Things have changed a lot in the four and a half years since Pebble first took to Kickstarter to help fund its first device. Apple’s entered the space, Samsung has released about 200 different devices and Google has attempted to create some semblance of consistency among dozens of new players — all while fitness wearable manufacturers have continued to blur the lines of what an exercise tracker can do.
For its part, Pebble has offered up a few new lines, including the Time and Steel, but this year’s Pebble 2 (while technically its third generation) marks the first true refresh to the company’s primary line. So, what has the company that helped launch the space done to address an ever-shifting landscape? Not a ton — and that’s really kind of the point.
The Pebble continues to be a simple piece of hardware, built around a black and white display with no touch functionality. Sure, there are some additional hardware features — namely heart rate (finally) — but in a world of ever-more complicated hardware offerings, Pebble’s taking a different approach, with an eye toward simplicity.
It’s a tough play in a world where advancement is measured in terms of bells and whistles, but Pebble’s already got a solid foundation for its long-awaited sequel, along with a few years’ worth of software upgrades. And, of course, at $129, long battery life and always-on display are nice starting points, as well.
If ain’t broke
Say what you will about Pebble’s on-going Kickstarter-based business model, but, at the very least, it’s proven that, in spite of dramatically increased competition and some trying economics, there’s still enough interest to get the Pebble 2/Time 2/Core campaign into the top three all-time campaigns for the crowdfunding site — in fact, all but one of the top four slots belong to the company (with the other secured by an as of yet largely undelivered cooler).
Fans of the first-generation Pebble will, perhaps, be pleased to know that the latest version maintains a similar form factor. There are some key differences — the new version is thinner, lighter and more durable than the original, and the company has made some aesthetic tweaks to the case, making it slightly more angular and shifting the charging pins to the rear.
The four-button layout is the same as before — one on the left, three on the right. And, once again, that’s your primary method for interacting with the device — still no touchscreen here. The display itself is 1.26 inches black and white 144 x 168 — not really worth comparing to, say, Apple or Samsung here. It’s just a completely different ballpark.
Of course, there are a number of positive hardware implications to the relatively low tech here — including the ability to be always on with little battery impact and a thinner profile. Pebble rates the battery at about a week — I found I was able to get a solid four to five days on a charge.
And while the Pebble isn’t exactly small by watch standards (it was pretty huge on my 5′ 4″ co-worker’s wrist), it’s a heck of a lot more compact than a number of smartwatches out there — Samsung’s most recent offering springs immediately to mind.
Unlike a lot of others, I could slip it comfortably under my shirt’s long sleeves with little issue. It’s also light enough to be worn to bed for those looking to take advantage of its sleep tracking — certainly not something that can be said for a number of other smartwatches out there.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the new Pebble, like its predecessor, is bound to be somewhat polarizing. The baseline device is, perhaps, the Swatch to Samsung’s Bulova — and at $129, it’s priced to match. Just don’t be surprised when its plastic case doesn’t quite go with your Italian business suit. Thankfully, the company’s also got some classier (and pricier) pieces of hardware.
Somewhere in timeline
The new Pebble maintains the company’s familiar timeline UI. It’s simple, and because Pebble makes its own hardware and software, it works pretty well. For those who haven’t spent any time with the product, it’s pretty easy to pick up, scrolling backward through time in a manner similar to Android Wear’s card system.
Pebble also makes the most of its limited screen resolution with some simple animations, like a flapping bird for Twitter and unfolding envelope for Gmail. It’s a nice little touch that makes the basic black and white layout more engaging than the bare bones you get with most fitness trackers. Depending on the variety, notifications either take up the full screen or slot in the bottom third, as is the case with weather updates.
It’s nice to look at, simple to engage with and easier on the eyes than many existing displays. Though for those accustomed to the instant gratification of touchscreens, navigating all those menus by way of side buttons can get a bit cumbersome.
You can do a lot on the watch itself, though you’re going to need to utilize the smartphone app from time to time, including set up, any time you need to fiddle with notifications and other settings and when the time comes to change watch faces and add apps. There are 15,000 watch faces and apps.
That leaves a lot of room overlap, but some will prove indispensable like the Uber app, which offers a simple pickup based on canned locations. The Pebble ecosystem has been around long enough for app developers to learn how to make the most of limited screen real estate. And third-parties have certainly asked the question of why that plagued Pebble early on. Even still, if you attempt to do much beyond the very basics, you’re going to find your head banging against the ceiling on the Pebble 2’s hardware limitations.
Working (and rocking) out
Let’s be real for a minute. In 2016, there’s no scenario in which the addition of basic fitness tracking qualifies as cutting edge. Pebble’s embrace of the functionality seemed almost begrudging, finally acknowledging that it has become a (if not the) key driver in wearable adoption and rolling out Pebble Health in earnest late last year, while activating native step and fitness tracking on its newer devices — all those save for the Pebble Classic (Pebble 1) and Pebble Classic Steel.
The Pebble 2 and Pebble Time 2 take things a step further, with the addition of built-in heart-rate monitoring, a standard optical sensor on the rear of the device that takes a read of the wearer’s pulse every 10 minutes or so, so as to not put too much of a toll on the battery.
Footstep and sleep tracking are both accomplished through a built-in, accelerometer. The step tracking is decent, but did seem to miss some of my steps along the way. The sleep tracking, meanwhile, is compared to some of what’s offered on existing wearables, relying on the accelerometer to determine how much you move around during the night. That said, it did a fairly good job knowing when I was asleep. Related: I really need to get more sleep.
All of that info feeds into the Health vertical, which is built directly into the standard Pebble app. It’s nice to have all that info in one location, but things do feel a bit tightly packed. Pebble would do well to offer it as a standalone option for those who want more than just a quick glance at their vitals.
The other built-in feature that warrants a quick mention is music playback. Functionality is pretty simple — fire up a song on your handset via Apple Music, Spotify and the like, and then you can play/pause and skip through tracks on the small screen. It’s fairly limited functionality, but it’ll save you from having to pull out your phone to do the same.
If nothing else, it seems like another good opportunity to build in voice functionality via the Pebble 2’s built-in mic.
Keeping it simple
The smartwatch landscape is virtually unrecognizable from where it was four and half years ago when Pebble first entered the scene via Kickstarter. Much of Pebble’s initial appeal was thanks to it being one of the first big players on the scene, and the startup is hoping its simplicity was a big part of its success, as well.
As such, the device doesn’t represent a huge upgrade over its predecessor. The addition of health functionality is nice, as is the overall streamlining of the hardware. Users who have been waiting for an upgrade to the baseline Pebble will appreciate the touches here and there, and certainly the $129 price point and several-days-long battery are nice touches.
But it’s hard to shake the feeling that, after all this time, the company that put smartwatches on the map really ought to be doing more to shake things up several years after it first hit the scene.