But there’s none of that with the Pebble Time. One of the few smartwatches that doesn’t sign a suicide pact with your smartphone, this one will go for the best part of a week without copping it. Of course, long-lasting Pebbles are nothing new. Apple Watch may be on its first go, but this is Pebble mk3.
What’s new? The big change is that the Pebble Time has a colour screen where previous Pebbles are stuck in a monochrome world. And at US$200 it’s half the price of the Apple Watch Sport.
Other than that, though, everything feels pretty familiar. The software has changed, but the apps are still pretty much the same and a kinda low-tech approach reigns supreme.
Thanks to standard-setting battery life, this is among the easiest smartwatches to live with - so long as you don’t want something that can really track your exercise, or have a crack at genuinely advanced smart features.
A conservative party
This is the third of Pebble’s smartwatch designs. First we got the plastic Pebble: highly recognisable, a bit toy-like, pretty geeky. Then the Pebble Steel came along and classed everything up with an all-steel design that made it among the most attractive smartwatches around.
The Pebble Time doesn’t start where the Pebble Steel left off. Instead, it has a plainer look. A pretty anonymous square with big old bits of screen surround, it doesn’t take smartwatch design on in leaps and bounds.
I will say, though, that it looks better in person than in pictures. What looks kinda plasticky and naff in photos has at least a touch of class first-hand, and that the Pebble Time is much slimmer than most Android Wear watches is a massive plus.
It looks… perfectly fine. Faint praise? Perhaps, but this is a watch I can wear without feeling the need to apologise to friends just for wearing it. I can’t say that about all smartwatches, not nearly.
The Pebble Time is not all-plastic, either. The base part is but the screen surround is actually coated steel. It feels good and when it reflects light has a classier look than plastic. But it also introduces a serious problem: the PVD finish is incredibly easy to scratch.
So young, so many war wounds
Within 12 hours the surround had earned a couple of light grazes, and they show up very clearly. How did I do it? No idea. Four days in, the Pebble Time had earned a couple more war wounds, including the almighty scuff you can see in the photos here.
I wasn’t treating the thing poorly. It seems to be so susceptible to damage to the finish that you’d imagine a moderate gust of wind at the wrong angle could do it.
This smacks of the Pebble Time not really having gone through enough prototype models. Let’s be clear: it’s not that the stainless steel isn’t hard enough. It’s hard as nails. But more that the PVD treatment that makes this finish isn’t at all hard-wearing.
It’s one of the best reasons to wait for the Pebble Time Steel, which should fix this issue. Other than that, the Pebble Time's design is perfectly practical. It’s water resistant enough to wear in the shower or swimming pool, and pretty comfortable thanks to a super-flexible rubber strap.
For all the criticisms I'm coming up with, the comfort and practicality benefits make the Pebble Time one of the few watches I’d want to wear 24/7, long-term.
The screen with a memory
The key thing that makes the Pebble Time’s relatively diminutive stature possible is its screen. It’s colour, but totally unlike the displays of the Apple Watch or any Android Wear device: it uses an unusual kind of LCD panel, one that consumes just a tiny fraction of the energy of standard LCDs.
The cost is that it’s not natively lit and its colours are relatively dim. Think of it as a bit like a Kindle’s screen, but in colour and without the ultra-slow reaction times of its E Ink panel, and you’re there.
The screen is also a bit blocky, with its 144 x 168 pixels not enough even to make even something that's only 1.26in across look all that sharp. Of course, because the character of the display is totally different too, you don’t instantly compare it to your whizz-bang 789ppi smartphone X - or at least I don’t.
Benefits outweigh the positives in the long run anyway. The Pebble Time's screen is always-on, meaning there’s no pressing of buttons or dramatic flicking of wrists needed just to see the time. If you’re in daylight anyway: as the LCD screen looks completely dark without ambient light to brighten it up, there is a digital watch-style front light, switched on when you press a button or flick your wrist. So, yeah, there is still some wrist-waggling to do. But only a bit.
This kind of screen has a charm to it that a low-res standard LCD wouldn’t have at all, too. New as it is, it’s still the retro-picker’s choice.
The simple things in life
The retro charm extends beyond the screen too - there’s also no GPS, no Wi-Fi, no heart-rate sensor and no speaker. The Pebble Time is easily one of the simplest watches around.
It begs the question: what can you actually do with it? Well, it’s excellent for notifications. The always-on screen means they’re right there as soon as they appear, and the Time has its own vibrate motor to give you a nudge.
You can pick which apps you get notifications from, and can even piggyback off the Android Wear software to get more info-packed notifications too. There’s some responding that can be done right from the watch too, with pre-written responses or emoticons. But with no touchscreen to play with, there’s no typing here.
That’s right: the Pebble Time does not have a touchscreen, using four side buttons instead. This naturally limits the complexity of app interaction you can have, but then this smartwatch isn’t really for people who want to find their way from A to B with a map on their watch, or read long, chin- stroking articles from their wrist. But, hey, we’ve tried that with an Apple Watch and it doesn’t work well yet.
For now at least we’re into the Pebble groove. At this point it’s not wilfully primitive. It’s sensible. It’s what actually works.
The app situation
With a lack of its own sensors, most Pebble Time apps are either pretty basic or reliant on connecting up to an app on your phone. There were a few I latched on to pretty quickly: Misfit counts your steps, giving you a buzz when you reach your daily goal; Pixel Miner is a joyfully inane (gameplay-free) game that runs while you’re not using it; and there’s an integrated music controller app.
Want more? As the Pebble Time is backwards compatible with old Pebbles and has the same screen resolution, it can run any old Pebble app no problem. And there are quite a few of the things now.
Slightly more involved cool apps include TripAdvisor, which lets you find nearby restaurants and other spots and read reviews of them, Nest thermostat controller Leaf and classic exercise tracker Runkeeper. There are reported plans for GPS straps and the like, but all of these more complicated apps rely heavily on the phone connected to the Pebble Time at present.
The Pebble Time interface is also simpler, and less flashy, than that of Android Wear or WatchOS. Your watch face — there are loads and loads to choose from — acts as your home screen, while all installed apps are listed in a long, vertically scrolling menu you flick through one-by-one with buttons on the watch’s right side.
You can then pick the order of these apps, but the Pebble OS is still basically a list. No gestures, no zooming in and out: Pebble keeps it simple.
This actually makes Pebble OS a bit like iOS in a very basic sense. Bear with me. iOS is now more complex than it used to be, but back in the old days it was basically just a blank canvas you filled with things important to you. And that’s exactly what Pebble OS is. You don’t really have to learn to use it.
The limited interference involved also makes the Pebble Time very likeable, as long as you put a bit of time into making that app you use 10 times a day sit at the top of the list rather than the bottom.
Then there’s battery life. I’ve been using the Pebble Time quite intensively and found I can get about four days off a charge. But plenty of others out there seem to be squeezing a week from each recharge.
It uses a neat little USB cable charger that hooks magnetically into connectors on the Time’s underside. You can then just plug the cable into any phone charger and it’ll be done within an hour or so.
Pebble Time verdict
Pebble hasn’t reinvented the game with the Pebble Time. It’s still a lot simpler than most smartwatches, lacking the app potential of Apple Watch due to its button-led style and low-ppi screen. It’s also a complete generalist, so if you want proper fitness tracking you’re better off with the Garmin Vivoactive.
But it’s just so easy to live with that we really don’t mind these drawbacks.
It last loads longer than an Apple Watch or Android Wear device and serves up notifications when you need them in a simple, effective manner. Until its more flashy rivals really start taking advantage of their extra potential, that's fine by us.
The only real problem here is the Time's scrape-prone bezel: it’s almost impossible to keep it in perfect nick, so you may want to wait for either the Pebble Time Steel or later batches of this watch. But if that doesn't bother you (or you're incredibly careful) you'll find the Pebble Time to be a joy to live with.