Pebble Steel First Impressions

Posted Tue 04 February 2014 22:37 under category tech

I've had an article sitting in Draft status since June 2013 about the Pebble smartwatch which I bought during their Kickstarter campaign. The article essentially said that the Pebble has awesome features, but feels like a toy and scuffs if you look at it askance. I was planning on going into detail about how apps like httpebble and smartwatch+ feel immensely hackish.

Well, as of today, I'm confident reporting that Pebble has resolved all of these issues with the Pebble Steel and Pebble OS 2.0.

Pebble Steel on table

I'm going to talk (briefly!) about both of these new releases. All of the pictures in this article are from my Flickr set, if you for some reason want lots of really high-resolution pictures of consumer technology.

(brief aside: Pebble branding seems somewhat indecisive on whether it's "Pebble" or "pebble". I'm sticking with the lower-case version unless anyone insists otherwise.)

Hardware

Pebble Steel is what the first Pebble should've been. The steel body doesn't feel like a high-end watch (it has nothing on my Padron Vuelta 17, for example), but it no longer feels like a toy. It's denser, heavier, and doesn't have any more flex. I can't speak yet as to how much better or worse the Gorilla Glass screen will hold up compared to the previous plastic screen, but I'm optimistic. One major (for me) unexpected benefit is that the new screen is usable when wearing polarized sunglasses. Something about the plastic screen on the previous Pebble caused a really, uh, cool moire-like effect when looking at it through polarized lenses. No more! Now I can actually use it while walking.

Speaking of the screen, I don't know whether it's just the better optical properties of the glass, or if they've actually changed the screen technology, but the new Pebble is much, much more readable in dim lights without engaging the backlight. Which ought to be good for the battery.

Pebble Steel on wrist

A couple of additional minor notes:

  • The L-pins in the steel bracelet require way, way more force to remove than the standard round pins in most metal bands. And, rather than ship in an average wrist size with spare links in the box (which most watches do), the Pebble Steel ships with every possible link installed in the bracelet, so you're guaranteed to have to remove some unless your wrists are truly gigantic. I had to remove five, and my wrists are pretty gigantic.
  • The magnetic charging cable looks similar, but is not compatible with the first-generation Pebble charging cable. As far as I can tell, replacement cables are still first-generation only, so don't lose yours.
  • The specs say that the Steel comes with a "RGB LED" for notifications. I haven't seen any LED illuminate yet. It's possible that this is still pending software changes.
  • The vibration motor is louder but not as easy to feel. It's okay with the leather band, but with the steel bracelet, it's a much gentler buzz on your wrist than the first-generation Pebble.
  • The word "pebble" looks tasteful and doesn't jar with the on-screen text nearly as much as you might think. In this particular instance, John Gruber was wrong.

Software

If you haven't been following the various tech blogs &c, Pebble OS 2.0 brings one major feature: apps can now include a little JavaScript component which runs in the background on the phone side to gather data, rather than having to rely on separate networking gateways like httpebble and smartwatch+. This framework is called PebbleKit, and it promises lots of really cool features. Two of the big launch partners are Foursquare and Yelp, and they both make extensive use of PebbleKit.

OS 2.0 also includes the cool features from Pebble OS 1.13 which use the Bluetooth LE connection and iOS 7's native notification center ↔ Bluetooth integration rather than the launch-version jank which never properly supported non-Message.app apps.

I think the best way to talk about OS 2.0's new features is going to be to talk about the new watchfaces and apps which use these features.

YWeather

YWeather

My favorite new watch face is called "YWeather". It's a nice, simple digital face which displays the current weather, temperature, time, date, and Bluetooth status. Simple and straightforward. I'm hoping that the author gets around to adding working battery-monitoring support, which seems to be a planned feature.

Foursquare

Foursquare

I like Foursquare. I know it's probably horrible for my privacy, and nobody except other privileged tech people uses it, but it's kind of fun. Anyhow, this Pebble app is kind of useful. You launch it, and in about 2 seconds it shows you the closest business, and you can press the middle button to check in. Almost no work required. If you want to check into something that isn't the closest business, the other buttons scroll between businesses, ordered by regular Foursquare sort (which is some combination of distance and how often you check in there). I used it a bunch of times today, and it was natural and much, much faster than taking my phone out of my pocket, unlocking it, launching the Foursquare iOS app, and tapping three times to check in.

Yelp

Yelp

You may know that I used to work for Yelp. Well, I'm a little confused that they let this app launch.

You launch the app and it gives you a bunch of categories to browse through, which requires way too many loading screens and way too many button presses to get anywhere. You can also flick your wrist to show a random business near you. For each business, you can press the middle button to see review snippets. There's no way to check in, no way to see data besides a phone number, the address, and review snippets (no hours, which are realistically the only reason you'd need to see Yelp data on your wrist). It's kind of silly.

The new IOS app

iOS app

Alongside the new OS is a new iOS companion application. It runs the aforementioned JavaScript snippets and lets you install and manage apps and watchfaces. It's roughly ∞ better than manually downloading from mypebblefaces.com. PebbleKitApps can also register a "Settings" screen, which is where you log in to Foursquare and set whether you want °F or °C for your favorite weather watchface.

Conclusions

If you've ever had any interest in getting a smartwatch, this is a good choice. If you haven't considered getting a smartwatch, here's why you should:

  1. It's roughly 9000 times better when you're on-call than having to pull out your phone in every inconvenient public place you may want to go while on call.
  2. It is the best cure I'm aware of for the phantom pants-pocket buzz that tends to afflict overusers of push notifications.
  3. The only better way to prove that you're a hardcore nerd is with a calculator watch.

If you have a first-generation Pebble, it's a harder sell. Personally, for something I wear every day, I think that the massive improvement in build quality and the daylight visibility is worth it. You may think that 100 cups of coffee is a better investment.

If there's anything else you're interested in hearing about, please leave a comment below or tweet at me or whatever. Cheers!


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