What makes a smartwatch smart?
With over $10 million raised, Pebble is one of Kickstarter's first serious success stories. The goal: create a bona fide smartwatch -- something more akin to the fictional Dick Tracy accessories than real-world pre-iPhone predecessors like the Casio Databank and Microsoft SPOT Watch. A wristwatch that can connect to your phone, and interact with apps.
Watch the video on Pebble's Web site and you can see the appeal: instant notifications, health-based apps, plenty of funky watch faces, and water resistance, plus iOS and Android support. What's not to like?
As it exists right now, the $150 Pebble is a cute little watch that does some things as advertised: it receives messages and helps you screen calls, plays and pauses music from your phone, and offers a cool collection of digital watch faces. It's fun at times, useful at others, and feels just a little futuristic.
For the rest of the Pebble's potential, you'll have to wait -- and hope. The health app is still being developed. A formal app store beyond watch faces doesn't exist. And the lack of a software development kit (SDK) means that third-party apps are currently extremely limited.
In other words, to get to that "promised" Pebble, you're taking a leap of faith that the Pebble will continue to gain relevancy to users and developers through 2013 and beyond. That may be acceptable to hard-core gadgetheads and tinkerers, but the masses used to the polish (and full feature sets) of current smartphones should think twice. The Pebble just doesn't do enough to earn a place on most people's wrists. At least, not yet. With the Martian Passport, Sony SmartWatch, and others, you have to wonder how crowded the future of watches is going to get.
Design: Geek time
The Pebble has a minimalist retro-geek style that'll appeal to lovers of Kindles and Casio watches alike. Crack open the brown cardboard box it's packaged in and you'll just get the Pebble, its USB charge cable, and an invitation to go online to download further instructions.
The Pebble has a tiny (by current smartwatch standards) 1.26-inch diagonal "E-Paper" display, with a 144x168-pixel resolution. E-Paper is a bit of a misleading label. This isn't e-ink, but rather a black-and-white LCD display with a more-reflective-than-usual back. In daylight, text and icons seem more crisp. There's also an LED backlight that turns on with a press of the left-side button, or a flick of your wrist.
The Pebble comes in a choice of three colors, red, black, or white, plus a special two-tone gray/black Kickstarter version for early adopters (my review unit). The glossy plastic face is scratch-resistant according to Pebble's Web site, but I've already gotten some minor scuffs and scratches in a week of normal, careful use. The rubberized watchband feels comfortable and snug, and felt invisible after a week's wear.
The Pebble's rated at 5 ATM water resistance for uses up to and including swimming and showering. That, alone, could make a difference to potential smartwatch shoppers. (Disclosure: I still took mine off for anything more than washing my hands.)
There's no touch screen, but the four buttons handle most tasks well enough. Buttons on the right handle scrolling up and down through the main menu; the center button selects options; the left button both acts as a back button and activates the watch's backlight. Theoretically you could shake the watch as another input, but that's not used much in the current software.
Hardware: Packed with potential
Under the hood the Pebble has a three-axis accelerometer, a magnetometer, and an ambient light sensor, along with a Cortex-M3 ARM processor and a small amount of onboard storage for downloading and retaining apps and watch faces. Eight apps and watch faces can fit on the Pebble itself, and there are currently 12 free watch faces and apps in the Pebble App's "store" (11 are watch faces, one is the classic game Snake).
This smartwatch has the sensors and the tech to be capable of many things...but that's dependent, of course, on apps. And current apps don't take advantage of everything the Pebble could theoretically do.
Link via iOS or Android
The Pebble is compatible with the iPhone 3GS, 4, 4S, and 5; an iPod Touch running iOS 5 or 6; and Android phones running 2.3 or later. The experience is remarkably similar: both have a Pebble App that can be downloaded and used to install or remove apps (again, right now, these are just watch faces).
There are hidden differences. In iOS, notifications are largely limited to e-mail, SMS/iMessage, and phone calls. The Music app, however, works with most music-playing apps I've tried. On Android, there's the capability to tie in notifications from other apps more easily, plus there are additional apps out there from third parties, even if they're extremely limited and not all that practical. The Music app, however, only works with your onboard music player and Google Music.
Getting pairing and notifications to work properly can be a pain no matter which OS you choose. Both iOS and Android nest essential settings controls in odd spots outside of the Pebble App itself (in iOS, you'll have to adjust each app's notifications; in Android, you'll need to adjust Accessibility settings and tweak apps, too). The Pebble can accidentally pair with more than one phone: it got thrown into a tizzy and rebooted when I had a Galaxy Note 2 and iPhone 5 connected at once. Pairing generally works, otherwise, but I kept getting pings from the Pebble app asking permission to reconnect. It's all not as utterly seamless as it could be.
Apps and features
Look at the official Pebble Watch Kickstarter page, watch the video, and browse the features. You'll see several things proposed that still aren't available yet: most notably, the cycling, golf, and running apps. The rest of Pebble's functions are handled either via built-in features, or via mini apps that can be loaded wirelessly over Bluetooth from your phone to the watch. No USB cables or PCs are needed. Firmware updates are handled the same way, via phone connection.
Managing these watch faces and apps is easy: the Pebble App lets you tap to delete any file, or choose another one to upload via Bluetooth. It's just a shame that there aren't more.