Review: Pebble Time Steel
Since a little company from Cupertino launched their own smart watch everyone is comparing any other offering to it, but the Pebble watch was initially one of the first on the market, launching on Kickstarter back in June 2014 and smashing the record for the most funded campaign. Roll forward to February 2015 and Pebble courted controversy by launching the next iteration - the Pebble Time and Time Steel - via the crowd funding site, despite being an established business. It too smashed the funding record, gaining $20m. Now that Time Steels are being delivered (albeit three months late) are they any good and can they compete with the Apple Watch?
The Time was initially launched, and then the Kickstarter campaign was updated to include the Time Steel. This review covers the latter. The Time is a plastic watch, but the Time Steel is premium grade steel. Both include a 64 colour e-paper display and are waterproof to 30m, but where the Time Steel wins is on battery life - 10 days versus the standard Time's 7.
Here's the basic features, as listed on the Kickstarter campaign:
Always-on, daylight readable screen with a great backlight
- Up to 7 day battery life (Time Steel battery life is up to 10 days)
- Use any standard 22mm watch band
- Water resistant and durable
- Tactile buttons for easy eyes-free clicking
- Silent vibrating alarms
- Step tracking with Misfit and Jawbone
- Language and international character support
- Timeline will work on Pebble and Pebble Steel
- Light sensor, which disables backlight from lighting up when not required
- Works with iOS 8 on iPhone 4s and above
- Works with all Android 4.0+ phones including Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG, Google, Motorola, Xiaomi and more
From a distance the Time Steel can be confused with the Apple Watch but on closer inspection the differences are clear. Firstly, there are four buttons - one left to activate the backlight and that also acts as a back button. To the right there are three buttons that control the new Timeline interface. On the rear is a connector for the magnetic charging cable, and this will also double as a connector for future strap-based accessories - more on this later. The Time Steel Kickstarter package comes with both a leather and metal strap (although the metal straps were delayed and, as of the time of writing, has not yet arrived). I opted for the gold face and red leather strap, which many people have commented is a striking combination. Of course, the biggest difference is that the Pebble Time's e-paper screen is always on and is readable in daylight. Most other smart watches that rely on LCD (or similar) displays will turn the display off and only enable it when you turn the watch towards you.
Let's talk about the 1.25" 180ppi screen. In daylight it's actually not that bad. The better the light, the more contrast it provides. Move indoors and you're sometimes reliant on the backlight, which is fair, but can hardly be described as excellent. It has four brightness settings, the brightest of which being 'blinding'. I doubt a mole could be blinded by it, to be honest, but it is adequate. To activate the backlight you can either press the left button or flick your wrist, utilising the accelerometer. I could still see the screen during the day indoors, but of an evening under bulb lights (versus daylight) it was much more faded and the backlight is the better option. In short, if a good level of any kind of light is hitting the screen it'll make the display comfortably visible.
Note also that it's not a touch screen, so all navigation is performed exclusively through the buttons.
After removing the watch from the packaging I powered it up using the left button. You're prompted to immediately pair it with either an Androiid or iOS device, so I downloaded the iPhone app, created an account and quickly paired the watch to the phone. The process is simple and quick. The watch was charged to 70% on arrival, and given that it lasts for 10 days I was free to carry on exploring.
Apps on the watch
There's not actually much to write about the standard apps here. Using the top and bottom buttons scrolls through the installed apps, which are:
- Watch faces
You can install additional apps and watch faces through Pebble's own store, and there are 6500 to choose from. All of the original Pebble apps and watch faces also work on the Time. As the Pebble Time has built in vibration, accelerometer, compass and gyroscope there's a raft of apps that make use of them. Apps come in three flavours - ones that install on the watch, ones that work in conjunction with a companion app on the phone, and apps that work on the phone and do not need an app on the watch. So far all of the Pebble apps I've seen have been free, but there are sometimes costs associated with the phone apps.
I've not actually installed many apps to date, but here's a summary of the ones so far:
- Compass - standalone app that uses the compass in the watch
- Timer+ - a simple timer app
- Pedometer - step counter
- Maptastic - allows you to get maps on the watch, but it's quite slow and awkward
- PayPal - finds 'stores' (or other PayPal accounts?) near you so that you can pay them. I was quite surprised when it came up with a list of people/companies within 0.3 miles of me!
- BBC News Headlines - provides a customisable number of headlines from various categories.
- Ski Tracks - links with a companion app on the phone to display current ski session. I think this would be very useful on the slopes
I've only noted one app on my phone which works with the Pebble without an app on the watch, and this is Runkeeper, although I've not had an opportunity to test it yet.
The phone app (tested on iOS)
This is used to find and install new apps or watch faces, and is quick and simple to use. If you've used any form of app store you'll feel right at home here. Slide from the left to access your watch settings, new watch faces or new apps. Browse categories or use keyword search to find items, with both apps and watch faces having a reasonable amount of information associated with them so that you can make an informed decision before you install. The installation process itself takes just a few seconds - at least for the apps I installed - so I'm guessing that most apps will be very small. I've not actually installed any games, although there are a fair number available. Some apps can be configured through the phone, and this is highlighted by a cog to the right of the app. Tapping on the line item displays app details and also gives you the option to uninstall the app from the watch.
Below from left to right: Slide out menu, watch faces and apps/timeline
As I said at the top of this review, all smart watches are now compared to the Apple Watch, so it's probably best to tackle the elephant in the room and list what the Pebble Time cannot do. Well, health tracking is limited, as it does not have a heart rate monitor (although this is rumoured to be coming in the guise of a strap that can connect to the data connectors also used for charging). It doesn't have a touch screen either, but having said that I don'
t think a touch screen is large enough on a watch to really provide an intuitive interface, as your finger would be covering a third of the screen.
In my experience the most useful thing for any smartwatch is notifications, and the Pebble Time does this extremely well. Receive a text, call, WhatsApp or any other app that is configured to use notifications (on iOS, which I'm using) and it'll also pop up on the phone. Two taps of the middle right button dismiss it, or use the top/bottom to scroll down through it and any other unread notifications. Dismissing them on the watch also dismiss them from the lock screen of the phone, which keeps things tidy, although you'll still have the red circular reminder on the relevant app e.g. dismissing a text message will still show a red circle against the Messages app.
There's a microphone positioned at the bottom right of the watch, but at the time of writing it's not a great deal of use to iOS users, although Pebble have released an API that will allow both iOS and Android app developers to take advantage of it, so it'll be interested to see what comes out of it. On Androad you can use it to record voice messages etc, but as yet there is little available on iOS to utilise it.
A gyroscope and accelerometer are also included, and I found a few useful apps relating to these, such as a pedometer, compass and basic maps app.
Day to day usability
I found the watch both light enough and small enough to slide comfortably under most shirt sleeves. I think I would find LED-based smartwatches frustrating in that the screen is off until you either actively move your wrist to trigger the display or activate it using a button. I don't often find myself needing to press the left button for the backlight, and the screen is perfectly visible during daylight hours.
One thing that Pebble Time users can feel rather smug about is the battery life. I like the fact that I can not worry about charging it every night. A couple of days ago I got my first warning that I was down to 20%, which still leaves me a couple of days before it'd die on me. Of course, the worry is now that I might get complacent and forget to take the (non-standard magnetic) charger on a long trip and the phone would conk out halfway through.
I'd already disabled most notifications from apps on my smartphone, so it's mainly communication apps such as Messages, WhatsApp and Facetime that have been popping up on the watch, but there's been some notable others. I've had eBay notify me of shipments, BBC notify me of headline news and, most impressively, BA notified me of a gate change at Heathrow airport before the overhead boards knew about it! Notifications take the form of a vibration, the strength of which is configurable, and an on-screen message. This can be ignored by pressing the left button or read/scrolled using the top/bottom right buttons. Pressing the middle buttons gives you the option to dismiss that specific message or all messages, after which you're returned to the clock face.. I found the notifications very useful, especially when in a noisy environment or when walking, as I don't feel the phone vibrate in my pocket but I always felt the watch vibrate.
The time setting itself is taken (initially?) from the smartphone, however when I went overseas recently both the phone and watch updated simultaneously, which is good. You can get multi-timezone watch faces as well, which can be changed with a couple of button presses, or from the phone app.
A welcome addition is 'Quiet Time'. This is the ability to quickly silence all notifications, or, as I've done, set predetermined times where you'll never receive messages.
Importantly, I've had no software or usability issues. It did everything it was supposed to, and quickly. For a smartphone to a step up from a traditional watch the worst thing would be for it to crash or be buggy, but there's none of that with the Pebble Time. I wonder, given the plethora of apps written by a wide range of developers of varying skills, whether Apple Watch users will be able able to say the same.
All apps tend to be simple affairs, given the lack of buttons available to control them, but that simplicity makes them very easy to use. The music app, for example allows you to go to the next or previous track, or toggle the same buttons to act as a volume control - useful if you're at the gym or on a bike. The picture of the music app to the right shows the track name, duration, timeline and control icons, but again due to iOS restrictions there's no Album Art, which Android users will be treated to.
All in all I'm very happy with the Pebble Time Steel. I think it's certainly an improvement design-wise over the original Pebble (which I never bought as it just wasn't a good enough design in my opinion), and the Operating System seems to have matured as well with a healthy number of apps available.
I'm sure that if I bought the Apple Watch I'd have been bowled over by it. Apple only jump into a market when they can bring out a consumer-friendly product when the market is ready to receive it, and at a premium price. It's a desirable looking product. The thing is, so is the Pebble Time. Admittedly the screen does not pack anywhere near the same punch as the Apple watch (or any other LED-based watch for that matter, but the Pebble Time is not trying to be that type of smart watch. Remember also that people have got used to using large touch screens. I think people will quickly tire of ignoring the beautiful slab of expensive tech in their pocket for a one-inch touch screen that is only twice the width of the finger they're using to poke it with. I can get an app for the Apple Watch that will remotely start my car should I want to. Would I use it? Only as a party trick. So to my mind the Pebble Time has got the right balance of 'smarts' without being overkill. I want a watch that will look good, last for a good business trip and have a few tricks up its/my sleeve, so the Pebble Time is smart enough for me.