Smartwatches are supposed to be pieces of jewelry that are just as personal as the smartphones they're attached to, yet rarely are they thought of as fashionable. We've seen a handful (or is it wristful?) that are hip, ornate and sporty, but we've also admittedly endured plenty of ugly options as well. Sadly, none have successfully matched the opulence brands like Seiko, Rolex, Citizen and Victorinox are known for on the analog side. Granted, not many companies are in a position to even try this. Without a strong developer platform and guaranteed return on investment, few (if any) smart watchmakers want to take the risk.
It makes a lot of sense, then, that a company like Pebble is taking advantage of what appears to be a completely untouched segment of the smartwatch market. In just a short year, the nascent watchmaker quickly gained the experience, resources, platform and developer support required to even try tackling such a project. The result is the $249 Pebble Steel. It's designed to be a more elegant version of the original Pebble, with few changes to overall functionality. So, have we finally found a smartwatch that you can feel comfortable showing off to your business partners on the golf course?
Gallery: Pebble Steel review | 55 Photos
Gallery: Pebble Steel review | 55 Photos
If you're holding out for a new Pebble with a nifty touchscreen, color display, always-listening mode or voice activation, keep waiting. The Steel isn't supposed to be a next-gen device -- it's designed to be a more expensive version of the original Pebble that appeals to consumers with more... discerning tastes. The Steel, which comes clad in CNC-machined stainless steel (type 316, if you must know), is stately, refined and classy. That's in stark contrast to the original, which we'd describe as "colorful." Sporty. Fun. Its build materials and industrial design are better than any other smartwatch we've seen, and Gorilla Glass 2 helps make the watch feel durable. The catch: The watch's dashing good looks come at a $100 premium over the original.
Before we continue, we want to clarify that the Steel isn't meant to replace the year-old Pebble. It's designed to be a premium option targeted at those who'd otherwise prefer to adorn their wrists with more expensive timepieces. Together, the two watches share the same innards: They use a 1.26-inch e-paper display (with a resolution of 168 x 144), ARM Cortex-M3 CPU, 130mAh battery and waterproof design (it can withstand up to five atmospheres, or 50 meters). There are a few differences, though: The Steel adds an RGB notification light, oleophobic anti-fingerprint coating and a new charger. There's also a clever black band that wraps around the perimeter of the device and acts as an external Bluetooth 4.0 LE antenna, similar to the way Apple integrated antennas into the frame of the iPhone to improve signal attenuation.
The original Pebble gets its sporty look from a long, curved face and recessed sides, whereas the Steel goes with a flat, squarish face and straight sides. The 39 x 36.8 x 10.25mm Steel is shorter, slightly wider and thinner than the 52 x 36 x 11.5mm Pebble, but it's also much heavier (it's 16g heavier with the leather band attached, 59g if you use the metal band). The buttons on the Steel use the same layout as its predecessor, are just a tad smaller, stick out farther from the watch and they're actually easier to press.
The Steel comes in your choice of black or brushed stainless (silver), with leather and metal wristbands included in the box. The black model comes coated with a Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) finish, which provides impact strength and resistance to abrasion; the stainless one, meanwhile, only uses PVD on the bezel. As for the straps, the black leather band is adjustable, while the stainless steel option -- my personal favorite -- has a foldable clasp and links that can easily be added or removed using a tiny screwdriver and pliers. (Each box has extra links and a small screwdriver thrown in, just in case you prefer the DIY route.) Unlike the original Pebble, you won't be able to swap out the Steel wristbands with any standard 22mm strap. You shouldn't have to wait too long for more choices, though, since Pebble's published a 3D model of the watch to make it painless for a manufacturer to produce accessories.
The notification light is nestled in the lower-left corner of the Steel, and is currently only used for one purpose: to indicate that the device is charging. This is a useful new feature, since we always have to double-check the original Pebble to make sure the weak magnets on the charger are actually doing their job. We'd love to see this opened up to developers down the road, though.
Primarily due to the new design, Pebble chose to fit the Steel with a different magnetic charger. The magnet pads are a little bigger than the ones on the original watch, which helps them stick to the device much better. On the first Pebble, we're constantly worried about the charger falling off anytime the watch vibrates from a new notification, and it often takes a few attempts to even fit it properly.
Come for the fancy new hardware, stay for the fancy new software. On the surface, the Pebble's interface is the same one we've grown accustomed to over the past year, with one key difference: You can now find and download a plethora of watchfaces, games, productivity tools and other apps through a centralized app store. This is a significant improvement over the old method, which required Pebble users to endure eternal scavenger hunts through third-party websites and smartphone app stores (iOS' and Android's, to be specific) to get the best apps for their watch. The new store will be available on both Pebbles (existing Pebble owners should see a firmware update in the coming days), but this was the very first time we've had the opportunity to try it out.
The setup process is simple. Before you begin, you'll need to pair the Steel with your phone using Bluetooth and then create a Pebble account (this will require entering an email address and choosing a password). The store uses this to remember your downloads and purchases, so if you have to switch devices or factory-reset your watch, you won't have to gather your apps again -- just enter your Pebble creds and all of your apps magically reappear.
Gallery: Pebble App Store screenshots | 23 Photos
Gallery: Pebble App Store screenshots | 23 Photos
The Pebble appstore consists of three sections: My Pebble, Get Watchfaces and Get Apps. My Pebble is where you manage the content you've already downloaded. You can have up to eight apps loaded on your watch at any one time, and these show up on the top half of the screen. Below that is the Pebble Locker, a handy place that stores extra apps that you may only need some of the time. This setup is a massive improvement over the old system, which didn't store any of your discarded apps. Now, the process of loading and unloading apps on the watch takes only two clicks, and you don't have to worry about digging out unloaded apps if you want to use them again later.
The other two sections, Get Watchfaces and Get Apps, are self-explanatory. As of this writing, more than 1,000 apps have been published in the store, a number that will probably grow steadily in the coming weeks and months. (Pebble also informed us that 6,000 developers have registered, so we can expect to see plenty more apps.) As is, we were wholly satisfied with the number and scope of available apps -- even in its beta stage, we don't feel there are any "must-haves" missing.
So what kinds of apps are available? First, let's go over the categories that the apps are assigned to: notifications, daily, tools/utilities, remotes, games and fitness. You'll find apps dedicated to tracking packages, customizable RSS feeds, metro status, your watch's battery life, grocery lists and personal notes. An app lets you simulate a dice roll by shaking your wrist; you could use PebbGPS to load maps and routes onto your watch; you can pay for your drink at Starbucks with PebbBucks; and you can play games like Asteroids, Tetris or Connect Four. Heck, some apps even throw in text input, but it's a slow and frustrating process that we'd only recommend if you're physically stuck in your chair and can't get up to grab your phone.
There are a few big-name apps on there as well. Pebble's made deals with ESPN to update you with real-time scores; using Yelp, a flick of your wrist will pull up a random restaurant suggestion; you'll be able to check in to Foursquare; and finally, you can use the watch as a GoPro remote.
The Pebble appstore will be available on both iOS and Android devices. We've only had the opportunity to play with the iOS version so far, but we're told that the Android build will have a nearly identical interface with only a few minor differences. The vast majority of apps in the store will be cross-platform, but we noticed that there are a handful that work only on one or the other (for instance, some Android apps offer Tasker integration, which isn't available on iOS, while there are a few iOS-only options as well); in cases like this, apps specify on their description page which platform they're compatible with.
Performance and battery life
Since the Steel has the same components under the hood as the original Pebble, we weren't surprised to see it deliver comparable performance. Part of the appeal of the Pebble line is that neither watch pretends that it's a fully featured smartphone. Instead, Pebble always errs on the side of minimalism over complexity. In short, the Steel doesn't try to be anything that it's not -- it's an accessory that accentuates the functionality of your phone, and that's all.
With that in mind, the Steel performs well. We barely observed any lag or stuttering (including when we entered and exited apps), although on rare occasions, we'd notice an animation stop halfway through (such as when we had to back out of a notification), but this was usually only for a second or two before the processor caught up and got us where we needed to go. We've experienced this enough times on the original Pebble that we weren't surprised, but it's something we hope Pebble can iron out in a future firmware update.
The Bluetooth performance here meets our expectations -- the watch and handset communicate instantly. For instance, it takes only a fraction of a second to fast-forward to the next music track when we push its associated button on the Steel; it's fast enough that my brain perceives the transition as instantaneous and seamless, which is exactly as fast as we want it to go. My only beef is that when I'm switching watchfaces, it sometimes takes a couple seconds for real-time information to pull up -- and this is only a minor inconvenience at worst, especially since we experienced the same issues on the first Pebble. The most crucial information, the date and time, always show up without any hesitation.
We're happy to say that battery life is quite promising. Our tests are still ongoing, as it's difficult to test a smartwatch battery that claims five to seven days of regular use, but here's what we've found so far: After three full days of what we consider to be heavy use -- loading, switching and playing with countless apps as part of this review, using it as a remote for music playback and receiving more iOS notifications than we care to admit -- we drained the battery down to 20 percent. This is a strong indicator that battery life will meet that five-to-seven-day goal with normal usage patterns. Company reps tell us that the new firmware comes with heaps of optimizations to increase efficiency, and so far we haven't found any reason not to believe them. That's a large improvement over the original Pebble, which often couldn't get through three days on regular use.
If functionality is the most critical factor for you when buying a smartwatch, the original Pebble is still a better deal at $150. It will do the same things as the Steel, which means there is very little incentive to paying an extra $100 for the nicer watch if that's your motive. Additionally, the first Pebble is also more colorful and customizable, so some might still prefer it over the Steel.
On the other hand, the Steel serves a wide-open market segment: people who want a watch that looks good. Indeed, the Steel blends functionality with an elegant and durable design, and it does a fantastic job at it. You'll get a long-lasting battery (by smartwatch standards, at least), a tough stainless steel body and a solid ecosystem that will continue to grow and get better. It seems like an ideal compromise for those who want a flashy watch that does more than just tell time, and even though it's significantly more expensive than its first-gen counterpart, it's still much cheaper than some of the Rolex-style timepieces you can buy.
Simply put, the Steel isn't going to persuade many people to swap out their perfectly functional Hamilton, Movado or Citizen, but if you're in the market for a replacement and want a smartwatch, this is your best option. What's most important, though, is what the Steel represents: a realization that if smartwatches are going to become mainstream, they'll need to appeal to people who prefer to adorn their wrists with jewelry. At the very least, the Steel is a significant step in the right direction.
Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.