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Pebble Time review

Time to shine

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It’s 7:30PM on Thursday evening, and I’m more than half way through my train ride home from work. I glance at the Pebble Time on my wrist and hit a button to take a look at the battery meter. Eighty percent. I page through some of the watch faces and check out some of its built-in functions. I think about how I’m going to spend the upcoming long holiday weekend and whether or not I have enough gas in my grill for Memorial Day burgers.

And then it hit me: the Time’s charging cable is still on my desk back at the office. I won’t be back to get it until Tuesday. Panic sets in as I frantically search my bag for the cable that’s not there until I eventually realize my rookie mistake. With an Apple Watch or any Android Wear watch, my battery would have been dead by the next morning and this review would have been pretty short. But the $199 Time, which is shipping preorders starting today and will be available in stores next month, boasts a battery life of up to seven days. That 80 percent remaining should have no problem getting me through the next five, right?

The Time is Pebble’s third and latest smartwatch. Though there had been smartwatches before it, Pebble’s earlier models ushered in the modern idea of what a smartwatch could do. They worked with both Android and iOS, lasted days between charges, and provided smartphone notifications and basic music controls on your wrist. Pebble sold over a million of these watches, which put it way ahead of other smartwatch makers at the time.

The Pebble Time takes everything the company has learned over the past two years and applies it into the best product it’s ever made. The Time’s design is nicer, its software is better, and it even has a color screen. It still works with the iPhone and Android smartphones, still lasts days between charges, and still gives you smartphone notifications on your wrist.

But in the two years since Pebble launched its first Kickstarter campaign, the smartwatch world has completely changed. Apple just released the Apple Watch, a device that benefits from Apple’s tight hardware and software integration and has what many believe to be the best take on a smartwatch yet. Google launched Android Wear, which can be had on over half a dozen different watches, with seemingly more coming every week. No longer the only player in the game, Pebble now has to compete with these giants for the same space on your wrist.

So can the Pebble Time compete? Depending on what you’re looking for, that answer can be yes, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted more.

Pebble Time

Let’s start with the Time’s hardware. It’s easily the best-looking Pebble yet, with a thinner body that curves slightly to fit your wrist, a curved piece of glass over its new display, and a stainless steel bezel framing the always-on color screen. The four physical buttons from the earlier Pebbles have carried over (there’s no touchscreen here), but there’s now a microphone on the left side for voice functions. The Time is water resistant to 30 meters, which means it was fine when I wore it in the shower.

For the first time, Pebble is using a color display on the Time, but it’s not a particularly great one. Instead of a full-color screen like your smartphone or the brilliant display of the Apple Watch, it offers a limited palette and muted colors, like a screen from a 2004-era flip phone or a Game Boy Color. The screen is low resolution enough that individual pixels are easily visible, and it’s not especially bright, even with the backlight that comes on when you shake your wrist. It’s better outdoors because it reflects the sunlight and it has the benefit of always being on, but there’s nothing especially impressive about the Time’s display.

The soft rubber strap included with the Time is a standard 22mm and comes with quick-release pins. That makes swapping straps easy — I was able to switch to a similarly equipped leather strap while waiting in line for a coffee. The charging port has been moved from the side to the back and now doubles as a two-way data port. This enables what Pebble is calling "smartstraps," watchstraps that can add more functionality to the Time. The company envisions other hardware makers developing straps that add GPS functionality or extend the Time’s battery. But Pebble itself isn’t making the smartstraps and you can’t yet buy any from other companies. For now, this is a dream not yet realized.

The Time is light and comfortable to wear for extended periods, and it’s not as big or bulky as Android Wear watches. It’s roughly the same size as the smaller Apple Watch, making it ideal for people with smaller wrists. Unlike the Apple Watch, which gleams on your wrist, begging people to ask about it, or the Motorola Moto 360 and its comically large proportions, the Time is understated and doesn’t command too much attention. It mostly just looks like an inexpensive digital watch.

The Time looks like an inexpensive digital watch, not an elegant timepiece

That’s largely because the Time is mostly plastic and doesn’t have the nicer materials of its competitors. The best way I can describe the Time is that it’s, well, creaky and a bit toylike. Push on the bottom of the display and you can hear the plastic parts rubbing together. The strap lugs have sharp edges that can poke into your skin. And the plastic buttons are the exact opposite of reassuring. They work every time, but they just don’t feel great to touch. A lot of what makes nice wrist watches wonderful is their tactility and craftsmanship, which is missing from the Pebble experience. Don’t get me wrong — the Time is far nicer than Pebble’s first effort, but that’s a pretty low bar to achieve.

Depending on your personal style and taste, you’re either going to love the Time’s retro-techie aesthetic or despise it. I don’t think it’s really for me, and my wife agrees. (She called it "very ugly.")

Pebble Time

The Time’s hardware is only half the story here, however, as its software is also completely new. While the software on the first Pebble watches was utilitarian, the Time’s software has personality and character. It has splashes of color and whimsical animations that take you from screen to screen. It’s fun and playful, which works well to complement the Time’s less-than-serious hardware.

The interface is built around the concept of a timeline, where you can easily see what’s important now, in the recent past, or in the near future. The main screen is your watch face, of which there are thousands to choose from. (There’s no limit to how many you can have on your watch at any one time, either, unlike the eight-watch face limit on the original Pebble.) Most of those watch faces are still black and white, but there are a handful that take advantage of the Time’s color display. The faces aren’t configurable, like on the Apple Watch, but there are a number that display extra data, such as day and date, weather conditions, battery life, and Bluetooth status.

Fun software complements less-than-serious hardware

Press the up button from the watch face and a glitch-art animation pops you into the timeline, showing you calendar events and weather conditions. Press the down button and you can scroll through upcoming appointments and see what the weather will be like tomorrow. You can only go about a day and half in either direction, which means you’ll have to pull your phone out to see if you can make that lunch appointment next week.

The timeline’s system lets third-party apps insert events into it, potentially making it more than just a simple agenda. The ESPN app dropped upcoming Mets and Yankees games into my timeline and alerted me with updates on their progress throughout the day. Another app let me put my favorite TV shows on the timeline, so I could look ahead to see what’s on tonight. Those are the kinds of things that I’m not likely to make a calendar event for, but are useful to know. It’s not much different than the type of information Google Now provides, though the Pebble’s timeline is a bit more structured and predictable. But to really be impressive, it needs more support from third-party sources, and there’s no guarantee that support will come.

Pebble Time

Beyond the timeline, the Pebble Time’s software isn’t hugely different than before. The list of apps has been redesigned with cards that take advantage of the Time’s color screen, and there are those whimsical animations and transitions throughout. (I particularly like the charging animation — it’s a coffee cup getting refilled drip by drip.) It’s much more considered than ever before, but it’s not functionally much different than the software on the first Pebble watches.

Notifications work the same as they always have, allowing you to see incoming alerts and messages on your wrist instead of digging out your phone. On Android, you can dismiss notifications or take actions, such as archiving an email or replying to an incoming message with a canned response or emoji without touching your phone. The Time now supports voice replies on Android, so I was able to dictate quick messages while my phone remained in my bag. It worked about as well as Siri on the Apple Watch or Google Voice Actions on Android Wear.

But if you have an iPhone, notifications on the Pebble Time are far less useful. The Time will buzz (and I mean buzz, it’s like a can of angry hornets on my wrist) with every notification that lights up my iPhone’s display, and there’s no way to filter them specifically for the watch as you can with an Apple Watch or Pebble with Android. Further, the only thing I can do with an iOS notification on the Time is dismiss it — there are no voice replies or quick actions with an iPhone. Pebble says it is working to add voice replies to Gmail notifications on the iOS, but it’s not likely that it will be able to for text messages.

Pebble Time

The Time can also be used as a rudimentary step counter, and it can remotely control the music on your smartphone. But it’s not a stand-alone fitness device at all — it doesn’t track your location or store music for listening during a run. Nor does it make any attempt at measuring your heartrate or caloric burn. The fitness-tracking apps that support the Time’s step counter (Jawbone and Misfit) are very limited compared to the Apple Watch’s Activity app or Android Wear’s Google Fit integration.

Existing Pebble apps (of which there are over 6,000) work the same on the Time as they do on older Pebble devices, displaying in black and white instead of color. Though there is a large number of apps, many of them feel unpolished and homebrew-like. Most major app developers have not put any investment in building for the Pebble, which has left it to third-party app developers to pick up the slack, with mixed results.

Fortunately, most apps don’t take an exceptionally long time to load, and the interface is fast and responsive on the Time. And that battery? It lasted until 4PM on Monday afternoon, over four days after my panic attack on the train. That’s not as good as Pebble’s claimed seven days, but it’s so much better than the Apple Watch or Android Wear, I can’t complain about it.

Pebble Time

For the most part, the Time does everything you might expect from a Pebble: it gives you smartphone notifications on your wrist, has an always-on display for checking the time quickly, and lasts days between charges. It’s the best Pebble yet.

And that’s its main problem. The Pebble Time is just a better Pebble, which is great if you’re a fan of Pebble’s earlier watches. But if you weren’t swayed by those, or are on the fence about smartwatches in general, the Pebble Time isn’t likely to push you over the edge.

The Time is mostly just a better Pebble

Right now, the Time is an accessory to your smartphone, which is exactly what Pebble wants it to be. But while other smartwatches feel like futuristic platforms that just need more refinement and purpose, it’s not clear how the Pebble Time could go beyond what it already is. It has smaller ambitions than Apple and Google, and for the most part, it already achieves those ambitions. The notifications could certainly get better, the timeline integrations could definitely get more plentiful, and the watch faces could get more colorful. But at the end of the day, it’s still a thing that you wear on your wrist so you don’t have to pick up your phone at every incoming text message.

For a lot people, such as the nearly 80,000 that backed the Time and its metal sibling, the Time Steel, on Kickstarter, that’s fine. (And for many more people, that’s exactly what the Apple Watch is right now.) But smartwatches haven’t really broken out of the niche of techies and early adopters yet because for most people, getting notifications on your wrist isn’t worth wearing a $200 thing that looks like the Pebble all day long. And while it looks and works better than ever, the Pebble Time doesn’t do enough to change that.