Pebble has just announced their latest smartwatch, the Pebble Time, and after two hours, the next-gen e-ink smartwatch has already been fully funded on Kickstarter. Despite some design improvements–including a slimmer body and a microphone for dictation–Pebble’s industrial design has never been its strong suit, and the Pebble Time is no different: it’s sufficient, but only just. But one feature that really stands out is the color e-ink screen, if only because color e-ink has spent the better part of a decade struggling to see a mainstream consumer roll-out.
Although Fujitsu debuted color e-ink technology way back in 2006, Jeff Bezos famously dismissed the technology in 2010 for use in a Kindle Color, saying it wasn’t ready for prime time yet. Eventually, Amazon went in an entirely different direction for a color Kindle with the Kindle Fire, an Android multimedia tablet. Battery technology had finally reached a sweet spot where more vibrant LCD displays could be used in a tablet form factor and last through 10 hours of active us.
Sure, that’s still nothing compared to the months of battery life an e-ink Kindle can give you, but it’s good enough, and unless all you want to do with your tablet is read text, that’s a trade-off most people are willing to make. That also doesn’t factor in price: The jetBook Color 2–the only color e-reader I know of–costs $500. An e-ink Kindle, on the other hand, costs just $80 new.
E-ink may have lost the tablet battle, but Pebble has always thought it made particular sense on a watch, where both battery life and visibility in direct sunlight is a major factor. The Apple Watch may have a more beautiful screen, but it will also have poorer visibility in bright sunlight than an e-ink screen. And the Pebble Time will likely have significantly better battery life. But there’ll be trade-offs. Don’t expect sophisticated, iOS-like animations in the UI: the refresh rate of an e-ink screen can’t handle any of that, which is one of the reasons e-ink gets such greater battery efficiency to begin with.
On the other hand, color e-ink allows Pebble down the road to do some clever things that LCD manufacturers can’t. For example, Sony already has a smartwatch that has an e-paper band. Imagine the Pebble Time 2, featuring a band that can change colors, just by tapping on a swatch in settings.
That’s forward thinking, but with the Pebble Time, Pebble’s betting that even in a post-Apple Watch world, there’s going to be a subset of customers who want a simpler smartwatch experience than what Apple and Google have cooked up. Customers who don’t want to take off their watch to charge it every night, especially for something as trivial as a postage stamp-sized splash of color on their wrist. And for that, a color e-ink display will do just fine, especially if it comes in at less than half the cost of the cheapest Apple Watch or Android Wear.
You can pre-order a Pebble Time on Kickstarter for just $180, with the first units shipping in May.