Smartwatch Thoughts

Black Pebble Time SteelWith what seems like my entire Twitter timeline getting excited about their new Apple Watches (arriving, one after the other today it seems), I thought it would be a good time to review some of my thoughts on smartwatches, and in particular why I have not pre-ordered an Apple Watch. In fact, not only have I not pre-ordered an Apple Watch, but I have “pre-ordered” (through their Kickstarter campaign) a new Pebble Time Steel watch.

What are the pros and cons of each in my opinion (and remember, that’s all this is – my opinion; you are welcome to disagree with me and choose whichever smartwatch works best for you, or even not get one at all).

Battery Life

This is the big one for me. I already charge way too many things every day (I carry multiple phones for work, typically an iPad and a laptop, and I also have a Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire and a pair of bluetooth headphones that I have to remember to keep charged). My Pebble and my Fitbit One are my best friends w.r.t. charging since they’re roughly once a week! Getting a 20% battery life warning on my current Pebble Steel doesn’t bother me – that’s still at least a day of normal use.

Less than 24 hours seems like a big miss to me. That means one more thing I need to find an overnight charging spot for. The new Pebble Time Steel claims up to 10 days with a colour screen. I just think that Apple could have pushed the technology here.

Overall Design

I think this one is actually a tie for the new Pebble Time Steel vs the Apple Watch (in fact, I’ve seen some photos that suggest they look pretty similar). Neither wows me as much as the Moto 360, but there are plenty of reasons why I am not interested in that family of smartwatches. I do have to concede that the circular design looks stunning though. I would have loved to see a rectangular and a circular design from Apple rather than just two rectangles in (barely – just 4mm) different sizes.

That said, my two existing Pebbles look fine to me, and more importantly don’t scream smartwatch to everybody. I wear my black Pebble steel every day and get very few comments about it. I ordered the new one in black too.

Screens

The screen is of course the key to the Pebble’s amazing battery life. There is lots to love about the e-paper display too. I love the fact that it is low power enough to be on all the time (so I can glance at the watch, or even put it on the table next to me and still see the time). It is easily read outdoors, even in bright sunlight, and the Pebble is smart enough to not backlight it when there is sufficient light to read it without.

Obviously, the bright, retina resolution AMOLED display in the Apple Watch is gorgeous. But that comes at a high price. The display is off most of the time (anybody remember those old LED digital watches where you had to press the button to get the time?), and no matter how easy that motion is to turn it on (it is easy – the Pebble uses a similar gesture to activate the backlight in low light situations), you can’t just glance at your watch to get the time.

I wish either Pebble or Apple would increase the dpi of the e-paper technology to the point where we can have the same gorgeous images, but I have to say the Pebble screen has never annoyed me. I have the notifications font set to small and still have no problem reading the messages. There are definitely visible jaggies on things like the watch hands which would be nice to lose.

Water Proof

The waterproof properties of the Apple Watch seem to have been questioned since it was first announced, and it does sound as though it is more waterproof than the initial announcements suggested. Certainly should be OK for showering (if you wear your watch in the shower) or swimming. I have seen comments about it being OK to 1m deep for 30 minutes. The Pebble Steel I have now is rated to 5 ATM (40-50m deep), which is much deeper than I’d ever want to swim with it.

In both cases, that is OK to be worn to that depth not used. So don’t think about pressing buttons (on either watch) or spinning that crown when under water.

For most people, this one is also a tie. Very few are going to need to extra depth that the Pebble is rated to (and those who do probably have a real dive watch anyway).

User Interface

Disclosure: I haven’t had a chance to play with the Apple Watch UI yet, but I have seen numerous videos, both from Apple and others, and read a lot of reviews. I also haven’t played with the new Pebble Time interface.

I do have a lot of experience with the original Pebble UI though, and I have to say it is a mixed bag. There are some things that work really well, and some that don’t (having the up/down buttons change watch faces is the most annoying UX ever – I frequently look down to find my watch face has changed). The app selection process, and settings etc are fine though.

Notifications are another area that seems OK. I do like being able to dismiss them from both the watch and phone with a simple button press though. I also noticed that when paired to an Android phone (my old Pebble is now paired to my Android phone) that there are more options that appear (I guess those are not available through the Apple APIs). I would love a simple way to reply to a text message with some canned replies (perhaps the Apple API doesn’t allow that anyway).

The Apple Watch UI seems much more complex from what I have seen and read so far, and I am not convinced by the scroll wheel or the touch screen (I had a watch that was a touch screen one – it was too easy to activate by mistake). That said, having a touch screen does increase the things that applications can do. Even a simple calculator on the Pebble would probably be terrible, but on an Apple Watch it would probably work fine.

What it really comes down to is what you want your smartwatch to do. For me, it is a convenient way to do just a few things:

  • See notifications without having to pull the phone out;
  • See who is calling, and decline calls I don’t want without getting the phone out;
  • Leave the phone in silent mode all the time.

Applications & Watch Faces

Pebble App Store Categories All the smartphones out there, including the Pebble, can do much more than tell the time and act as remote notification screens though. I only have a couple of applications on my Pebble (the one I use most is Leaf, a remote for my Nest thermostats), but I’ve played with some more. I just find that I don’t really need them. I might put the Starbucks payment one back on so I can pay for my coffee using my watch 🙂

Watch faces though I do love to be able to browse and try. It is a shame that custom watch faces are not an option for the Apple Watch yet, but I can’t believe that won’t change. They have been such a huge success on the Pebble.

Love to hear about other apps that people use regularly on either watch though – maybe I’ll be persuaded to add some more to my Pebble. I would like one for my Insteon home automation system (I see they have an Apple Watch app already), and maybe even one for Alexa (Amazon’s Echo) so I can tell her to do things remotely.

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