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Pebbled

When the Apple Watch was released, I was highly intrigued. I’m an on-again off-again watch wearer. I tend to lean to analog watches, though, something about the “liquid” display of time is very interesting to me. My last watch was a cool analog Timex chronograph. It had the capability to work as a stopwatch but the display was a little difficult to read.  So, I do like me some extra functionality.

The $349 cost of the Apple timepiece was quite a blow to my hopes, though. I had mentally prepared myself for a $300 top end. Still expensive and I can’t as easily justify it as I could an iPhone or iPad.

But I started to see the value of a smart watch.  I again looked up Pebble, the original smart watch success story.

Is it an Apple Watch replacement? Far from it. It’s plastic where the Apple is Aluminum. It has buttons instead of a digital encoder and touch screen. It’s black and white (e-paper) instead of LED or OLED color (whatever it is). But, it was only $199. At that price though, you were getting less than half of the Apple Watch, it was a hard sell.

But they read the market rather well, and boom, they lowered the price to $99.  Also, boom, I ordered one.  Smart choice on their part?  Well, they gained at least one customer they wouldn’t have otherwise, and I suspect it’s considerably more than just me.  I hope and suspect they can move a lot more volume at this “impulse” level.

So on its own merits, apart from being relatively cheap, what does it have going for it?

Software

First of all, there are some built-in apps, like a few basic watch faces, a music control, notifications wrangler, and alarms.

The firmware development has been fast and furious.  There have been three significant updates (including notifications and emoji, quick launch, background apps, fitness tracking, auto-updates) in the last month (or few weeks?).

Third-party app development looks pretty decent.  You can even write apps in Javascript, using their SDK.  The CPU is respectable, as is the RAM, so there’s no dramatic impact to using Javascript that I can detect.  But.  The hard limitation is 8 apps and watch faces, and it doesn’t matter how big they are.  I do kinda understand in so doing they eliminated the need for their users to know anything about resource-wrangling.  But let’s be frank here, this customer base is made up of geeks.  It sounds like a future version of the firmware will remove this limitation and loosen things up a bit more.

You may notice I said apps and watch faces.  These are two categories of software you can have, apps allow access to the buttons and faces are a little more lightweight and require the accelerometer to allow you to interact.  You can scroll between faces with the right-side up and down buttons.  Apps either require a trip to the menu or assignment to long-presses on the two buttons.

There are a fair number of apps in the store, from fitness trackers (a hot category at the moment), to weather apps, to GPS displays, to Starbucks payment cards.  Oh and timekeepers of course.  Because of the 8-app limit, a few popular apps will bundle several small utility apps into the same executable, and they work fairly well.

Hardware

Perhaps the biggest distinguishing feature of the watch is what they call an e-paper display. This is not to be confused with e-ink, this is really LCD. A low-power, high-reflectivity LCD, so in full daylight the screen is exceptionally visible.  Technically a higher resolution version of what was in my first eBook reader, the Aluratek Libre. Since the power draw is low, the battery life is estimated at about a week. That is very easy to live with, and the big distinguishing feature of the hardware.

There is a potential issue with this display.  If you have polarized glasses, you will especially see dark streaks in it (sometimes without polarized glasses too).  I stick to dark screen displays anyway, so I don’t mind.  When I use polarized sunglasses on my iPhone I notice big color problems anyway so I expect some weirdness anyway.

There are quite a few sensors in the little thing, including accelerometer and compass.
Communication is handled by bluetooth, Bluetooth LE most of the time (Bluetooth 2.1 is used for music control and some more data-intensive processes). This means that a phone or other partner device is required.  Ideally you want something with a data package, but you could certainly get by as long as you didn’t expect to update more connectivity from your watch than your phone will have.  The phone app acts as a proxy (or a bridge) to the Internet.

Implementation

The fact that I need to add another heading here is a good sign. If the device ended at specs it would be another nice geek toy, and that’s all.

Notifications are a big deal.  It is nice not to have to dig out my phone to see what that noise was about… but sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming.  When I get notifications of email, they often come in batches of 6 or 7 (I have my phone only poll every hour or so).  That can be a little annoying to have the flood, especially when they’re triggered by opening the mail app on my phone. I don’t need any notifications when I’m right there!  I suspect this might be a limitation with the way Apple feeds notifications to the Pebble app, though.

The phone app does a nice job of managing installation, removal and configuration of apps. This is important because of the app-limit. Many configurable apps have a modular chunk of code, seemingly pre-installed in the Pebble app to prevent post-review code downloads.  Some of these have obvious jQuery UI front-ends (or worse), which is unfortunate but understandable… Still, the illusion of seamlessness is gone.  As well as it works, it looks hokey. They should have written their own library, or even just an aggressive CSS makeover to enforce an “App Shop” look and feel.

There doesn’t seem to be a mechanism at this point in the Pebble App Store for paid apps, but most of the more complex apps have “companion” apps you can purchase through the respective phone App Stores.  Having to go through the Apple review process, at least, enforces a little more visual consistency.

Bottom Line

There are only so many things you need or want on your wrist.  You won’t see an explosion of apps on the App Store for these, but a few essentials will rise to the top.

But really, does this thing add to my life?  Hmm.  In a strictly first-world scenario, I’d have to say yes!  Basic apps that you want at hand are really at hand.  The Misfit app is quite good and actually helps me to keep my activity level up throughout the day.  I’m happy to tell people about the weather forecast whenever I can.

It’s not ugly.  There’s no denying it is a big rectangle on your wrist, but the design isn’t too bad.  The plastic is highly glossy and there are lots of skins available if you want to change color. The band is replaceable with any standard 22mm band so there’s a lot of visual variety available for a reasonable cost.

Speaking of that reasonable cost… yes this watch will become obsolete in a couple of years.  But, at this price, is that a big deal?  Maybe by then the Apple Watch will be more accessible.

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