Thursday, 4 December 2014

Pebble Smartwatch

Lowdown: An affordable smartwatch with a lively ecosystem.
When I bought my last watch this March I did so with mixed feelings. Sure, it replaced a watch I bought back in 2008, so a refresh was called for (sort of); yet I knew Apple & Co will be releasing smartwatches into the wild later during the year, leaving little choice for this gadget aficionado but to be swept along. My fears turned out to be spot on: I did end up buying a smartwatch just six months later, only that it wasn’t an Apple or an Android. It was a Pebble, a smartwatch that has been there for a while. Yet it was this exact maturity that comes with successfully being there for a while that made me buy another watch.
Pebble smartwatches come in two shapes. There is the basic plastic model that sells for around $100 and looks like a dork’s delight, and there is the much better looking Pebble Steel that sells for about twice as much. I have good looking watches already and I also have a mortgage, thank you very much, so I went with the cheaper option. Hey, sue me.
What you get for your buck is a light, largish and potentially colourful rectangular piece of plastic equipped with a cheap plastic strap. At the centre lies an e-ink black & white screen of unremarkable resolution that utilises similar technology to a Kindle e-reader screen as opposed to your average tablet/smartphone's LCD screen. This implies that while appearances may be bland, battery life should be significantly better. Inside lie some accelerometers and a compass, too, lending this watch some sophistication. However, that aura fades away when us smartphone users are required to operate the watch not via a touchscreen but by using buttons to the side of the watch. Buttons! And not even slick feeling ones at that. How dreadfully 20th century.
The main point of the Pebble is to act as an extension to your smartphone. As such, your Pebble would [probably] be the first watch you ever owned that never requires you to set the time but is always accurate (it gets its bearings from your phone). Installation works by installing Pebble’s free app on your phone, and then pairing it to your new wrist accessory via Bluetooth. For reasons that still elude me, Pebble insisted on creating two Bluetooth connections between my iPhone and my Pebble watch; don’t ask me why, but it does complain when I try to severe any of them. [Browsing the Pebble website reveals the second Bluetooth connection is required for iPhones running iOS 7 and above in order for notifications to work.]
Through the smartphone app one can choose from thousands of apps and so called watchfaces for the Pebble, all of which are free members of what seems to be a well managed ecosystem. If, for some reason, you would like your Pebble screen to look like a Rolex’, you’d be in for a treat (at least until Rolex sues): there are plenty of watchfaces providing just that. But there’s more: there are compass watchfaces, timers/stopwatches... You think about it and it’s there. Affairs are not glitch free, and you’d encounter the occasional bugs, not to mention the gross inaccuracies of the built in compass (as trustworthy as a politician’s word), but overall the impression is positive. There really is an app for everything this unimaginative user wants of a smartwatch, at least for now. To give you an example, the app offering multiple timers and stopwatches proved incredibly useful when cooking different types of food on the barbecue: I get specific alerts to flip over each different dish at its exact due time.
If its sophistication you’re after, it’s definitely there. Apps such as Jawbone’s or Misfit’s will track your steps for the day and even the quality of your sleep, and if you install their matching smartphone apps they will collate the data nicely for you. If it’s running that tickles your fancy, the Pebble will work with some running apps to help you in that department, too. Note that since there is no GPS receiver on the Pebble you do have to run with your smartphone; it’s just that it’s easier to read your watch and receive alerts from your watch as you run than it is with the phone.
It really seems to be a case of the sky’s the limit. In my case, however, I voluntarily choose to limit what the Pebble and its apps are doing. I do so for two reasons: first, I do not want the Pebble to bite too much into my mobile data plan. Second, and more important, is the question of privacy: I know I’m at a minority in this department, but I do not want companies like Pebble or Jawbone to know of my exact location/activity/food consumption/sleep history, thank you very much. Being your typical American companies, they all sport privacy policies along the lines of “we can do whatever we feel like with your data” (I am yet to find an exception to this rule with the Pebble). However, even with the strictest of user imposed limitations your phone will still communicate with Pebble from time to time; and even if you block location services from the Pebble app, Pebble will get a good idea of where you’re located through your IP address. I guess what I am trying to say is that with this current incarnation of smartphone based business models, users’ privacy is at the top of the list of products to make money of. You might be getting great fitness apps, but your privacy is the currency with which you pay for such functionality. In this reviewer’s humble opinion, this does not have to be the case; I’d much rather pay a dollar or two a year for the services I like if it buys me decent privacy protections. Bear that in mind before you step into the smartwatch arena.
I will also add that I have been hearing reliable reports of the Jawbone app failing to reliably sync step counts between the Pebble smartwatch and its Android app. Given my self imposed privacy restrictions I cannot add much light there, but these things do happen.
Apps and smartwatches aside, by far the most useful feature  of the Pebble smartwatch is its handling of phone notification. Basically, it’s pretty easy to set things up so that every notification on your phone sends a buzz through your wrist. The advantages seem silly on paper, but believe me – once you experience it, there is no going back. It’s great to be able to read messages without having to take the phone out of your pocket, or to be able to screen calls in half a second. The biggest advantage? Forget about missing calls and messages because you failed to hear your phone in a crowded street or at a noisy shopping centre; your won’t miss your smartwatch vibrating. This is awesome!
Again, I will add a caveat: from time to time it occurs to me my Pebble stops providing notification alerts. Once it was because one of the Bluetooth connections got severed, but the rest of the times? I don’t know. Toggling app notifications off and on at my iPhone Settings app seems to have sorted things out, but who knows – maybe I’m just seeing patterns where there aren’t.
OK, let’s talk battery. How long does the Pebble watch last? Pebble will tell you “up to a week”; in my experience it took about 4 days for me to get the “low battery” warning and less than 5 for the smartwatch to become unusable. It’s not like the watches of yonder that allowed years between battery replacements, but it’s generous enough to let you fly across the world without a recharge. Just as long as you don’t forget to pack Pebble’s unique USB charger cable, otherwise you’re doomed!
The Pebble’s battery is nor serviceable, meaning you cannot replace it. In effect, that means this watch that you bought is a disposable item. If you’re used to the state of mind where watches are pieces of jewellery to be used over decades, forget it. On the positive side, the Pebble is rated with very decent water resistance: you can take it with you to the shower, you can swim along with it on your wrist, and if you believe the hype you can even go for a dive.
When it comes to accepting the Pebble into your life or not, the real question is to do with your basic attitude towards the idea that your watch is as disposable as your smartphone. That is, it's a coveted item at purchase time but it turns into a piece of archaeological shit two years later, or even less, when the next model with the latest bells and whistles comes out.
As things currently stand, Pebble is the only viable smartwatch offering out there. The various Android models don’t really know what to do with themselves while Apple simply isn’t there yet. In my opinion, a breakthrough can only come through Apple. While I used to be sceptic about the whole need for a smartwatch, the Pebble thoroughly convinced me of the case for one. Now it is up to Apple with its design skills and market power to turn smartwatches from an early adopters’ toy into a mainstream affair.
I have no doubt Apple can do it. It’s soon to be released smartwatch features a proper smartphone grade screen and its already released SDK hints at a vastly superior user interface than the Pebble’s. However, there are also significant disadvantages to Apple’s would be offerings: starting at $400 in the USA, they would be costly (remember, we are talking disposable items here!); with the beautiful screen comes battery life of one day or less (no flying for you!); and, at the more down to earth level, it is not here yet and it doesn’t have an ecosystem yet.
The Pebble, on the other hand, is here and now. It works, it has an ecosystem, it has decent battery life, and it’s cheap enough for most of us to buy on impulse. Hell, it costs less than a Jawbone UP 24 wristband, but it does everything that wristband does while also telling the time!
Your mileage will vary depending on your own personal preferences. In my case, what started as a “it’s cheap enough for me to give it a try” sceptic approach turned into a “how come I didn’t get it earlier” affair within a day of receiving notifications to my wrist while being accurately informed of my step count for the day. Me, I’m giving the Pebble smartwatch 4 out of 5 disposable crabs.
Now let us see what the next year is going to bring along.

10/12/2014 update: Over the past week my Pebble's display started displaying distortions of sorts. Yesterday things got to the point where the watch was no longer useable. Clearly, this is a case of a malfunctioning e-ink display. I guess it's time for me to see just how good Pebble's customer support is. Stay tuned.

8/1/2015 update:
I got to hand it to Pebble, they certainly provided me with good customer support.
I contacted them via email, as per the warranty instructions provided with the watch. Within a day I got a reply (impressive on its own, especially given the time differences between Australia and the USA) asking me to provide a photo of my malfunctioning watch together with a note specifying the case number allocated to me. I did that, and by the next day I received another email informing me a new watch will be heading my way shortly. No faulty product return required.
About four days later I received notification that my new watch has been posted, together with a tracking number from Singapore Post. My only criticism is that this tracking number proved completely useless; Singapore Post could not tell me anything other than "item has been posted to Australia", while Australia Post claimed the item is un-trackable.
Some three weeks later I got my new watch, and I have to say: I am better for it. First, Pebble was kind enough to send me a black replacement watch instead of the original red that I had bought. Second, I now have two charging cables. And third, it already seems as if battery life on the new watch is significantly better (20%-25%) than that of my original watch.
Overall, Pebble had provided a positive and smooth service experience.

21/5/2015 update:
Having encountered multiple failures of Pebble watches (read here), I can no longer recommend Pebble watches due to their unreasonable failure rate. I will add, however, that the warranty service I have been receiving from Pebble has been excellent throughout.

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