"That’s a nice-looking watch," my sister said.
I had just showed the Pebble Steel to her. She had no idea that it was a smartwatch, but she liked what she saw. For the Pebble Steel, that amounts to mission accomplished.
In the nascent field of "wearable tech," the trick is getting the gadgets in question to be both functional and fashionable -- something you’d actually want to use, and want to wear. The $249 Pebble Steel is a significant success on both levels. It’s a useful smartwatch, but more importantly, it’s a good-looking watch.
Beyond the significant cosmetic upgrade from the original 2013 Pebble, the Steel also delivers a worthy software upgrade (which is also coming to the earlier model), including -- finally -- a bona fide app store. But for all those improvements -- and despite being $100 more expensive -- the Steel ultimately houses the same innards as the older model, offering identical performance. For current Pebble owners, it may feel like not enough of a step forward.
That said, the software upgrade and the improved design do wonders here. If you’re looking for a watch that's good-looking and does some fun, even useful things, the Pebble Steel is a great pick. It's an excellent nerd-watch, a stylish geek product. And while it's not quite a must-buy, it is the first smartwatch I've seen that I actually want to buy.
What's new: Not as much as you think
When it was released in 2013, the original Pebble Watch was a work in progress: it had an overly plastic design, a lack of apps, and no centralized app store to find any of these emerging apps in the first place. It had an overall sense of gadget tinkerer's toy, but earned its keep with a water-resistant design, great iOS and Android support, and the ability to work well when not paired to a smartphone via Bluetooth -- a simple expectation where many other smartwatches fail miserably.
New for 2014, the Pebble Steel has a Gorilla Glass-covered display, an all-metal steel body (it's available in matte black or brushed stainless steel), and included leather and metal watchbands. It weighs about a half ounce more than the last Pebble: a hair under two ounces. It's got smaller body, but it feels a bit thicker. The display, however, is the same. So is the processor and the backlighting. But, unlike the last Pebble, it's water resistant to 5 atmospheres (ATM) -- which means it's safe in the shower or poolside. A slightly new magnetic connector for charging and an added three-color LED for showing charge status round out the new features.
The rest is software: a new Pebble app, firmware, and an official Pebble app store, which is available through a Pebble companion app on iPhone or Android. Using the Pebble app, you can browse the Pebble app store and download new watch faces and tools, which can then be transferred from smartphone to watch via Bluetooth. These new apps support more of the Pebble's built-in features, like its accelerometer and gyroscope, and offer deeper two-way communication with your phone.
That software, however, will also work with the original Pebble. So, in the case of the Steel, what's really and truly new is its design. But it's the design plus software that creates a true sense of "newness" around this Pebble.
Here's what I liked:
It’s a very cool-looking watch
Pebble nailed it this time. No matter who I’ve let peek at the Pebble Steel -- none aware that it was a smartwatch at all -- I’ve gotten kind words. “Nice watch.” “I like the design.” That’s no small feat at all.
I love the way the Steel looks: it’s somewhere between a Fossil and the iPod Nano-with-wristband I wore years ago. It doesn’t look crazy-futuristic at all; in fact, it could look good with a suit or at a wedding. Or, playing golf (which I don't do).
It feels comfy, although the metal band nipped at my long wrist hairs. A leather band comes packed in, and needs less specific pre-adjusting (the metal band has an extension in the box, but extra links would need to be removed as with any metal watchband to get the right size).
The screen looks great in daylight and at night
Bright colored smartwatch displays like the Galaxy Gear and others may seem like a good idea at first, but they shut off to conserve energy. The Pebble’s "e-paper" black-and-white screen stays active all the time. It's not like e-ink, exactly, but it’s more crisp and vivid in everyday light than the average LCD. The flat Gorilla Glass panel on top helps reduce glare, too, unlike the curved scratch-prone plastic of the original Pebble. A side button adds backlighting at night, or you can shake your wrist to light up the screen.
You can wear it in the shower
Most smartwatches need coddling and certainly aren't water-friendly. The Pebble Steel keeps the same 5 ATM water resistance, and while I wouldn't necessarily swim with it, it's nice to know I can wear it and not freak out if I wash my hands and forget to take it off.
The new Pebble app makes finding, downloading, and swapping apps a breeze
The Pebble never had an official app store before, sad but true: you had to find your apps on message-boards or with third-party tools. Now, at long last, there’s a completely redesigned Pebble app for iPhone and Android with integrated access to the Pebble App Store. You create an account, and whatever apps you want get downloaded to the app and put installed on the Pebble as needed.
So, yes: there's a Pebble app you download on your phone, and that app opens up a gateway to all of Pebble's apps. But it's easy to manage: much like a Kindle app, you can download and collect whatever apps you find that suit your fancy and store them on your Pebble app before loading them onto the watch itself. If your app gets deleted, you can re-download them from the Pebble app store throughm your account.
Installing and removing Pebble apps takes seconds: you tap the screen, and watch a progress bar as the app is loaded wirelessly via Bluetooth. The app shows what apps are on your Pebble: click one, tap “remove,” and it's gone back to your app locker.
The new app and system software, which also works with the original Pebble, are maybe my favorite new features of all.
The weird, wild world of Pebble apps, most of which are free
Last year, it seemed like the Pebble was mostly good for having cool watch faces, getting pager-like notifications, and not much else. Things are a lot different now: apps are finally on the Pebble, and many are pretty interesting.
Some of many apps already available include remotes for TVs, cameras like the GoPro, and even the Nest thermostat, apps for checking calendars and lists, fitness apps for sleep-tracking, step-taking, cycling, and running (that require the use of your phone to mirror data back to the watch), home automation apps that control lights, sports-score-checking via ESPN, a FourSquare app, Yelp app, poker timers, plain text readers...and some oddball games. It's a motley mix, but at least having an official app store makes finding these apps easier.
I played with as many as I could over the last few days, on a prerelease build of the new Pebble app and app store. Bugs are to be expected, and the final experience will probably be more polished, but overall, the apps show potential...and limitations. Some crashed, some didn't sync properly, and some worked perfectly. Even when an app crashed, however, the Pebble simply rebooted and everything worked fine afterward. Again, I used a prerelease dev build of all the apps and the app store: the finished version should be smoother. Now that the App Store is finally live, it already seems to be running better, but I've still found my share of quirks and crashes.