Pebble: This smart watch is a rock star
When Alvin Toffler popularized the term “information overload” in 1970, even that legendary futurist could not have predicted the flood of data that drowns today’s road warrior. E-mails from multiple accounts, instant messages, texts, iMessage and Google Voice — and, oh yeah, phone calls — all clamor for attention from our smartphones.
Enter a new solution: The smart watch. Pebble, a Kickstarter project now being delivered to its first backers, uses the power of your smartphone instead of competing with it. Pebble is still in development and a little rough around the edges, but it is the first to get the smart watch formula right. It could become a big deal. It’s easily the most important thing I’ve added to my go bag since the tablet.
Pebble is an e-paper* wristwatch that displays messages and caller ID on a crisp display that is always an arm’s length away. This allows you to leave your phone in your pocket or across the room instead of constantly reaching for it or leaving it face up at arms’ reach (Eliminating this custom at every conference and restaurant table would alone earn Pebble a place in heaven). It is a one-way device: you still have to use your phone to answer messages, or talk on the phone.
The impact, however, is powerful. By reducing the friction of vetting messages, life becomes simpler. You are no longer at your phone’s beck and call. The “hate” part of the love/hate relationship that you (and the people around you) have with your phone disappears.
Pebble was immediately useful in every context, and I became increasingly dependent upon it over the several days I used it to research this review. I was far less distracted — and better informed. When driving, a look at my wrist — both hands still in the wheel — kept me from dangerously reaching for my phone at the sound of a new message. I could charge my phone on one side of the kitchen and check messages on the Pebble, without running across the room to retrieve a message that wasn’t important anyway. In the rain, I could expose this waterproof (5 ATM rated) device to the elements instead of my delicate smartphone. While writing this paragraph on my iPad I only had to glance at my wrist so a spate of unimportant e-mails (that are still flying by) didn’t interrupt me a half-dozen times as I finished this sentence.
I used Pebble with my iPhone 4S, and it is available for Android as well (No Windows or Blackberry versions). Setup is very straightforward. The watch communicates with the phone via an app under Bluetooth. The app loads software updates and the few extras that exist, such as your choice of seven alternative watch faces (my favorite: Fuzzy Time, which displays the time as “quarter to ten” and updates the time in very laid back five minute intervals).
Pebble claims seven days of use on one full charge, which probably varies a bit from use of the backlight and, like all battery claims, is probably wishful thinking. Pebble charges with a proprietary USB cable, so you need to make sure that’s always in your go bag too because you won’t be picking up a spare on the fly anywhere.
Pebble does not yet support many app notifications. Only SMS, iMessage (on the iPhone), and caller ID are fully implemented, although Calendar, Twitter, Facebook work most of the time with a some occasional cajoling. CEO Eric Migicovsky said “full email notification” was perhaps a month away. A number of apps are in the works, but the first one, Runkeeper, is one-to-two months away, he said. Other advertised features, like shaking your wrist to dismiss a notification aren’t there yet. The most serious limitation is that every new message obliterates the previous one. So if you get two in rapid fire, the first is gone.
But these are details, easily addressed and perfectly understandable in what is a brand new product for the earliest of first adopters. That said, there is no reason not to pre-order this smart watch now; you won’t be getting yours for two to three months anyway.
Full disclosure: I was a backer of Pebble on Kickstarter, where the project reached its funding goal of $100,000 in two hours and stopped raising money when it reached $10 million (I paid $115; you’d have to pay $150 now). That didn’t give me a stake in the company, just a watch.
Pebble is so liberating that one is tempted to imagine all the other things it might do. Toss in a home key shortcut, and you are commanding Siri. Throw in some stock phrases, and you could do quick replies. Add a message stack even only three deep and you could more flexibly review incoming messages.
Still, Pebble would be wise to extend this platform slowly and thoughtfully. While it’s easy to see how they’d turn this into a two-way device, multifunction watches, whose many features are accessed through a combination of buttons, get tedious quickly. So far the only two-way functions are sending a call to voice mail, and playing your iTunes music.
As functional as Pebble is, it could still fail to catch on for the most mundane reasons: Watches (for those of us who still wear them) are fashion statements. Pebble is attractive in a MOMA kind of way, but that’s not for everyone.
But this is the best time for Pebble to exist. Smart watches of the past were too limited to be taken seriously. And it solves the biggest problem created by smartphones: Message control is a big deal and will only get bigger. It’s the reason veteran tech writer Mathew Ingram ditched his iPhone for an Android-powered Nexus 4, and what I identified as the major shortcoming in my generally positive review of Blackberry’s Z10.
Smartphones exacerbate information overload. Being in touch all the time is good problem to have, but with devices like Pebble, you don’t have to take the bad with the good nearly as much. The Pebble is the device we need – a watch that both tells time and gives you more of it.
* An earlier version of this article referred to e-ink. In fact the technology being discussed is e-paper.