What seems like a long time ago now, I backed a Kickstarter project to create a smart watch for iOS and Android called the Pebble. Due to deliver late last year, the project ran a little over schedule, but a few weeks back my Kickstarter Edition Pebble watch arrived in the mail, and I have been living with it ever since. This is my summary of my experiences in those first few weeks, using the watch connected to my iPhone 5.
I am deeming it to be semi-smart though, in contrast to some of the watches that are available since without the connection to the smartphone it does nothing more than tell the time. Even updating the time when daylight savings came into effect was dependent on a ping from the associated phone.
The Pebble arrives in a custom box, with the watch and the charging cable. The charging cable is a regular USB on one end, with a custom magnetic connector on the other for the watch.
There is no physical data connection; you will need to connect the watch, via Bluetooth, to your iOS or Android device, most likely your smartphone. There are detailed instructions for both platforms on their website and the instructions in the box point you at the setup landing page.
Overall, the watch feels pretty well made, if a little plasticky. The strap is a standard size, so easily replaced if you prefer something other than the rubbery one the watch ships with, or when it eventually breaks.
The buttons do seem a little large though, and the left side one on my watch is pretty hard to press at times. Not really sure whether that is a hardware problem or just it being a little more awkward to get to.
The screen is also very prone to picking up greasy marks (even though it is not a touch screen).
I have tested it in a swimming pool, and it passed that test with no problems at all. It also spent a weekend in Tahoe with freezing temperatures (just) with no issues.
One of the interesting features of the Pebble is the ability for users to select their preferred watch face style, and very soon even develop their own using Pebble's watch face SDK.
I actually ended up sticking with the Text Watch face shown in the photo above as I think it is the coolest looking; your tastes may be different! With the very latest firmware (1.9.1), you get to switch watch faces very easily via the up and down buttons on the watch.
From the iOS app, there are also a number of installable extra watch face options. These are downloaded to the watch over the Bluetooth link when you add them, and are instantly available for selection from the watch.
Pebble is trying to deliver firmware updates every two weeks for now, and they admit that not all the software side is complete yet, so over the next few months there could be additional changes to the UI (the 1.9.0 release rearranged the menu structure to group the watch faces together, and added the up/down button selection of them too).
One of the key features of a smart watch is being able to see notifications that are sent to your phone on your wrist. The Pebble is capable of displaying SMS messages and some others easily. This is where iOS and Android differ in their capabilities a little. For iOS, which is the platform I have been using the watch with, it is theoretically possible to get any notifications that are delivered to the lock screen on the phone, on your watch. Pebble only supports SMS and email though, and setting the others up to work is not trivial, and sadly gets forgotten frequently due to what I can only call a bug, though it might be more of an Apple bug than a Pebble one – more on that later.
My workaround for this has been to use IFTTT to translate important messages like calendar reminders and ADN mentions into SMS messages that are delivered reliably. And to configure Twitter to send them itself since IFTTT no longer supports triggers on Twitter.
Phone & Music Control
Another key feature of this class of watch is being able to control some of the actions of your phone from your wrist. The two that the Pebble can do as delivered are music and the phone app itself.
For the phone, you are notified of incoming calls, with caller ID information if available and in theory you can accept or reject the calls from the watch. Accepting seems to have little value unless you are wearing a headset (in which case you can almost certainly accept the call from a headset button too), but rejecting is a nice option for when calls arrive during a meeting, or other time when taking it is not possible.
The problem is that in my experience the phone interface is hit and miss. In the first version of the firmware, the watch would keep vibrating if you answered the call from the phone directly, and keep doing so until you pressed the reject button. Luckily, that did nothing to the call. With the latest firmware I have had more success rejecting calls from the watch. I have not tried answering one from the watch.
The music controls work perfectly though allowing you to play/pause and skip forward or backward in any music player app that supports remote control, including apps like Pandora.
While it was relatively simple to connect the watch to my iPhone, I have noticed an annoying re-authorize popup, sometimes very frequently.
It is apparently a known issue, but not something that Pebble has a fix for. My suspicion is that it happens when their app is removed from memory to reclaim space for other apps. The browser and the phone app are the two most common places I see it, though it happens at other times too.
Within the first week I got caught out with the watch running out of battery sooner than I expected – perhaps because of switching so many alerts to go to the watch. As a result, I have got into the habit of plugging the watch in every night alongside my phones. With that schedule I have not had any problems at all, and it is not hard to plug everything in together every night.
One comment I would make here is that planning would be greatly simplified if the UI could incidate the remaining battery life somewhere before it reaches critical. Since the Pebble has a custom charging cable, I needed more notice of the impending power failure than I got from the one time it died on me before I was expecting it to. For a start, the battery level icon is only ever shown when in the menu system, which is fine, except that most of the time it is not shown there either; it appears at specific battery levels and when the charger is plugged in. Not very useful.
There are many apps promised for the watch, and an SDK for third party developers too, but currently the only thing you can install on the watch other than its firmware is alternative watch faces. For that there is also now a developer kit, so I expect there will be more interesting watch faces available soon.
The Pebble contains some interesting hardware, so hopefully once the SDK is available there will be lots of interesting apps too, but we'll have to wait and see.
Perhaps the biggest problem in my mind is not being able to get reliable notifications for anything other than SMS. I don't mind not getting email alerts, but Twitter, app.net, and Calendar alerts would be nice (without having to resort to my IFTTT hack, although that is working well).
Beyond getting the basics working, I am looking forward to seeing what other apps will be created for the watch.