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Activity trackers and fitness bands are great for counting steps or keeping track of your daily activity, but they're pretty simplistic. Those LCD screens and Bluetooth connections could be put to better use with a smartwatch. They put plenty of extra features on your wrist, including notifications and music control, plus they work with the smartphone apps you already use to keep track of your exercise routine.
Unfortunately the few models already available from the likes of Samsung and Sony are overly complicated and have pretty dismal battery life. All, that is, except Pebble: created thanks to crowd-funding website Kickstarter, it’s a reasonably priced smartwatch with an energy-friendly eInk display that won’t run out of juice at the end of the day.
Pebble is an intentionally simple smartwatch, so it’s no surprise you don’t get a lot in the box – just the watch itself and its proprietary charging cable. It comes with a basic rubber strap, with a single pronged clasp and enough notches to ensure a comfortable fit on any wrist. It definitely won’t win you any style points, but it’s a lot more subtle than other smartwatches and won’t get disparaging looks on the bus.
Thankfully the watch has a standard strap fitting, so you can swap the bland rubber strap out for another if you prefer, and it’s slim enough to slip under a shirt cuff. The magnetic USB charging cable latches on to the side of the watch, so you don’t need to take it apart just to refill the battery, but the magnet isn’t particularly strong and is easily knocked off.
The watch itself is reasonably slim, but is built entirely from plastic. It’s available in five colours (black, white, red, orange and grey) and they all look pretty cheap. If you’re serious about style, you’ll have to pay $250 (around £152) for the newly announced Pebble Steel instead. The three buttons on one side and single button on the other are also made from plastic, but don’t feel loose and take a firm press to register an action.
The eInk display takes up most of the watch face. It’s not particularly high-resolution and colours are limited to black and white, but it’s sharp enough to read without squinting or bringing your wrist right up to your face. A white LED backlight turns on automatically whenever you press a button or receive a notification, so it’s easy to read in the dark as well as during the day.
How does it work?
At its most basic, Pebble displays the time and switches between watch faces when you press the top or bottom buttons. Dig a little deeper, though, and there are hundreds of possible uses for the tiny screen.
The most obvious is notifications. Out of the box, the Pebble app will send text alerts, emails and phone call notifications to the watch. It displays the first few lines of an email or SMS to give you an idea of the content without having to fish your phone out of a pocket. Our favourite feature is music control. Being able to change tracks from your wrist is excellent when you’re packed into a busy train carriage, or if you keep your phone on an armband when out for a run. It works with the default iOS and Android music players, but also played nicely with Spotify and a handful of other third-party music players. You’ll need to set up a playlist first because there’s no way to choose a different album once one is playing.
Although it has an integrated pedometer, there’s no native step counting app. Instead you’ll need to use a third-party app to turn Pebble into a fitness tracker. Some of the most popular apps, including RunKeeper, already support Pebble, so you may not even need to change from your preferred service.
Pebble has a 5ATM waterproof rating, which means you can wear it while swimming, diving or in the shower. Of course you have to be in range of your smartphone in order to maintain a connection, so there’s not much point keeping it on in the pool if your phone is back in the locker room.
The eInk screen uses much less power than an LCD display, which helps the Pebble stay powered on a single charge for up to seven days. Even though Pebble uses Bluetooth 2.1, which uses more power than the newer Bluetooth 4.0 standard, we frequently managed between six and seven days of use depending on how often we received notifications or changed music tracks. It also recharges very quickly, reaching maximum capacity in just a few hours, so you won’t need to wait around all day to make sure it’s got enough juice.
Bluetooth 2.1 also ensures compatibility with more smartphones, but a firmware update will enable Bluetooth 4.0 support at a later date.
By itself the Pebble is little more than a watch with a fancy screen. You can set alarms and choose from several different watch faces, but that’s pretty much it until you pair it with your Android or iOS smartphone. Once connected using the free Pebble App, calls, text messages and email notifications are automatically pushed to the watch. There’s no need to sync it to a PC or Mac, so you don’t have to worry about installing programs or backing up your data – it’s all done automatically through the smartphone app.
Because Pebble has made its code open-source, there are a huge number of third-party companion apps that can add extra features not available in the basic app. We used Pebble Notifier to add multiple email accounts, Facebook and Twitter notifications and Instagram likes, but there are hundreds of others which can add games, weather reports, new watch faces and other useful features.
This used to be a complicated process, but now that Pebble has thrown open the doors to an App store built into its iOS app it’s now just a matter of downloading them to your phone and wirelessly syncing them to the watch. You can only have eight apps on the watch at once, but you can store others on your phone and swap them any time. An Android app update is expected soon, but wasn’t available at the time of writing.
Smartwatches all rely on your smartphone in one way of another, and Pebble is no different. With the right apps, it’s a fantastic way to control your music, get notifications on your wrist and keep an eye on your training progress. For $150 (around £90) it has almost every feature you would expect, along with excellent battery life, yet is significantly cheaper than the competition. Its fitness features are a little lacking, but if you’re prepared to look around for apps that support it Pebble can be surprisingly flexible. Right now, this is the best smartwatch around.