Pebble Steel review: a smartwatch in disguise
I was among the very first to back the original Pebble Kickstarter.
I was also very skeptical of the people behind Pebble, no matter how awesome the campaign or watch sounded back in spring of 2012. Years before that, as a huge proponent of BlackBerrys, I had teetered on the edge of pre-ordering the Allerta inPulse smartwatch for several months, until the whole project went south and the delays starting piling on top of one another. The whole situation slowly spiraled out of control, and I decided to hang on to my $150.
Looking back, I’m glad I gave the company the benefit of the doubt. I was among the first wave of backers to receive Pebble, and since it arrived almost one year ago, I have gone a total of two days without a Pebble being strapped to my wrist.
In fact, many of us here at Pocketnow have come to love the original Pebble for its simplicity and the way it changes the way we use our smartphones.
The first Pebble was not without fault, though. Its design and build was very gauche, breathing on it too hard scratched the face, and the e-paper display had a handful of issues of its own.
Less than one year after the official launch of its first smartwatch (under the Pebble brand, that is), the company unveiled the all new, steel-clad Pebble at CES 2014. We got some hands-on time with it in Las Vegas, and after 21 days with Pebble Steel strapped to our wrists, we’ve finally gotten to know it pretty well. Is it worth upgrading to? What about the extra cash?
This is our full take on Pebble Steel.
Specs & Hardware
The company’s main goal with Pebble Steel was not to completely revamp its offering, or to drastically change everything. It wanted to build a better product, a fancier product, a product which would appeal to more people – nerds, businessmen, those in-between, and especially those with smaller, narrower wrists.
The original Pebble was made of polycarbonate. It scratched easily, it was bulky, and it suffered display problems, such as screen tearing, light refraction problems, and more.
Pebble Steel is a drastic improvement. The frame is made almost entirely of a marine grade, machined stainless steel, which comes in two flavors: a bare, brushed steel or a matte black PVD coating. And unlike the original, which shipped with an inelegant TPU strap, Pebble Steel ships with two bands, no matter which color option you go with: an adjustable, genuine leather band or a steel band with a button-release clasp.
Both bands are of high quality, not bottom-of-the-bucket straps like we saw on the original Pebble, and we’re thankful for that.
There is a pretty major caveat, however. Not just any aftermarket band will work with Pebble Steel. It uses a custom binding with a center column, which will make it rather difficult – if not impossible – to find aftermarket bands. We’re hopeful third-party manufacturers will make bands specifically for Pebble Steel, but whether that will actually happen is up in the air.
Also worth noting: the Pebble Steel band connection is held together by a rather tiny screw, not your typical spring-loaded pin. You will either need to invest in a small screwdriver set or watch repair kit, or simply visit a local jeweler to swap bands with ease.
This is all a very small price to pay for the aesthetic and build quality improvements over the original Pebble.
Fitted inside the steel frame is Corning’s Gorilla Glass. This is meant to help provide protection against shattering, and also to help stave off the unsightly scratches so common on the first model. So far, despite constantly whacking Pebble Steel on walls as we turn corners, catching it on table edges, or other accidental bumps and dings (inevitable on a wrist-worn device) there are no signs of scratches or wear on the Pebble Steel’s screen.
The same can’t be said for the body. Although minor, there are tiny nicks on some of the outermost parts of our Pebble Steel’s frame. They’re only truly visible under close inspection. The most visible sign of wear on Pebble Steel is its underbody, which is riddled with scratches. Seeing as this will be hidden and pressed against your wrist most of the time, this likely won’t bother too many wearers.
The magnetic charging contacts have also been updated. The cable end is smaller and more square, and the magnets seem to be stronger, helping stave accidental disconnects. Unfortunately, this means if you’re upgrading from the existing Pebble, your old charging cables will not work.
As great as a new color display may sound, or other features like a camera or beefier internals, this is not Pebble’s vision. Completely abandoning the existing developers and Kickstarter backers which made Pebble possible isn’t on the company’s agenda either. As such, Pebble kept the innards practically identical as before, and it stuck to its guns, despite all the new competition in the space.
Pebble Steel features the same 1.26-inch (144 by 168 pixel resolution) e-paper display, LED backlight, ARM 80MHz Cortex-M3 CPU, battery, and RAM. It also has all the same sensors as before: 3D accelerometer, e-compass, ambient light sensor, and Bluetooth 4.0 LE. Pebble Steel also carries a water resistance rating of 5 ATM, meaning it’s water-resistant up to 50m – more than enough for swimming, showering, and other water-related activities.
The major (and only) differences in terms of specifications are in storage space and RGB notification LED. The company has doubled the onboard storage, even though it isn’t available to the user. We aren’t sure if this is a precautionary move to account for larger OS updates in the future, or if it will later be opened to end users for the installation of more watch apps.
The notification LED currently only works while charging. The LED emits an orange light while charging, and it switches to green once Pebble Steel is fully charged. We are told this will eventually be opened up for third-party developers to use as they see fit.
Although not everyone applauded the minor internal bumps from Pebble this year, we have to admit we’re fans of the “walk first, run later” mentality. Pebble’s future, as we learned late last year, will be heavily dependent upon third-party development support. Completely overhauling the internals and, more specifically, the display could have upset the existing developers who have helped build a strong community around the product and brand.
As underwhelming as the specification upgrades – or lack thereof, rather – may be, we understand and agree with the move. Plus, in its current state, the display helps the Pebble Steel’s disguise as a fashionable timepiece.
To that end, the Pebble Steel looks and feels fathoms better than its predecessor. It’s smaller in all dimensions – 46mm long, 34mm wide, and 10.5mm thick. And the additional weight makes it feel substantial, rather than akin to an old-school Casio calculator watch, something to which the original Pebble is often compared.
Visually, the Pebble Steel is gorgeous. It’s more squared and serious, more mature. The buttons are far more tactile and easy to press, the display appears clearer and more sharp, it’s less prone to oil smudges from your fingers, and, overall, it’s a much better incarnation of what a smartwatch should be.
It’s luxurious and will go perfectly fine with casual, everyday clothes or dress attire.
That said, those who want to use Pebble during a workout may find wearing a steel or leather band to be a bit strange. It certainly doesn’t cater to more active users quite like the lower-priced model does.
Either way, we’re smitten with the look and feel of Pebble Steel. Small, precise improvements, such as the tactility of the buttons, have greatly refined a visibly first-generation product. The Steel incarnation is a much more mature, usable, fashionable piece of hardware.
Pebble Steel ships with Pebble OS version 2.0.1. This version of the software comes with improved notification history, refinements to the Settings menu, and other minor improvements.
At its core, Pebble’s software hasn’t changed much since the original version. However, the smartphone companion app has. The Pebble app for iOS now has the Pebble appstore built-in, which provides an easy way to manage which apps are currently on your Pebble, safekeeping of your favorite apps and watchfaces that may not fit on your Pebble, and a one-stop shop for finding new apps, faces, and games for your Pebble.
Applications like Yelp, Weather, Foursquare, and ESPN (which still isn’t publicly available) bring new functionality to Pebble. You can view sports scores for your favorite leagues or check-in to the places you visit right from your wrist. Using Yelp, you can look for various hot spots in your general vicinity, and flicking your wrist within the app will show you a random nearby location with three reviews.
Take heed, though: these applications are quite limited in functionality by their very nature. While we’ve found some of them quite useful thanks to that streamlined, bare-bones execution, those looking for a more fully-featured experience should look elsewhere for now.
Watch app management is greatly improved. Within the Pebble app on iOS, you can view which apps are installed on your watch, configure settings, and remove them. Removing a watchface or app will place it in your Locker, where applications will automatically be stored once you hit the watch’s eight-app limit.
The iOS Pebble app itself is still a little buggy, but it’s a significant improvement over the original app. Pebble appstore is not officially available on Android just yet, but is said to be coming soon.
What hasn’t improved, at least on iOS, is how notifications are handled. Any applications which appear in Notification Center will be sent to your Pebble. You can toggle notifications off, but that’s an extreme measure as it also means you won’t get them on your phone. And that’s unfortunate.
There’s also an issue with the way notifications react after unlocking your iPhone after a long standby period. With the iPhone screen off, you continue to get notifications. But when you unlock your iPhone, expect to get those same alerts again, in rapid succession. It’s not the end of the world, but it is annoying. Fortunately for Pebble, that’s a shortcoming of iOS’s notification policy, not the watch software. Our experience with Pebble on Android has been better.
The more tactile buttons on Pebble Steel also improved usability, making it easier to navigate through settings and the interface. The buttons are easier to press and provide better feedback, which makes digging through the unsophisticated menus less cumbersome.
Battery life has also been excellent. Pebble lists Pebble Steel as lasting 5-7 days per charge. Typically, this is what we got using the original Pebble, and we were happy to learn the Steel is no different. Receiving hundreds of notifications (SMS, IM, email, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, etc.) each and every day, we were able to last upwards of seven days per charge. At day number 20 with Pebble Steel we had fully depleted and charged it three times.
Of course, your mileage will vary based on the number of notifications you receive, how much you interact with Pebble, and how frequently the watchface updates. Watchfaces which display seconds will deplete the battery faster than watchfaces which only update every minute.
We’ve also used Pebble in and around water – in the shower, washing dishes, etc. – without issue.
+ Great, sophisticated/mature design
+ Solid build quality with quality materials
+ Two watch bands included
+ Fantastic battery life
+ Disguises well as normal watch
– Not compatible with aftermarket straps
– iOS notifications could be better
– Materials and straps aren’t ideal for fitness purposes
Pricing and Availability
Pebble launched Pebble Steel in late January for $250, or $100 more than the original model. It comes with free shipping and can currently be purchased in either a matte black PVD coated or brushed steel finish from Pebble’s web store.
Currently, units are not expected to ship until six to eight weeks from the date of order.
It’s a fantastic improvement over the introductory model. If you were interested in the first Pebble but couldn’t cope with its low-end, nerdy appearance, Pebble Steel is a fantastic option, so long as you’re willing to spend an additional $100.
To that end, you’re not alone if the $250 price point gives you pause. But if build quality and design mean anything to you, there is no question the extra cash is warranted. Both Michael and I spent an additional $50 on a PVD watch band for our original Pebbles, bringing the prices up to around $200 (if you don’t count the discounted Kickstarter pledge price). Even with a steel band, the original Pebble still doesn’t look or feel nearly as nice as Pebble Steel. Everything from the buttons to the vibrate motor are drastically improved, and the small improvements go a long way toward making Pebble Steel a superior product. Factor in the increased longevity of Gorilla Glass covering the display and a steel chassis, and we have no doubt the $250 is justified.
It’s the best looking smartwatch to date, and it doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. It’s simple, and delivers a consistent, reliable experience. That’s about all you can ask from a wrist-mounted notification device.
Best of all, it’s disguised perfectly as any other watch … until it rattles and lights up at the dinner table. And that’s where the conversations tend to begin.