Review: You Should Own a Pebble Smart Watch

Smart watches are starting to become popular, though the trend in this particular style of wearable technology hasn’t really caught on yet for a number of key reasons. Mostly, battery life is an issue, and this is largely because manufacturers have decided that consumers require full-color touch screens on their wrists. For example, the LG “G Watch R” has a claimed battery life of two days, and the Moto 360 supposedly gets about the same. In practice, though, consumers can expect to recharge almost any smart watch on a daily/nightly basis, which severely limits its usability as a replacement device to be worn on the wrist (versus a traditional watch that – gasp! – does little more than tell you the date and time).

Pebble is not a calculator watch

The Pebble is not a calculator watch from the ’80s – it’s a full-on smart device that delivers notifications from your phone to your wrist and lets you interact with apps on your mobile device

However, the Pebble (and its bigger cousin, Pebble Steel) is substantially different in both the battery life department and its origins. It started out as a concept invention by Eric Migicovsky with a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 which raised over $10 million. Backed by no particular hardware manufacturer, the creators of this fantastic device were free to build an open platform that could provide versatility and truly unwalled freedom to its users, as it is not tied to one particular hardware or software platform (Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, etc). Indeed, the Pebble will work with both Android and iOS devices, and shortly after its release to the open consumer market had an impressive selection of applications and custom watch faces available through its companion mobile application.

What Is It and What Does It Do?

Pebble Android Screen Shot

The Pebble app running on an android phone.

The Pebble is a general purpose smart watch. It pairs with an Android or iOS device via Bluetooth 2.1 or 4.0 (the latter was enabled via firmware update in November 2013 and offers far greater energy efficiency, further stretching the watch’s battery life) and performs myriad operations using the connected mobile device as its host controller. At its most basic operational level the Pebble keeps time like a normal watch and delivers notifications from your phone straight to the screen on the watch. So text messages, email notifications, and just about any other app notification (or push notification) shows up on your wrist as well as your phone.

Thanks to so many apps in the Pebble app store, the possibilities are almost limitless. You can answer or decline phone calls, respond to text messages, and interact with many phone apps right from your watch. While this may not sound like such a big deal at first, once you experience the power of having control over your phone right from your wrist, it’s hard to imagine going even a single day without wearing this incredibly useful device. For example, in the first week I had my Pebble, I used it a half dozen times to decline phone calls while I was in the shower and send the caller a canned text message saying “Busy right now, will call you in 5-10 minutes”. Just having the ability to know who’s calling my phone while I’m showering is one thing, but to also press a few buttons on my wrist and let the caller know that I’ll get right back to them made me realize the power and convenience of this device.

The Pebble Smart Watch

Equally as useful as having a waterproof remote control for your phone is the fact that the Pebble cuts down on the amount of times you actually pull your phone from your pocket by a seriously impressive amount, especially if you’re in a line of work that involves lots of real-time interaction no matter where you are (as is the case with my job). When I get a text message I need to read it as quickly as possible because there’s a good chance it’s a notification from my company’s server/network infrastructure monitoring system alerting me to a problem that needs immediate attention. The fact that I can now see who’s texting, calling, or emailing me with a quick glance at my watch not only saves a lot of time throughout the day but also makes me a safer driver and a less distracted person in general. I can unquestionably attest that it’s substantially less rude to glance briefly at a watch during a meeting with coworkers or dinner with friends than to pull a phone from one’s pocket, unlock it, and start tapping around to open apps and read messages.

For those who are into sports and fitness, the number of apps available for the Pebble to integrate with the dozens of popular mobile fitness apps for Android and iOS is staggering. My fitness routine is limited to basic in-home workouts and taking my dog for walks (none of which I care to measure and track), but I imagine for people who do a lot of running, cycling, or other more serious and lengthy workouts having stats right on their wrist integrated with a device that is also a watch and a notification tool for their phone the Pebble is worth its weight in gold. And it doesn’t tie you to one highly specific overall platform (like, for example, NikeFuel, which only works with iOS and locks you into a Nike-specific experience, including being relentlessly advertised to).

Pebble Glance app

Glance is a Pebble app which shows a ton of useful info on the watch screen and allows the user to send SMS messages and perform other actions right from the watch

Google auth pebble app

Google Auth app for two-factor authentication codes right on your wrist. Indispensable.

Pebble Smartwatch weather watch face

One of my favorite Pebble watch faces, displaying current weather as well as time and date information

How Does The Pebble Have Such Amazing Battery Life?

Answer: e-paper. This is truly the core of what makes the Pebble the most long-lasting wearable smart device on the market. The creators of the Pebble understood that function and usability trump pretty colors and touch screens, and the result is a watch that is extremely lightweight, tough and durable, and can literally go a full week without a charge. When you do need to charge it up, it’s back to 100% battery in under an hour.

There is more, though. It’s not a blazingly fast computing device. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find laptop-like specs for what’s actually under the hood. In case you really do need to know, the device has a STM32 CPU, which is an ARM processor running at a maximum of 120MHz (yes, that’s mega hertz, as opposed to the phone in your pocket which likely has a quad-core CPU running at over 1GHz per core). It has a total of 128KB of RAM and eight data storage “slots” of 100KB each for storing apps and watch faces, with an additional 512KB of flash memory. The watch has no speaker and utilizes four buttons (one is a dedicated “back” button while the other three have varying functionality depending on the watch face or app being used).

The Pebble has a vibrator motor, which is how you are alerted to notifications, and it also has a 3-axis accelerometer and an ambient light sensor. The accelerometer makes possible handy features such as activating the screen’s backlight by flicking your wrist when it’s too dark to read the watch face, and the ambient light sensor allows the watch to adjust its “brightness” level (“contrast” is probably a more accurate term for the e-paper display) depending on the amount of light in a given environment.

Smart Watch Battery Life Comparison

A breakdown of popular smart watches and their actual expected battery life measurements. The Pebble is so far ahead it’s not even funny.

Features, Pros & Cons

Pebble smart watch analog face

Classic analog watch face on a Pebble smart watch

I bought my Pebble watch just before Christmas 2013 when it suddenly went on sale for $120 with free overnight shipping. The price has since dropped substantially, and there is now a high-end model called the Pebble Steel which is the same watch but with a much higher-quality look and feel. Within a week of using the device, I knew I would never go back to retrieving my phone from my pocket 50 times a day, and it seems like every month the entire Pebble ecosystem gets richer and more diverse.

Having owned and used the Pebble for more than a full year now, I can offer a more insightful review than what you might find from any of the thousand of blogs and websites which have covered this product. I can tell you, for example, that the stock watch band won’t likely last more than about 12 months – mine basically disintegrated four weeks ago and I was forced to purchase a replacement. Luckily, this was no big deal because the Pebble is, in terms of form-factor, a watch like any other, meaning any standard watch band will work just fine with it. I picked up this cheap watch band for $5.95 and it fits perfectly and has a slightly more geeky design than the stock Pebble watch band, which suits me well.

Pebble Watch Band Failure

After 13 months of daily use, the original watch band on my Pebble failed completely

The first couple of things I noticed when I started using my Pebble were the excellent range of the Bluetooth connection and the fact that I suddenly was only pulling my phone from my pocket about 10% as often as before I had the watch. For example, concerning the wireless range, if I left my phone at my desk to grab a snack in the kitchen and someone called me, my wrist would vibrate and the Pebble would show me who’s calling, even though I was too far from my phone to hear it ringing. And of course having every notification appear on my wrist means I could read text messages and the first couple of sentences of any email without reaching for my phone. It might not sound like much, but if you’re interacting with your phone a lot, it really is a big difference to be able to see what’s coming in without having to handle your phone.

As for the watch itself, the durability alone has been very impressive. I tend to get my hands dirty on a semi-regular basis, either doing household chores, fixing one of my junky old vehicles, or going out into the desert for some target practice with an AR-15 or one of my favorite handguns. My Pebble has been smashed against walls while moving furniture, scratched on hard surfaces while sliding under vehicles during repairs, and subjected to countless showers, dish-washings, lawn-mowings, and even extreme temperatures (both hot and cold), yet it never quit working. That said, after nearly 14 months of continuous use, it is starting to get a little buggy. In the past week, for instance, it has been doing this thing where the screen goes blank even though the operating system is still functional. Sometimes simply switching watchfaces (by pressing one of the buttons on the right side) will snap the watch out of this condition, but I have had to power it off a couple of times to get it to work correctly again. This might be something that will be fixed with the next firmware update, or it may just be that I have put this device through so much wear and tear that it’s actually on its last legs.

I believe devices are meant to be used like tools… They are not investments.

Pebble smart watch calendar face

A custom watch face with weather, date, time, and calendar

Since I am the kind of gadget user who really just uses his devices with little regard for their physical condition or longevity, I’m not surprised when my phone – or watch, in this case – begins showing signs of permanent damage after a year or so of heavy use. I’ve never owned a screen protector for a phone or a bulky protective case because I believe these devices are meant to be used like tools – tossed around and kept in pockets with keys and change. They are not investments, and while some people do recover an extra $50 or so from their used devices by taking careful measures to keep them in like-new condition, I just do not operate that way. And I rarely sell my old phones anyway (both due to the security implications – flash data storage mediums can easily have old data recovered from them – and I also use my old devices to test mobile applications for my job on a regular basis). So it may not surprise you that when the Pebble again went on sale this last Christmas season, I purchased a backup in anticipation of my original model kicking the bucket. So far, though, the backup is still in its box, and will remain there until the one on my wrist quits working altogether.

In any case, 14 solid months of daily wear on my wrist under all sorts of conditions – cold and hot weather, tons of water, trips to the shooting range, workouts, moving furniture, running, and countless other activities – is pretty damned good for an incredibly capable smart watch that cost only $120 (the price is now just $99). What’s more, the battery life is still fantastic! I tend to recharge the watch while I’m at my desk about once every five days, but it’s rarely under 30% charge remaining at that time. I’m sure it would easily go a full week still were I to be without the charger or to simply forget to plug it in before it died.

As for pros and cons, the former list is substantially longer than the latter.

Pros

  • Incredible battery life – easily a full week on a single charge
  • Available custom watch faces are excellent – I tend to use one that shows the current weather, date on an actual calendar, and number of SMS, emails, and missed calls
  • When I’m looking for more than a basic watch face, I run the Glance app, which has features such as sending canned SMS messages to anyone in your contacts list right from the watch. Glance also displays a lot of useful info right on the watch face
  • Apps like PebbleAuth, Glance, MultiTimer, MusicBoss, and Bitcoin Watcher bring superbly useful functionality to the Pebble
  • Despite its seemingly dated hardware specs, the device is snappy and never feels like it’s underpowered
  • Looks geeky, but not too geeky. Pretty much just looks like a nerdy watch, as opposed to that Motorola monstrosity that looks like you’re wearing five ounces of iron ore on your wrist
  • Frequent updates and open development community – developers are constantly releasing new watch faces and apps for the Pebble
  • Price – $99 for such fantastic functionality is truly a steal
  • Open development community
  • No “walled garden” – Apple, Samsung, Google, or whoever doesn’t have any say in what you can and cannot do with your Pebble watch, so the possibilities are essentially unlimited
  • Bluetooth range – 10 meters isn’t out of the question, even at home or the office where a couple of walls might be between your wrist and your phone at any given time

Cons

  • Price – $99 for a wrist watch might seem like a lot, but only if you haven’t experienced the unprecedented convenience of what the Pebble actually does for your day-to-day life
  • Limited styles – you can choose from a few colors, or you can pay an extra $100 for the “Steel” model which is larger and looks fancier
  • Stock watch band will not last much more than a year if you wear your Pebble 24/7
  • Can be glitchy/buggy – some Pebble owners have reported bugs and glitches, and the return process with the manufacturer can be complex

Conclusion

I do not want a phone on my wrist. I want a watch that connects me to the powerful personal computer in my pocket…

Until some amazing new battery technology comes out that allows the full-color touchscreen style watches being produced by major mobile hardware manufacturers to last more than 20 hours, I won’t even consider owning a smart watch that doesn’t go at least five days between charges. Furthermore, I do not want a phone on my wrist. I want a watch that connects me to the powerful personal computer in my pocket – and that is precisely what the Pebble already is.

In my opinion, the Pebble is kind of like the Raspberry Pi. Useful functionality doesn’t require super high-end hardware specs, fancy bells and whistles, or expensive components. In the past year I have deployed about a half dozen Raspberry Pis to perform specific tasks such as network performance monitoring and basic web/file hosting for special internal business or personal purposes. When a $35 computer the size of a deck of cards that uses about 1W of electricity can get the job done, why would I buy a $1200 rackmount server that idles at 150W and generates 65dB of fan noise? I feel the same about my Pebble. What is truly useful about having mobile notifications and functionality on my wrist isn’t full color graphics, touch screens, and voice control; it’s merely having a notification mechanism (vibration motor) and readable text (e-paper). Anything more is just fluff and extra weight.

I have come to rely on my Pebble so much on a daily basis that the last thing I want to worry about is having the battery die before a busy day is over!

Final Recommendation

If you use your phone frequently – e.g. you remove it from your pocket/handbag a dozen or more times per day to check incoming texts, emails, tweets, or other notifications – then I can sincerely recommend a Pebble smart watch because it will reduce the number of times you physically handle your phone each day. I could go so far as to say it may even save you time by simply reducing your overall distraction level, and it could even make you a better driver because you will be able to receive incoming notifications with a simple glance at your wrist as opposed to picking up and interacting with your phone while driving your car (which of course you shouldn’t be doing anyway…). Indeed, the Pebble could in fact save your life or the lives of the pedestrians and other drivers which you would normally be placing in danger by using your phone while driving on public roads.

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6 thoughts on “Review: You Should Own a Pebble Smart Watch”

  1. Matt says:

    When a $35 computer the size of a deck of cards that uses about 1W of electricity can get the job done, why would I buy a $1200 rackmount server that idles at 150W and generates 65dB of fan noise?

    Because testosterone.

    1. Marshall Stokes says:

      Haha that’s fair, I suppose. I could see that logic being applied to cars, but when we’re talking about computing gear that sits in a rack in a data center, in my case an office where fan noise might be a major problem, not sure the testosterone aspect is quite as applicable!

    2. Mike says:

      What kind of job can it get done? Def more than checking FB and the weather.

      I need to edit large photos and render 1080p videos, i’ll stick to my 65dB of fan noise..

      1. Marshall Stokes says:

        Yes, certainly you will want to stay with your high-powered machine for HD video rendering. But don’t underestimate what the RasPi can do when it comes to video. It actually has an onboard video decoding chip that can be unlocked by purchasing a $4.50 license from the manufacturer. The hardware can provide surprisingly good video playback for mpeg-2 streams (DVD video), as well as a couple other proprietary codecs/formats – http://thedigitallifestyle.com/w/index.php/2012/08/29/what-do-the-mpeg-2-and-vc-1-decoder-options-get-you-on-the-raspberry-pi/

        Additionally, the Pi can encode h.264 video streams in hardware. But more importantly, it is just powerful enough to run software like XBMC, making it a fantastically affordable solution for those looking to build their own home theater control center. With onboard audio and video controllers, an ethernet controller, and numerous USB ports, it really is more than enough to support a dizzying number of computing applications.

        But you are correct, it’s not going to replace your desktop video editing workstation. That said, at $35 and drawing around 1 watt of electricity, it’s unquestionably a game-changer for those of us looking to deploy dedicated network service hosting devices. Or a HTPC to replace the Apple TV, Roku, or whatever you are (or aren’t) currently using to stream media to your entertainment center 🙂

        Finally, here are some things I’m doing with the half dozen RasPi units I have deployed around the globe to date:

        • network performance monitoring at my company’s corporate headquarters (outside the edge router)
        • internet file server/drop point for sharing business-related files and documents that don’t easily fit in with other cloud services we use at work
        • backup DNS server and mail relay/spam filtering for low-traffic domains owned by my business and its clients
        • crypto currency mining hardware controller
        • VPN router for distributed web applications that require region-specific website hosting but must communicate securely with back-end services running on more powerful servers at domestic data centers
        • Proxy servers for testing web & network applications from different parts of the world

        There are a handful of colocation facilities around the world that offer very affordable RasPi hosting. I have found this to be useful in development work when I need to have control over a web proxy in a specific country or global region in order to test web application functionality from outside the US.

        Hope that gives you some insight to what nerds like me are doing with the Raspberry Pi. Spend a little time Googling and you’ll see that people are doing some really amazing things with this affordable computer. A project I hope to tackle later this year involves using a RasPi to build an in-vehicle media center and navigation system for my 1988 VW camper van. Obviously I’ll be publoishing a comprehensive write-up on that project if/when I make the time to tackle it 🙂

  2. Christophe says:

    pebble time is out on kickstarter.
    raspberry pi 2 is out as well …
    nice article 😉

    1. Marshall Stokes says:

      Thanks Christophe! I’m definitely going to be picking up some RasPi 2s, but I think I’ll wait for the Christmas sale to upgrade to the Pebble Time 🙂

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