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Pebble Smart Watch : First Impressions

November 30th, 2013 No comments

I received the other day the Pebble Smart Watch. Smart watches and wearable tech has been on the internet a lot lately with Samsung Galaxy Gear and Google Glass. Pebble is probably one of the cheapest contenders to the smart watch game, but also the one with some of the greatest possibilities. Launched via Kickstarter, Pebble is now available for general sale.

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First thing you might be asking yourself is what do I need a smart watch for anyway. After all, how hard is it to see notifications on my phone. The best use for a smart watch is for if you don’t have access to your phone or might not realize you received a message. Smart watches being attached to you allows you to feel the notification directly. As software improves on smart watches, users will be able to do so much more. Pebble is built exactly with that expansion in mind.

Upon receiving the Pebble, the packaging for the Pebble Smart Watch is smaller than what one might expect for a gadget. Probably smaller than most boxes for a high end watch. The box slides open easily and reveals the Pebble. The device looks large in comparison to the size of the box. Removing the watch from the box was a little difficult. The watch is latched into the packaging. This is great because it prevents the watch from moving in the package. However, it is latched in so tightly it takes a little force to unhook it. The only items in the box are the Pebble, the USB charger cable, quick start guide and product information sheet.

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After taking the Pebble out of the box, it is noticeable how the Pebble really is a light weight device. It weighs less than the stainless steel and aluminum watches I am used to wearing. The size of the watch itself is slightly larger than the average watch. The plastic casing and the rubber watchband definitely reduce the weight. The construction does feel very strong for a plastic device. The watchband can also withstand a good amount of tension. The metal latch holds in tightly as well. Unfortunately, the rubber watchband looks cheap. If you are planning to wear the watch in a more formal setting, the rubber is a little off-putting. Wearing the Pebble, it does feel a little large, but only because I am used to wearing a watch with a slightly smaller face. I am already getting used to it.

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Part of what makes Pebble so appealing is its low power usage and longer battery life. The device uses an e-paper display very similar to the one used in the Amazon Kindle. This is great because it because it doesn’t need a lot of power to show time and notifications. Pebble also uses Bluetooth 4.0 LE, which is low power consumption. This allows Pebble to stay connected to the smartphone while using as little power on bother devices as possible.

Powering on the Pebble for the first time was difficult. Only because there is no clear power button or something labeled saying what to press in the documentation. Figuring out needing to hold in the Center button for several seconds took me a moment. After realizing this, I am greeted with a Pebble splash screen. It is not a screen I will see very often unless I shut down the device. Right away, the watch will ask to pair the device with your phone. I am using a Samsung Galaxy SIII running Android 4.1.2. I downloaded the app from the Play Store. My phone immediately found my Pebble via Bluetooth and then clicking connect in the Pebble app connected instantly. After connecting, my Pebble required an update that took less than a minute to complete. This update will only complete if the phone is synced. The time on the Pebble will reset to the current time when the sync is complete.

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The phone comes preloaded with three watch faces for telling time: text read out, mock analog with date and a digital read out with date. Hitting the top and bottom buttons on the right will cycle through the watch faces. These are pretty simple and provides really just basic watch functionality. This is a little bit of a disappointment as I want bells and whistles. I want a smart watch to tell me more than time. Out of the box, the Pebble will be set to 24 HR format. Hitting the center right button will open an options menu to apps installed on your Pebble. The Pebble will come preloaded with a music control, Alarm, watch face selector and settings. As other apps are installed, they appear in this list.

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Settings has options for Bluetooth, Date & Time, Display, About, Shutdown and Factory Reset. There are not many things that are controlled on the Pebble itself at this time. Most settings are controlled through the companion app. I first entered Date & Time to change it to 12 HR format. Display controls the backlight, notifications, font size and vibration. Backlight options are On, Off and Auto. Motion Backlight controls are on and off. I changed mine to auto and motion control enabled.

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The other preinstalled apps are pretty basic. The music app will control pause/play/forward/rewind for the music app defined through the companion app. The alarm app, which is only set to 24 HR format and creates the alarm on the Pebble, not the phone itself. The alarm is great if you are wearing the Pebble, but not very useful otherwise, for say waking up in the morning.

As I mentioned, most of the settings are actually in the companion app on your smartphone. The companion app will control connection to the Pebble, installed watch faces, test notifications and notification settings. The test notifications gives you a pretty good idea of how your notifications will appear on the Pebble. Email notifications can just be scrolled through and cleared. SMS notifications are the same way. Phone notifications do allow you to see who is calling and reject a call, but not anything else.

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The settings part of the app is really where the most functionality is controlled.  The top setting is for Bluetooth, which just opens Android Bluetooth settings to pair the device. Next is Notifications. The Notifications section allows you to turn on sending notifications and what notifications to send. Here you can turn on notifications for calls, SMS, calendar, email and/or Gmail, Google Talk & Hangouts, Google Voice, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Other notifications require Android Accessibility settings to be changed. The Pebble app will notify you to make the change when setting up the notifications.

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While on notifications, I’ll voice my annoyance that SMS notifications will only work if you are using the stock Messaging app, Google Hangouts or Google Voice as the default. Any other SMS app like GoSMS or Handsent, which most people who own a Pebble are probably using, will not receive notifications. I am currently trying to use the stock Messaging app or Google Hangouts as my primary SMS app again. So far it is not a problem. However, that first iPhone group message I receive is going to make me realize how much I miss a more robust SMS app. The other annoyance with notifications would be email. You again can only use the stock Email or Gmail apps to get notifications. If you use an app like Good for Enterprise, your email notifications will not appear. Some of these notification issues might be resolved with other apps, but still not ideal.

After setting up notifications, you can also change what music app the Pebble will control. I have mine set to Spotify since it is my primary music app. Having pause/play/forward/rewind available is really great, but volume control would have been nice too.

When I was done setting up my Pebble, I installed Glance for Pebble. Glance is an app that replaced your watch face. It serves as a hub to give a little more functionality. It is available as a companion app from the Play store. After installing on your phone, it will then transfer an app to the Pebble. The companion app on the phone is where everything is configured. It was helpful because it adds more functionality to your watch face such as counters for new email, SMS and missed calls, weather, quick SMS responses and emergency SMS. These are really awesome features and truly expand the usefulness of Pebble. Having quick SMS responses is cool, but I am finding it hard to decide what to have as my quick responses. I’m leaning toward “OK”, “See you soon”, “Bring more beer/wine/whiskey”, or “What are you wearing?” Weather is also rather useful as it gives your current temp and conditions for your location, and you can see upcoming forecast. I strongly suggest installing Glance.

After using my Pebble for a few days now, I love getting the notifications on my wrist. Sometimes I see them there before they appear on my phone. Glance strongly improved the usefulness and functionality. The main thing I do not like so far is when using Gmail, it does not mute notifications for Social and Promotion emails. This can be annoying if receiving many promotional emails a day. The other thing I am not liking so far with the Pebble is the inability to delete emails and text messages from the Pebble. You can only ignore them. Another annoyance I have discovered is there is not a good battery monitor and could use a consistent icon showing battery level.

At $150, this doesn’t really break the bank and it is probably worth the cost. I didn’t pay that much for it. Best Buy is doing $30 off for people with an .edu email address or who have access to someone with an .edu address. I also strongly suggest the use of gift cards, credit card points, or guilt your relatives into giving you one. Pebble is definitely a great device with cool features now and a lot of great future potential. My next plans are to upgrade to the new 2.0 firmware and experiment with the 2.0 SDK to unlock some of the functionality Pebble has, but is not currently in much use.

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