After one week, I couldn’t tell you whether to buy a Pebble Time smartwatch.
That’s partly because one week isn’t a lot of time to review a smartwatch, especially one that’s running beta software with a limited app selection. But it’s also because you can’t buy one right now anyway.
Pebble’s second-generation smartwatch–which distinguishes itself from other smartwatches through its always-on color display and weeklong advertised battery life, along with a new interface called Timeline— is only shipping to its Kickstarter backers now. As a retail product, it will sell for $199. Pre-orders will begin towards the end of June, but there’s no word on when new buyers will receive watches. That means any present attempt at buying advice will become obsolete as the software takes shape.
All I’ve got is a sense of what it’s like to wear the Pebble Time in its current, unfinished state. While there’s plenty of room for improvement, I’ve found enough reasons to keep on wearing it.
“That watch looks good on you,” she said, as we prepared for an evening out. She’s never said that about the many other smartwatches I’ve worn, from the original Pebble to a trio of bulky Android Wear timepieces (LG G Watch, Samsung Gear Live, Moto 360) to the ridiculously large Samsung Gear S.
Large smartwatches just don’t look good on my admittedly skinny wrists. But the Pebble Time is reasonably thin, and not nearly as long as the original. And when I attached a navy blue military-style NATO strap, it added just enough sophistication to work with jeans and a button down. After sacrificing style in the name of technology for so long, this was an unexpected nicety. (Another thing I didn’t expect: I’m slightly nervous that the higher-end Pebble Time Steel I ordered won’t look as good.)
Because the Pebble Time’s display is always on, picking a watch face feels like a weighty decision. The face becomes part of the entire watch aesthetic, and the addition of color makes any decision even more conspicuous than the original Pebble.
That means you can spend a lot of time hunting for color watch faces, and then tweaking them to match whatever strap you’ve chosen or outfit you’re wearing. Maybe that sounds like work, but when everything clicks, it’s more satisfying than it ought to be.
The closest thing the Pebble Time has to a critical flaw is the color display’s indoor readability. Instead of using an OLED or LED like most smartwatches, the Pebble Time uses a color e-paper screen for longer battery life, an upgrade from previous Pebbles’ monochrome displays. That’s why it can stay on all the time–eliminating kludges such as the Apple Watch’s use of not-perfectly-reliable motion sensors to turn on the screen when you lift your wrist into eyesight.
The trade-off is that even in well-lit rooms, a shadow can make the screen hard to read, especially when there’s not a lot of contrast between colors. Tilting the watch towards a light source or activating the backlight can help, but dimness is still an occasional nuisance–one that people noticed whenever I showed the watch off. (Outdoors, in direct sunlight, the readability is excellent.)
This is thanks to a Pebble Time app called 8-A-Day, which periodically reminds you to hydrate. It sounds annoying, but it’s actually a clever use of Pebble’s Timeline feature, which shows past events when you hit the up button, and future events when you hit the down button.
Instead of merely nagging, 8-A-Day lets you scroll back in time to log your latest glass, and schedules a daily summary in the evening. Because the whole interaction takes a just a few seconds, it’s the perfect app for a smartwatch, and the kind of thing I’d never install on my phone. The more third-party apps that take advantage of the Timeline in this way, the more useful Pebble Time will get.
Before the Pebble Time arrived, I had high hopes for the new Timeline interface, which lets you scroll backwards or forwards chronologically to see relevant bits of information. In practice, it’s more of a pleasant add-on than a revelation. Calendar appointments and sports schedules are nice to glance at, but my phone does a fine job of delivering that information already. Even good old 8-A-Day became easy to ignore over time.
Perhaps the killer use cases for Timeline don’t exist yet. Pebble Time is only shipping to Kickstarter backers now, and there’s no word on when general pre-orders will even start, so a dearth of Timeline-supported apps is understandable. But will bigger app makers bother with Pebble at all now that Apple and Google have established their own smartwatch platforms? We’ll have to see.
As an iPhone user, my biggest problem with Pebble Time, as with its predecessor, is the lack of actionable notifications. If I get a spammy email, I can’t delete it using the watch. If I get a message in WhatsApp, I can’t respond to it. The only option is to dismiss the alert, so it disappears from iPhone’s Notification center, but sooner or later, I’ll still have to deal with the actual content. While I appreciate Pebble Time keeping me in the loop, it leads to anxiety when multiple notifications pile up. (Android users don’t have this problem, because Pebble can tap into the actionable notification system in Android Wear.)
The good news is that Pebble’s Timeline notifications can have actions of their own. For instance, I can mute calendar appointments as they come up, or jump straight to ESPN’s live sports scores when a game comes on. If a significant number of mainstream apps support Timeline, it may supplant the need for notifications from iOS. But that’s hardly a given.
Pebble promises up to seven days of battery life with the Pebble Time. I haven’t gotten that much, as most days the battery level ticked down by about 20%. Granted, my tests aren’t scientific, Pebble’s software is still in beta, and even five full days is better than any other smartwatch. But I wouldn’t leave the charger behind on a weeklong vacation just yet.
The Pebble Time isn’t the only smartwatch that supports standard watch bands, but it seems to encourage swapping through the quick-release mechanisms on the included silicone band. Pushing in the small switches on either side of the band retracts the built-in spring bars, freeing the band from its lugs without any tools.
Dealing with alternative bands isn’t quite as effortless, however. The standard bands that Pebble supplied along with my review unit didn’t have the same quick-release mechanisms, and made me wish quick-release watch bands were easier to find. And as someone who never wore regular watches, the finer points of NATO straps were a mystery without the help of YouTube and blogs.
Here’s the big takeaway from my week with Pebble Time: More than any other smartwatch I’ve used, I appreciate its . . . watchness. It’s a timepiece with a side of notifications, and while you can round it out with little apps and Timeline nuggets along the way, it’s just as easy to forget about those things and use it as a high-tech, customizable clock.
This was true of the original Pebble as well, but it looked so unashamedly dorky–and I’m saying this as someone who’s worn one for many months–that its watchness was harder to appreciate. Pebble’s first smartwatch also suffered from expectation. Because it hit the market so early, its limited utility raised questions about the entire smartwatch category, and what it was good for.
Pebble’s answer is more concise than those of Apple and Google: It’s a watch, not a revolution. But that’s easier to accept when the hardware is more attractive, and the software is just a little smarter.