Tag Archives: smartwatch

Let’s Try This One More (Pebble) Time

The optional watch face mimics the Apple Watch, which I didn't realise until I was using it.
Authentically scuffed Pebble Time: model’s own.

Depending on who you believe, the wearables revolution is underway, has not yet started, or has already failed. While I don’t wholly agree with any of those viewpoints, the fact that I’m now on my second smartwatch does suggest that I don’t agree with the last.

Those who follow this blog and are aware of my devotion to the Cult of Mac may be surprised to learn that my new toy isn’t an Apple Watch. Those who follow this blog in slightly closer detail might be able to guess what it is: a Pebble Time. Several years ago, in one of my early Kickstarter forays, I stumped up for a first-generation Pebble smartwatch, which adorned my wrist for all of a month or two.

Its short lifespan wasn’t down to the fact that it was a bad product. Beyond being a first-generation device (part of my reason for eschewing the Apple option this time) with somewhat dodgy Bluetooth wireless and limited functionality, its only major flaw was that it was uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Unfortunately, that’s also why it was in my pocket instead of on my wrist during a fateful bus journey, and the fact that it fell out of the pocket somewhere was entirely my fault, not the watch’s.

But enough of my ongoing habit of losing things (which seems to come in waves – whenever I lose one thing, I known that at least two more will vanish in the short-term future), what of the Pebble Time? Well, the first thing to note is that it’s much more comfortable to wear, with a slightly curved back to the watch body and a much improved rubber strap. While I’ve had to take it off for comfort reasons a few times, this has been the result of sweating due to exertion, not general day-to-day use.

So score one for the Pebble Time there. In addition, the straps now include easy-release clips that, while not as clever as the Apple Watch’s high-end version, allow access to a full range of standard-gauge watch straps.

In fact, the Pebble Time is a solid version 2.0 in a lot of ways. A colour e-ink screen replaces its monochrome predecessor, the Bluetooth connection seems much more solid, the vibration function is hard to miss, and the build quality overall seems much better, with buttons that avoid feeling too spongy despite being plastic. My gunmetal grey version has picked up a few scratches after a month or two of use, but stumping up a little more money for the Pebble Time Steel could gain you an even more polished experience.

In use, the Pebble Time is easy to figure out. Hit the single button on the left of the watch to navigate backwards to the home (watchface) screen. Hit the centre right button to dive into and select menu options and the buttons above and below it to navigate up and down through lists. Changing settings, accessing apps, changing watchfaces, etc. are trivial tasks. To actually install apps or watchfaces, you’ll need the companion smartphone app, but once installed, they can connect to the phone via a Bluetooth connection for extra processing power. Pebble’s own app store, accessible via the smartphone app, makes installing new apps easy, but finding the app you want can be tricky, as the browsing experience feels a little haphazard.

As with any smartwatch, the Pebble Time is reliant on its connection to a smartphone. Lacking that, it can tell you the time and offer access to any standalone apps that you’ve installed, and not much more. A connected smartphone offers instant access to weather, music, and more advanced apps. For example, I’ve installed the Tripadvisor app, which can point me towards nearby restaurants or attractions, should I so desire. It’s limited, but the interface is responsive and fun to use.

In fact, fun is a good description of the Pebble Time overall. The Pebble team seem to have put a lot of thought into making their device as easy to use and enjoyable to own as possible. For example, there’s no need to install an app to use the Pebble Time as an external display for Runkeeper’s smartphone app—it happens automatically. This good user experience is further helped by the Pebble Time’s battery life, which will stretch out to five days. Changing your watchface to one that displays the battery level will help you keep an eye on that, but it’s far ahead of the Apple or Android watches in this regard at least.

Some commentators have raised concerns that transferring notification from the phone to the wrist just makes us even more tied to that “always on” mentality. The reality has proven very different: an initial flood of notifications trained me to turn off any that weren’t vital. Moreover, even though vibrations on your wrist make notifications hard to miss, it’s it’s far quicker and easier to dismiss those notifications by glancing at summaries of them on a watchface than by digging your phone out of your pocket or purse to see what they are. Yes, notifications probably aren’t wholly a good thing, but if you’re going to opt in, this is the way to go.

I haven’t tested the limits of what I can do with the Pebble Time yet, having only installed a couple of apps and watchfaces. Though far less powerful than the Apple Watch or its Android competitors, the Pebble Time offers plenty of variety in terms of what it can already do. Everything that I have experienced with it so far has made me pretty happy with my purchase. The cluttered app store is the only minor fly in the ointment, whereas everything else is pleasingly smooth.

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Beauty, not Brains?

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Hairy arm: model’s own.

Pebble Smartwatch, $150, iOS and Android

As people smarter than myself have already pointed out, taking part in a Kickstarter funding campaign is like buying a present for your future self: by the time it arrives, you’ll have forgotten that you paid for it, and be pleasantly surprised that it showed up at all. That and the feeling of actually participating in a product rather than just buying it are all the reasons you need to know why Kickstarter is still huge.

To date, I’ve participated in five Kickstarter campaigns, mostly for small amounts. In each case, it was clear that I’d be waiting a long time for the results, something I didn’t mind at all. Well, in recent months my currently impoverished self has been reaping the benefits of my affluent former self, in that two of the results have shown up (in one form or another).

My biggest Kickstarter contribution to date was for one of the site’s most famous campaigns: the Pebble ePaper watch. A customisable bluetooth watch for Android and iOS phones, the Pebble raised $10,000,000 through Kickstarter, far above an original funding goal of $100,000. Due to the fact that I opted for a grey watchface rather than black, red or white, mine took a little longer to arrive than it might have otherwise, but a few weeks ago I wrested it from the hands of Irish customs and onto my wrist.

For the first wave in a new breed of smartwatches (Kickstarter is already hosting its more ambitious next-gen brethren), the Pebble has a definite retro, plastic feel to it. Which is not to say it’s not solid: the plastic case keeps it watertight while allowing charging through a USB lead and keeps the body light despite the its bulk.

The ePaper screen is basic but readable, with a motion-activated backlight, and can be modified with a multitude of watchfaces. Figuring out how to do so can be a bit of a chore: the online setup process is straighforward enough, but for more expansive options, you’ll need to use your phone’s web browser and the app that manages the Pebble itself.

In use, the Pebble is a handy accessory. I often don’t hear my phone when it’s in my pocket, but I can feel the Pebble’s vibration on my wrist without a problem, alerting me to calls, texts and mails. I can even read the mails and texts, or at least the first few lines of the mails, on the Pebble’s screen, though this only works in the moment—there’s no way to browse older messages.

At the time of buying the Pebble, my main reason was to have it as a running accessory. I’d just started recording my running with RunKeeper, and the idea of having a watch that would tell me my pace and distance covered sounded pretty good. Well, mission accomplished on that front: the Pebble keeps updated throughout a run

There are only three issues with the Pebble, all of them technology based. The first is that it drops the bluetooth connection occasionally. This is an issue because the Pebble isn’t a smartwatch. It’s a terminal for your smartphone, and lacking the connection, it can tell you the time in various pretty ways but not much else (there are game apps for the Pebble, but the chunky buttons don’t allow for sensitive control).

The second issue is battery life. I’ve averaged around five days so far, which isn’t too bad for a bluetooth device, but the phone software doesn’t do a great job of indicating when you need to recharge, so there have been a couple of times when I’ve looked at my wrist and found a blank screen looking at me. Annoying, but some of those multitude of watchfaces promise to fix that issue.

The last issue is probably the biggest one for Pebble: this is a first-generation device, cute and functional, but staring down the barrel of technological innovation. As stated, Kickstarter is already hosting second-generation devices, and Apple and Samsung look set to enter the space before long, bringing all their engineering know-how to the field. When that happens, Pebble’s retro looks may become all-too apt.

For now though, I’m wearing a watch for the first time in a couple of years, and I’m more than happy with the present my former self bought me. Runkeeper functionality, message and call alerts and a variety of funky watchfaces. It may not be smart, but it sure is handy.