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HTG Reviews the Pebble: The Best Bet in the Smartwatch Market

If you’ve frequently longed to interact with your phone, check notifications, and otherwise stay up to date with a motion as casual as glancing at your wrist watch, you’re a perfect candidate for a smartwatch. Read on as we take a tour of the Pebble smartwatch and how seamlessly it puts notifications and more right on your wrist.

Smart Watches? The Pebble?

Although 2013 is quickly on the way out the door with a scant few weeks left in the year, it will definitely be remembered as the year smartwatches began to emerge from the incubation of design labs. What makes a smartwatch? While some smartwatches strive to be a completely contained device (almost like a tiny PDA or smartphone packed into a watch) the majority of smartwatches are paired devices. You wear the watch while you carry an Android or iOS-based phone and the watch, via Bluetooth, acts as a simple remote display for the phone keeping you current on a wide range of things like text messages, emails, and other notifications that would typically require you to pull your phone out and check it.

The Pebble stands out from the current crop of smartwatches for a variety of reasons including ease of use, wide cross-platform compatibility, and very reasonable price point. In a market where smartwatches can routinely cost more than $300, the $150 Pebble is an outright bargain.

But bargain in its niche market or not, the real issue is whether or not it’s even worth getting a smartwatch at this stage and whether or not the Pebble lives up to the praise it has received when thrown into daily real-world use. Luckily for you, we picked one up back in October, strapped it on, and put it through weeks and weeks of real world testing so we could dish the dirt on it.

Before we actually configure the Pebble, let’s take a quick tour to familiarize ourselves with the layout. The watch has a small digital 144 x 168 pixel screen, four buttons, and, tucked inside out of sight, a 3-axis accelerometer and light senor (which power handy features like shaking your wrist to dismiss a notification and automatically adjusting the screen brightness). In addition to the buttons and screen, the only visible external component is a pair of metal contact points hidden on the left hand side of the watch where the USB-charging cable (with a custom no-plug magnetic contact charging head) connects to the watch for recharges. The watch can go for about 7 days of heavy use and, if you’re not getting notifications left and right on it, you could easily see 2-3 weeks of battery life.

Let’s dig in by talking about setting the watch up.

Getting Started with the Pebble

Open the box, tap any of the buttons, and right away the Pebble starts guiding you through the setup process. If you visit the URL it displays, go.getpebble.com, it will ask you to select which phone OS you’re running (Android or iOS) and then offer you step-by-step instructions for downloading and installing the appropriate software.

While we were very happy with the Pebble software over all, we will say that the startup wizard left a lot to be desired. It got stuck at several stages and the guided Bluetooth pairing failed. We immediately switched over to the actual Bluetooth menu in our Android 4.3-based phone and successfully paired it (so it obviously wasn’t an actual problem with the Bluetooth system).

We’d suggest skipping the software wizard and simply pairing the device manually by going into your phone’s Bluetooth menu then, on the Pebble itself, pressing the middle right-hand button to bring up the system menu and then navigating to Settings -> Bluetooth – > Pairing. Start the pairing process by tapping on the listing for the Pebble on your phone’s Bluetooth list and then, on the Pebble, confirm the pair. We’ll emphasize that last step: make sure to confirm the pairing on the Pebble, it’s easy to misread the display as indicating the pairing is complete when really the watch wants you to finish confirming it. Thankfully, the pairing process was the most difficult part (and, wizard or no wizard, isn’t even that hard).

Once you have the watch paired with your phone, it’s time to take a stop in the Pebble app to do a little configuration. There are three primary functions built right into the watch that don’t require additional support apps (a bit of extensibility which we’ll talk about in a moment). The most primary function is the watch face. Super awesome notifications and smartwatch functionality aside, it’s still, well, a watch. The fun thing about the Pebble is that it’s so easy to customize the watch display. You can do so both from the watch itself by pressing the upper and lower buttons on the right hand side (this will toggle through the installed watch faces — there are three by default) or you can, from the Pebble app on your phone, click on My Pebble -> Watch Apps -> Get Watch Apps. There you’ll find a dozen or so additional watch faces you can also add to your Pebble.

Watch face aside, the most important thing is the notification process. Since you’re wearing a buzzing and potentially in-your-face notification device on your wrist, it’s a good idea to take control of what gets passed along. Within the Pebble app, tap on the gear in the upper right hand corner. There you’ll find settings options for everything on the watch, including notifications.

Open the notifications menu and review the lists there. You can toggle a wide variety of settings including whether or not you want the Pebble to notify you of the following: incoming calls, text messages, calender reminders, emails (and which email accounts you want it to monitor) as well as whether or not third party (aka non Pebble) apps can push notifications to your phone. We’d suggest following the protocol we did. By default, we set the watch up for all the available notifications. After a few days we went back and tweaked things. For example, it was great to get caller ID and text messages on our wrist, but a constant stream of email messages just ended up being distracting and not particularly useful.

Finally, from the same menu where you selected Notifications, you can select Music. The third baked-in function found in the Pebble is that it works as a wrist-based media controller. You can use it to change tracks, skip forward and backward, pause music, and so on. Select Music and pick your media player (it even works on video-based apps like Netflix). From then on you’ll be able to tap your wrist to control your media apps.

Extending the Power of the Pebble

Out of the box, there is quite a bit of functionality built into the Pebble: custom watch faces, notifications galore, and perfectly serviceable media control right on your wrist. That said, however, the Pebble is highly extensible with a wide variety of helper apps, and those helper apps, frankly, make the watch the best smartwatch on the market. Any criticism we had about the functionality of the watch was completely fixable with a free app from a third-party developer.

On the most cosmetic level, there are thousands of additional watch faces outside the official pebble applications you can use. My Pebble Faces has around 2,500 faces and Watchface Generator has an index of something like 80,000 user-generated watch faces for the Pebble.

Beyond simply refreshing the watch face, there are quite a few creative add-on applications that bring a wide range of functions to the Pebble. The best way to take advantage of those apps is to seek out a Pebble app manager like the free Pebble Apps. There you’ll find a wide variety of apps neatly organized, like Glance which adds weather, missed call/email/text counters, and adds in what we would consider two supremely handy functions: canned quick responses for from-your-wrist text message replies (e.g. you can tap a button to response “Sounds good” to quickly reply to a text message) and text message review (a feature which is glaringly absent from the default Pebble notification system).

Another must-have app for extending the reach of the Pebble is Pebble Notifier, which passes all your notifications (not just the default notifications like SMS and email) onto your phone. Facebook, Google+, eBay auction notices, you can have it all.

The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict

After all that testing, notification slinging, and daily wear, what do we have to say about the Pebble smartwatch?

The Good:

  • The Pebble is the most reasonably priced smartwatch on the market at $150 (frequently on promotional sale for $120-130)
  • Despite our huge apprehension about the quality of the screen (and confusion over why it wasn’t true e-ink instead of LCD), the screen gets the job done and works in all lighting conditions.
  • It’s waterproof to 160 feet, so you don’t have to worry about trashing your smartwatch in the shower or pool.
  • The media controls are easy to use and translate well to a wide variety of music and video apps.
  • It doesn’t try to do everything (and, like other smartwatches, fail); it instead focuses on efficient delivery of notifications (and succeeds).
  • Add-on apps take the already useful base functions of the watch and greatly extend them.

The Bad:

  • There’s no way to review a notification once it has displayed on the phone and then faded away after a few seconds. If you want to reference a text message you just missed, for example, you have to pull your phone out and open your texting app to do so, because the Pebble has no way to review the previous notifications. This is a huge oversight we hope to see corrected. Thankfully, third party apps, like Glance, fix the issue.
  • Although the Pebble is no 3″ diameter dive watch, it’s still a large faced watch. The 50mm x 32mm rectangular face looks fairly large on a modestly sized male wrist and really large on a smaller female wrist. (See the photo above, of the watch on my really bony wrist, for a sense of scale.)
  • While we understand why it needs a magnetic specialty charging cable (to keep the case water tight), it’s still annoying to need yet another specialty charging cable.

The Verdict: As we round out 2013, we’re standing on a pile of overly expensive and under-delivering smartwatches. Watches that try to do too much, cost too much, and have led to a lot of consumer backlash (Samsung’s $300 Gear smartwatch, for example, has an over 40% return rate). Among all that, the Pebble really stands out. It’s easy to use. It’s easy to add onto with helper applications. It’s easy to forget you’re wearing some sort of fancy new technology and just accept that you now have a watch that does a whole lot of neat things.

Is the Pebble for everyone? No. As much as we loved it, it’s really still a geek’s watch. You have to want a smartwatch. You have to want your phone to push notifications and updates to your wrist. If that sounds like you, however: somebody who wants all the notifications and integration their smartphone provides on their wrist, the Pebble is a rock solid option that wears well, has a long battery life, and offers a wide array of functions.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 12/10/13

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