Ten days ago, I got myself a Pebble. Yes, a Pebble. In the light of the recent announcements of the now-ex-manufacturer of the Pebble, this sounds like one of the most idiotic ideas ever, and it probably was. The thing is, it was never as cheap to get one of these. I paid less than 100 EUR for a Pebble Time. And I was genuinely interested in the ecosystem. I’m not a watch person, for the most part, otherwise I probably would have gotten one earlier. And now, I’m wearing a Pebble for 10 days and even though reviewing it seems kind of pointless right now, as it is not a product with any sort of future (apart from a few faithful hackers trying to rescue the ecosystem), I think it might actually be interesting to share my findings, especially in the light of the company’s demise.
First of all, I like the Hardware. Yes, the bezel is huge, too huge, actually, and thus the display too small, but I like the ePaper display. I think it is actually a shame that this technology has been largely ignored by other smart watch vendrs. Yes, ePaper isn’t great for quick interactions, but on the other hand, it’s a lot less slower than I thought, plus it allows for amazing battery life, has no problems with direct sunlight (Something Apple tries to fix by brighten up their display, which consumes even more power in the end) and also, I think, looks really nice.
The hardware has one big problem, which is well known, and that’s the charger connection. First of all, a watch without wireless charging really feels old. And second, the charger’s magnetic mechanism is not good enough and you have to be very careful to attach the charger and keep it attached when putting the watch to rest.
I like most of the software. There are some big caveats, to which I will come back later, but I think Pebble made some really good technical decisions. Also, I like the look of all the Pebble styled UI. It’s a unique look, somewhat comic-y, with a good sense of humor (putting your notifications through a shredder, for example).
I actually spent a few dollars on watch faces and a few other apps with this weird kiezel pay thing. It’s a clear omission of Pebble to not have baked in payment into the “Appstore” from the beginning, but kiezel works and I felt good about giving some money to developers who poured their time and energy into a dying platform.
I really like some of the watch faces. I’ve seen people claim that Apple’s decision to not allow developers to build watch faces for the Apple Watch is a good thing, and I would like to heartily disagree. Some of the faces are pure works of art and some of them are really good at conveying lots of information on a small screen and some are downright ugly, but that’s something users are able to decide. My two favorite watch faces right now, if you care, are Straight Plus and watchttmm (all ttmm faces are really, really good).
One thing that strikes me as odd is that Pebble doesn’t seem to have APIs for things like Weather and every watch face needs to implement their own weather lookup. That seems like a weird omission. Especially when a watch face then needs you to register for an API key at a weather API provider. No, thanks.
The Pebble is reasonably good about displaying notifications. The way you can filter the notifications in your phone app makes a lot of sense and is easy to work with. Given that with each notification, you’ll feel a short tap tap on your wrist, it’s actualy quite important to weed out the incredible amount of stupid notifications you get. It’s a good reminder to do that for notification on your telephone anyway.
I have not used a lot of apps. I’ve tried a few of the voice apps, but the voice recognition service seems to work very poorly, so I’ve stopped trying. For all other apps, the sweet spot of what makes sense to do on a watch is incredibly hard to hit. Things that work well are apps like Respire that will alert you on a regular basis to do short breathing excercises or apps where the obvious benefit is so great and the interaction model is so simple that you can see past the cumbersome three-button navigation: Triggertrap which is a companion app for the smartphone app that triggers your camera comes to mind. Or, a pretty cool app: Get Me Out, that will simply list the next bus departures on the nearest bus stops. Even launching apps you don’t have on Quick launch is really cumbersome.
But, yeah, for anything more complicated the navigation model breaks down quickly. Or, put differently, it’s much more efficient to quickly grab your smartphone and do the task there. I guess watches with a touch screen can solve some of these issues, but a touchscreen slightly larger than your thumb doesn’t make a lot of sense in many cases.
So, in the end, for me at least, the Pebble mostly is a fitness tracker (I can’t use sleep tracking as I hate to wear the watch at night. Tried it for the first few nights, but no) and a notification device. From what I can see, the device does both of these jobs reasonably well.
…If it weren’t for the bugs.
Quite often, the watch loses it’s connection with the app. I’m not sure about the reasons, but force-quitting and restarting the phon app usually solves that. It surely is annoying, especially because that usually means that your brilliant watch face only shows half of the info it should and then you have to exactly do what a smart watch should prevent: Getting out your phone.
Within the ten days, the watch plus app managed to twice get into a state where the app claimed that the watch was a new Pebble that needed to be configured. With several resets of both the watch and the phone and doing random stuff in random order I managed to get the watch back to normal both times, but guess what, that’s not something I want to spend my time on. Also, after a phone restart, for some reason the Pebble app forgot the login data and I had to log in again. Meanwhile, the watch was unusable until I logged back it. Well, it showed the time.
After the initial software update at the beginning of the process, I had to manually restart the watch, without anything or anyone telling me that. The phone app claimed the watch was up to date, but all app and watch face uploads failed until I did the restart.
These are all, especially in sum, no small problems. They might be annoying but manageable for a tech savvy person like me, but for a “normal” end user, these are deal breakers, or at least, causes for much frustration, support calls and abandonment.
It is quite obvious to me that Pebble didn’t spend enough time on software quality. It is a hard problem, I’m aware of that. The Pebble works with a wide variety of different smartphones, Bluetooth is known to be somewhat finicky and it’s kind of unclear if any of these are Pebble or Apple bugs, but that’s not a valid excuse in the end. Sorry.
There may be a lot of reasons why Pebble didn’t manage to get to keep foot in the door. I think a lot of the initial technical decisions (display technology, but also the fact that app and watch face configuration screens are web tech) are brilliant and still sound and I hope Fitbit at least partially uses the know how they now got for almost nothing in new products. But the product Pebble, all in all, simply wasn’t good and compelling enough.
This all has been said before and so this is not some sort of revolutionary insight, but it was an interesting experience for me to try out. I will, at least for some time, try to keep wearing the watch. I want to try out different ways of distributing the notifications on my different devices to see if a different setup from what I have now (notifications EVERYWHERE) is able to make me more productive.
Was it a good idea to buy a dying project? Given that this is probably the cheapest smart watch I will ever buy, yes, I think so. And maybe, just maybe, the Pebble will survive in some form or another. We’ll see.