Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Pebble Smart Watch - Still Relevant Post Apple Watch?

UPDATE: 8/21/2015: Since this article I have been sporting the first generation Android Wear LG G Watch. After the experience of the LG G Watch I now believe my outlook on the Pebble to be overly optimistic. I stand by my praise for the battery life but, the functionality of Android Wear makes the Pebble feel more like a glorified pager. Every time you get a message, it just tells you what you will need to do when you take out your phone. Android Wear is much more intuitive and the microphone makes responding much easier. As a disclaimer, I have not had the opportunity to use Pebble's new interface or the Pebble Time, so they may have improved on the experience since this review. It will be hard for Pebble to overcome the natural integration of the Play Store or iTunes on the Apple watch.

ORIGINAL: Even though Apple has been playing catch up lately everyone still seems to think that when Apple enters a new market, they must have been the ones to create that market. A key example is when Apple allowed 3rd party developers the opportunity to use their own keyboards on iOS. This is a feature that has been around on Android for over 6 years and just came out on iOS 7 months ago. This was a huge improvement and it is still functionally impaired compared to the Android implementation. Another example is Apple's new electronic payment system, Apple Pay. When it launched late last year, it was as if they just created this new technology out of no where! In reality Android users had been using this feature (along with other NFC features) since the launch of Google Wallet almost 4 years prior.  



One thing that is certain though when Apple enters a market, the world takes notice! This clout can hugely increase the potential market and inform users that may not have heard of such a product. Similar to Google Wallet and Apple Pay, Pebble created the first credible smart watch through kickstarter and broke records. With the launch of Apple Watch, Pebble’s new “Pebble Time” watch saw a huge spike in sales. Pebble is actually excited to see all of the new potential customers starting to look at their products.


The visionary original Pebble has been out since 2013, how does it hold up today? Does its age show? Does the black and white screen hurt it? Why would anyone want to get a smart watch in the first place? Man, calm down, we have a whole article! The reason I decided to make this purchase is that I am a geek. I like to keep up-to-date on the latest tech and smart watches are starting to take off so I wanted to see where it started. I also needed to find good answers to the questions above. Plus, Gratuitous Tech needed another review!  So I took the dive at the sales price of $79.


Why the heck would you want a smart watch!?!?

Some things I considered were specific requirements that Android Wear has not yet matched:
  • Ability to dive deep in the water (I live on a lake and like to swim) and stay submerged for long periods of time. Current Android Wear only can go a meter deep for a short period of time
  • Long battery life. I had not worn a watch in years, I knew that if I had to charge it nightly, one day I would forget to put the watch back on and my $200/$250 may have been left on my night stand never to be worn again
  • Cheap. When I get started in a market and don’t know the cost benefit formula I am hesitant to get too heavily invested right away.


There were also things I knew I would be giving up by not buying an Android Wear watch:
  • No Google Now
  • No touch or color screen
  • No Google maps Turn by Turn Navigation


My decision was to go with the Pebble because the advantages outweighed what I would be missing if I were to decide to go with Android Wear for my first smartwatch.


But why!? Don’t worry I hear you. This has to be the hardest question to answer for most users as this device isn’t adding a new fancy piece of technology that can do things your phone can’t. The smartwatch is more of an accessory to your phone. The simplest and best reasons for a smartwatch are checking notifications, viewing your calendar schedule, and… you know… a telling time... Can’t you just do that with your phone!? Yes, but this is about convenience. If you are working out in the yard and you get a notification/phone call, you don’t need to stick your dirt encrusted hands in your pocket to goop up your perfectly clean phone. Just look and your watch and then decide what to do. Say you need to charge your phone but you still want to know if someone calls or messages you. With a smartwatch, your phone could be on the charger and you would still get your notifications (depending on how far your phone is from your watch).


Design/Build Quality
This was one of the first Kickstarter projects that got major attention. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into with the purchase of the original Pebble. From what I could tell the watch hadn’t changed much since its kickstarter backing. Sure, it looks like a toy, but I could get a new smart watch for $79! How good could the build quality possibly be? Well, from the outset this watch impressed me. The box was very nice and well designed. They showed their intentions clearly on every side of the box. The watch itself is rather large but seems very sturdy but also a bit airy. The buttons are large and easy to press and are kind of spongy but once you get used to the function it feels very natural. The watch face appears fragile but after 4 weeks of daily use (and showers) there has been no fogging and what appeared to be scratches at first was just the paint off the wall that could easily be scratched off. The rounded corners seem to get the most abuse. There haven’t been any scuffs directly over the screen.


The charging cord probably impressed me the most. Samsung has made tons of watches and still has weird snap fittings and this tiny company, Pebble, uses magnets! The charging port is placed rather well too. If you are like me and do a decent amount of work while typing, you could easily have your Pebble charging while still on your wrist. This watch does NOT come with the wall adapter but, it did come with the USB cable. As I have amassed plenty of USB wall chargers this did not bother me. The wrist strap and buckle are much better than I expected. The rubber is very pliable and the buckle appears to be something along the lines of brushed nickel.


Experience
Turning on this watch reminded me of my first day with my G1 (the first Android Phone). I was in a new world exploring what was possible. Pushing all of the buttons, looking at all of the settings, searching through the Pebble store. By the way, the first time you go to the Pebble store it is a bit overwhelming. Being so used to the phone stores and the type of applications you would find there, I have become pretty comfortable. The Pebble Store is like a new world of crazy strange things. Watch faces, exercise apps, games, watch face exercise apps, and on and on.


With all of this playing I was sure that I would tear through the battery that night, loading games, watch faces, removing watch faces, changing settings, having the backlight on, etc. So, for the next week I looked at the watch and it never died! I had some weird charging anxiety. The watch seemed like it should be dying and just wanted to “Plug it in to be safe”. It is amazing how much we have come to expect this charging requirement that we live with every day on our phones. In my tests, even though the screen is always on, it got 5 to 6 days of battery life. I would be looking at the watch on day 4 with 40% charge remaining and my brain would be screaming “Dude!!! its at 40%!!! You better charge it, there is NO way you are going to get through the rest of the day!”


As you may know, it isn’t quite summer yet, so I have not had a chance to complete the swimming test but, I do shower with it daily. This, interestingly enough, is one of the coolest uses for this watch! You can see if you have an extra 5 minutes to absorb more of the hot water in the morning. Also, have you ever been in the shower and the phone starts ringing and you rush to get out of the shower just to realize it is {insert less than important person here} and you just hop back in the shower? Well, with this watch, you just look down at your wrist and say “Oh, it’s just {insert less than important person here}, I will call them back later.” and continue with your glorious shower. Wonder what is on your schedule, just look at your watch, no need to leave the warmth.


With everything you can find downsides and this is no exception. I have had the watch disconnect a couple of times and had to go into the Pebble app on my phone to disconnect and reconnect. This seemed to resolve the connection issue but, that was not very fun. Also, for some reason, the Pebble has three watch faces that are built into the watch. You cannot disable/hide/delete these three faces. This means that if you install one watch face, you will still be have to scroll through 4 (the one you selected and the 3 built in)… kind of weird and annoying if you only have a couple of watch faces that you want to scroll between. From what I can tell, reading the documentation for Version 3.0 of the Pebble software, there may be a completely new user interface which may get rid of these faces. I guess we’ll just need to wait and see.


Overall
This was a very successful experiment. The Pebble Watch is much better than I anticipated. The phone software is nice looking, updates between phone and watch are smooth, the hardware is nice, the usability is great. My biggest issue now are the same things I was worried about when I didn't choose Android Wear, such as the lack of Google Now, GPS Navigation, color and touch screen, dictation,  and a more professional look. BUT, the battery life on the Pebble is amazing! I don’t know if I can completely convey how cool it is to forget to charge anything... for a week! Prior to this experiment, I never expected that the Pebble would still be competitive but it is, for now… The Pebble Time should solve some of the concerns I have and retain the same battery life. I guess Pebbles CEO has a right to be confident. If you are looking to dip your toe into the smart watch pool, the Pebble is a good choice, especially if you are an Apple user!


P.S.
  • “Android Wear” app - removes notification grouping (ex: “Hangouts: 6 notifications”) and adds Android Wear responses. Don’t configure it or try to connect it to the Pebble. Just installing the app and it will make everything work better.
  • xTime watch face by tgwaste - tons of features, but I only used it for the small calendar to help keep track of the days of the week
  • My Calendar by Stanfy - my favorite watch face that I use all of the time. It gives you the next 3 events on your google calendar. (includes all calendars you have active)
  • WunderPebble by Jahdai Cintron - great app (although slow) for anyone who uses Wunderlist. It lets you do your grocery shopping hands free. No more dropping your phone on the floor while looking at your checklist
  • Leaf by Chris Nucci - allows you to connect to your Nest Thermostat and change your temperature from your wrist
  • Pixel Miner by Doctor Monolith - Actual review: “One of the greatest and most pointless games I have ever had the pleasure of wasting my life on” - pretty much right on

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