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The Pebble smartwatch keeps it simple (hands-on)

The Pebble smartwatch keeps it simple (hands-on)


Light on features, but heavy on design

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Now that Pebble has announced it's shipping to Kickstarter backers on January 23rd, the company is finally ready to show off the final hardware and software on its smartwatch. We spent some time putting the watch through its paces and talking with CEO Eric Migicovsky, and we've come away more impressed than we expected with the Kickstarter phenomenon.

Smartwatches are a big theme theme here at CES, but few have garnered the kind of interest that the Pebble has. One reason is that it is simple and straightforward: watchfaces, notifications, and music control are the headline features with only a few other odds and ends thrown in on the side. The other reason is that it simply looks great — nobody wants a monstrosity strapped to their wrist, no matter how functional.

Nobody wants a monstrosity strapped to their wrist

The Pebble is an attractive smartwatch in part because of its e-paper display. People commonly confuse e-paper with E Ink (in fact, we did just that in our video below), but it's mostly a distinction of brand rather than function. The screen doesn't seem to offer quite as much contrast or reflect as much light as E Ink displays, but it's miles better than the display on the Metawatch. It's black-and-white only, of course, with a resolution of 144 x 168 pixels.

On the right-hand side are three buttons — up, down, and select — and on the left is a single back button. The buttons are pretty big and offer more resistance than you might at first expect, but presumably that's to prevent accidental presses. It charges via a small magnetic clip that snaps on the side. Pebble tells us the watch should last about a week on a single charge, which takes about two hours to complete. It's also water-resistant down to four atmospheres, which should be enough for your morning laps in the pool.

Elegant and clean smartwatch design

There's no accounting for taste, but in the current crop of smartwatch contenders the Pebble has one of the most elegant and clean designs around. A plastic body with a curved face forms the body of the watch, coming in black, gray, orange, red, or white. It's also light, weighing in at just over seven ounces. The watches we played with felt uniformly solid, with slightly glossy faces and rubbery bands that were not too sporty — though you can replace them with any standard 22mm band.

The Pebble works with the iPhone 3GS and up (and requires iOS 5 or higher) and also with Android devices running version 2.3.3 or higher. It connects to those smartphones via Bluetooth 4.0, which Pebble uses for sending notifications, controlling music, and over-the-air updates. That's right — Pebble plans on delivering software updates every few weeks, pushing them to a smartphone app so they can be installed over Bluetooth on the watch.

A quick flick of the wrist turns on the backlight

Last but not least on the spec rundown is an accelerometer. Right now it has limited function — it toggles the backlight when you tap hard on the smartwatch, but a quick flick of the wrist will also do it and is much more satisfying.

On either iOS or Android, Pebble can receive notifications for texts, emails, and calls. On Android, you can add Google Talk and Google Voice notifications to that mix, while iOS naturally does iMessage since it's built into the SMS app. It controls music on your phone thanks to AVRCP that works just like it does on Bluetooth headsets — minus the audio, of course. The vibration motor on the Pebble felt strong enough that you won't miss an alert — it's certainly more noticeable than a vibration in your pocket.

In terms of smartwatch functionality, that's it — but more is coming. Right now, an Android beta allows users to create apps that talk to the Pebble, and developers can also create custom watch faces. More apps, integration with RunKeeper, and support for doing more with the accelerometer are all coming — but for now, this isn't the smartest smartwatch on the block.

This isn't the smartest smartwatch on the block

Aggressively focusing on just a few features turns out to work really well in this case, however. The Pebble's interface is dead simple, and though that means there's not a lot of opportunity to fiddle around with the watch, it also means there are no confusing interactions to learn. It really works and it's much faster and more responsive than we expected on an e-paper display.

The Pebble "home" is nothing more than a vertical menu of apps. Most of those consist of different watch faces — from traditional analog ones to words to nerdy binary clocks — though there's also an on-device alarm, settings, and music control app. You simply navigate up and down, select, and hit the back button to move around the watch.

Pebble told us that it drew a little inspiration from the original Mac OS when it was designing the aesthetics of the icons and the dot-matrix gradient under the top bar. That may be, and the fonts on notifications are readable enough — but there's still a retro vibe here that you'll find either charming or off-putting.

When you receive a notification, it displays immediately, and you can scroll through text when it comes in. Notifications also light up the backlight — which could eventually be a battery issue. You can dismiss a notification by hitting the back button, but if you don't it will eventually just dismiss itself.

Pebble has opted for simplicity whenever possible

There's no place on the watch to see all your missed notifications, however. That's not a deal-breaker since you can still find them on your smartphone, but it's another example of how Pebble has opted for simplicity whenever possible.

Pebble smartwatch hands-on photos


If all that simplicity doesn't appeal to you, there are still opportunities to be as nerdy as the watch on your wrist. Pebble has integrated support for the If This Then That webservice, which connects stuff like RSS and news alerts to actions like receiving a text or saving articles to Instapaper. The Pebble currently gets those notifications via email, but later they'll just work directly with the companion smartphone apps. Eventually, the company plans to offer a kind of "Log in with Pebble" button (like Facebook's) so that other websites and apps can send alerts to the watch.

The Pebble's dead-simple interface has a "just works" kind of ethos that's much more approachable than other smartwatches. We do wonder how well it will scale up around an app ecosystem, but for now it's a smartwatch that doesn't try to be more than it is. A regular watch just just one thing and does it well. The Pebble does a bit more, but doesn't overcomplicate things. By making sure it nailed the simple and reliable nature of the "watch" part of "smartwatch," Pebble may finally be the one that has a real shot at going mainstream.