A lot of people enjoyed my original Pebble review (way back when), so I thought I’d try to do my new Pebble Time Steel some justice.
I’m a special flower, as a double Kickstarter supporter, so my edition of the Pebble Time Steel has a nice ‘Champion!’ engraving and trophy on the back.
We’re not comparing Pebble Time Steel to Apple Watch here, since there is no point. Apple Watch integrates better with my iPhone, works better, looks better, costs twice as much, and has no always-on screen or comparable battery life, I can’t officially swim with it… So it’s all about compromise. My context for reviewing this watch is:
- I can’t afford Apple Watch
- I will buy Apple Watch v2 hardware (sorry Pebble, but you are on … borrowed Time)
- I loved Pebble despite its limitations and wore the black thing for years.
If you don’t want to read the whole review, let me tl;dr it for you here:
- If you liked Pebble, Pebble Time Steel is so much better looking and functioning that you should definitely upgrade.
- If you can’t afford an Apple Watch or are on the Android system (why?) and you value battery life over fancy shit like ‘touch screens’ then definitely get this watch.
For the full review, read on.
Not as cute but definitely more compact than the original Pebble. Packaging does provide nice framing for your fancy new gadget, so I’m always on the side of ‘spend an extra few dollars in production to make your customer feel like they’re getting something of a high quality. Apple is of course the king of this.
The watch band is wrapped around a flat cylinder that contains the charging cable.
Flawless. The Pebble Time Steel is a beautiful piece of tech, with fine finish and (unlike the plastic Time) doesn’t have that ridiculous light bezel around it. It instead has a big black bezel (think gen 1 iPad) which…well, I think it looks fine quite frankly. I have no idea of the durability of the screen and hope I don’t scratch it. My old Pebble was plastic, and I got a scratch on the screen eventually. This is glass, but I don’t know how scratch resistant it is. I could probably google it.
The buttons felt a little loose compared to the solid plastic of the old Pebble, but they are in fact not loose at all, they simply require less pressure to activate. They are also smaller neater. I am a fan of the buttons, because I can jump around in music while driving without taking my eyes off the road.
Having seen the device side-by-side with my wife’s Apple Watch (Sports), I think the Time Steel does not really look cheap by comparison. Granted, the Apple screen is amazing, and larger and clearer, and you can do way more with it. Remember how I said this wasn’t a comparison with the Apple Watch?
My watch came with the tan leather strap, and the metal link bracelet from the Kickstarter is apparently on its way. I’m not expecting the metal link bracelet to be particularly good. There’s a reason Apple charges hundreds of dollars for their stainless steel bracelet and that’s because it’s jewellery. I don’t expect Pebble to be in the jewellery business, so I’m anticipating no great surprises from that.
The leather strap that came with the watch is nice but a little thin. It has two bands to stop the flappy bit from flapping around. The second band is adjustable, but the first band (closest to the clasp) is stitched into the leather. I actually find it difficult to thread the flappy bit (yes I’m a watch expert and know all the technical names) through the first band, and have already considered just cutting it off.
Because it’s leather I’m concerned about water, but I’ve showered with the watch on once, and after the leather dried I couldn’t see any discolouration. We’ll see what happens.
I’ll probably replace the band with a fancy third party leather band sooner rather than later.
tl;dr: Getting this thing paired to my iPhone 6 on iOS9.1 is just as fucking infuriating as all Pebbles since about halfway through the original Pebble’s life. I had to restart my phone several times until the bluetooth pairing worked, even while it could see my Time, and then I had to fiddle around to get the LE BT connection that’s necessary to receive notifications. It’s a massive pain in the ass. I had the same problems transferring my old Pebble to my daughter’s phone (she gets all the hand me down tech). On the positive side, it eventually worked, though no force in the universe can explain why it’s such a pain.
My advice? Power cycle both your phone and your watch before trying to pair via bluetooth and you SHOULD be ok. I had multiple ‘pair request y/n’ / ‘pairing successful’ messages which would nonetheless end up with no visible Time watch on the Pebble Time app (you need to install a different app for the Time than you do for the original Pebble, fyi).
So, fuck you Pebble. My old Pebble would occasionally just stop receiving notifications (all pairings fine) and I’d have to power cycle the watch. This has yet to happen to me 5 days into owning the Time Steel).
Much improved on the Pebble’s app, the Time app lets you change watch faces automatically (the annoying ‘change watch face’ function from Pebble OS is now gone and replaced by the excellent timeline view). Why anyone on the OS 1 team thought that changing watch faces is a high priority task that should be relegated to upper level UI interaction is beyond me. Who the fuck changes their watch faces frequently enough that you want it to be a first order up/down button in your UI? Ugh. So now you can dig down into the watch menu to find alternate watchfaces, or swap them live on the phone app. A much improved process indeed.
The timeline view is pretty great, tho I wouldn’t use it that often. The music playback process has changed a tiny little bit which confused me – the old ‘press middle button’ option would toggle between prev/next and vol up/down. Now you tap it to toggle and hold down to play/pause. It’s ok, but I don’t know why they changed it. Play/pause should be a single tap, and now it’s … sometimes a single tap? I’m still trying to figure this out. On my run to work recently I kept struggling to get it to do what I wanted to (play/pause, the most common task). I finally determined that if you want to pause while playing, you press-and-hold the central button until it pauses. When not playing, a simple tap will start playback. It’s insonsistent and stupid. So there. But I’ll get used to it.
I expected the new OS animations to be super annoying, but they give a good sense of moving around and in and out of the various menus and don’t slow you down that much. Some things like shortcut apps won’t launch while a screen-navigation-animation is running, which can be annoying.
I’ve installed a few new apps. They are managed through the Pebble Time app now and in a much better way than the previous Pebble ‘slots’ model. You can simply add an app and a few seconds later a buzz from your wrists tells you it’s been loaded. The same process applies for watch faces. You can simply select your preferred watchfaces using the iPhone app, and everything updates at the same time on your watch. Thumbs up here.
The new application management process is straightforward and effective. You can reorder your applications on your phone, although I did notice that when you have, say, the music app playing, it appears at the top of your apps list on the watch, instead of where you told your phone it should be. I guess it goes to the bottom of the list when it is no longer in use?
Some handy apps I have installed are Battery+ (using the only activity background process slot, sadly), Timer+, SwiftFinder (to find my phone if it’s missing around the house).
Battery Life and Charging
I use the Battery+ app to manage and monitor battery life. I have it coded to the shortcut-down function on Pebble (If you don’t have longpress-shortcut-up/down setup on your Pebble device (old or new) do so now, it’s excellent). Just press down on the up/down buttons and if there is none set it will prompt you, I think…
FYI I don’t switch off my watch at night, but if I did I’d imagine a commensurate 30% increase in battery life.
Out of the box the Time was at about 50% and I fully charged it in … what seemed like 10 minutes but was probably half an hour. Each day it lost about 20% battery, which looks like conflicting with the stated 10 day battery life of the watch. Still, 5 days is excellent. I’m running with it every day this week, and the BT connection to my phone that keeps my run stats updated on the old Pebble used to take a good 20% battery off in one half hour/hour session. I expect that to be closer to 10%, maybe even 5%, with the Time Steel.
I last fully charged the device on the Monday morning and am wearing it and using it for exercise (always a battery drain as my iSmoothrun application keeps the screen updated with my running stats (see pic!)). Battery+ says I am at 75% battery life, with 1d 5h (10km running) in the past and 4d 14h to go. Battery+ puts a notification into my Time timeline for when I need to charge my watch, which is cool. It usually gives me about a day’s heads up, which is amusing since there are many days of charge remaining. I suspect that it’s maybe confused that my Time Steel has a big fat battery in it.
The new charging cable (NOTE: Not backwards compatible with the first Pebble) has a nice build, with a good flat cable which is less likely to get tangled up in day to day life. The magnetic charger sits at the back of the watch, in preparation perhaps for future smart bands, which are being supported by Pebble with a research and development fund but have yet to surface anywhere that I can see.
Vibration & Backlight
The Time has 3 settings (low-med-high) for vibration. I’ve set it to low. It’s fucking brilliant. Again, I have no Apple Watch, and this is no TapTic, but it’s a vast improvement over the noisy alarm of the original Pebble. It would be nice to get a bit more control over the variety off buzz types, eg. short buzz, double buzz, long buzz, so that you can differentiate notifications coming in from Twitter vs email vs iMessage, and so forth.
The backlight is brighter than the original Pebble’s, and you can set 3, 5 and 8 seconds timeout. I have my backlight setting at High with a 5 second timeout. I use the shake-it-to-wake-it feature a lot too.
I believe the microphone is not useable on iPhone, which is a pity. If I could just use it like the microphone on a BT headset then I’d be able to activate Siri and my watch would be super super useful. For some reason this is not possible at this time, which is quite annoying. I hope they enable this feature. I don’t care so much about not being able to reply to messages (I’ve been using the Pebble for years, so I’m used to it), but it would be great to wake up Siri with the watch. My limited searches haven’t really brought up much, even in the form of 3rd party Pebble apps.
I kind of spoilered the verdict at the top of this review.
We’re not comparing this thing to the Apple Watch, BUT I love the styling, I love the new OS features, I love the battery life. It’s a dumber smartwatch than many others, but that’s because its focus is different to its backlight-powered-touch-screen-enabled-wifi-connecting competitors.
So if you want a slightly more affordable, long-life battery device with an always on screen and a decent range of applications, that’s water proof, and provides fundamentally the same functionality as the original Pebble, albeit in a much nicer package, then this is a definite buy.
How about that for caveats?
My only regret is that eventually I will buy an Apple Watch and this device will go the way of the dodo (or rather, my daughter’s wrist). That’s just the nature of living in an Apple device ecosystem – Siri on my wrist, touch screen, fancy jewellery… Eventually all this will outcompete the only spot I have on my wrist. Maybe the Pebble Time Steel will still have a place for wetter conditions, or longer trips where I have no access to sunlight or battery packs…
Only Time will tell.