The War for the Wrist begins!
Smartwatches. They are a thing now. For some reason that baffles me, people are working hard to declare the wrist watch dead – like it’s obsolete. While that might be true if you’re a hipster, a lot of us still need a wrist watch, or a watch of some description. I work in emergency healthcare as a paramedic/nurse, and I need a watch. Generally I wear a wrist watch, sometimes a nurse’s watch (for infection control). It isn’t just about knowing what the time is – it’s about keeping track of time. When I’m resuscitating a patient I need to know how long I’ve been working and how long it’s been since I last gave adrenaline. Pulling your phone out isn’t practical, or maybe I just don’t have a hand free at the time. A quick glance at your watch is far more practical. The wrist watch is far from dead or being relegated to a fashion accessory, and anyone who thinks so is applying their own circumstances to everybody… and that makes you an idiot.
Now though we’re entering the world of smartwatches – watches that connect to your phone to make the humble wrist watch even more useful (or perhaps annoying). One of the first practical examples is the Pebble, and its second iteration, the Pebble Steel. There are plenty of others, but in my opinion, the Pebble is one of the best on the market. Why? Well, it comes down to a few very simple, fairly obvious points… which we’ll get to in a second.
What is it?
It’s a smartwatch. The Pebble connects to your phone (iOS or Android) and basically serves as a screen for notifications to be piped to. If you get an email or a call or whatever, it displays on the screen (which also lights up) and the watch vibrates. There are also lots of apps that add more functionality to the Pebble, many with companion apps for your phone. For example, you can have it pipe GPS instructions, or display tweets, or a number of other things. Others will add things like a tiny calculator, but this is getting into the realm of being impractical. The Pebble’s screen is pretty small so it can’t display too much at a time, and it’s a black and white LCD screen – it isn’t a touch screen, so the four buttons (three on the right, one on the left) are your method of interacting with it. There’s no microphone, no camera, and no speaker, but there is an accelerometer.
So it’s pretty basic, but it’s fairly customisable. There are plenty of different watch faces that offer different appearances and functionality, although it comes with three defaults that work pretty well – an analogue face, a digital face, and one that just spells out the time in words. There are a lot of apps out there for it too, although some of them seem to be a bit pointless or ultimately impractical.
The Pebble Steel is basically the same as the original Pebble, except it’s an all-metal construction with a leather band and Gorilla Glass – so it’s a lot more durable. Both are water resistant to 5ATM – that means it’s suitable for taking a shower or going for a swim in the pool, but not diving or snorkeling or something like that. If it gets wet in the rain for example you’re fine, or if you’re swimming in shallow water, but anything more than that and you’re risking the watch. The original Pebble supports any standard 22mm watch band, while the Steel has a propriety connector that limits it to bands designed specifically for it… or you can get a 3rd party adapter.
It charges by a magnetic USB port and has a battery life of somewhere between 5 days to a week, depending on your usage. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth. With the new software and iOS8 the iPhone pipes pretty much all notifications across, while Android phones have more granular control. Older iPhones are more limited in what they can pipe to the Pebble. Since it relies on having an active connection with your phone, your phone’s battery life will take a little bit of a hit. My iPhone 6 Plus didn’t seem to change much though.
This is basically what a smarthwatch should do. The Pebble displays notifications, and it does that very well. It’s great being able to leave your phone somewhere (like in your pocket) and still see what’s going on. For example if I’m with a patient I can discretely see what it is that I’ve been sent on my phone, and then dismiss the notification. It also works well as a watch – the included watch faces are pretty good and there’s plenty of others to choose from too. I need a second hand to do things like count a pulse, and the Pebble’s screen, while not fantastic, is perfectly capable of displaying a watch face that accomplishes this. The screen is usually dark but lights up with a simple button press, and it’s quite bright and easy to read. The battery life is also pretty good – the claimed 5 days is about what you should expect. Note that having highly animated watch faces (like ones with a moving second hand) or constantly updating data will reduce battery life.
In terms of wearing it, it’s fairly non-intrusive. The Steel is smaller than the regular Pebble and looks more like an ordinary square watch, while the original Pebble sticks out like a sore thumb. I found it pretty comfortable to wear, and it’s pretty light-weight. I’m used to wearing big watches though. The included leather band is pretty good and fits snugly around my oddly thin wrists.
Using the buttons on the Pebble can be a bit of a chore – not having a touch screen is a bit of a problem because it’d make life a lot easier if it did. I find they’re a bit cumbersome and limit what you can do with the watch. Menus and options have to be kept fairly limited to avoid endlessly scrolling through lists. It’s also a tad limited in what it can do compared to other smartwatches, but this is only an issue if you think you’ll actually need all that other stuff… and I don’t think it’s a big deal. The decision to use a propriety connector on the Steel for its band is also a bit of an odd choice. Why’d you do that, guys?
The Pebble is more or less what a smartwatch should be – an adjunct to your phone. Here’s the thing – any practical watch simply can’t do what some people are asking of them. Yes, other smartwatches do more, and have colour touch screens, and things like that. But they also have a battery life measured in hours. The Pebble can last a week with conservative usage, putting it streets ahead of the competition. A lot of things, like replying to text messages, or talking into it like a ridiculous pantomime act, simply isn’t that practical on a device that needs to fit on your wrist. If that’s what you really want, there are other, better choices out there. Until battery technology catches up though, they’re never going to have the size and endurance of the comparatively simple Pebble watch.
The Pebble might not do all of those other things, but it also doesn’t forget that it’s actually a watch first and foremost – a watch that displays notifications. Most importantly, it makes a good watch, with its multiple faces and good battery life. It’s designed to display notifications and be a watch, and that’s what it does well. Samsung might throw everything into their watch but how many people find them practically useful? How many of its features are ultimately a gimmick? I think the real holy grail of smartwatches doesn’t lie in trying to cram more things onto their tiny screens, but rather making them less intrusive and more about being companion devices. The Pebble team seem to understand that. If they can combine a few more health-related features, it’ll probably make it an even better choice. It’s also pretty cheap, at about $120 AUD from Dick Smith stores for the original Pebble, or around $220 AUD from the same place for the Steel. You can expect the Apple Watch to cost a lot more than that.