Testing: Pebble Time Smartwatch

By Norman Chan

The third Pebble smartwatch is more than just the original with a color screen. After using it for a month, here are some testing notes for how it works as a notification device.

The recently released Pebble Time is Pebble's third smartwatch, after the original Kickstarter model and the Pebble Steel. That gives the company a leg up on other smartwatch makers--its large backer and customer base has informed Pebble about usage patterns on the watch, so follow-ups can play on its strengths. And in the case of Pebble Time, the relatively few changes to the platform indicates that Pebble is confident in its core strength: putting your smartphone's notifications on your wrist. That's something that Android Wear watches and the Apple does too, but with Pebble, it's the most important feature, and one that's streamlined with physical button interactions.

Get notifications, and then be able to respond to or act on them. That's what I need a smartwatch to do well, and the Pebble Time excels at it. I've been using the $200 watch for the past month instead of my Asus ZenWatch, and have taken it on numerous work trips, including last week's Comic-Con. But I'm ready to go back to Android Wear. Despite differentiating features that Pebble Time brings to the table, the hardware makes some glaring missteps. Let's start by going over some of those new features.

The Color Display is a Step Back

The big "improvement" in Pebble Time is the color display. The original Pebble used an always-on memory LCD, which, like an e-paper display, was only readable with an external light source. Pebble Time's new memory LCD is a 1.25-inch display with the same resolution as the original (144x168, for app compatibility), but now can display 64 colors. That may not sound like a lot, but with dithering, the palette extends to a few thousand color. It's essentially the resolution and quality of a Nintendo Game Boy Color (which actually had a 15-bit display), but squeezed onto a 1.25-inch screen. I thought the range of colors is good, but images look muted and flat because of the way the memory LCD works. When used properly, the images look good, but this is something meant for displaying pixel art, not photos.

While there's nothing inherently worse in using the color memory LCD over the black and white screen, visibility is actually worse on Pebble Time. Pebble Time's screen needs a good amount of light to read clearly, and more importantly, that light needs to be reflected at a good angle. Unfortunately, the sweet spot for reflection is limited--angle the Pebble off-axis by 30 degrees and the screen becomes difficult to read. Unlike any backlit display, you're actually trying to angle the screen in a position to get the most glare for readability.

My biggest issue with the display is that the LCD looks so far recessed below the glass and bezel.

In the dark, visibility is aided with a built-in backlight, which actually improves the viewing angles on the screen, but washes it out. The backlight can be activated with a push of a button, or turn on automatically with the combination of motion and the ambient light sensor. It reminds me of turning on the backlight of my old Casio watch.

But my biggest issue with the display is that the LCD looks so far recessed below the glass and bezel. In fact, this watch has a whole lot of bezel between the outer plastic chassis and the screen. Compared with the Pebble Steel, the screen looks like it's at least two millimeters more recessed under the curved Gorilla Glass, diminishing readability.

The User Interface is Solid

While the display disappointed, Pebble Time's user interface was a step up from the already solid UI of the original. Just as before, you interact with the watch not with a touchscreen, but with four buttons: back, up, down, and enter. I much prefer this button system to swiping on the touchscreen of my Android Wear watch; it's something I can do without looking at the watch. After glancing at an email notification, for example, I have the button combination memorized to either archive it or send a canned response. The up and down buttons can also be configured as shortcuts for actions with a long press.

Pressing up and down now takes you through a timeline, Pebble's new UI feature. The timeline taps into your calendar to display a list of events, and you and set up which of your Google calendars it pulls from. Events from the current and next day are displayed, along with the time of sunrise and sunset. I never got the hang of using this timeline for meeting reminders, but did use it to dig into the details of those meetings, like locations and dial-in phone numbers.

Even if the Pebble had a touchscreen, I would hope that it keeps physical buttons. The tactile feedback I get from pushing buttons (as opposed to spinning the Apple Watch's crown dial) makes those interactions more definitive--there are fewer opportunities for interactions to be missed or misinterpreted, as with a touch or voice-based interface.

Notifications Done Right (on Android)

As mentioned earlier, the primary purpose of the Pebble is to relay the notifications you'd typically get on your phone, and let you take some action in response. But here's where the iOS and Android experience really differs. On Android, the companion Pebble Time app lets you configure exactly which apps on your phone are allowed to send notifications to the watch. That way, you can still get Instagram and Facebook notices on your phone, but have them filtered out on Pebble. In iOS, you don't have that option. Every phone notification also goes to Pebble, which means you have to prune them on the phone.

In testing Pebble Time, the watch never missed getting a notification from the phone. Emails, texts, Twitter replies, and Amazon shipping notifications were all passed with complete success from my phone to the watch, with a minor delay. I would get used to hearing my phone buzz with a notification and then feeling it on my wrist half a second later.

As I've attested to before, the ability check and manage email without having to take the phone out of my pocket is a life saver on a busy day. Pebble Time performed wonderfully at Comic-Con, and I noticed that my phone battery usage was more efficient when I didn't have to flip its screen on every time to check a message. I've even become accustomed to reading and managing mail on my wrist while using the phone for other things, like watching videos or on phone calls.

Notifications stay on the watch for a few seconds until you click away, but you can also dive through a list of recent alerts in the notifications menu--just not interact or respond to them there.

For some notifications, like email and texts, you can take action to respond in a few ways. Pebble has included common canned responses, but you can also use the app to type in a few custom responses (eg. "give me a call!" or "can't talk now, podcasting. sorry!" ) These responses don't apply to every app, but worked well for Gmail and Google Hangouts. This is also where Pebble Time's new microphone comes in.

Voice Support is Muted

I was initially very excited about the inclusion of a built-in microphone in Pebble Time, but it has become the watch's least-used feature. The microphone can't let you make voice calls, since there's no built-in speaker. Pebble also announced the watch with the promise for voice memo recording, but that's not ready yet.

That leaves the microphone's sole use as text dictation in response to messages, which--surprise--is only available on Android. Thanks, Apple. (Pebble says it's working on a way to bring voice dictation to select iOS apps through a workaround).

For voice dictation to work, you choose a language in the companion app, and then turn on data logging.

While the accuracy of the voice dictation is sufficient, it's also really slow. Unlike Android Wear's almost real-time dictation of commands and responses, spoken sequences have to be completed, send to the phone, and the relayed back. You even see a progress bar while it's recognizing your speech. Plus, from the point of message notification, a bunch of button presses are required just to get to that point where the Pebble is ready for dictation at all. It's clunky.

A voice API has also been promised, and devs are exploring ways to get Google Now working. That may be tough for Pebble Time, since there's no active listening on the microphone. If there was, it would be a big drain on the watch's battery life.

The App Situation

Pebble Time runs original Pebble apps, plus a whole slew of new ones that take advantage of the color screen and faster processor. Pebble Time runs on a 100MHz ARM Cortex-M4, up from the 80MHz Cortex-M3 in the original. That additional performance is necessary for microphone processing, as well as running the smooth animations on the memory LCD.

Memory has also been expanded from 4MB to 16MB, which removes one of the biggest app limitations on the original Pebble: the restriction of 8 local app/watchface slots. On Pebble Time, you have up to 50 slots for apps and watchfaces, and the OS manages memory usage pretty well.

The Pebble Time store is filled with health, music, news, and productivity apps, with enough essentials for most people. Some apps run by themselves locally (like Timer+), while other require companion apps on the phone (like Evernote). Performance was fast on these apps--I was surprised by how well the watch could refresh the display to run animations and games. Even something like Tiny Bird-clones ran perfectly.

Battery Life is Good, but Not Great

Ok, on to battery life, which is good, but not as good as Pebble claims. Over my month of testing, I could never get to the claimed seven days of battery life. Four to five days was typical, and that's with a mix of heavy and light use.

If you're worried that it's the color screen that's draining all the battery, it's really not. Pebble says that the display takes up to 4% of the battery power, up from 1.2% in the greyscale original. Most of the power consumption actually comes from keeping the Bluetooth connection and the processor. That means Bluetooth LE makes a big difference, and apps without lots of running animations will extend battery life. There's no shortage of apps in the Pebble store that help keep track of battery life, too.

Fortunately, when the battery has worn down, the watch doesn't just shut off, as it would with an Android Wear or Apple Watch. Even at 0% battery, there's enough juice to keep a minimal time display. Kind of like how a Kindle can still show a charging warning even after you've forgot to charge it for a month.

Other Things I Noticed

Pebble Time was really easy to set up, and I've only lost the Bluetooth connection once and had to re-pair it. The range of the connection is also good--I can put my phone on my desk and walk across our office studio and still get notifications.

First-gen Pebble users complained about the vibration motor being too strong. It's still too strong for my taste in Pebble Time. So much so that I have to keep it off of hard surfaces overnight or new emails will wake me up in the morning. I find myself manually turning off the vibration from time to time.

You can schedule silent notifications with a Do Not Disturb mode that deactivates the vibration motor between set hours of the day. There's only one day setting, so you can't have different Do Not Disturb schedules for weekdays and weekends.

The watch is water resistant, and I've successfully taken showers with it.

It weights a little more than the original Pebble, but is still lighter than the Pebble Steel. The upcoming Pebble Time Steel will be the heaviest in the lineup, but I expect that it'll still feel lighter than the Apple Watch. The curved plastic back doesn't really do much to reduce its apparent thickness, though Pebble Time isn't that bulky to begin with.

I am not a fan of the new design, however, and am bummed it'll translate over to the Pebble Time Steel. Last year's Pebble Steel is still my favorite, and I wish Pebble would put the new hardware in that chassis.

The 22mm watchband is compatible with standard band replacements, if you want to get a leather one.

Gorilla Glass on the front holds up to wear, but the plastic bezel on the chassis scratches and scuffs pretty easily. It makes the watch feel cheap, even though it's $200.

Conclusion

As a smartwatch platform, Pebble is fundamentally different from Android Wear and Apple Watch. Its features are really centered around notifications, with the hardware designed around an always-on screen and long battery life. That difference made the original $100 Pebble a good alternative to Android Wear, if you don't need the ability to proactively send messages and create reminders.

But as an upgrade, Pebble Time isn't worth it, especially at $200+. I'm happy with the app performance, but disappointed by the display quality and limited microphone capability. These new features feel unnecessary and don't always work as promised. I wish the company had stuck to its strengths and kept it simple. And, I really can't stand that aggressive vibration motor.