When most people think of smartwatches, they imagine either the Apple Watch or one of the many Android Wear models available. Heavy advertising from Samsung, LG and Motorola has created the impression that smartwatches are futuristic playthings that you absolutely must have if you want to stay current with technology. However, current products can be frustrating because they need to be charged every night, and are usually bulky, overcomplicated and expensive.
Before the bigwigs jumped into the game, there was Pebble, a tiny startup with a different idea of what smartwatches should be. Pebble conceived of a small device with a monochrome e-paper display which wasn't very slick, but could last a week between charges. An e-paper display meant that the Pebble could also stay on constantly, as opposed to other smartwatches that go into standby to save power, which means that even checking the time requires some positive action like a flick of the wrist to wake them up.
The original Pebble was a huge success, raising over a hundred times as much money as it needed on Kickstarter, long before products were even available for people to check out. It managed this because it had a clear and precise identity: it was first and foremost a watch, it had a simple interface, it showed notifications from your smartphone, and it supported third-party apps and enhancements. That was in late 2012; in early 2015 the company announced new models with colour screens and slicker looks, the Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel.
Those two models as well as the original launched in India earlier this year, to the delight of fans who had to buy theirs abroad or order online and deal with import duties. However, just weeks later, the company announced its upcoming Pebble 2 and Pebble Time 2 products, making the ones launched here look outdated already. What do you get if you buy one of the existing models now? Would it be worth it to wait? We tested both the Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel for months to bring you those answers.
Look and feel
It's important to note that the Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel are functionally identical. Both have the same innards, the same software, and the same capabilities. The difference in price comes down only to aesthetics and material quality. The Pebble Time is a lightweight plastic watch, while as its name suggests, the Pebble Time Steel is made of metal.
Both are available in silver and black, with an additional gold option for the Time Steel. We reviewed a black Pebble Time and silver Pebble Time Steel. At first glance, the Pebble Time looks like it could be metal, but you'll know it's plastic the moment you pick it up. The top has a matte finish and there's just a hint of polish around the edges. It creaks a little when pressed, which isn't very reassuring. The Pebble Time Steel, on the other hand, is much more solid and will feel hot or cold on your skin depending on your surroundings, just like a metal watch.
We preferred the material quality of the Time Steel, but the overall look of the Time. This was mostly because both devices have screens that are a lot smaller than their faces, and the Time masks this better with a bezel and screen border of equal thickness. The Time Steel has a thin bezel which makes the black border around the screen much more obvious.
The plastic Pebble Time turned out to be extremely susceptible to wear and tear. We managed to accumulate a surprising number of nicks, scrapes and scratches in just a few weeks. We were disappointed, considering even the original plastic Pebble was much less easy to damage. Third-party wraps and screen protectors are hard to find in India, but it seems quite necessary to have some form of protection if you want to keep your Pebble Time looking good.
Both watches have simple navigation controls. Much like early mobile phones, there are buttons only to scroll up and down, select an option, and go back. There's no touch or gesture recognition, which would have been nice. The buttons on the Pebble Time are a bit mushy, whereas on the Pebble Time Steel they they're crisper and easier to use. The watches also have microphones for dictation. Unlike first-gen Pebbles, there's now a standard charging contact strip on the back so chargers are interchangeable. The charging cable snaps on magnetically, in either orientation.
You get a silicone strap with the Time and a leather one with the Time Steel. Both straps have built-in spring bars with quick-release tabs so you can pop them on and off easily. The Time and Time Steel both use standard 22mm straps so you can buy your own and swap them out whenever you feel like - sadly, Pebble doesn't sell the Time Steel's official matching metal watchbands (or for that matter, any accessories) in India yet.
The straps are comfortable, but while we were able to wear the Time Steel pretty much 24/7 without any problem, the Pebble Time's silicone strap wasn't as natural. We felt a bit itchy after wearing it for several hours, and loosening it didn't help. Sleeping in it was also not very pleasant. However, while the Time Steel's white leather strap was much nicer, it began to get discoloured after just about a month of constant use. Whether because of sweat or humidity, it quickly became patchy and ugly.
Setup and usage
Getting started with the Pebble Time or Pebble Time Steel is as simple as downloading the official app on your iPhone or Android device and pairing the watch. Pebble watches use both a standard and a low-energy Bluetooth pairing for compatibility, which seems like an unnecessary complication. Once you tell the app which watch model you're setting up, it will download the latest version of the Pebble firmware and sync it to the watch. The process didn't take more than five minutes for us with either watch.
The basic interface puts your watch face front and centre. The Select button takes you to the launcher menu from where you can get to the settings, the list of other watch faces, and apps. Hitting the up or down buttons takes you through the Timeline view, a chronological listing of calendar events and information from apps. Notifications appear full-screen and you can dismiss them with the Back button or choose how to respond with the Select button. Depending on the kind of notification (and to some extent whether you're using Android or iOS), the options could include sending a preset text response, dictating a response through the mic, and preventing further interruptions.
There's a sense of oddball whimsy to the design of Pebble OS, from its colours to its animations and icons. Text notifications for things like your step count or battery life are extremely casual and often amusing. Quiet Time, essentially a "do not disturb" mode, is represented by a picture of a mouse tiptoeing gingerly, and dismissing notifications makes them disappear in a puff of smoke.
You'll have a few basic watch faces and apps such as Weather, Health, and Alarms to play with when you first start using your Pebble. Many more can be downloaded from within the Pebble app on your phone, and there's quite a variety to choose from. They're all free, although some might need paid apps or subscriptions to external services to work.
It's a lot of fun checking out different watch faces, and you'll find them in all kinds of styles from functional to funny. Pebble has a pretty large and devoted developer community. Faces are configured on your phone; each time you make a change a new package is created and uploaded to your watch. This means that you can't make changes and preview them on the fly, which would have been nice for faces with multiple colour scheme options, for example.
There are also loads of apps, ranging from handy stopwatch and compass utilities to branded ones from major device manufacturers and content providers. Many work in tandem with an app on your phone, for example Runkeeper shows glanceable information about your current workout, and various remote apps let you control music streaming services or remotely activate your phone's camera shutter. Others just show information such as flight timings, sports scores, public transit directions, etc.
You might like having all this information on your wrist, but we often had to wonder whether it wouldn't have been easier to pull our phones out of our pockets instead. Watch apps are limited by the tiny screen and four-button interface. At least there are some unique use cases such as a subtle vibrating metronome and a voice-driven translator.
The other major capability of both Pebble Time models is activity tracking. These devices aren't full-fledged health wearables and don't have specialised sensors, but they can track activity and sleep on a useful level. You get daily alerts as well as a tally at the end of each burst of activity, and can dig through the menus to see data for the past week. This data is fed into the central HealthKit framework on iOS or Google Fit on Android.
Overall, the Pebble interface is easy to use, but doesn't scale very well when you have loads of apps installed. It can be a little awkward to use the buttons on the sides when wearing either watch. Apps and watch faces don't all reside on the watch itself; most are loaded from your phone over Bluetooth when you launch them, which means there's usually at least a few seconds' delay. Recently used ones might still be cached on your watch but there's no way to "pin" the ones you want quickly. This also limits the usefulness of a Pebble when you don't have your phone handy.
We tested the Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel with an iPhone 5c running iOS 9.3. Functionality is generally identical across iOS and Android except for a few extra things that Android users can do thanks to that platform's looser restrictions. One of these is voice dictation to reply to incoming messages, and another is triggering scripted events on your phone using apps such as Tasker. While potentially useful for some people, we didn't miss these too much.
Setup was easy in both cases, as noted, and we were able to get started pretty quickly. We found a number of interesting watchfaces, ranging from a busy Star Trek-style readout to a minimalist digital face to an animated unicorn riding a rainbow. We also quickly loaded up apps including a stopwatch, a vibrating alarm, the XKCD comic, and even an RSS client. The app store's interface is a bit clunky but Pebble is clearly trying to highlight useful options.
The best thing about using a Pebble as opposed to conventional smartwatches is that their displays never go off, so you don't have to consciously raise or flick your wrist just to check the time. Information is glanceable and always available. That said, notifications are full-screen and stay visible for a long time, and you might need to dismiss them with a button press to see information you need. The default vibration pattern for alerts is somewhat weak, but you can choose from a few options.
Syncing on our iPhone 5c was not totally seamless; we sometimes noticed that notifications were delayed, or didn't come through at all till we unlocked the phone, possibly due to the Bluetooth connection dropping out. The main advantage of having a Pebble is that you can quickly decide whether an event is worth digging out your phone for when it's in your pocket or on your desk across the room. However, we were never quite able to be 100 percent confident that we weren't missing important events, and wound up checking our phones periodically anyway. This issue was also noticeable with an original Pebble paired with our iPhone 5c, but interestingly when we tried using the Steel with an iPhone 6s Plus, we didn't have any such trouble, so it could be a problem specific to our combination of devices.
While the activity and sleep tracking wasn't really 100 percent accurate, the statistics shown were enough to motivate us to push for higher numbers each day and observe trends in our habits. A sharp flick of the wrist is enough to make the step counter jump by 20-30, but there were no false positives when riding in cars, for example. There's no social component to the tracking features, unlike some other wearables which encourage you to compete with friends or earn "prizes" for good performance.
The Pebbles' e-paper displays aren't exactly vibrant. You can have at most 64 colours, compared to the thousands or millions that LCDs can show. Colours look dull and washed-out. Some watchfaces give you the ability to select colours for different elements, but the previews you see on your phone's screen are usually nothing like what you get on the watches. The advantage is that you don't need a backlight most of the time - in fact, the Pebbles' screens are much easier to work with in bright daylight than in the dark.
The primary advantage of e-paper is low power consumption. Power is only really needed when something on screen changes; there's very little battery drain just to keep the screen on. Watchfaces which update every minute rather than every second will help stretch battery life, while voice dictation will drain it faster. We found that both watches lasted between five and seven days on a full charge, with health tracking activated and liberal use of the Bluetooth connection to swap apps out and update information like the weather.
The Pebble OS displays notifications when the battery is beginning to run down, telling you roughly how much time you have left in terms of days or hours. Once the charge level dips to zero percent, a reserve mode kicks in. In this mode, you only have a simple time readout and an icon telling you it's time to charge. Notifications, activity tracking and all other features are disabled, but your watch will still be a watch, and it can stay in reserve mode for up to a full day before finally dying completely.
The worst thing about the Pebble Time was that it crashed on a few occasions, with no apparent cause, and we wouldn't know we hadn't gotten notifications till we checked manually. In this state the watch would be completely unusable, and the only way to get them working again was to reload its OS using the phone app. It didn't take long, but it did require a fairly large download over 4G if we were outdoors. This was frustrating, and it's over a year into these devices' lifecycles so we can't put it down to teething problems that might be resolved with software updates. Again, we didn't face this issue even once with the Pebble Time Steel.
The Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel are wonderful tools, and once we started using them, we quickly fell into a routine. We didn't find much use for apps, since taking our phones out was often more sensible. Once we settled on one or two watch faces we liked, we stopped constantly switching them for amusement. Those novelties wore off quickly the comfort and convenience of having notifications that didn't interrupt our workflow became an indispensable part of our daily routine.
The Pebble Time is inexpensive enough to pick up as an accessory, but wear and tear is a major problem. No doubt, you like your gadgets staying shiny, especially ones that are so visible. The Pebble Time Steel is much more durable and will appeal more to those who don't want to give up a traditional watch. It's also more expensive, but its price pushes up against devices such as the original Moto 360. You'll have to decide whether the always-on screen and week-long battery life are more attractive than a full-fledged Android Wear watch.
There's also the fact that Pebble will launch the Time 2 in January. It'll effectively replace the Time Steel at the same price or a little higher, but it will have a heart rate monitor, a bigger screen, and more powerful hardware. That means the current Pebble Time will still be worth its price in five months but the Time Steel won't. You'll have to decide whether the convenience of having one now outweighs the benefits of waiting.
Whether we know it or not, smartphones cause tons of anxiety. If we feel a vibration in our pocket, we often have to break off what we're doing in order to check on it. The Pebbles allowed us to decide with one glance whether each notification was worth dealing with, and for that reason alone, made us truly appreciate smartwatches. We'd recommend the Pebble Time to anyone looking for an inexpensive, functional wearable - with the caveat that a protective skin will be needed. The Pebble Time Steel, however, is in an awkward place thanks to the company's late India launch, and anyone interested in it should seriously consider waiting for the Time 2.
Price: Rs. 9,999
Ratings (Out of 5)
Value for money: 4
Pebble Time Steel
Price: Rs. 14,999
Ratings (Out of 5)
Value for money: 3