The Pebble Steel isn’t just the best smartwatch ever, it’s the blueprint for real world wearable tech beyond the gimmicks and glassholes we’ve seen so far.
The Kickstarted company behind it knows us better than sci-fi, better than Samsung. We want the future strapped to our bodies, sure, but we like our tech jewellery to look familiar not farcical, discreet not daft. We want Joaquin Phoenix’s earpiece and leather pocket computer from Her, not jumbo smart glasses.
And so the Steel is simply last year’s Pebble smartwatch in new (metal and leather) clothes. No bad thing. It has the same great notifications and control features, same killer battery life and, as with the original, it benefits from the recent explosion in Pebble apps. Plus the Steel knows it’s an accessory - though it’s more expensive than the plastic Pebble, we reckon US$250 is a perfectly pitched price.
But with tech’s greatest titans zeroing in on wrist space, how is the Pebble Steel watch still our most wanted wearable?
Pebble to the Metal
The old Pebble isn’t ugly - honest - it just doesn’t suit everyone. For students, designers and media types, it’s a tidy retro chic statement watch. But for normal people who wear suits and go to meetings that plastic design was never going to cut it.
Enter, Pebble Steel. It’s not heart-stoppingly gorgeous but it doesn’t need to be. This is a sturdy, stylish (still retro) design in either ‘Steel’ silver or matte black, and its got a pleasantly curved, Gorilla Glass-coated screen. In short, this the most discreet smartwatch you can wear.
It looks like a watch, it feels like a watch. Seriously, we’re disappointed with the lack of attention it’s been getting.
And plenty stays the same. There’s still no touchscreen and we marginally prefer the Pebble’s old, supremely clickable plastic buttons, but for the sake of looks, these new metal ones win us round. It’s still waterproof too, so there’s no panicking at the mere mention of rain.
It’s also still comfortable enough to wear. And we mean all day, everyday - unlike the Galaxy Gear with its rigid band and heavy case. It’s not quite as light as the barely-there original, at 56g, but the Steel’s still lighter than most regular timepieces. Switch out the leather strap for metal with a tiny screwdriver and it’s still only 99g - nice.
One warning for watch nerds: the cheaper Pebble’s a bit more free and easy when it comes to straps, playing nice with any regular watch band, but the Pebble has a toothed design that will require third parties to make straps specifically for the watch. Chances are they will.
Screen: 1.26in 144 x 168 Memory LCD 176ppi with Gorilla Glass
Processor: ARM Cortex-M3, up to 80MHz
OS: PebbleOS v2
Storage: 8 app/watchfaces (1024kb flash memory)
Battery: Lithium-ion, lasts 5-7 days
Connectivity: Bluetooth 2.1, 4.0 LE
Dimensions: 46 x 34 x 10.5mm
Weight: 56g (99g with metal strap)
iOS and Android friendly
Unlike some rivals, the Pebble isn’t designed to help flog more smartphones, it’ll make friends with anything - iPhones, any Android phones, even BlackBerry and Windows Phone devices, albeit unofficially. It (almost) goes without saying that this adds a dollop of futureproofing to the Pebble - reckon you’ll switch from your iPhone 5s to an Android within the year? The Pebble can stay put.
On iOS and Android, getting started is a case of downloading the now much slicker and straightforward Pebble companion app and pairing via Bluetooth, a set-up that takes mere minutes.
Then the differences begin - Pebble’s shiny new store offers a ton of apps to load onto the device (around 1000 at the last count) but many are exclusive to either iOS or Android. iOS 7 now supports sending notifications to Bluetooth devices (previously only messages and emails would come through) but you can’t micromanage which ones to send over from your iPhone. With Pebble apps and Android, you can do a lot more from your watch (reply to messages etc). It’s rather imbalanced, but this fragmentation isn’t Pebble’s fault and we suspect the slightly more tweaky Android crowd will be looking to stretch the smartwatch to its limits anyway.
Pebble has always had the best digital watchfaces - kooky Mario animations, classic words and old school charmers such as Aviator (pictured) particularly suit the new build. But now it has the best smartwatch apps, too.
A mix of free and paid for (the latter more common on iOS), useful and quirky, Pebble’s app store boasts big names such as Yelp, Evernote and Mercedes-Benz, but its community of smaller developers is well established, too. Choose carefully - there’s bags of choice but the Steel can sadly hold only eight apps or watchfaces at once, the same as the original. The Pebble companion app has an App Locker to store more, though, and it’s quick to load and unload.
The best Pebble apps do one of two things: offer glanceable info (think fitness and sleep tracking, bus times via UK Transport, maps with PebbGPS, Twitter mentions via Twebble) or simple wrist-top controls (the built-in music player, Huebble for Philips’ Wi-Fi Hue lights). Stray too far from these functions and you’ll end up spending ten minutes keying in one word or reaching for your smartphone.
Clever devs have got round the eight-app rule by creating packages such as Smartwatch+ and Pebble Cards that bundle features such as weather, calendar and remote shutter into one app. These tend to cost US$1-2 but they’re worth the tiny investment.
There are more of the usual suspects (check-in to Foursquare on the watch itself, for example) and a few games, but who wants to play games on their smartwatch? This isn’t the 80s. Sure, the Galaxy Gear can take photos and make calls, but Pebble’s making nice strides into simple, no-frills home automation with apps such as the aforementioned Huebble, Kronos (for Sonos systems) and, in the US, Time Warner Cable. Controlling a smart home is that much quicker with a few presses of the Pebble’s buttons, but we won’t let bigger, more fully-featured smartphones and tablets stray too far. We’re early adopters, not idiots.
Tweaks not tricks
Design aside, how far does that extra US$50 go? It’s essentially the same smartwatch as the original Pebble with a few tweaks but between these, the new materials and app tricks, it’s a very different beast to the device we tested last year.
There’s a three-colour LED in the bottom-left of the watchface - handy for spotting when it’s charged but fairly useless if you use the vibrate function. The Steel holds more apps and watchfaces, as we said, and there’s now a bit more RAM - 8MB to be exact (don’t scoff, it’s enough).
So the Steel performs much like its polycarbonate predecessor: a bit of lag here and there moving around the settings menus and some Bluetooth hiccups - the curse of every smartwatch we’ve tried, we’re afraid. But next to the overloaded Samsung Galaxy Gear and the sketchy Sony Smartwatch 2, the Pebble is still the most reliable and smooth in use by quite some margin.
Its default screen is still a watchface - cycle through these with the up/down buttons - with apps and settings available at the press of the middle of the Steels’ three metal buttons. Here you get the music player controls (yep, it works with Spotify), notifications archive, alarms, watchfaces, settings, and then your downloaded apps. Still a foolproof system with no fiddly touchscreen icons (as on the Sony) or confusing carousels (as on the Galaxy Gear).
Same screen, same killer battery
A 1.26in 176ppi e-paper screen won’t get spec-heads sweating but the Pebble Steel sticks with last year’s screen for good reason - it gets the job done and allows the Pebble to keep going for four to five days on a charge.
It’s very easy on the eye next to all the LCDs you’ll be glued to, great for reading outdoors, and text looks as crisp as it needs to. The backlight is a bit too blue for our liking but useful nonetheless, and contrast is top-notch too: it should be on a monochrome screen such as this. As well as Gorilla Glass, Pebble’s slathered on an oleophobic fingerprint-resistant coating, despite it not having a touchscreen. Fingerprints aren’t a problem but the Pebble’s metal sides do a fine job of trapping tiny bits of dust on the screen - take pride in dusting it off with your sleeve.
As for that battery life, it’s still a huge plus for the Pebble - we refuse to charge our smartwatch every night and we don’t have to. It should drop no more than 20% a day depending on how much you use it and the Steel will warn you at both 20% and 10%.
A few grumps in this department: you have to install an app to show the Pebble’s battery percentage and the charger is not only proprietary but also slightly different to last year’s cable. So it’s one more thing to remember on holidays, but with a battery this good, such niggles can be forgiven.
Pebble Steel verdict
Did we mention the Pebble Steel is the best smartwatch you can buy? Well it is.
Nothing’s perfect - we’d like a slightly bigger (colour e-paper?) screen to fill the watchface and give some of Pebble’s new apps room to breathe, storage space for more apps and watchfaces, and official support for BlackBerry and Windows Phone. We’re sure the design can also only get sleeker with refinements - Pebble should get a move on, too, as 2014 is already bringing worthy rivals, first from Samsung but possibly also from HTC and Apple.
As a hint of what’s to come from wearables, the Pebble is already impressive and oh so loveable. Mega-affordable, open and trustworthy, with a well thought-out featureset (not a 'let's chuck everything in there' one) and an app store that has serious momentum, the Pebble is also a grower. Even if it doesn’t win everyone over in seconds or minutes, sceptics turn to loyal followers within hours and days.
Another wonderful thing? If you can’t afford the Steel, or don’t want to be shackled to businessman metal, the standard plastic Pebble is still on sale, too - both are cheaper than the Gear 2 Neo and work with more smartphones than the equally cheap Sony SmartWatch 2.
It’s no surprise then that the Pebble Steel shoots to the No.1 spot of our best wearables list. How long the little watch that could stays on top is another matter.