Last year I pledged to the Kickstarter campaign for the Pebble watch, almost without thinking. You see, I'd written on the topic of watch computing before, and how I think it's an almost natural progression for the interface to portable personal storage and computing power. I was pretty excited to see someone start down the path of that integration innovation, so I "threw my money at them". Last week my watch arrived, and now that I've had a chance to play with it, I wanted to write up this simple review and first impression.
The watch build feels pretty crappy. I've gotten more satisfaction from old-style calculator watches from the 80's. I used to own (probably in a drawer somewhere) a watch that could control my TV with IR, and it had a more solid-feeling build than the Pebble. (Ah, the dorm days of changing the lobby TV from ESPN to MTV while the jocks were all huddled around a game...) It's not really that the Pebble feels fragile, but its plastic body and rubber watch band have more the feeling of a dime store timepiece than something that you'd spend money on for its technological features.
Could the watch be improved with a better band? Sure. I could strap a $45 gunmetal band onto the watch and it'd feel a ton improved. But the watch body itself is still black plastic, and the size of the face and depth of the display behind the protective covering make it feel unavoidably like something that came out of a gumball machine. The buttons sometimes squeak when pressed, rock over a central pivot point instead of feeling machined-in, and simply don't add any satisfaction to this device.
So what of the innards?
Setup was pretty easy. The watch turned on and easily paired with my iPhone, onto which I had already installed the Pebble app in preparation for the watch's arrival. There was an extra step in iOS 6.1's bluetooth UI to enable a "Show Notifications" toggle. This apparently enables the phone to display app notifications on the Pebble, like the ones that appear on the lock screen.
Once connected, text messages started to display on my watch. Easy. Some other apps were able to send notifications to the watch as well, but they did not always work. For example, Tweetbot successfully sent notifications to the Pebble a couple of times before that inexplicably stopped working. I hear that a few other apps are able to do this based on the "Show Notifications" toggle being set, like Google Maps. But there are issues in keeping that link connected, and the "dance" you need to go through to reset it is a bit cumbersome. Hopefully, they'll be able to fix that. Personally, this feels like a crappy iOS implementation issue, and Pebble probably has a snowball's chance in hell of getting this addressed the way they want. But as if that wasn't enough...
I've been having a problem with frequent de-pairing of my Pebble from my phone. I've been told that it's probably a result of my Pebble app being force-quit, such that it's not running in the background of my phone to maintain the connection to the watch. But I've always been under the impression that iOS purposefully reduces the capabilities of background apps, and if an app is in the background long enough, it'll just end that app's processing. So it's really not surprising that this happens so frequently. In any case, the symptoms are this: I turn on my phone and use it for a minute or two, then my phone tells me that my Pebble wants to connect. I press "Allow", and context switches to the phone's Pebble app from whatever I was in the middle of. I am not sure what happens to the Pebble if I tap "Ignore", other than the phone leaving me alone to continue whatever I was doing. In any case, this shouldn't happen. And if it's the result of a de-pairing, that shouldn't happen either.
Does the Pebble tell time? Yes. The clock itself is one of the better bits. I particularly like the text clock which is the default. There are other watch faces, which you can access via the menu. And there are watches you can download in the Pebble App on the phone which it will transfer to the watch. It's neat that it can do it, but the extra watch faces are all kind of bland, and really demonstrate how not-e-ink the Pebble watch face is. Yes, I was somehow convinced that this display would not be the same old crappy LCD that they've always put in digital watches, and instead be a nice Kindle-like e-ink display. Not so. As a result, the analog watch faces look particularly grainy, and so I avoid them.
The text reception capabilities of the watch work reasonably well. When my phone gets a text, the watch vibrates and the screen displays the message. Same with Caller ID for regular calls. These are probably the two most important features of the Pebble, and they work well. If the message is too large to fit on the screen, you can use the buttons to scroll. You can also use the buttons to move forward through messages if there are multiple messages. You cannot move backwards or review old messages. No idea why.
You can use the watch to control the audio player in the phone. I've been doing this with my car radio for a while, and it works pretty well. The nice difference with the Pebble watch is that it displays the title and author of the track, which my car does not. I think I just need to update the firmware of my car's radio to get this capability. Still, it's cool that the watch can do it.
The Pebble has a backlight that activates when you press any button. It also activates when you shake the watch, presumably due to using the accelerometer sensors within the watch. The light is fairly bright in the dark, almost projecting a beam, not like Indiglo's soft background alien green.
Are there apps? No, there are no apps. This is kind of disappointing at launch. Not only are there no apps (other than different watch faces), but there seems to be no SDK available for developers of apps to play with, nor any place for the apps to live to be deployed to the watch. I'm anxious to see integrations like what they show on the Kickstarter page, with running/biking apps, and mapping apps.
As to battery life, it's another bummer. The Pebble's battery life is better than watches with similar purpose -- there's no need to recharge it every day. Also, since it's waterproof they've come up with a crazy magnetic charging plug, kind of like Apple notebooks use, to connect to the Pebble to charge it, so that you don't need to plug it in. This is cool, but they should have aligned the magnets so that the cord goes out the top of the watch body, so that you could charge it easily while you're wearing it. I sit at a desk with my hands on a keyboard all day, so this would be easy, other than the cord being weird. Also, there's no charge indicator. Is it done? Does it need charged? Dunno. There was no alert when the battery got low; none that I noticed, anyway.
A full charge lasts 3 days. Their 7 days per charge claim is way overhyped. Worse, the charge on my phone has significantly diminished since pairing the Pebble. It's weirdly sporadic, too. It'll be fine for a while, then BAM, I'm suddenly down to 60% from 98%. I'm willing to do some more testing to see if this is iOS 6.1's fault, but I really think it's the Pebble.
So is the Pebble worth it? Right now... No. Don't bother. The tech is a toy. I was hoping that this would be the first of a line that took the task seriously. The Pebble is nothing more than a classed-up calculator watch. When more interactive apps come out, when Pebble starts releasing aluminum watch bodies, when the screen is true e-ink, when the integration between devices is more solid... then we'll have something good. I'm enthusiastic for all of these things to improve, but realistically, it's not going to be "a Pebble" that does it - perhaps a subsequent model or different manufacturer.