily connects to the end of the dedicated charging cable.

The watch does what it’s advertised to do. Once you’ve paired it with your phone, which is very easy, it will vibrate and display notifications instantly as they come in. When someone calls you, their number (or name if it’s in your contact list) appears on the screen. With the iPhone, you can dismiss the call with one button (sends it right to voicemail), or answer the call with another button. The latter might sound silly as the watch has no speakers or mic, so you have to grab your phone anyway, but that eliminates the need to do anything except take your phone out of your pocket and start talking. Dismissing is handy so the phone doesn’t keep ringing or vibrating if you can’t take the call. SMS messages simply display on the screen, along with the name or number of the person texting you. Your watch also vibrates to tell you a message has come in. There is no way to answer on the watch, of course. With music, you can control iTunes on your iOs phone, also Spotify and Pandora with pause, play, next and last track controls.

That doesn’t really sound all that sexy, does it? It’s not. Very functional, but not much more. However, I have been very surprised at how handy that basic functionality is. For me, the biggest benefit is that I never miss a call or text with it on. I don’t know about you, but with my phone in my pocket I can very easily not notice when a text or call comes in… especially with the phone in a jacket pocket. Even when on vibrate, if I am out in a mall or similarly noisier environment I often have to pull my phone out and check to see if I missed anything. There is no missing the watch vibrating. Just this very simple benefit makes it worth having. The Pebble is especially handy when I am in one of my theme park operations, because it is extremely noisy there and I am not supposed to pull out my phone at all. Also, when I’m at the drawing table it might be useful to just glance at my wrist when I get calls or texts… if I wore a watch when I work. I always take my watch off when I draw, so no use there for me. Controlling music playback is neat but kind of useless… the only reason to have that is when you are out jogging or similar, and then you are probably using headphones that have those controls on them already.

That said, I wish it could do more. Right now the only notifications it displays are calls and texts (email is supposedly coming sometime)… I don’t understand why it can’t display ANY notifications my iPhone displays. It would be great if my MLB At Bat app notifications got displayed, so I could see how much my Minnesota Twins lost by that day without digging out my phone, or have calendar reminders pop up.¬¨‚Ć In fairness to Pebble, I understand this an an Apple issue, and that if you have an Android phone you can get far more notifications. Thanks, Apple. The makers of Pebble have promised frequent updates and have released authoring tools for others to make apps that interact with the Pebble, so increased functionality is on the way. I understand there are several running apps, etc. I read about one that allows you to control PowerPoint presentations. I find that useless, as it’s easier to just hold my phone if I want to do that. However, cleverer people than myself will likely write loads of apps that make perfect sense for the functionality of the Pebble. Personally, I’d love a programmable text response you can customize, so that when you get a text one of the buttons on the Pebble with cause your phone to send reply something like “Got your text. Busy, will reply soon…”. That would be very useful.

On the bad side, I’ve experience poor battery life and intermittent Bluetooth disconnect. Pebble claims 5-6 days on a full charge. I am experiencing about 3ish. Worse, there appears to be no indicator on the Pebble as to the level of battery life, so it’s a guess at to when it will die. I’ve gotten into the habit of just charging it every night, but it would nice to have the watch tell you where the charge level is at. The Bluetooth disconnects are a real problem. It’s only happened twice, but that’s two times too many. I was surprised both times when I pulled out my phone to find a missed call and texts, and my watch was not doing its job. Both the phone and watch still said “connected”, but when I tried to test the connection it then decided to say it was not connected. I needed to reboot the phone to fix this. After that happened, I find myself occasionally testing the connection, which you can do by “pinging” the watch from the app on your phone, because I am paranoid that I can’t rely on the watch to be working. That defeats the entire purpose of the Pebble. Hopefully a future update will eliminate this.

Probably the biggest disappointment is just the aesthetics of the watch. It is as inelegant as you can get. No doubt other companies will jump on this bandwagon and start creating smart watches with equal (or better) functionality but much better design. In the meantime Pebble might not look very smart but it does some thing very smartly.

Comments

  1. Jose D. says:

    I always enjoy your gadget reviews Tom, even in this case when it’s not art related.

    Is your iPhone jailbroken? If so, there is a tweak you can install that will make every type of notification available to be sent to your bluetooth device.

    I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it, but I’m curious on what your take is on the Martian Watch (another kickstarter project). This watch does have a speaker and a mic, and you can take the calls by talking to it. The Martians also look a lot more elegant than the Pebble.

    • Tom says:

      I have seen the Martian, and while it is very stylish and the whole “Dick Tracy” thing is cool, I’d rather have something with a screen so I can read texts, emails and notifications without interruption or having to have them read to me. That is a large part of the allure of a smart watch, that it acts as a more civilized way to interact with your smartphone in company or at work.

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