A battle-worthy smartwatch with a hefty price tag
The Pebble Steel is a second-generation device of the insanely popular smartwatch that was funded (in part) by more than $10 million on crowdfunding site Kickstarter. It’s safe to say that Pebble has seen amazing success thus far, yet one gripe people had with the original version was that it was too “cheap-looking" and not very fashionable. To answer that, Pebble created the new Pebble Steel — an updated version of the smartwatch with an overhaul on the outside to appeal to a whole new set of users.
Last month we had the pleasure of heading into the heart of Pebble HQ to see just what makes the whole operation tick. Though they didn’t divulge any details at the time, they were just a few short weeks from unveiling the Pebble Steel. Announced via live stream as CES 2014 was kicking off, Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky unveiled Pebble’s latest device to the world.
While the Black Matte and Brushed Stainless varieties of the Pebble Steel look very different than their polycarbonate older brother, they are running the same basic internals and will be familiar to users. Pebble hasn’t changed anything at the core of the device, rather they’ve concentrated on updating the esthetics to something that more might be willing to strap onto their wrists. Although it’s steel, the watch still feels light enough to be comfortable while still weighing enough to not feel cheap. It definitely veers away from the design of the original Pebble — there will be no mistaking the two.
Both the Black Matte and Brushed Stainless versions of Pebble Steel come with a matching metal band as well as a black leather strap should you want to change it up. I’m partial to the metal band as it keeps the design flow consistent and really adds to the look of the watch. What I don’t like is that you can’t change out the band easily like you could with the original Pebble. Being more of a “high-end” watch, here you can swap between the included bands, but won’t be able to throw on just any old 22mm band. Pebble does include extra links with the metal band for those with larger wrists, but you may have to take a trip to a jeweler to get them put on (or taken out if you need it sized down). Lucky for me my Pebble Steel fit right out of the box.
From top to bottom the Pebble Steel looks great. I think a lot of people will lean toward the Brushed Stainless model if they’re opting for a Pebble Steel, but I’m a big fan of the Black Matte version. Pebble was going for the “dressed up” look with this one and I think they pulled it off. The display is the same e-paper panel as before, but having the steel casing all around just makes it look better. Some may complain about the Pebble branding on the bottom of the face, but I actually don’t mind it. I’m excited to wear it proudly and let it show that it’s a Pebble.
Pebble Steel also has a new proprietary charging connector that looks much like the original. It connects to one side of the watch with magnets and, allowing the watch to remain totally waterproof. I’m not a huge fan of having separate incompatible connectors for both my Pebble watches however (I do realize that I'm an oddity in owning two Pebbles, let alone the other half-a-dozen smartwatches I routinely strap to my wrist). Also new is a sheet of chemically-hardened Gorilla Glass with an anti-fingerprint coating. The original Pebble had a coating over its plastic body to protect it from minor scuffs and scratches, but the Steel ups the ante and makes it truly battle-worthy. An LED charging indicator rounds out the new features — red/orange for low battery and green for charged. There's still no easy way to check the charge level, so I’m not sure if adding this really helps too much in the end.
One thing I do absolutely love is the feel of the buttons on the Pebble Steel. The plastic buttons on the original Pebble feel kind of loose to me at times, but here they are totally solid, have a defined clicking action, and I have no worries of looseness or wear. I played with them quite a bit and they all feel very solid and a big improvement for me. These buttons are definitely a huge improvement.
Battery life seems to be about on par with my original Pebble, as it should since the internals are the same. I didn’t have enough time to give it a real-world test, but I’m seeing about 3-4 days off a charge with relatively heavy use. I real world usage scenarios, I wouldn’t expect battery life to be too far off from Pebble's 5-7 day claim.
The newest Pebble software includes some minor yet welcome updates. You’ll find the same basic functions within the menus for Music, Alarms, Watchfaces and Settings (which includes Do Not Disturb and notification options). Added is a notifications menu where you can view past alerts (YES!). You can still store up to 8 apps or watch faces via the Android or iOS phone app, a number we’d still like to see bumped up a bit since there are so many great apps and watch faces to be had now. A cool bonus is the Locker feature within the app where you can store all of your unused (saved) apps and faces for easy access. This makes it easy to load and unload as you please with minimal searching.
Any apps you install will be shown on the bottom of your menu, accessible by tapping the middle button once. From here you open the app and go about your business.
Everything is controlled by the buttons — there's still no touchscreen here. Once you get used to which button does what you can easily tap them to navigate around with no effort.
There are still the same great apps available for Pebble Steel. Now you can easily search for apps via Pebble's own "Pebble appstore" though (more on that below) but you can still get them the old fashioned way by browsing around across the web. Any apps you install will sit on the bottom of the menu for easy access.
Notifications are pulled straight from your Android or iOS device (or, unofficially, BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone). You can receive notifications for nearly any app on your phone including email, SMS, phone, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Now and more. The notifications vary a bit depending on your platform and if you have third-party apps installed, but both iOS and Android are easy enough to set up, so you can review every notification you want.
Some notifications are still lacking however — namely email. When email starts piling in back-to-back, things get a bit messy. When emails come in one at a time you can read most of their content, but when you get a bunch of email at once it can get a little overwhelming. Thankfully the new notifications menu allows you to check back on your alerts. It’s not the most ideal solution, but at least you can see them without having to pull out your phone.
Android users have available a plethora of apps not only for notifications but also for things like a remote camera trigger and custom watch faces. For notifications, my favorite is Pebble Notifier. After a quick setup, Pebble Notifier will push any notification you can receive on your phone right to your Pebble. Without a third-party app the Pebble allows for SMS, email, calendar alerts, Hangouts, Google Voice, Facebook, WhatsApp and phone call notifications. Not too shabby for basic functionality, but most users will want to go full force with another app to really maximize their notifications. What I like is that in addition to the Do Not Disturb mode on your Pebble which can be set to silence all the notifications, Pebble Notifier can be turned off when not needed so you can get another “all or nothing” alternative.
iOS allows you to get notifications for all your apps as well, not through the Pebble app directly but rather through the operating system's Notification Center. So essentially any app that you have set to appear in Notification Center will be sent to your Pebble. Email, Facebook, SMS, Instagram, WhatsApp, phone calls — you name it. Just set the app to show in Notification Center and you're good to go. This works for most apps, some other may take some tweaking. I had no issues getting what I needed to show on my Pebble, however.
Pebble has kicked things up with the new Pebble appstore (that's how they write it), making it much easier to find apps and watch faces for your Pebble. The appstore is built into the existing official Pebble app and should be landing soon. If you have an old plastic Pebble, don't worry, the appstore will work with your Pebble too after a firmware update — it's the same inside as the Steel, after all. Pebble currently has more than 1,000 apps available with 6,000 registered developers on board.
We tested the iOS version (alas, the Android update wasn't yet available) and found it easy to search for apps or just browse through the various categories that include Daily, Notifications, Fitness, Tools & Utilities, Remotes and Games. The growing list of apps includes some favorites like Canvas for Pebble, PebbGPS and Smartwatch Pro as well as new partner apps for Yelp, foursquare, ESPN and others.
Opening an app through the store lets you view the description, developer, version number and more. Installing the app on your Pebble is as simple as tapping the Add button. Just keep in mind that both apps and faces eat up one of your eight available slots. What's cool though is that you can unload apps and watch faces to a "locker" on your smartphone — essentially saving them for easy access while not having them loaded on your watch. A very welcome feature that lets you easily keep tracks of your favorites.
Pebble has also added some great partner apps to the store that include foursuqare, ESPN and Yelp.
Finding watch faces is just as easy and you can also search for them or browse through the Most Loved or Pebble Picks. Simply tap the Add button on a watch face to install it. The pickings are slim right now, but once more developers get on board the app store should be quite a large resource for getting watch faces. Of course you can still install them from other places as well — you aren’t limited to just the Pebble app store. Some watch faces do let you customize from within the Pebble app as well. The Yahoo! weather face for example lets you configure various settings within the app.
Overall I really like the Pebble Steel. I'm not usually a fan of metal watches or bands, but I had no problem adjusting to this one. It has the same great software at the heart, looks great, feels great and works great. I'll be swapping this out with my original Pebble when I get dressed up and won't feel so bad about going out wearing my Pebble.
Is it the right watch for you? $249 is still a pretty hefty price to pay for any watch, especially when you can get an original Pebble for $100 less. The only extras you're getting here is the steel casing and metal band. The original Pebble is $150 - that's a $100 savings right off the bat. Pebble even ran some big discounts before the holidays, dropping it down to the $120 range. For me it's hard to justify the big price tag on the Pebble Steel given the fact that inside everything is the same. It's an extra $100 for a nicer looking and possibly more durable Pebble.
I never had a problem wearing my Pebble to weddings or out on the town, but I do get that some people really want a more fashionable look from a watch. If looks matter and you simply have to have the Pebble Steel — go for it. But if you're a current Pebble owner or don't mind the plastic look of the original, the Pebble Steel may not be for you.
Pre-orders are scheduled to begin shipping on January 28th. The updated Pebble app with the Pebble appstore and new firmware for the original Pebble will be available soon.