The Pebble is one of the most well-known smartwatches out there. Having raised over $10 million as a Kickstarter project, Pebble became both famous and infamous when it failed to deliver to customers on time, while at the same time stocking Best Buy with Pebbles for everyone. But that’s water under the bridge.
In the year that’s passed since this fiasco, The Pebble e-ink smartwatch has become an even bigger success story, and has sprung a younger sibling: The Pebble Steel. This fancier, more expensive version of the Pebble was first introduced on CES 2014, and is now available to order through the Pebble website.
If you have good memory, you might remember that we weren’t too excited with the original model. So will the Pebble Steel, retailing at $250, be any different? Or will it amount to nothing more than a bigger waste of money? I spent some time with the Pebble Steel to find out. Read everything about this smartwatch below, and find out how you can also win your very own Pebble Steel for free!
A Pebble Among Smartwatches
When the original Pebble first came out, smartwatches were still pretty rare. This has changed rapidly in the past year or so, but the Pebble is still pretty unique in its market due to its e-ink display and its complete lack of anything to do with fitness or life tracking. It’s “just” a watch that comes with different watchfaces and apps.
If you’re interested in a different smartwatch, one that has a color display, that lets you access Facebook, or that tracks your fitness goals, check out our previous reviews of the Sony Smartwatch 2, the Samsung Gear Fit and the Basis B1 Health Tracker. The Pebble is different.
The Pebble Steel is $100 more expensive than the original version. So what are the differences between the two? First and foremost: looks.
While The original Pebble looks like a prototype — almost like a toy, in fact — the Pebble Steel is a serious-looking watch made of stainless steel. The strap is leather or stainless steel instead of rubber or silicone, and the glass on the Steel is Gorilla Glass. While wearing the original Pebble feels a little bit like a gimmick, the Pebble Steel looks and feels like an actual watch, and one you can wear anywhere, even to business meetings.
Looks aside, both Pebbles run on the same software, so both are fully compatible with the Pebble app store and all apps. The Pebble Steel does have more storage, so you can have 8 different apps and watchfaces on it at the same time, compared to only 4 on the original Pebble.
The Pebble Steel is considerably heavier than the original Pebble (59 grams or 99 grams depending on which strap you use versus 38 grams for the original), which is no surprise considering the difference in materials. The leather strap is much lighter, but not waterproof. The Pebble Steel is just a bit smaller and thinner than the original Pebble, but this is not really noticeable unless you look for it.
What you do lose with the Pebble Steel are the fun colors of the Pebble. The original Pebble is still available in five different colors (black, grey, white, orange and red), each going for $150 on the Pebble website.
The Pebble Steel comes in only two different color choices: matte black or brushed stainless. You can choose either a leather or stainless steel strap to go with it (but if you win it through us, you get both!).
On the surface, it looks like you’ll be paying $100 extra for looks and some extra storage if you go for the Steel, but is this really all this watch has to offer?
What’s In The Box?
Unlike the original Pebble, which (at the time) came in a weird cardboard box that looked more like a keyboard box, the Steel comes in a much fancier package.
The watch itself is packed around a nice cushion as fits a $250 watch, making you feel as if you’re really unboxing a good, expensive watch. Which, in a way, you are.
The Pebble Steel comes with a magnetic USB charging cable (different from the one that ships with the original Pebble) which you will need to charge your Pebble every 5-7 days. In our case, we also got an extra stainless steel strap for the watch, and instructions on how to change it whenever we want to. Some quick-start guides complete the pack, which is all stacked together nicely into the fancy box.
Getting To Know The Pebble Steel
If you know the original Pebble, you won’t find a lot of surprises here. The Pebble Steel has four stainless steel buttons in all, three on one side and one on the other. The buttons are very tactile and extremely nice to use — a huge improvement over the plastic ones found on the original Pebble.
The charging port is a magnetic one, so you can only use the cable that came with the Pebble. While the port is magnetic, it’s a pretty powerful one. I expected the watch to fall off the cable easily, but once attached, it hangs in there quite well. The charging process itself is pretty fast — while connected to my laptop for about an hour, the Pebble went from completely discharged to 60% full.
The Pebble Steel is waterproof up to 5 ATM (with the stainless steel strap), so you can shower, swim, exercise, and even do some shallow diving with it.
Another new element in the Pebble Steel is the RGB LED on the bottom left corner. I initially expected this LED to flash for notifications such as new email, new text or a phone call, but the only times I’ve seen it on is when the Pebble is connected and charging. If the LED is supposed to come on as a notification light, I haven’t seen this option working yet. It might be implemented in future updates.
Playing With The Pebble Steel
As already mentioned, the Pebble Steel is identical to the Pebble when it comes to software. If you know the original Pebble, this is more of the same (if you don’t, you can read more about it in our original Pebble review). The huge improvement comes in the form of the mobile app, and the relatively new Pebble app store. The app is available for either Android (4.0+) or iOS (6.0+), and includes everything you need to pair your Pebble, keep it up do date and load it with fun watchfaces and apps.
Unlike the previous version of the app, which I tried about a year ago, the pairing process here is easy, quick, and almost entirely automatic. The app will even turn on your device’s Bluetooth for you. Once paired, the app will check for updates, and if this is the first time you’re using it, you’re probably going to get a firmware update. Don’t worry, though, it’s not going to take forever like it used to with the older app.
Another neat setup feature is the ability to send test notifications to your Pebble to see if they work right and what they look like. You can send a fake text message, a phone call or an email to your Pebble with a tap.
You’re now set to start browsing the Pebble app store, where you can find hundreds of different watchfaces and apps for your Pebble. These apps include games, productivity apps, music controllers, and much more. Some apps need companion apps on your phone in order to work, and this is clearly specified in the app store.
The app store is really easy to use. When you add an app, it’s automatically loaded onto your Pebble, and even launches itself on your watch. This is the case as long as you have less than 8 apps and watchfaces loaded on your Pebble. When you reach 8 apps, the Pebble runs out of room, and any app you add will be place in your app locker. This is where you can keep apps you like but don’t have room for. When you want to switch, simply unload an app or watchface from the Pebble, and load a new app from the app locker.
The Pebble Steel itself is surprisingly responsive, and the variety of apps and games available make its abilities shine. If you’re thinking of an e-ink screen as something slow to respond and with a very low refresh rate, think again. The Pebble Steel runs games such as Flappy Bird, Tetris, Asteroids and car racing as if it was meant for it. It’s not like playing on your phone, but it’s a surprisingly fun experience.
While the Pebble app really is a huge improvement over the older version, it’s still a bit problematic. How so? It’s slow. I’m using a Nexus 5 running Android 4.4.2. Nothing is ever slow on this device, except for the Pebble app. It’s simply not responsive. I tap a button, and have to wait several seconds for something to happen. This is not just a one-time thing, and continued even after the recent update to Pebble 2.0.
Speaking of this update, it happened while I was already using the Pebble, and caused very weird behavior on my device. The Pebble app started crashing every time I did certain actions on my phone, but promptly launched itself again, only to crash again the next time. When I tried using the Pebble again after the update, the app simply didn’t load, but crashed every time. I had to uninstall and reinstall it in order to get things to work.
One of the best parts of the Pebble is the ability to get notifications from your phone straight to your watch. To set up these notifications, access the settings on the Pebble app, and choose which notifications you’d like to get. These include calls, text messages, calendar events, emails, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Google Voice.
The process wasn’t completely smooth — the app tended to get stuck while logging into my Gmail accounts, and no amount of waiting for it to finish ever helped. At the end, pushing the back button my phone ended the vicious cycle, and I found myself logged in with everything working right. This seems to have been solved with the recent version of the app, but don’t be surprised if it happens to you too.
A new notification will cause your Pebble to vibrate, and will automatically show up on the screen. If you get several notifications before viewing them, you can browse through them using the Pebble’s buttons. Most notifications, such as text or email, will show you the sender and the content of the message (or a snippet of it). WhatsApp, which is still a beta feature after more than a year, only shows you the sender’s name, no message content.
Living With The Pebble Steel
You’d think the Pebble Steel, which seems to be only a cosmetic improvement, would not get a much more positive review than the original Pebble. Somehow, this is not the case. The good looks, the tactile buttons, the abundance of good apps, all these make the Pebble Steel into an excellent smartwatch. One that feels good on your wrist, is as useful as a smartwatch can get, and manages it all without looking or feeling tacky.
Whether you’re using it to get notifications, control your music, play games, or simply tell the time in a unique way, you’re going to enjoy the Pebble. Yes, it will cost you more than most other smartwatches out there, but if you’ve already decided to spend $200 on a watch, $50 more won’t hurt you, and will get you one of the best smartwatches in the market today.
Should You Buy The Pebble Steel Smartwatch?
If you’re in the market for a smartwatch, the answer is a simple, resounding yes. The Pebble Steel is an awesome watch.
MakeUseOf recommends: Buy it.
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