Mobile phones were distracting enough when all they could handle was phone-calls and text messages. Now that they connect to the internet and all those social networks, their incessant alerts have some of us apparently checking them over 200 times a day - those that have ‘missed alert anxiety’ probably check even more often than that!
I’m not here to criticise people, but it does mean that for those of us that HAVE to check each and every alert, we are distracted from every single other thing that we do with our day. That cannot be good, or healthy.
This review isn’t going to spend too much time making the case for smartwatches. I know not everyone is convinced. But I must say, a glance at a watch to check an alert is far less distracting than powering up the phone, unlocking it, opening the notification, opening the app and dismissing the likely spam message. For me, moving the alerts to my wrist has been mentally liberating and the phone is now reserved for when it’s needed or wanted, not when it wants me.
With a new watch from Pebble out this year and of course the Apple Watch on the way, I’ve spent a few months with the original watch from Pebble that kickstarted the whole craze to see what all the fuss is about.
Given the huge ranges of styles that traditional watchmakers sell, I’m surprised that any company can survive on just one or two. Depending on your tastes, the Pebble has a confident chunky charm about it, or it looks like cheap throwaway plastic. There is room for customisation, not only with the myriad watch faces available to download, but also because the rubber strap is replaceable.
I wanted something that let the skin underneath breathe a bit more than the rubber strap does and one I chose is a Nato Strap from Timefactors. With the correct tool, swapping straps can be done in around 10mins.
The screen itself reminds me of the e-ink screens you get on a Kindle, but the technology is actually e-paper. Like paper, the more light, the better the image. But it’s also very readable right down to very low light, after which you can hit the handy backlight, 80’s Casio watch style. Although Android screens look cooler with their full colour displays, I think this one is much more versatile in day to day use, not least because it never switches off.
The lack of colour is not the only technical limitation. It’s also not a touchscreen. Instead, three buttons on the right hand side and one on the left are available to operate the watch and its apps. I don’t know if I’m alone in thinking this, but I prefer buttons. After 2 months with the Pebble, there are now several functions that I can perform on it without even having to look at the screen, simply because I know the button sequence. This can lead to even less distraction from the tasks I’m doing and I can keep those pesky alerts in their place whilst on the move.
So whilst the screen and the buttons might be a bit low-tech, day-to-day there is little sense of compromise and, yes, that battery will really last a good 5-7 days. Think about that when your Android watch, which will need a charge every day from new, will probably need a charge at lunchtime before it’s two years old.
The headline feature of any smartwatch is to take notifications from your phone and display them on your wrist. Whilst the competition often allows you to interact fully with the app that sent the notification, the Pebble keeps things more simple. You can choose which apps get to alert you on the watch and perform basic interactions with messaging apps. For example, receive an SMS text or WhatsApp message and you can reply with pre-defined canned messages or send an emoticon. Emails can be archived or deleted. Beyond that, if you need to do more, that’s when you get the smartphone out.
Notification Centre - Third Party App Allows You to Do More
Being able to check and dismiss notifications is nice. You only stop and pull the phone out for stuff that matters, making it less needlessly intrusive on your day. If that’s not enough functionality for you and you’d like to be able to perform a wider range of quick actions to the message from the Pebble, then you can download an alternative notification app like Notification Centre.
Notification Centre is a free app that you download to both your smartphone and Pebble, then configure it to take over from the default one. It’s easy to do and now you can do a bit more with your messages. As with the built in notifications, text messages and WhatsApps can be responded to with pre-built phrases or emotions. But now, other apps can be acted upon too.
Twitter alerts can be favourited or retweeted and reminders can be snoozed or marked completed. Facebook posts can be ‘Liked’. You also have more options for emails and whole messages can be read where the standard Pebble app will soon hit a limit, forcing you to switch to the phone.
The only issue I’ve had with Notification Centre is that it occasionally gets stuck - so you’ll glance at your watch to see it displaying ‘Loading’ and getting no where. It’s easy solved by a press of the ‘back’ button - but you may have had alerts sitting there unnoticed and that’s annoying. After a few weeks, I’ve chosen to stick with the standard notifications for now, but Notification Centre is great for anyone eyeing up Android watches and wishing they could do a bit more.
Out of the box, Pebble can remotely control music playback on your phone. This has been one of those most fun discoveries for me since embracing the smartwatch. Fire up your chosen music app (mine is Spotify but it works with most) and you can now use Pebble to pause and skip your tunes as you go about your day. It’s pretty basic, for example it won’t display the artist and song title - but it’s a great feature and, like everything else it can be augmented with a little help from your smartphone’s App Store.
If you’re a fan of music streaming services, I urge you to get a Pebble and spend an additional £1.20 odd on Music Boss. Again, this is an app your Pebble that needs a companion app running on your smartphone and what you get is much improved control over your music, to the point at which you don’t need to even bring out the phone to get the tunes playing.
For example, in my kitchen I have a Sony SBH20 bluetooth adaptor connected to some speakers. My smartphone can stay wherever it is in the house, I don’t need it to hand. Simply power on the speakers and press play on Music Boss. The phone will automatically connect via bluetooth to the speakers and Music Boss launches Spotify (or your favourite service) and kicks off the last selected playlist. I can see the song title and artist, adjust the volume, as well as hitting play, pause and skip. It’s brilliant as I can potter around the kitchen without having to stop, or indeed even look at the watch - I know which button does what out of habit now. Fantastic.
Health and Fitness
A recent update to the Pebble saw its accelerometer data being made available to developers. This means that they could write algorithms to interpret the data and turn your Pebble into a wearable health band just like the Fitbit and Jawbone Up.
Already armed with a FitBit ZIP, I decided to see if the Pebble could compete. I’ve written about the Fitbit before. It’s a great gadget that has helped motivate me to stay active. Could the Pebble, which is always on my wrist negate the need for a pedometer on my belt?
I started out with a very simple app descriptively called, Pedometer. The simple display shows your step and calorie count and you can set a goal in the settings. Sadly, I didn’t get very far with this app, as it was way too sensitive and the count was wildly out. More damningly, any incoming alert that closed the app saw it stop counting at all - making the Pebble a useless competitor.
Then I discovered Plex. A much more advanced app, which used a companion app on my phone to do some of the work. Again, it took a count from the watch, but fed the results into Google’s heath app ‘Fit’. Fit will turn an Android phone into a fitness monitor and recent studies have shown these apps to make smartphones just as accurate as fitness bands. My own limited testing had shown this to be true, so I grabbed Plex and hoped for the best.
Sadly, like Pedometer, Plex gets way too excited. Whilst it could be fantastic - taking up the monitoring for Google Fit when I’ve put the phone down, I can register over a thousand steps just by taking a short drive. Something a Fitbit doesn’t suffer from.
The Pebble hardware should be up to the job of being a serviceable fitness band - I recommend keeping an eye on Plex, there are updates every week improving it based on feedback - but at the time of writing, the Pebble is no competition for a Fitbit or any other health monitor.
Finding Your Way
I love Google Maps. It’s so empowering when you’re exploring say, a new city. Not only can you find your way around, but you can get help finding things to find!
I’ve often used the walking directions on Google Maps to wander around London. The 3D Sat-Nav style maps are superb, but I do worry about walking along certain streets holding a very expensive piece of technology in front of me. Whilst the Pebble might not yet do the best job of monitoring your walk, it can do a great job of helping you find your way, simply by installing Nav-Me.
Another watch app that needs a paid app (there is a trial) installing on your phone, whenever Google Maps is launched to give directions, it will kick in and display those directions on your wrist.
I’ve tested this out on foot several times and found the directions it gave just as good as if I were using the phone. A glance at a watch screen is much easier whilst on the move and it will vibrate to warn you when the next instruction is coming up (meaning your arm won’t get tired holding up your watch for the entire duration!).
The only problem I found is that the app will also launch when I’m using Google Maps for navigating whilst driving - if I close it, it opens itself again and then buzzes annoyingly for each and every instruction. To get around this, I’ve had to take it off the watch (keeping it in the Pebble apps’ locker) and I’ll just put it back on as and when I need it.
Phone Assistant, Not Phone Replacement
It’s obvious after a few months with the Pebble, that whilst it appears technically limited on paper, compared to flashier Android ones, this is by design and not an accident. The Pebble is a strong performer where it matters. A battery that lasts for days, a screen that doesn’t need to switch off and is clear in most light conditions and it has a software set that really augments your phone’s functions, rather than trying to replace them.
There are hundreds of apps available for the Pebble. The ones I’ve reviewed have appealed to me, but I would also encourage gamers to try out Pixel Miner and productivity gurus to install Evernote. They’re really good too.
The Pebble isn’t perfect. It’s big enough to be a bit of a pain getting under a shirt sleeve, it’s harder to access than a phone when you’re outdoors in Winter and the apps can crash from time to time. But overall, given it’s price, I’m of the opinion that it could be the best smartwatch on the market today and it’s not even £100.
Pebble gets a confident recommendation from Dependent on Gadgets - but hold out for the release of the Pebble Time, as it may get cheaper, or the extra features of the new one may tempt you and it’s all only a few weeks away.
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