Smart Watches and wearables have some obvious uses and advantages over regular style watches. They’re great for notifications, as health trackers or pedometers and for keeping in touch – as well as telling the time. Apple and Google’s smartwatches have gone for a very glitzy way of answering these requirements – in effect a tiny smartphone on your wrist but that’s created some problems. The biggest of these are very poor battery life, complicated control systems and they’re being tied to specific phones or systems.
The first mass market smart watch was not made by Apple or Google but by a startup called Pebble that was one of the largest Kickstarters ever. The first Pebble smartwatch was a big success among the tech community but making the change from hipster tech product to mass market was never going to be easy. Pebble has expanded their range several times but the prices on the first watches have kept dropping.
The Pebble Steel was Pebble’s second product and is basically the original Pebble with a few tweaks and a much prettier look. It’s also very competitively priced at £108 on Amazon currently with some special offers taking it to considerably less on occasion.
So what is it technically? Rather than having a color touch screen Pebble elected to go for a black and white LCD and have the phone controlled by four physical push buttons. The advantage of this approach is very simple – battery life. When I first got my Steel I charged it to full capacity and then waited to see how long it took to run out of power. I was very happily surprised to get almost 8 days of use and while I’d not usually let it go flat it does show that you can go days without having to think about battery. Internally the Steel has Bluetooth, a vibrating alert, magnetometer, light sensor and accelerometer.
Out of the box the Pebble Steel has a small range of abilities. It can show you your phones notifications and let you take some actions like canned replies in response, it can give you alarms and it has numerous watchfaces that can show the time and date.
When you dig a little deeper into the Pebble App on your phone you find a lot more options. Firstly the watchfaces are not restricted to the small number bundled but number in the thousands from the simple elegant clock hands, to useful which show things like the weather to brainteasers that make you think to work out the time.
Beyond watchfaces are a range of apps grouped into Daily, Tools and Utility, Notifications, Remotes, Health and Fitness and a Featured section. With these you can add to your Steel in a number of ways. I ended up with a news app for breaking headlines, Pedometer app, a music control app, Flappy Bird, a sleep tracker and an app to remind me to drink water regularly.
The Pebble Smartphone App is generally well designed and its dynamically loads apps onto the watch depending on the space available to get around the limited size. It is unfortunate that Pebble have not chosen to allow filtering by watch type. Apps that run on the Pebble Time will not necessarily run on the Steel and vice versa and hence it can be hard to work out what will be good for you. Adding a check box into the settings on the Phone app to say “Only Display apps my watch is compatible with” would be a big step forward in usability.
Price: £99 (RRP £149.99)
Included in the box: Pebble Steel Smartwatch with Leather Band and USB Charging cable
Paid Extras: Metal band or other third parties are available
Pebble came to public consciousness in 2012 with a huge Kickstarter for the first Pebble watch. The company was a success and before Android Wear and Apple’s Smartwatch launched set itself up as the viable third alternative. The company has launched several more models and last year completely redesigned the paradigm their PebbleOS was based on.
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Once you get past notifications (which can be customised for specific phone apps) the Steel is fairly versatile. Rather than using a conventional app model the Steel uses a combination of timeline and dynamically loaded apps.
In normal use rather than go from app to app this means that you get a timeline of the events going on based on your calender and all the apps you have running. Click forward and see your next appointment and a reminder to drink more water. Click back and see (and respond) to your last WhatsApp message and so on. It’s an interesting system that took me a while to get used to but makes sense when you get used to it.
Some apps cannot be easily designed for this paradigm so need to be launched manually. A simple example would be something like Flappy Bird or an immediate exercise prompter.
The strap on the Steel is changeable but uses Pebble’s own propriety pin system. This 5 pin system is not compatible with any other Pebble models but Pebble offer a metal strap for around £25 and there are a number of compatible straps on Amazon from around £10.
The Steel has one immediate versatility advantage – it works with two operating systems. It can be tied to an Android phone or an Apple iOS iPhone. Google Wear can also work with both systems but it is heavily optimised for Android whereas the Steel offers a similar experience on both platforms. If you’re someone who regularly switches platforms this is a definite bonus.
Rather than use a touch screen the Steel uses four buttons to control it. When I first got it this took a lot of getting used to and my five year old spent a while tapping the screen before announcing that it was broken. Once you’ve adapted back to buttons they are actually well designed and positioned and have a satisfying action. The single button on the left of the screen is a combined on/back button and the three on the right are up, select and down. Between them I was able to control the Steel perfectly.
The Steel is charged with a magnetic clip on connector that plugs into a USB port. This connector clips on the bottom left of the watch and takes around an hour and a half to fully charge. The single LED on the front of the Steel shows orange when charging and green when fully charged. I should mention that although the charger looks very similar to that of the original Pebble they are very slightly different and not compatible.
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The Pebble Steel is a typical small electronics gadget and is manufactured by FoxLink in Taiwan.
Smart watches have dropped in price considerably and wearable fitness trackers have become far more ubiquitous. With it’s around £100 price tag the Steel compares very favoribly with most Android Wear devices and is much much cheaper than the Apple and Microsoft offerings.
It is difficult to compare to fitness trackers as it offers such a different range of experiences but those that are close are generally similarly priced.
Operating System: PebbleOS – a customised FreeRTOS Kernel
Size: 46 mm × 34 mm × 10.5 mm – not including strap
Capacity: 7 apps but dynamically loaded
Item Weight: 56g including strap
Colour: Matt Black or Stainless Steel
Textile: Brushed Steel, Gorilla Glass and leather (strap)
Environment: Water resistant to 5 Atmospheres
Memory: 8MB Flash
Display: 144 x 168 e-paper
Bluetooth: 2.1 or 40. LE
Battery: Integrated 130mAH battery
Warranty: One Year limited hardware warranty
As with most smart watches the Pebble Steel needs to be paired to a smartphone. Minimum requirements are a iPhone – 4s, 5, 5c, 5s and up, iOS6, iOS7 and iOS8 – or Android devices with OS 4.0 and up.
The Pebble Steel – the whole Pebble range – falls in an odd position. They’re not fitness trackers, although they have all the basic functions of them and they’re not conventional smartwatches – the eink screens just don’t fit into people’s perception of the smartwatch but are something else.
I said at the start that Pebble went back to what an the essence of a wearable should be and that’s a good thing. It handles notifications well, lets me control my podcasts, counts my steps, gets me standing up tells the time. The battery life is amazing and makes much more of a difference than I had expected.
The Steel is on my wrist as I type this and it’s going to stay there having replaced the fitness tracker and the Wear watch I had before. Recommended.
The review is based on the Matt Black Pebble Steel kindly provided by Pebble. This article was first published on the 17th of February 2016.