Watches to me have long been a thing of the past. I last wore one in my student days. At the time mobile phones started becoming commonplace and I felt the small benefit of being able to see the time at a glance didn't outweigh the annoyance of having to wear something around my wrist, which can be uncomfortable while typing. My last watch was a cheap run-of-the-mill Casio illuminator, digital of course, the cheapest model. It showed the time in 2 time zones, had a stopwatch and an alarm, and a nice blue EL backlight, quite a nice and sufficient feature set at the time. This was 1993, 20 years ago, when most people had never heard of the internet.
Today, you can walk into any high street shop and find watches with exactly the same look and features I had then, even at a similar price, if not more expensive. While everything in technology has moved ahead at lightning speeds, the watch industry spent the last 20 years innovating absolutely nothing. Sure, a few gimmicky models were made, from quite horrible wrist cams, GPS watches the size of an average mobile phone and gimmicky Chinese GSM watches with a minimal battery life. But nothing emerged that was meant to last. In the past 20 years I've turned away from even considering wearing anything on my wrist. Until last April when I first heard of kickstarter.
I've always thought a watch should be able to do so much more, thinking how cool it would be to have simple apps available without having to take my phone out of my pocket. How much more userfriendly it would be not having to put up with the usual 7-segment displays, but something that could show something more than a few characters at a time. I went as far as buying two Texas Instrument Chronos development kits but due to the horribly restricted screen and the unusual wireless interface I never completed building anything cool with them.
Smartwatches finally come to the masses
However finally the watch industry is waking up, even though the innovators aren't the established manufacturers but newcomers instead. Sony gave it a go, a bunch of Italian designers made the I'm watch, there was the Allerta inPulse which picked the wrong (blackberry) platform to support, and Fossil's Metawatch. All had their shortcomings, mainly due to the design decisions taken and even though I considered every single one of them at one point, none of them had the ideal mix of tradeoffs. Because when you shrink a computing device down to a wrist-sized form factor, you're going to have to make some compromises and as always the trick is to choose wisely to get the right mix between feature set and usability. Roughly speaking there's 3 ways you can go:
1) Run a full mobile OS such as Android on the watch which can run standard apps, using a full-colour touchscreen (basically the way Sony and I'm watch went).
2) Run a custom mini-OS with limited apps that communicate with the smartphone, the way Pebble has chosen
3) Making the watch nothing but a remote screen for the smartphone so it relies on the phone for everything except perhaps telling the time (the metawatch way).
The full OS way I ruled out for myself because each of the watches following this model had a tiny battery life and sacrificed too much in other ways, such as the hassle of having to press a button just to see the time. Even though some day this model may work great, the underlying technology hasn't really reached this level of miniaturisation yet.
On the other side of the range there was the metawatch with its pixelly "palm pilot" user-interface and no apps, just a few screens which are directly coming from an app running on the smartphone. While I found this much more appealing than the above it never quite got me as far as to place an order.
History of the Pebble
Then the Pebble was launched, and it offered the compromise I was looking for: A black-and-white screen that's always on, small, light, with a multi-day battery life, and the ability to run simple local apps even if the smartphone is not around (even though the SDK isn't out yet). I backed the project on the first day and I'm glad I did because I've already been able to have it on my wrist for the past 4 weeks.
The Pebble is made by the same team that built the Allerta inPulse, and it was clear they learned from their mistakes. Gone was the power-hungry (press to light up) OLED screen, and the awkward single-button control was replaced by a much more user-friendly four. Also eradicated was blackberry support, opting instead for the (these days) much more popular iOS and Android platforms. The company learned its lessons well and went for usability and marketshare this time. The fact that they'd already gone through the motions of shipping a real product brought the risk down to a reasonable level and I put my credit card down to receive mine in September 2012. A month later the kickstarter closed with 10.2 million dollars in sales, greatly exceeding their goal of just 100.000.
Kickstarter is a 'crowdfunding' site, where people with an idea for a product or work of art (e.g. a movie or a game) but no luck finding investors, can find prospective buyers. A lot of projects never meet their goal, which means that all the backers' money is refunded and the project is cancelled. But this one was one of the biggest successes in Kickstarter's history due to the high media exposure of the project. I've since backed several other projects that I wouldn't have known about if it hadn't been for this watch.
As usual on kickstarter the initial promised delivery date of September 2012 was way too optimistic but unlike many other backers I wasn't too annoyed, nor surprised. I know it takes a long time to get things right especially when the increased scale demands producing in China. You don't want to throw away a batch of 1000's of watches just because someone forgot to specify that it's not OK for them to be scratched all over. Even massive players like Apple still struggle with this to this day, as can be seen with the iPhone 5 scratching issues. However I don't think that their choice of 'not mentioning any new date until we're completely sure' was a good one. People need something to look forward to, even if it's a moving target.
In any case, in return for the longer wait us backers got something back too, which was waterproofing and some features which will be enabled at a later date, including Bluetooth 4.0 support, an accelerometer and an ambient light sensor.
After all these months of waiting, I received my Pebble four weeks ago, shipped from Hong Kong as it is for all non-US backers. The box is a nice, 1" (2.5cm) high cardboard box which will fit through most letterboxes. It's reminiscent of the 'frustration-free' box Amazon's Kindle comes in, with the pull tab which can be used to rip through the cardboard closure tab. It's brown with black printing, and almost screams out that its contents consist of expensive technology. I don't think it's wise to use this packaging for postal shipping where the chance of something getting lost along the way is a bit higher than when an international courier is used. However during its journey from Singapore it picked up so many labels that the original packaging was hard to see. The packaging is easy to open and it protects the watch well.
Once the watch is opened, all that is needed to switch it on is to hold any of the buttons for 2 seconds. The same procedure applies when the watch has been switched off manually, because, yes, you can switch it off, which for me was a novelty when it comes to watches. Besides the switch-off there's also an airplane mode which simply turns off the bluetooth.
The watch itself is lighter than I imagined it to be, and feels sturdy enough even though it's entirely made out of plastic. The lens itself is plastic too and has a tendency to scratch. I've gone to the trouble of putting a screen protector on it, which admittedly looks very geeky but I couldn't bear the thought of scratching my display in the first week. On the pebble forums people have reported scuffs from simple daily occurrences such as scraping against a wall or a doorframe. To make matters worse, the display seems to get 'foggy' when scuffed, rather than receiving one clear scratch. For the price a glass lens would be too much to expect, considering the curved surface, but I do think the precaution of a screen protector is warranted in this case. Although having said that, I've only covered the actual screen with the protector, and the unprotected parts haven't received any noticeable scratches during the past 4 weeks, so it may be just the unlucky few.
The back of the watch is also plastic which for me is great because I have had allergy issues with other metal watch backs before. The band is a nice strong and thick rubber which doesn't seem to deform easily. It also takes standard 'NATO' sized bands so if you don't like it there is an option for everyone.
The wristband itself is fairly short, I'm using the second-last catch for comfort, or the third when I'm moving around and need a tighter fit. A longer one is available directly from Pebble but will be shipped separately because it doesn't fit in the custom box. I haven't bothered with one.
The watch is also waterproof, I haven't tested this myself and I have no intention of doing so. Waterproof ratings for watches are a bit hit & miss anyway as they only apply to a brand new out of the box watch and only for a certain time, and under certain conditions, such as it being submerged in standing water. Water jets with a bit of pressure behind them can get into devices much more easily than simple standing water so I take it off when I shower, as I have done for every other watch I've ever had. I also never wear a watch when sleeping so that's a good time to charge it. I haven't run the battery fully down but it's lasted at least 3 to 4 days for me so far on a single charge.
There is no charger included, but a simple USB (no data, just charging) cable is included with a magnetic end, very similar to Apple's Magsafe or Microsoft's charger cable for the surface. It fits well but it detaches very easily so it can happen that the watch ends up being connected when you move it around. It's no big deal as I tend to charge it every night and it can easily last a few days on a single charge.
Controls and user interface
The controls are very simple, the single left button is always back, on the right-hand side there's 3 buttons, the top one means scroll up (or the top on-screen function), bottom means down or the bottom on-screen function and the middle one is select.
In terms of features there's about 3 things it does right now, you can choose a watchface (I prefer the written time one), you can read notifications and view the status during a call, and you can control music playing on your phone.
First the watchfaces, there's only a few to choose from right now, 3 which come as standard on the watch, and a few which can be installed or removed. The menu can be used to select the chosen watchface, and there's also a settings menu in there with a few options. Strange enough the 3 standard watchfaces are at the top, then there's the settings menu and the music option, and then the installed watchfaces appear. The order is a bit strange, I'd rather see all the watchfaces together. But this is early days for the firmware, and I'm sure many things will change by the time the SDK is out.
Update: This has actually just been changed in the 1.9 Firmware update, watchfaces now have their own menu and it's much easier to go back to the watchface right now.
I've used the shutdown feature a few times already and it would be handy if it was at the end, instead of the factory reset. That way I could just hold the 'Down' button and scroll there quickly. Luckily the factory reset asks for a confirmation first (and really, there isn't all that much to reset right now) but I can see this going wrong one day.
The included and downloadable watchfaces are nice and varied, I personally prefer the written time one, which states the time as 'eight fifty three' for example. There's also some analog ones and some 'mystery' ones like a binary view and one of those block matrix ones. While I love binary clocks, I once made one myself, they're not very practical so I just used that one once to look at.
Overall, both the firmware and the companion app are very well polished. There's none of the 'Chinese' software issues that are so common in cheaper products, such as incorrect wording, missing menus, options that don't do anything or icons that look all different. There is a nice consistent look & feel about the UI and it makes me feel confident that a lot of thought has been put into it. Yet still, the company is not afraid to make changes when it makes sense, as they did with the latest 1.9 firmware update which made it much easier to return to the watchface of choice. While the software is still clearly in development, what is there works great and is well designed.
As with any new product, reports of some 'lemons' have appeared. Frequent problems seem to be mainly screen related, and I was struck by one myself when the first time I received an inbound call, the display was completely 'scrambled'. Several other people have reported the same. The scrambling continued for a while but eventually sorted itself out, and though I've seen it happen on several occasions during the first few days, it's been trouble-free since. So I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt.
What bothers me a bit more is that I never received a reply when I used the contact form in the Pebble app to log an issue. Their service is no doubt overwhelmed and still finding the right procedures but an automatic acknowledgement would have been nice. My problem seems to be gone now but there should be a bit more feedback in the support process.
Another issue, as mentioned before, is how easy the screen seems to scratch, and I think this is a point that should be improved when a new model comes out. Hopefully as it becomes more popular, it will become more cost-effective to use a glass lens. It would be great to be able to use this watch with confidence without a screen protector, as I do with my iPhone.
However I have to say for a start-up, the Pebble is a very well designed product with no 'rough edges'. The fit and finish is great, there are no problems such as bubbles in the glue or case components not fitting right. For a first attempt at really large-scale manufacturing they have done very well.
Day to day use
One thing I should mention in this part is that I've only used this watch together with the iOS app. The Android app is completely different and implements a lot of features (notifications, email) inside the app itself instead of relying on OS features. I've also heard that the Android app doesn't allow to answer or reject calls that come in. So the feature set can differ depending on what kind of smartphone is being used.
After the initial playing around and the wow-factor wore off, I started using the watch on a day to day basis. While I still take it off many times during the day, such as when typing large amounts of texts, it has quickly become a part of my day to day life. I feel it really adds a lot in many situations.
One of these is spam calls. When the watch is paired with an iPhone, it gives the option of rejecting calls straight from the watch. I get a lot of spam calls from various companies (Yes UPC I'm looking at you) and I've got their numbers in my address book, so when I get a call from any of them I can simply press the button and make them go away without having to dig in my pocket. I even do this with genuine callers sometimes, when I'm in a meeting. The disruption caused by this is much less pronounced than having to dig into a pocket, find the phone, see who's calling and reject the call. During a call the display will always show the caller and duration, and it works fine alongside other Bluetooth devices, such as my handsfree car kit and headsets. I use bluetooth audio devices a lot, and none of my devices have a display so this is a great help.
Another great feature to me is the music control. When I first received the Pebble the feature wasn't too useful because it would switch back to the watch face after a minute or two, but since the latest firmware update it stays on whenever the music player is active. I use my phone a lot for music while I go for a walk, and it's great to be able to glance at what song is playing or quickly pause playback without having to take the phone out. Apple's remote also does this but it doesn't offer a display.
One thing the music player lacks at this time is a volume control. I also feel it would be great if the audio control buttons would work while the watch is displaying a watchface, because at the moment none of the 3 buttons on the right do anything at all while a watchface is shown. The music screen also shows the time but it's absolutely tiny, it would be great to have a watchface that can do both at the same time and have the control, without having to switch screens all the time. But this is a minor improvement and it's already very useful the way it is.
The last feature that is very interesting is the notification feature. I assume most people would, like myself, use push notifications for a lot of social media apps, like Facebook, whatsapp and the like. So it will happen that many times a day my phone vibrates for a fraction of a second to indicate the reception of a push message, prompting the lingering question of whether that was anything important or just another 'person x has also liked person y's message'. With the notifications properly enabled, the watch will show this and will allow to quickly scan and dismiss the interruption, causing most non-essential updates to be a lot less disruptive.
However the notifications are also the most incomplete of the current feature set, as it is required to do a 'button dance' inside the notifications menu on the iPhone every time the watch loses and regains connectivity to the phone. Worse yet, there is no visible indication whether push notifications are currently working or not. This is the case for all third-party app notifications, as well as the built-in email app on iOS. The only things that work all the time are notifications for calls and texts. This is also a major drawback at the moment and to be fair, it's not one caused by the Pebble team but by Apple's implementation of the notifications. I don't expect this to change quickly as it will require Apple to fix this in an OS update.
When the Pebble was launched, the team promised a lot more than what is currently available. Third-party apps running straight on the watch, an SDK for developing your own apps, and a watch face SDK for custom-made watch faces. The team is still working on these and this means that owning a Pebble will become more interesting as time goes on. While I think it is currently already very useful I wouldn't mind getting my hands on this SDK and making my own apps for it. And I'm not the only one, there is a huge collection of (mockup) watch faces forming on this user-contributed page, some of which look very compelling. And that's just watchfaces.
Still, the Pebble team will have to keep innovating. At the moment it looks like the Pebble is the best smartwatch out there, but many other players are looking at the market as well. Apple and Samsung are rumoured to be working on one, and other compelling-looking crowdfunding projects such as the VEA Buddy are being launched. A year from now the smartwatch industry will actually be that, an industry.
It's been almost a year since I backed this project, and even though the delays were considerable, it has been worth the wait. The pebble is a compelling product now and it will be for some time to come. Some other players will make their entrance to the market and it's hard to tell at this stage if the Pebble will remain the best of its kind as I believe it is now. But for the price, right now, this is the smartwatch to get. It's light, thin, has a display that's always on, and isn't bloated with features or a power-hungry OS. Some improvements, both in hardware and software would be great but for a first-generation product I think it's very well done. And while the hardware can't be improved in its current form, the software certainly will. I think it has great potential but it's already very useful the way it is now. While I've owned the watch it's already received three major firmware updates and the Watchface SDK will be out soon. Times are interesting and I think most of this review will be deprecated soon by newer features.
One thing the team could still do better is communication. My scrambled-display problem has seemed to have fixed itself but I never received a reply to the trouble ticket I logged four weeks ago. While I realise the team is flat-out getting these things out of the door (at this moment in time not even half of the kickstarter orders has been shipped yet), at least an automatic acknowledgement would have inspired a bit more confidence than this. I hope the team will improve on their customer support as it's one of the foundations of a good product.