Google Productivity Pad: Hardware Review: Pebble Steel Smartwatch

Friday, August 15, 2014

Hardware Review: Pebble Steel Smartwatch

About a month ago I took my first steps into wearable tech and asked for a Pebble Steel Smartwatch for my birthday. For those of you who don't know about the Pebble it is a Smartwatch that communicates with your smartphone via bluetooth to perform various functions while your phone remains in your pocket or across the room. It was the most successful kickstarter project ever raising in excess of 10 million dollars. The steel is the second version of the Pebble.

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What does it do?
The main purpose of the pebble is to have certain functions of you iPhone available on your wrist without having to remove your phone from your pocket, or go across the room to check it. It comes out of the box ready to receive notifications, control your music, and set alarms. Oh and it also tells time! There are also a bunch of different apps you can install to increase the functionality.

To many people having notifications on their wrist doesn't sound like it would be that useful, many friends have told me they don't have a hard time pulling out their phone. That was my original feeling when the pebble launched but then I heard many people say it was actually way more convenient to have it on their wrist than they thought it would be.

How does it work?
The pebble communicates with you phone over Bluetooth low energy. The pebble itself doesn't do much more than keep track of the date and time and your movements, your phone does all of the real computing work for other functions, including GPS.

The pebble receives every notification that you have set to appear on your iPhone, so long as it is in range of the phone. For now the only way to control this is to do it from the iPhone in Settings > Notification Center. I hope someday the process will be more streamlined than that so you can set up apps for just pebble notifications.

I have turned off vibrate, sound, and lock screen for most of my notifications on my phone so that I only feel it come to my pebble (which does a small vibrate) instead of feel and hear it go off multiple places. I still need to decide what to do about notifications on my iPad and Mac.

There is no way to reply to notifications from the pebble currently, so if you want to respond you do have to pull out your phone. But what I have found is that I often do not have to respond, and certainly I don't need to right that moment. I think this saves me a lot of screen time which is something I will be writing about in the future.

The Screen
The pebble's screen is an e-ink screen similar to what you might see on a kindle, this is a big benefit over other smart watches with color LCD screens because the thing I use the pebble most often for is telling time. The e-ink screen stays on all the time so I don't have to press a button to check the time, and it is readable in direct sun light without awkwardly trying to cup my hand over it. When it is dark the pebble has a backlight that can be activated with a wrist flick or by pressing a button. I turned off the wrist flick because I thought it was hurting my battery life.

The screen is not a touch screen, which means that all navigation has to be done with the four buttons on the pebble. This is similar to the way digital watches have worked for years, the problem is that the pebble does a lot more than a normal watch and the navigation can be a bit cumbersome.

Battery Life
Another benefit of the e-ink screen on a watch is that it consumes much, much less power than an color LCD screen. The pebble marketing says that you can get 5 - 7 days between charges, and I have found that to be accurate so far. I go between 5 and 6 days before charging and the watch is normally between 10 - 20% when I do.

What apps am I using?
The pebble has eight "slots" either for watch apps or watch faces (other than the three faces it comes preinstalled with). There are a lot of apps for many different things I currently fill my 8 slots with:

  • Mario watch face -- just for fun
  • Smart Status -- gives info on the time, date, weather, battery, and calendar
  • Smartwatch+ -- lets me check my reminders, calendar, weather; has controls for music and camera; and can find my phone for me by making it make a noise.
  • Morpheauz -- tracks my movements while I sleep so I can know how well I am sleeping (hint: not well apparently)
  • Around me -- I haven't used this much but it is suppose to give you point of interest information for your current location, such as restaurants and attractions.
  • Peeblets -- Smartwatch+ is probably going to replace this one because they do a lot of the same things like calendar and weather. This one also has a timer/stopwatch and a calculator.
  • Evernote -- access to all my notes and lists right an my wrist.
  • Pokedex -- you know, just for the awesome factor. Those who remember the pokegear will understand how cool this is.

Does it help me Live Better?
Here is the big question, does having a pebble smartwatch help me live better? Or is it just a cool piece of tech for a nerdy guy to have? I suppose there is some value in having nerdy tech if it gives me a little bit of happiness, but it certainly can't give me lasting joy, but living better can.

So I would say that so far yes the pebble watch is helping me to live a little better. The notifications alone help me to stop looking meaninglessly at my phone nearly as often as I have been because I hardly ever pull it out to check a notification. Also tracking my sleep is making me more aware of how I am sleeping and is causing me to try and make improvements there.

I think there are other aspects of the watch, like having my list on my wrist and being able to use the remote camera that will be helpful as they are integrated into my routine. Development of watchapps continues to go forward as well so it seems we will se some inovative uses coming out in the future.

It is important to remember that the smartwatch industry, and the wearable tech industry in general, is still very much in its infancy. An iWatch from Apple has been rumored for a couple years now but has yet to see the light of day, I figured that as soon as I got a Pebble Apple would decide to release their watch, so you can now expect to see that this fall. You are welcome.

The Pebble Steel is a solid piece of hardware. It is a bit pricy for what it does, but it will being doing more in the future. It is good to note that the software functions of the Steel are essentially exactly the same as the regular Pebble, but the Steel looks like a classy watch and most people will never notice that it is a smartwatch unless they happen to observe it recieving a notification.

There are a few frustraitng points but most of these are with watchapp developers or with Apple's devkits and not actually with the Pebble. I will likely do more reviews of the apps themselves in the future.

I hope this was helpful to anyone who wants to know more about the Pebble. Tell in the comments below what you would want in a smartwatch. Have a great week and remember, live better.

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