My Life With A Pebble Smart Watch

29 Jul, 2013

After over a year of waiting (I backed the Kickstarter on 4/12/2012), my White Pebble Smart Watch finally arrived in my mailbox a couple weeks ago. Here’s my take on life with a smart watch.

White Pebble Smart Watch

The Pebble is the most successful Kickstarter project ever, collecting over $10.2 million dollars of funding from backers (like me) who believed in the idea of a smart watch. The watch is designed to communicate with iOS or Android devices—acting as an extension of a smartphone. In addition to customizable watch faces, app notifications & alerts, caller ID, music player control, web data, and more would be pushed to the e-paper watch face. In early 2012 (pre-Apple iWatch and Microsoft watch rumors), the concept was marvelous.

Initially estimated to launch in the early fall of 2012, then pushed into February, 2013 black watches began to ship. I had to wait until July for mine to arrive. Evidently, colored watches require more time to produce—white being the last in the product pipeline. Pebble was fairly communicative with backers with regard to production and shipping delays, but many backers became frustrated with the process. Keeping in mind that Kickstarter is all about providing funding to start-up ideas—ideas that will have kinks to work out, and likely miss deadlines—I tried to take the delays in stride although my patience was wearing thin after a year of waiting. In fact, black Pebbles became available for the public to purchase from Best Buy before all Kickstarter backers received their watches.

The watch itself is very simple. There’s a 2 color e-paper interface that is visible in direct sunlight (think early Kindle Reader); the display also illuminates with a backlight via quick snap of the wrist. There are four buttons: what is effectively a Back button on the upper-left, and three buttons (top, middle, and bottom) on the right for scrolling through & selecting watch faces, settings and notifications. There is no touch screen or additional means of user input. A competitive smart watch, Kreyos (currently seeking funding on Kickstarter competitor Indiegogo) already purports to include voice and gesture control. A lot can happen in a year…

The watch itself looks great. It’s a bit large, but much more stylish than smart watches that have come out in previous years (think Casio calculator watch).

Battery life seems to clock in at 3-4 days between charges which I think is fine. Unfortunately, the watch must be plugged into a computer to charge through a proprietary USB charger. No plugging it into the wall. It’s also very hard to tell how much battery life the watch has until it’s about ready to die.

The primary use of the Pebble (aside from date & time) is the ability to view notifications (SMS, phone, and app alerts) on your wrist as an extension of the smartphone screen. This is handled via the Pebble app and a BlueTooth connection. In the movie theater and you get a text? Glance at your watch to see the content rather than pull out your phone; pretty cool & convenient. Secondary use cases include the ability to extend data from the web (weather, stocks, etc.) and native applications (music, geo-location e.g. RunKeeper) onto the watch screen. These secondary use cases require additional apps that support streaming data to the Pebble.

Unfortunately, the primary use case for the watch is unreliable. Between BlueTooth connections that tend to drop, applications that time out, and challenges with iOS app notifications, users can’t rely on getting push notifications consistently on the watch. I believe that this is especially an iOS challenge (in fact there is a pinned forum discussion dedicated to this topic). Again, as a Kickstarter backer, I’m going to give a brand new product a lot of leeway—understanding that this is a beta, and likely to have bugs. If I had bought the watch brand new at Best Buy, I’d hold a consumer product to a much higher standard, and may be considering a refund. As far as I know, the only differences between my Kickstarer Edition and what’s available at Best Buy are the color and the words “Kickstarter Edition” stamped on the back of mine.

So here’s the deal… the watch itself doesn’t look half bad (I am glad that I waited for white), and battery life is decent. The notifications are unreliable, and require a lot of tweaking. iOS challenges (UPDATE: I have tested the watch with an iPhone 5 running iOS7 Beta 4 and continue to experience notification failures) are close to making the watch a non-starter for me; it seems like Android is a much more reliable and extensible platform for the Pebble.

Given how fast this space has evolved since last April, and with potential competitive watches (from independent start-ups and the big dogs like Apple, Google, and MS) entering the space imminently, I predict the Pebble will, at least, feel antiquated within 12-18 months, or possibly no longer be in business unless they’re able to release a new model.

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